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Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism: II

As for Rousseau’s State of Nature, in which savages are said to exist, and the so-called Rights of Man which they are thought to recognize, and in whose name France and Europe have been plunged into cruel massacres, what are these rights? Inherent in what men? No metaphysical, magic eye will detect abstract entities called rights that are not derived from some specific human or divine authority. Just as there is no lady called Nature, so there is no creature called Man. And yet revolutions are made, nameless atrocities are committed in the name of these chimeras. “Four or five centuries earlier,” Maistre wrote in his memoir of Russia:

the Pope would have excommunicated the handful of importunate lawyers, and they would have gone to Rome to obtain absolution. The great Lords on their side would have restrained a few mutinous tenants in their lands, and everything would have been kept in order. In our day, the two anchors of society—religion and slavery—having failed us at one and the same moment, the ship was carried away by the storm, and was wrecked.3

It was only when the authority of the Roman Church had become firmly established that slavery could be—and was—abolished.

Rationalism leads to atheism, individualism, anarchy. The social fabric holds together only because men recognize their natural superiors, they obey because they feel a sense of natural, divinely instituted, authority which no rationalist philosophy can reason away. There can be no society without a state; no state without sovereignty, the ultimate court of appeal; no sovereignty without infallibility; no infallibility without God. The pope is God’s representative on earth, all legitimate authority is derived from him.

This is Maistre’s political theory, a dominant influence on reactionary, obscurantist, and, in the end, fascist ideas in the years that followed, and a source of discomfort to conventional conservatives and churchmen. More immediately it inspired much ultramontane, anti-state authoritarianism in France, and antipolitical, theocratic movements in Spain and Russia as well as France. His concept of divine authority is not only deeply antidemocratic but wholly opposed to individual liberty, social and economic equality, and the political implications of human fraternity. Well might he have echoed the remark attributed to Metternich: “If I had a brother, I would have called him cousin.”

Liberal Catholicism would have seemed to Maistre absurd, and indeed self-contradictory—the seeds of this tendency in his old papalist ally, Lamennais, worried him in the last years of his life. Georg Brandes justly observes that, for liberals, Maistre represents the richest flowering of everything that they exist to oppose, and this not because he was a reactionary in the sense of living in the past, or lingering on as an obsolete relic of a superseded civilization, but on the contrary because he understood his own age all too well, and actively resisted its liberal tendencies with all the latest intellectual weapons of his time.

The most dangerous enemy of the human race—the destroyer whose aim and function it is to sap the foundation on which all societies rest—is the Protestant, the man who lifts his hand against the universal Church. Bayle, Voltaire, Condorcet are but feeble, secular disciples of the great subverters—Luther, Calvin, and their followers. Protestantism is the revolt of individual reason or faith, conscience against blind obedience, which is the sole base of all authority: hence it is au fond political rebellion. No bishop, no king. Catholics, Maistre declares, in his Reflections on Protestantism, have never rebelled against sovereigns, only Protestants have done so. This surprising assertion is supported by the monstrous sophistry that since, after Constantine, state and Church were one, acts of insubordination by Catholics—for example assassination of heretical rulers by Catholic zealots—are acts of revolt not against true authority but against usurpers. The Spanish Inquisition was a method of preserving not merely the true faith, but the minimum degree of security and stability without which no society can survive.

The Inquisition, in his view, has been much misrepresented.4 In most instances it was an instrument of mild, beneficent reeducation which brought many souls to repentance and return to the true faith. It served to save Spain from the destructive religious conflicts of France, England, Germany, and so protected the national unity of that pious kingdom. (This went too far. Maistre’s apologia, which would have pleased Philip II, found little echo even among the most zealous champions of the policies of his own Church.) Successful defiance of clerical authority was responsible for the bloodshed and chaos brought upon Germany by the Thirty Years’ War. No land can rebel against the Church and achieve greatness. Hence the revocation of the Edict of Nantes was justified by patriotic considerations alone:

In a superior age, everything is so. The ministers, the magistrates of Louis XIV were as great in their sphere as his generals, his painters, his gardeners were in theirs…what our miserable time calls superstition, fanaticism, intolerance, and so forth was a necessary ingredient of the greatness of France.5

Calvinism was the most dangerous of the enemies of this greatness: it was undermined in France until it could be toppled; when it fell, not a dog barked. As for those who say that by this act France lost gifted craftsmen who emigrated and enriched other lands by their skills, let those who are moved by such shopkeepers’ (boutiquières) considerations “look elsewhere for answers than in my books.”

Jansenists were not much better: Louis XIV leveled Port-Royal to the ground, he let a cart roll over it, and “made good corn grow where only bad books had grown before.” As for Pascal, Maistre decides that he owed nothing to Port-Royal. Heresy must be extirpated; half measures will always recoil upon those who do not go far enough. “Louis XIV stamped on Protestantism, and he died in his bed, full of years, in a blaze of glory. Louis XVI caressed it, and died on the scaffold.”

No institution is firm or lasting if it rests on man’s strength alone. History and reason combine to show that the roots of all great institutions are to be found outside this world…. Sovereignties, in particular, possess strength, unity, stability, only to the degree to which they are sanctified [divinisées] by religion.6

Maistre had a unique grasp of the values against which he fought. No criterion, he observed, is so fallible as that inspired by impiety. One must look at what it hates, what puts it in a rage, what it attacks always, everywhere, and with fury—that will be the truth. In the phrase used of him by Anatole France he was “l’adversaire de tout son siècle.” Such activity is not reactionary but counterrevolutionary, not passive but active, not a vain attempt to reproduce the past but a formidable and effective effort to enslave the future to a vision of the past which is never purely fanciful, but, on the contrary, deeply grounded in a grimly realistic interpretation of contemporary events.

Maistre was not a romantic pessimist in the sense in which Chateaubriand or Byron or Büchner or Leopardi were so. The world order was for him neither chaotic nor unjust but, to the eye of faith, what it must and should be. Against those who in every age asked why the just went without bread while the wicked prospered, he replied that this question rested on a childish misunderstanding of what divine laws were. “Rien ne marche au hasard…tout a sa règle“: if there is a law, it cannot brook exceptions; if a good man falls on evil days we cannot expect God to alter the laws without which all would be chaos, for the benefit of a private individual. If a man has the gout, he is unlucky, but he is not thereby led to doubt the existence of laws of nature; on the contrary, medical science, to which he applies, itself presupposes them. If a just man suffers disasters, that equally provides no reason for skepticism about the existence of good government in the universe. The existence of laws cannot prevent individual misfortunes; no laws can be so operated as to fit individual cases, for in that case they would cease to be laws.

There is a definite sum of sin in the world, and it is expiated by a proportionate total amount of suffering; that is the divine principle. But there is nothing that says that human justice or rational equity must govern divine action: that each individual sinner must himself be punished, at any rate in this world. So long as evil enters the world, somewhere blood will flow; the blood of the guiltless as well as of the guilty is providence’s way of redeeming sinful mankind. The innocent will be massacred, if need be vicariously for others, until the balance is adjusted. This is Maistre’s theodicy: the explanation of Robespierre’s Terror, the justification of all inescapable evil in the world.

Maistre’s celebrated theory of sacrifices is founded on this theorem, according to which responsibility is not individual but collective. We are all parts of one another in sin and suffering: hence the sins of the fathers are inevitably visited upon the children, however individually innocent, for who else is there for them to be visited upon? Wicked acts cannot be left forever unexpiated, even in this world, any more than a disequilibrium can continue to exist indefinitely in the physical world. Maistre “saw only two elements in history,” Lamennais sadly observed in later life: “on one side crime, on the other punishment. He was endowed with a generous and noble soul, and his books are all as if written on the scaffold.”


Protestantism, according to Maistre, had disrupted the unity of mankind, and created chaos, misery, and social disintegration. The eighteenth-century philosophers recommended as a remedy against this malaise the regulation of human lives according to a rational plan. But plans founder, precisely because they are rational, because they are plans. War is one of the most apparently planned of human activities. Yet no one who has seen a battle can maintain that it is the orders issued by generals that decide what happens. Neither the general nor his subordinates can possibly tell what is going on; the noise of guns, the chaos, the shrieks of the wounded and the dying, the mutilated bodies—“five or six kinds of intoxication”—the violence and the disorder are too great. Victories are attributed to the clever dispositions of generals only by those who do not understand the factors of which life is composed. Who wins a victory? Those who are filled with the inexplicable sense of their own superiority; neither troops nor generals can adequately tell what the proportion of casualties may be between them and their enemies. “It is imagination that loses battles.” Victory is a moral and psychological rather than a physical event; it is due to a mysterious act of faith and is not a successful consequence of carefully laid plans, or of feeble human wills.

  1. 3

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 283–284.

  2. 4

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 3, pp. 283–401.

  3. 5

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 81.

  4. 6

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 94.

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