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 Bacon1 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 weapons from that great armory. He was not a disciple of the great Irish counterrevolutionary writer even though he speaks well of him. He has no truck with Burke’s cautious conservatism, or his praise of the Act of Settlement, whereby the usurper William of Orange robbed the devout Catholic, James II, of his legitimate rights; nor is Burke’s advocacy of compromise and adjustment, or his talk of a social contract, even though it is a contract between the living and the dead and the unborn, to his taste. Burke is not theocratic, not absolutist, not addicted to extremes like the ultramontane Maistre, yet Burke’s denunciation of abstract ideas, of timeless and universal political truths detached from historical development and from the processes of organic growth which make men and societies, his total opposition to the liberation, advocated by such as Rousseau, of human beings from the artificial and removable shell of tradition, his stress on social texture, the inner life of communities and states, the impalpable strands which hold societies together and give it its character and strength—all this Maistre shared with him, and perhaps to some extent derived from him. He quotes him with relish, but the influence of the ideas of the Jesuit Order remained far more powerful.
Maistre declares in language that at times rises to classical dignity and beauty—what Sainte-Beuve spoke of as his “incomparable eloquence”—that all rationalistic or empirical explanation is in effect a cloak for sin; for at the heart of the universe there is a mystery, impenetrably dark. The authority of all the great living forces of social life, of the strong and rich and great over the weak and poor and small, the right to exact obedience which belongs to conquerors and priests, to the heads of family and Church and state alike, flows from this occult source, whose very power consists in its opaqueness to the exploration of reason. “One can say quite briefly: kings order you, and you must march.”
Such authority is absolute because there is no method whereby it can be questioned, and omnipotent because there is no way in which it can be resisted. Religion is superior to reason not because it returns more convincing answers than reason, but because it returns no answer at all. It does not persuade or argue, it commands. Faith is truly faith only when it is blind; once it looks for justification it is done for. Everything in the universe that is strong, permanent, and effective is beyond and, in a sense, against reason. Hereditary monarchy, war, marriage last precisely because they cannot be rationally defended, and therefore cannot be refuted out of existence. Irrationality carries its own guarantee of survival in a way reason could never hope to do. All Maistre’s monstrous paradoxes are a development of this, in its day, exceedingly novel thesis.
Maistre’s doctrine has obvious resemblances to the attacks on rationalism and skepticism of earlier defenders of religion (for example by the illuminist sects and his favorite modern mystic, Saint-Martin), but it differs from them not merely by its violence, but in making a virtue of what had earlier been allowed as possible weaknesses, or at any rate difficulties, in the theocratic conception of life. It is a return to the bold, absolute irrationalism of the early Church from the qualified rationalism of Thomas Aquinas and the great sixteenth-century theologians from whom he professes to derive inspiration. Maistre does speak of divine reason, and he speaks about providence, by which everything is ultimately shaped in its own unfathomable way.
But divine reason for him is unlike anything appealed to by deists in the eighteenth century—reason implanted by God in man and the source of the epoch-making triumphs of Galileo and Newton, an instrument for the creation of rational happiness according to the plans made by benevolent despots or wise sovereign assemblies. Maistre’s notion of divine reason is of an activity that is transcendent, and therefore hidden from the human eye. It cannot be deduced from any knowledge obtainable by simple human means; glimpses of it may be vouchsafed to those who have steeped themselves in God’s revealed world, and so may learn from nature and history as determined by divine providence, even though they may not understand its ways or purposes. They feel secure because they have faith. They do not question because they have wisdom enough to understand the folly of applying human categories to divine power. Above all they do not look for general theories that will explain everything. For nothing is more fatal to true wisdom than scientifically established general principles.
Maistre held very penetrating and remarkably modern views on the dangers (largely ignored by the French lumières) of general principles and their application. Both in theory and in practice he was exceptionally sensitive to differences of context, of subject matter, of historical circumstances and situations, of levels of thought, to the nuances which words and expressions acquire in different usages, to the varieties and non-equivalences of thought and language. Every discipline for him has its own logic, and he says again and again that to apply to theology canons that are valid in natural science, or to history concepts that apply in formal logic, must lead to absurdities. To each province its own mode of belief, its own methods of proof. A universal logic, like a universal language, empties the symbols used of all that accumulated wealth of meaning created by the continuous process of slow precipitation by which the mere passage of time enriches an old language, endowing it with all the fine, mysterious properties of an ancient, enduring institution. To analyze the precise associations and connotations of the words we use is not possible, to throw them away is self-destructive. Each age has its own vision; to explain, still more to judge, the past in terms of our own contemporary values will make, and often has made, nonsense of history. How fervently Vico would have applauded this!
Maistre speaks of this in language reminiscent of Burke, Herder, and Chateaubriand. “The action of Christianity has been divine and for this reason has moved slowly, for all legitimate operations, of whatever kind, always proceed by insensible steps. Whenever one encounters noise, turmoil, haste,” willful efforts to overturn, to blow up, “one may be sure that it is crime or madness that are at work. Non in commotione Dominus.” Everything grows, nothing good or permanent has been accomplished overnight. All improvisation carries the seeds of its own swift decay, and it is always the attempt to transform things by the wave of the magic wand—to change them abruptly and violently—that is the central crime of revolutions.
Every country and nation and association has its own traditions, not exportable abroad. The Spaniards, for example, are making a grave mistake in trying to adopt the British constitution, the Greeks in thinking that they can become a national state overnight. Some of Maistre’s prophecies have proved comically false: it was clear, he declared, that no such city as Washington would ever be built; or if it was, it never would be called Washington; and even if it had this name would never become the seat of the Congress.
Abstraction is fatal in the physical no less than in the social world. Maistre mocks at the all-providing, all-explaining entity dignified under the name of Nature by the Encyclopedists. “Who on earth is this lady?” Nature, so far from being the beneficent provider of all good things, the source of all life and knowledge and happiness, is to Maistre an eternal mystery; cruel in her methods, the scene of brutality, pain, and chaos; serving God’s inscrutable purpose, but seldom a source of comfort or enlightenment.
The eighteenth century is full of paeans to the simple virtues of the noble savage. Savages are, Maistre informs us, not noble, but subhuman, cruel, dissolute, and brutal. Anyone who has lived among them can testify that they are the refuse of mankind. So far from being uncorrupted prototypes, early exemplars of natural taste and natural morality from which civilization has perverted the nations of the West, they are rejected models, casualties, failures of God’s creative process. The Christian missionaries sent among these creatures have spoken about them with too much kindness. Because these good priests could not bring themselves to attribute to any of God’s creatures the squalor and vices in which they are to this day in fact sunk, it does not follow that these sorry cases of arrested development are models for us to follow. What is it that Rousseau and his like are calling upon us to emulate? Maistre echoes the famous words of Montesquieu: “The savage cuts down the tree to eat its fruit; he unharnesses the ox given him by missionaries and cooks its flesh with the wood of his cart. After three centuries all he wants of us is powder to kill others, fire-water to kill himself. Thievish, cruel, dissolute, he nevertheless differs from us. We at least have to overcome our nature; the savage follows his; crime is his natural taste, he feels no remorse.”2 Maistre then makes his readers’ flesh creep with a catalog of the typical pleasures of a savage’s life: parricide, eviscerating his mate, scalping, cannibalism, wild debauchery. What is the purpose of savages in creation? To be a caution to us. To show us how far man can fall. The language of savage tribes has not the primitive strength and beauty of a beginning, only the confusion and ugliness of decay. It is the “debris of ancient languages in ruins.”
The burden of the treatise which he devoted to refuting Bacon is that Bacon had not the metaphysical power to understand the nonempirical elements of the sciences which he heralded; that at most he was the barometer of climatic changes, not their creator; not so much the "passionate lover of the sciences" as their "amorous eunuch" (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 6, pp. 533–534). There may be some justice in this, although it is unlikely that Maistre intended or realized it.↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 4, pp. 84–85.↩
The burden of the treatise which he devoted to refuting Bacon is that Bacon had not the metaphysical power to understand the nonempirical elements of the sciences which he heralded; that at most he was the barometer of climatic changes, not their creator; not so much the “passionate lover of the sciences” as their “amorous eunuch” (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 6, pp. 533–534). There may be some justice in this, although it is unlikely that Maistre intended or realized it.↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 4, pp. 84–85.↩