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Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism: II

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.


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.”

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.

Maistre’s observations on how battles are fought and won, contained in the celebrated Seventh Conversation in the Soirées, constitute probably the best and most vivid formulation of his perpetually recurring theme of the inevitable chaos of the battlefield and the irrelevance of the alleged dispositions of commanders, which later played so great a part in Stendhal’s description in the The Charterhouse of Parma of Fabrice on the battlefield of Waterloo; and plainly had a dominant influence on the doctrine of human action developed by Tolstoy (who is known to have read Maistre) in War and Peace. And indeed it is Maistre’s doctrine of life in general. Life is not a Zoroastrian struggle between light and darkness, as represented by democrats and rationalists, for whom the Church is darkness, or conversely by the pious authoritarians, for whom darkness lies in the wicked forces of atheism; life resembles the blind confusion of a permanent battlefield in which men fight because they cannot do otherwise, under the mysterious decree by which God, for Maistre though not for Tolstoy, conducts the universe. Nor does the outcome depend on reason or strength or even virtue, but on the role for which a particular man or nation has been cast in the universal inscrutable drama of historical existence; and of the part assigned to us in this drama we can at best grasp only some tiny fraction. It is idle folly to pretend to understand the whole, still more demented to imagine that we can alter it by superior wisdom. Believe, and do what the Lord, through his representative on earth, commands.

Let us not lose ourselves in systems!” Maistre is particularly opposed to systems that appear to be based on any method claiming some connection with the natural sciences. The very language of science to Maistre is something degraded; and he notes, prophetically enough, that the degradation of language is always the surest sign of the degradation of a people. Maistre’s interest in and ideas about language are characteristically bold and penetrating and, even in their excesses, foreshadow twentieth-century thought.

His thesis is that, like all ancient and stable institutions, like kingship, like marriage, like worship, language is a mystery of divine origin. There are those who think that language is a deliberate human invention, a technique created to facilitate communication. According to such theorists thoughts can be thought without symbols: first we think, then we find suitable symbols to express our thoughts, like gloves to fit a hand. This doctrine, held by ordinary men and somewhat uncritically by a good many philosophers until our own times, both Maistre and particularly Bonald firmly deny. To think is to use symbols, to use an articulated vocabulary. Thoughts are words although unspoken; “la pensée et la parole,” Maistre declared, “ne sont que deux magnifiques synonymes.” The origins of words—the commonest of all symbols—are the origins of thought. There cannot be a moment when man invented the first language, for to invent one must think, and thinking is employing symbols, that is, language. The use of words in general cannot have been invented artificially any more than the “use” of thoughts, with which it is identical. And the uninvented is for Maistre the mysterious, the divine.

One may, reasonably enough, reject the notion of the necessarily divine origin of all that is not an artifact, and yet concede the profound originality of the identification of thought and language as a natural phenomenon, the object of such natural sciences as biology and social psychology. The seed of this crucial notion may perhaps be found in that celebrated simile of Plato’s Theaetetus, which Maistre quotes and in which language is spoken of as “the discourse of the soul with herself.” But if so, it fell on stony ground. Hobbes appears to have rediscovered this truth for himself; and it lies near the heart of Vico’s system, with which we are told that Maistre was acquainted.7

Maistre enjoys himself a great deal at the expense of eighteenth-century speculations about the origins of language: Rousseau, he declares, is puzzled about how men first began to use words, but the omniscient Condillac knows the answer to this and to all other questions: language clearly came about as a result of the division of labor. Thus one generation of men said BA, another added BE; Assyrians invented the nominative, and the Medes invented the genitive.

Such irony was appropriate enough in the face of the militant lack of historical sense of some among the more fanatical philosophes; the rest of Maistre’s theory had no similar justification. Since words, according to him, are the repository of the thought and feeling and the views of themselves and of the external world of our ancestors, they embody also their conscious and unconscious wisdom, derived from God to form experience. Hence ancient and traditional texts, especially those contained in sacred books, which express the immemorial wisdom of the race, modified and enriched by the impact of events, are so many valuable quarries whence expert knowledge, zeal, and patience may extract much hidden gold. Medieval philosophy was scoffed at for its search for hidden meanings and its far-fetched methods of interpretation of sacred texts; but to Maistre, for whom, as for Vico and the German romantics, language is not a human invention, it is a delving for hidden knowledge, a kind of psychoanalysis of the collective unconscious of mankind, or at any rate of Christendom. Only in darkness are great concealed treasures to be found. Hence the clarification demanded by the Encyclopedists is for him tantamount to causing all that may be profound and fertile in words to evaporate; it annihilates their virtue and dehydrates them of significance. One might, of course, make a similar case for astrology and alchemy, but that would not have frightened Maistre; he was not interested in the methods of natural science: he was interested in the visionary Swedenborg and mystical explanations of natural phenomena, and would have agreed no less readily than his contemporary William Blake that more recondite wisdom was to be found in the occult sciences than in manuals of modern chemistry or physics. Moreover the political value of sacred books can scarcely be exaggerated.

Since thought is language, and enshrines the oldest historical memories of a people or a church, to reform linguistic usage is to attempt to destroy the force and influence of all that is most sacred, wise, and authoritative. Of course Condorcet would want to have a universal language in order to make communication easier between the enlightened men of all nations, for such a language could be “purified” of the accumulated superstitions and prejudices of the ages, and would then cease to breed the illusions that today, in Condorcet’s view, pass under the name of theology and metaphysics.

But, Maistre asks, what are these prejudices and superstitions? We can by now anticipate his answer: they are those very convictions whose origins are shrouded in mystery, whose force cannot be rationally explained; they are those old beliefs and conceptions which have stood the test of time and experience, and enshrine the mature wisdom of the ages; to throw them aside is to remain without a rudder in the turbulent element where every false step means death. And the best, because least modern, most richly laden of languages is the language of the Church and of the great Roman state, the best government known to man.

The language of the Romans and of the Middle Ages is to be welcomed precisely for the reasons for which Bentham rejected and denounced it, because it is not clear, not easily susceptible to scientific use, because the words themselves carry within them the impalpable authority of the immemorial past, the darkness and the suffering of human history, by which alone salvation may be bought. Latin will of itself go far to guarantee right-mindedness; the Latin vocabulary and its specific limitations, its resistance to modernity, is essential to this. Orwell’s 1984 merely echoes the crucial thesis that control of language is essential to control of lives, even though the means chosen by his elite, whose aims are somewhat different from Maistre’s, is a language not traditional, but artificial, specially constructed—in fact the object of Maistre’s attack.

Maistre, consistently with this, defends the Jesuits as the only dependable educators, using Latin as the vehicle of the truth, embodied in medieval morality, and attacks Mikhail Speransky and the group of confidential advisers, secularists influenced by Western institutions, with whom Tsar Alexander I had meditated a kind of New Deal for the Russian Empire. Maistre pushed this attitude very far; for him irrationality was almost valuable in itself, since he approved of everything impervious to the disintegrating processes of reason. Rational faith is much too vulnerable. A good dialectician can knock holes in any structure that rests on so feeble a foundation. What reason makes, reason can mar. Hence Maistre’s appeals to Aquinas are very unconvincing; a pupil of the Jesuits, he could hardly do otherwise, but the truths he saw lay outside the Thomist ken, namely that the only thoughts that are ultimately impregnable are those to which the methods of rational argument are wholly and in principle inappropriate and irrelevant. There is again a certain parallel with Tolstoy, whose ironical attitude to faith in scientific experts and to the liberal belief in progress, and more specifically to such believers in the power of human will and human intellect as Speransky, Napoleon, and the learned German military strategists (as, indeed, later to the entire Russian intelligentsia), closely resembles that of the Sardinian agent at St. Petersburg.

Maistre uses very similar arguments to demolish the, to him, equally absurd theory of the social contract as the basis of society. Contracts, he correctly maintains, presuppose promises, and the means of enforcing them; but a promise is an act that is only intelligible, that can only be conceived, within an elaborate network of already existing conscious social conventions. And the machinery of enforcement presupposes the existence of a developed social structure; to have reached the stage of a contract there must not only already exist a society living by rules and conventions, but one which has reached a very considerable degree of order and complexity. To isolated savages in a “state of nature” social conventions, including promises, contracts, enforceable laws, and so forth, can mean nothing at all. Hence to suppose that societies are created by contracts, and not the other way round, is not only a historical but a logical absurdity. But then only Protestants can ever have supposed that society was an artificial association like a bank or a business. 8

Society, Maistre declares in more than one passionate outburst, bearing plain marks of Burke’s influence, is not an elaborately constructed, artificial association based on calculation of self-interest or happiness, but rests at least as much on the uncreated, original, overpowering human yearning for sacrifice, the impulse to immolate oneself on a sacred altar without hope of return. Armies obey orders and go to their deaths; it would be grotesque to suppose them animated by thoughts of personal advantage; and as discipline is to armies, so in a very different degree is all obedience to organized power—an activity traditional, mysterious, irresistible, against which there is no appeal.

It is only since the Renaissance, Maistre informs us, that this truth has been obscured and denied. Luther and Calvin, Bacon and Hobbes, Locke and Grotius, influenced in their turn by the ancient heresies of Wyclif and Hus, have propagated this great error, according to which all power and authority depends on something so feeble and arbitrary as an artificial convention. The great French Revolution has demonstrated the falsity of their short-sighted optimism, for it was the punishment of God upon those who entertained such theories and ideas. Society is not an association for mutual profit, it is a maison correctionelle, almost a penal settlement. It is not, indeed, governed by reason, but then democracy, which is certainly more rational than despotism, breeds misery everywhere except where, as among the admirable English, the constitution, being unwritten and merely “felt,” is, precisely because of this, a real source of power and can enforce the very contracts that shallow thinkers who ignore both facts and logic purport to found on democracy or reason.

What matters is not reason but power. Wherever there is a vacuum, power must sooner or later enter and create a new order out of revolutionary chaos. The Jacobins and Napoleon may be criminals or tyrants, but they wield power, they represent authority, they exact obedience, above all they punish and thereby restrain the centrifugal tendencies of weak and fallible men. Consequently they are a thousand times preferable to the critical intellectuals, the destructive peddlers of ideas who pulverize the social structure and destroy every vital process until some force, however illegal, rises up in response to the claims of history to sweep them out of its way.

All power is from God. Maistre’s interpretation of the celebrated Pauline text is very literal. All force commands respect. All weakness is to be despised, no matter where it is found, even in the acts of an anointed monarch of the “fairest kingdom after the Kingdom of Heaven”—Louis XVI of France. The Jacobins were scoundrels and murderers, but the Terror reestablished authority, preserved and extended the frontiers of France, and therefore counts higher in the scale of ultimate values than the liberals and idealists of the Gironde who let power slip from their feeble grasp. It is certain that legitimate authority alone will stand up to chance and change.

Mere conquest, not sanctioned by the eternal laws of the true Church, is robbery: “it is no more permitted to steal towns or provinces than watches or snuff-boxes,” and this is no less true of the makers of the frontiers of 1815 than of Frederick the Great or Napoleon.9 Maistre condemns naked militarism again and again: “Every time something is perfected in the sphere of the art of war, that is a misfortune pure and simple.” Military government (even in his own Savoy) he calls la bâtonocratie, the rule of the big stick, and it is “the horror of the age.” “I have always detested, do now and shall all my life detest military government.” He detests it because it is arbitrary, and weakens the authority of kings and ancient institutions, and leads to revolutions and the subversion of traditional Christian values. Yet there are moments when chaos threatens: the worst government is preferable to anarchy; indeed only the most ruthless despotism can check the disintegration of society. In this he is at one with Machiavelli and Hobbes and all the defenders of authority as such.

Revolution—the worst of evils—is itself a divine process, sent to punish wickedness and regenerate our fallen nature by suffering (we are reminded of the theological interpretation of the defeat of France by Petain and his supporters in 1940), as mysterious as all other great historical forces, so that “it is not men who direct the revolution, it is the revolution that uses them.” It may indeed make use of the vilest instruments—Robespierre’s

infernal genius alone could perform this prodigy [the victory of France over the Coalition]…. This monster of strength, drunk with blood and success, this terrifying phenomenon…was at once a terrible punishment sent upon French men and the sole means of saving France. 10

He excited the French to a pitch of violence, he hardened their hearts, he drove them wild with the blood of the scaffolds until they fought like madmen and crushed everyone. Yet without the revolution (which men like Robespierre are deluded enough to think that they can make, whereas it is clear that it is not they who have made the Revolution, but the Revolution that made them) he would have remained the mediocrity that he had been before.

Men who seize power do not know how they come to do so; their influence is as much a mystery to them as to anyone. Circumstances that the great man can neither foresee nor direct have done everything for him, and without his help—this is “the secret force that plays with human plans,” providence, Hegel’s cunning of reason. But man is vain and imagines that his own will can break through the inexorable laws by which God governs the world. Maistre never tires of repeating again and again that it is this delusion on the part of weak, deceived creatures, swollen with self-conceit, that is at the root of the belief in democracy. A false sense of one’s own wisdom and power, blind refusal to recognize the superiority either of other men or of institutions, leads to the ridiculous mosaic of declarations of the rights of men and claptrap about liberty. “Whoever says that man is born to freedom utters a sentence which has no meaning.” Man is what he is and was, what he does and did; to say that man is not what he should be is an offense to sanity. We must listen to history, which is “experimental politics,” that is, the only reliable teacher of this subject: “She will never tell us the opposite of the truth.” One genuine experiment blows up a hundred volumes of abstract speculation.

Yet notions of popular liberty and democracy rest on just such groundless abstractions, supported neither by empirical experience nor by divine revelation. If men decline to recognize authority where it legitimately lies—in the Church and the “divinisé” monarchy—they will fall under the yoke of the tyranny of the people, which is the worst of all. Those who create revolts in the name of freedom end by becoming tyrants, said Bonald (quoting Bossuet and echoed by Dostoevsky half a century later); and Maistre merely adds that the inevitable consequence of faith in the principles of Rousseau is a situation in which the people are told by their masters ” ‘You believe that you don’t want this law, but we assure you that you do. If you dare reject it, we shall shoot you down in order to punish you for not wanting what you do want‘ and they then do so.” No clearer formula for what has rightly been called “totalitarian democracy” has surely ever been uttered. Maistre says sardonically that if a good many scientists perished on the guillotine, they had only themselves to blame. The ideas in whose name they were killed were their own; and, like all mutiny against authority, bound to destroy their authors.

Maistre’s violent hatred of free traffic in ideas, and his contempt for all intellectuals, is not mere conservatism, nor the orthodoxy and loyalty to Church and state in which he was brought up, but something at once much older and much newer—something that at once echoes the fanatical voices of the Inquisition and sounds what is perhaps the earliest note of the militant antirational fascism of modern times.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 4, pp. 84–85.

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 81.

  6. 6

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 94.

  7. 7

    See Elio Gianturco, Joseph de Maistre and Giambattista Vico: Italian Roots of Maistre’s Political Culture (Columbia University Ph.D. thesis; Washington, 1937).

  8. 8

    Cf. Vico on Spinoza’s notion of the state: “a society of hucksters.” And Bonald: “as if society consisted only of the walls of our houses or the ramparts of our towns; as if there were not, wherever a human child is born, a father, a mother, a child, a language, a heaven, earth, God, and society.”

  9. 9

    Maistre’s attitude to Napoleon was curiously and characteristically ambivalent. On the one hand Napoleon is a vulgar upstart and a brutal destroyer of ancient values, the persecutor of both the Pope and legitimate monarchs, the blasphemous perpetrator of a coronation that was a horrible travesty of a sacred rite, a moral outcast, the enemy of mankind. On the other hand his clear grasp of the realities of war, his open contempt for democrats, liberals, and intellectuals, and the other members of the hateful secte, but above all the contrast between the stupidity and weakness of the Bourbons and the military and administrative genius of a man who once again lifted France to a pinnacle of glory, could not but appeal powerfully to the apostle of realism and authority. Maistre, official representative though he was of a victim of the French emperor, and subjected to daily humiliation by the mere presence of Napoleon’s ambassador in St. Petersburg (which automatically precluded official recognition of his own proper diplomatic status), longed to meet Napoleon. Napoleon for his part was impressed by the brilliance of Maistre’s writings, which he was said to find politically sympathetic.

    Maistre found his situation immensely tantalizing. He wrote to the court at Cagliari, setting out his case. Napoleon was, it was true, a usurper; but was he more of one than William of Orange, whose dynasty was recognized by all the crowned heads of Europe? Napoleon was callous monster, but had he killed as many innocent victims as Elizabeth of England? All power was, after all, from God, both legitimate and illegitimate; and Bonaparte had protected and enlarged the frontiers of the great kingdom of France, which he could not have achieved had he not in some sense been an instrument of providence. These casuistries merely scandalized the Sardinian officials. King Victor Emmanuel was deeply shocked, and severely forbade his minister to have any truck with the Corsican monster. Maistre was profoundly disappointed. But he prized loyalty above all virtues; the less worthy the embodiment of the legitimate royal power, the greater obedience was due to it, so that the principle of unquestioning obedience owed by the subject to his sovereign might shine forth the more clearly. His diplomatic rejoinders grew more acid and ironical in tone. He had been accused of making a “surprising” request (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 11, pp. 104–105). He assured his royal master that he would at all times obey all his orders to the letter; but not to cause him surprise—that he could not promise. He never met Napoleon.

  10. 10

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, p. 18.

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