A strong historical reaction against the central position of the classicism and the Enlightenment of Paris began to develop in the early years of the eighteenth century. It grew among Neapolitan jurists (influenced by Vico’s philosophy of history), Swiss scholars who resurrected early medieval lays and sagas, and among Homeric and biblical critics in England and elsewhere. This trend was powerfully reinforced by such German thinkers as Hamann, Herder, and Jacobi (the last of whom, as A.O. Lovejoy once reminded us, was highly influential in his day) as well as the imaginative writers known as the Sturm und Drang. The climax of this movement was naturally reached in the violent opposition to the French Revolution: its most celebrated and gifted spokesman was Edmund Burke. But in sharpness of mind and brilliance as a polemicist, Joseph de Maistre often outdid the master himself.
The burden of Maistre’s philosophy is a full-scale attack on reason as preached by the eighteenth-century philosophes, and it owes a debt both to the new sense of nationhood that arose, at any rate in France, as a result of the revolutionary wars, and to Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution and of timeless, universal rights and values, and his stress on the concrete situations, and, above all, on the binding force of custom and tradition. Maistre holds up English empiricism, in particular the views of Bacon and Locke, to scorn, but he pays reluctant homage to English public life, which is to him, as to so many Western Catholic theorists, a provincial culture cut off from the universal truths of Rome, yet still much the best that can be achieved without possessing the true faith, the nearest approximation in secular terms to the full spiritual ideal of which the English imagination has always regrettably fallen short.
English society is admirable because it rests on acceptance of a way of life, and does not perpetually seek to reexamine its own foundations. Whoever questions an institution or a way of life demands an answer. The answer, supported by rational argument, will itself be liable to further questions of the same type. And every answer will tend to be perpetually open to doubt and to disbelief.
Once such skepticism is permitted the human spirit becomes restless, since it sees no final solution to its questioning. Once the foundations are called into question, nothing permanent can be established. Doubt and change, from within and without, render life too precarious. To explain, as Holbach and Condorcet explained, is to explain away and leave nothing standing. Individuals are tormented by doubts which cannot be settled, institutions are subverted and are replaced by other forms of life, equally doomed to destruction. There is no resting place anywhere, no order, no possibility of a tranquil, harmonious, and satisfying life. Whatever is solid must be protected from such assaults.
There is little doubt that Maistre was in some degree influenced by Burke’s views. Every opponent of the French Revolution drew …