Some of Joseph de Maistre’s acutest pages, directed against modern liberalism, skepticism, and science, are reserved for Russia, in which he spent fifteen of the most creative years of his life.1 Alexander I used him for a time as a confidential adviser, and Maistre furnished him with observations and advice he clearly meant to apply beyond Russia herself, to the whole of contemporary Europe. He became celebrated for his political epigrams, which proved much to the taste of Alexander and his advisers, especially after the emperor’s liberal phase was over. Such maxims as “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free,” or “Everywhere the few lead the many, for without a more or less powerful aristocracy authority is not sufficient for this end” must have found great favor in the aristocratic salons of St. Petersburg, and he is mentioned with approval in contemporary Russian memoirs.2
Maistre’s observations on Russia are exceedingly pungent. The greatest danger comes from the encouragement of liberalism and the sciences so fatally promoted by Alexander’s enlightened advisers. In a letter to Prince Alexander Golitsyn, the secular director of the Orthodox Church, he points to three main sources of danger to the stability of the Russian state: the spirit of skeptical inquiry stimulated by the teachings of the natural sciences; Protestantism, because it declares all men are born free and equal, and that all power rests in the people, which foments resistance to authority as a natural right; and, finally, demands for the immediate liberation of the serfs. No sovereign, he declares, has enough strength to govern several million human beings unless aided either by religion or slavery.
Before Christianity, society reposed on slavery. After it on religious authority—control by priests—hence slavery could be abolished. But in Russia, because of its Byzantine beginnings, the Tartar rule, and the schism from Rome, the Church lacks authority; hence slavery exists in Russia because it is needed, because the emperor could not rule without it. Calvinism would undermine the Russian state; natural science has not yet (in Russia, which is combustible enough) lit the flame of the incendiary pride which has already consumed part of the world, and will finish it off altogether if nothing arrests it. The end of the educator is to impart that God created men for society, which cannot exist without government, which in its turn requires obedience, fidelity, a sense of duty on the part of subjects.
Maistre embodied his advice in a number of specific recommendations: correct abuses, but delay the liberation of the serfs as long as possible; be careful about ennobling commoners—this in the spirit of the historian Karamzin in his influential Note on Old and New Russia, which was suspicious of Speransky and his reforming zeal; encourage the wealthy landed gentry and reward personal merit, but do not stimulate commerce; restrain science, promote the principles of the Roman and Greek character; protect Roman Catholicism, and use Jesuit teachers wherever possible; avoid giving posts…
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