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Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism: III

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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 to foreigners, who are capable of anything; if foreign teachers are to be employed at all, let them at least be Roman Catholics.

All this was very well received by the anti-Western conservatives. Count Uvarov, curator of the St. Petersburg school district, proved an apt pupil, and in 1811 eliminated philosophy, political economy, aesthetics, commercial studies from the schools in his care, and later, as minister of education, proclaimed the notorious triple formula—Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality—which expressed the same principles applied to universities and the entire educational system. This program was in effect rigorously followed in Russia for half a century—from the middle years of the reign of Alexander I to the reforms of Alexander II in the 1860s. It was viewed with deep nostalgia by Pobedonostsev, the famous high procurator of the Holy Synod (that is, the Church) in the 1880s and 1890s.

If Russia grants liberty to its inhabitants, it is lost. Here are Maistre’s words:

If one could lock a Russian desire in a fortress it would blow it up. There is no one who wants as passionately as a Russian wants…. Observe the Russian merchant even of the lower class, and you will see how intelligent and alert he is about his interest; watch him executing the most dangerous enterprises, particularly on the field of battle, and you will see how daring he can be. If it occurs to us to give liberty to something like thirty-six million men of this kind, and we do it—one can never insist upon this enough—in an instant a general conflagration will break out, by which Russia will be consumed.3

And again:

These serfs, as they receive their freedom, will find themselves among instructors who are more than suspect, and priests without power and without repute. Thus exposed, without preparation they will infallibly and suddenly pass from superstition to atheism, from passive obedience to unbridled activity. Liberty will have upon all those temperaments the effect of heady wine upon a man entirely unused to it. The mere spectacle of this freedom will demoralize even those who have no part in it…. To this you must add the indifference, the incapacity or the ambition of a few noblemen, criminal activities from abroad, maneuvers of the hateful sect which never sleeps and so on, and so on, plus a few Pugachevs4 of the universities, and the state will, in all probability, quite literally, break in half, like a wooden beam which is too long and sags in the middle.5


what an inexplicable delusion, whereby a great nation has reached a point where it imagines it can go against a law of the universe. The Russians want everything in a day. There is no middle way. One must creep slowly towards the goal,…one cannot fly there! The Russians have conceived two equally unfortunate ideas. The first is to put literature and science at the head of everything, and the second is to amalgamate into one whole the teaching of all the sciences.6

And in the same strain:

What will happen in Russia if modern doctrines penetrate to the people, and the temporal power has only itself to lean upon? On the very eve of the universal catastrophe, Voltaire had said, “books did it all.” Let us repeat while we are still in the bosom of happy Russia, still on her feet, “books did it all”; let us beware of books! A great political step in this country would be to retard the reign of science, and use the authority of the church as a powerful ally of the sovereign, until such time as science may safely be allowed to penetrate society.7

And again:

If the Russians, who have a certain tendency to do everything for fun (I do not say make fun of everything), play with this serpent too, no people will be more cruelly bitten.8

The only hope lies in preserving the privileges of the Church and the nobility, and keeping merchants and the lower classes in their place. Above all one must not favor “the propagation of science among the lowest classes of the people; one must prevent, without seeming to do so, any enterprise of this kind which might be conceived by ignorant or subversive zealots.”9 Also, one must

exercise more rigorous supervision over immigrants from the west, particularly over Germans and Protestants, who come to this country to instruct the youth in all kinds of subjects. One can be very sure that of every hundred foreigners of this kind who make their way into Russia, at least ninety-nine are the most undesirable acquisitions for the state, for those who have property, a family, morals, and a reputation stay at home.10

Indeed Maistre was almost the first Western writer openly to advocate the policy of the deliberate retardation of the liberal arts and sciences, the virtual suppression of some of the central cultural values which transformed Western thought and conduct from the Renaissance to our day. But it was the twentieth century that was destined to see the richest flowering and the most ruthless application of this sinister doctrine. It has perhaps been the most characteristic and gloomiest spiritual phenomenon of our time and is far from over.


As a sharp realistic observer of his own times, Maistre is equaled only by Tocqueville. We have seen how prophetically he analyzed Russian conditions. Similarly, at a period when his fellow legitimists looked on the Great Revolution as a passing phase whose results could be annulled, a momentary aberration of the human spirit after which things might be made to flow much as before, Maistre declared that one might as well try to bottle all the water in the Lake of Geneva as attempt to restore the prerevolutionary order. Nothing could weaken France so much as royalist counterrevolution aided by foreign powers, which would lead to the dismemberment of that wonderful kingdom. It was the glorious revolutionary armies that preserved France.

Following one of his spiritual mentors, the Savoyard Bishop Thiollaz, he predicted the restoration of the Bourbons, but added that the dynasty would not last, since all authority was founded on faith, and they had conspicuously lost all genuine belief in themselves and their destiny. And in any case some reforms had to be introduced. Fortunately for that country, Charles II of England was not Charles I.

By contrast, the emperors Alexander and Napoleon genuinely fascinated him; he could scarcely be expected to admire the House of Savoy, which he served so faithfully, and he made it clear, sometimes too clear, that his loyalty was not to persons but to the institution of royalty itself. He took a great deal of sardonic pleasure in rubbing into the provincial, easily frightened Sardinian court unpalatable truths about the progress of events in Europe. His dispatches were written in the courteous style of conventional diplomacy, but even so could not wholly conceal the mixture of loyalty and contempt that he felt for his addressees.

This political realism as well as the deliberate sharpness with which it was expressed made him, all his life, suspect at Cagliari and Turin as a dangerous extremist, a kind of royalist Jacobin. He was certainly the biggest fish which that petty, nervous, pompous, infinitely cautious little court had ever captured. He was a man of recognized literary genius, widely admired, by far the most famous Savoyard of his time. It was impossible not to employ him, but he was best kept at a distance, in St. Petersburg, where his disquieting observations evidently delighted the unaccountable Alexander.

The best years of his life were spent in St. Petersburg, and the portraits that his biographers have left us are largely based on the impressions of his friends and acquaintances of this period. They convey the image of a devoted and tenderly affectionate father, a loyal, delightful and sensitive friend; and indeed his private correspondence bears this out. He addressed amusing letters, full of solicitude, irony, and gossip, to noble Russian ladies, whom he converted to his own faith, much too successfully for the tsar’s taste.11

  1. 1

    Quatres chapîtres sur la Russie, from which the quotations that follow are taken, is a collection of obiter dicta by Maistre which contains remarks of remarkable insight and prophetic power, but is today almost entirely forgotten.

  2. 2

    F.F. Vigel, Zapiski (Moscow: 1928), Vol. 1, p. 275 (cf. Vol. 2, p. 52); S.P. Zhikharev, Zapiski sovremennika (Moscow: 1934), Vol. 2, pp. 112–113. On the other hand Leo Tolstoy, who certainly used both Maistre’s own writings and the memoirs of his contemporaries when he was working on the historical background of War and Peace, paints an ironical portrait of him. Disguised as “le Vicomte de Mortemart,” a typical aristocratic French émigré at his best in a St. Petersburg salon, he tells a silly anecdote about Napoleon, the Duc d’Enghien, and the actress Mlle. Georges to a group of fashionable ladies at a glittering evening party in the Russian capital. Later, referred to merely as “un homme de beaucoup de mérite,” he appears at another party in conversation with Prince Vassily about Kutuzov. He is mentioned by name later in the novel.

  3. 3

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 288–289.

  4. 4

    Yemelyan I. Pugachev was the leader of a peasant and Cossak rebellion crushed in the reign of Catherine the Great.

  5. 5

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 291–292.

  6. 6

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 300.

  7. 7

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 344.

  8. 8

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 354.

  9. 9

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 357.

  10. 10

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 358–359.

  11. 11

    The best known of his converts was Mme. Svétchine, whose famous Paris salon in the 1830s and 1840s became the center of ultramontane Catholicism. But there are others, better known in their own day in St. Petersburg society, who became members of Maistre’s cenacle, among them Countess Edling (née Stourza, the celebrated Phanariot intrigante), Countess Tolstoy, the Princes A. and M. Golitsyn, Prince Gagarin, who later became a Jesuit in Paris and wrote memoirs (indeed it is his reminiscences and those of Mme. Svétchine that shed most light on Maistre’s spiritual influence upon the Petersburg nobility), and, not least, the beautiful wife of Admiral Chichagov, who was converted to Rome, greatly to the displeasure of her family. Leo Tolstoy’s very unsympathetic account in War and Peace of the Princess Hélène’s relations with the Jesuits is probably founded on the activities of Maistre’s circle. Illuminism had made great inroads in Russian court circles—the Emperor himself was a conspicuous convert to it under the influence of Prince Golitsyn and later of Madame von Krüdener. Maistre, who had had associations with masonic lodges in his youth, admired Saint-Martin’s devotional works. He looked on their author as an ally—a fellow traveler with the Church (much as some Catholics in this century viewed Bergson) who melted materialism, preserved men from the Protestant ice which freezes the human heart, acted as a bridge towards the true church from Calvinistic aridity “accustom[ed] men to dogmas and spiritual ideas” (Vol. 8, p. 330), and worked for the unity of Christendom. He understood the Petersburg atmosphere well, and did what he could to excite sympathy for the Catholic cause; in particular he exerted himself to protect the French Jesuits, whose order had been dissolved by the Pope and who had fled to Russia from the Revolution, and, in fact, procured permission for them to establish a Jesuit college on Russian soil. The Russian Orthodox Church had become increasingly suspicious of these activities. Indeed it may be his overzealous activity both as a champion of this order, to which all his life he remained deeply devoted, and as a fisher of well-born souls, that caused Alexander, with his customary brusqueness, and without apparent cause (but in all probability urged to do so by the head of the Orthodox Church), to ask for Maistre’s sudden, to him deeply distressing, recall in 1817. He returned to Turin by way of Paris, and died four years later, a holder of a high sinecure in Piedmont, his masterpiece, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, posthumously published.

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