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Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

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Un roi, c’est un homme équestre,
Personnage à numéro,
En marge duquel Maistre
Ecrit: Roi, lisez: Bourreau.
Victor Hugo,
Chansons des Rues et des Bois

Mais il n’est pas temps d’insister sur ces sortes de matières, notre siècle n’est pas mûr encore pour s’en occuper….

Joseph de Maistre
Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg1


The personality and the outlook of Joseph de Maistre are not normally considered to be puzzling or elusive by historians of political or religious thought. In an age when the confluence of apparently incompatible ideas and attitudes, deriving from heterogeneous historical traditions, generated a number of protean personalities, too complex and contradictory to be fitted into the familiar categories, Maistre is regarded as being exceptionally simple, solid, and clear.

Historians, biographers, political theorists, historians of ideas, theologians have expended much subtlety upon conveying the political and social atmosphere of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, the peculiar quality characteristic of a time of transition between sharply divergent outlooks, of which such psychologically complex figures as Goethe and Herder, Schleiermacher and Friedrich Schlegel, Fichte and Schiller, Benjamin Constant and Chateaubriand, Saint-Simon and Stendhal, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and indeed Napoleon himself are typical representatives. The feeling of some contemporary observers is perhaps to some degree conveyed by the celebrated painting by Baron Gros, now in the Louvre, of Napoleon at Eylau. It represents a horseman of indeterminate origin, a strange, mysterious rider set against an equally mysterious background, l’homme fatal, in touch with secret forces, a man of destiny, coming from nowhere, moving in accordance with occult laws to which all humanity and indeed all nature is subject, the exotic hero of the baroque novels of the time—Melmoth the Wanderer, The Monk, Obermann—new, hypnotic, sinister, and deeply disturbing.

This period is usually conceived in the history of Western culture as at once the culmination of a long period of elaboration of classical patterns in thought and art, founded upon observation and rational reflection and experiment; and at the same time as infected by—and indeed more than infected, as an embodiment of—a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.

This is the world of German romanticism—of Wackenroder and Schelling, Tieck and Novalis, of illuminists and Martinists. It is dedicated to a rejection of all that is tranquil, solid, luminous, intelligible, and it is infatuated with darkness, the night, the unconscious, the hidden powers which reign equally within the individual soul and in external nature. It is a world possessed by a craving for the mystical identification of the two, an irresistible gravitation toward the unattainable center of the universe—the (for some, chaotic) heart of all created and uncreated things; a condition both of ironical detachment and of violent discontent, melancholy and exalted, fragmented, despairing, and yet the source of all true insight and inspiration, at once destructive and creative.

This is a process which alone solves (or dissolves) all seeming contradictions by moving them out of, and beyond, the framework of normal thought and sober reasoning, and so transforms them by an act of special vision, sometimes identified with the creative imagination, at other times with special powers of philosophical insight, into the “logic” or the “inner essence” of history—the “exfoliation” of a metaphysically conceived process of growth, concealed from the superficial thinking of materialists, empiricists, and ordinary men. This is the world of Le Génie du christianisme, of Obermann and Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Woldemar, of Schlegel’s Lucinde and Tieck’s William Lovell, of Coleridge and the new biology and physiology said to have been inspired by Schelling’s doctrine of nature.

To this world, so we are told by virtually all his biographers and commentators, Joseph de Maistre did not belong. He detested the romantic spirit. Like Charles Maurras and T.S. Eliot, he stood for the trinity of classicism, monarchy, and the Church. He is the embodiment of the clear Latin spirit, the very antithesis of the moody German soul. In a world of half lights he appears definite and unproblematical; in a society in which religion and art, history and mythology, social doctrine, metaphysics, and logic seem inextricably confused, he classifies, discriminates, and clings to his distinctions rigorously and consistently. He is a Catholic reactionary, a scholar, and an aristocrat—français, catholique, gentilhomme (to imitate a phrase used by Joseph Conrad)—outraged alike by the doctrines and the acts of the French Revolution, opposed with equal firmness to rationalism and empiricism, liberalism, technocracy, and egalitarian democracy, hostile to secularism and all forms of nondenominational, noninstitutional religion, a powerful, retrograde figure, deriving his faith and his method from the Church Fathers and the teachings of the Jesuit order.

A fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of Pope, King, and Hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest, most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner.”2

This is Emile Faguet’s characteristic summing up. “His Christianity is terror, passive obedience, and the religion of the state”; his faith is “a slightly touched-up paganism.” He is a Roman of the fifth century, baptized, but Roman; or alternatively a “Praetorian of the Vatican.” His admirer Samuel Rocheblave speaks of his “christianisme de la Terreur.”3 The famous Danish critic George Brandes, who devotes a careful study to Maistre and his times, calls him a kind of literary colonel of the Papal Zouaves and a Christian only in the sense that a man might be a free trader or a protectionist.4 Edgar Quinet speaks of Maistre’s “inexorable God aided by the hangman; the Christ of a permanent Committee of Public Safety.”5 Stendhal (who may or may not have read him) calls him the “hangman’s friend”;6 René Doumic “a spoilt theologian.” 7

All these are in fact variants of the stock portrait, largely invented by Sainte-Beuve, perpetuated by Faguet, and faithfully reproduced by writers of textbooks of political thought. Maistre is painted as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority, proud, bigoted, and inflexible, with a strong will and an uncommon power of rigorous deduction from dogmatic premises to extreme and unpalatable conclusions; a brilliant, embittered composer of Tacitean paradoxes, a peerless master of French prose, a medieval doctor born out of his time, an exasperated reactionary, a ferocious opponent who aimed to kill, vainly seeking by the sole power of his superb prose to arrest the progress of history, a distinguished anomaly, formidable, solitary, fastidious, sensitive, and ultimately pathetic; at best a tragic patrician figure, defying and denouncing a shifty and vulgar world into which he has been incongruously born; at worst an unbending, fanatical diehard, pouring curses upon the marvelous new age which he is too self-blinded to see, and too willful to feel.

Maistre’s works are regarded as interesting rather than important, the last despairing effort of feudalism and the Dark Ages to resist the march of progress. He excites the sharpest reactions: scarcely any of his critics can repress their feelings. He is represented by conservatives as a brave but doomed paladin of a lost cause, by liberals as a foolish or odious survival of an older and more heartless generation. Both sides agree that his day is done, his world has no relevance to any contemporary or any future issue. This is a point of view shared alike by Lamennais (who was once his ally) and Victor Hugo, by Sainte-Beuve and Brandes, by James Stephen and Morley and Faguet, who dismiss him as a played-out force. This verdict is supported by his best-known critics in the twentieth century, Harold Laski, G.P. Gooch, Adolfo Omodeo, even his fullest and exceedingly critical modern biographer, Robert Triomphe, who treat him as a queer anachronism, not without influence in his own day, but peripheral and anomalous.8

This assessment, intelligible enough in a less troubled world, seems to me altogether inadequate. Maistre may have spoken the language of the past, but the content of what he had to say presaged the future. In comparison with his progressive contemporaries, Constant and Madame de Staël, Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, not to speak of radical extremists and Utopians, he is in certain respects ultramodern, born not after but before his time. If his ideas did not have wider influence (and apart from ultramontane Roman Catholics and the Savoyard aristocracy among whom Cavour grew up, there are not many traces of it), the reason is that the soil was, in his own lifetime, unreceptive. His doctrine and still more his attitude of mind had to wait a century before they came (as come they all too fatally did) into their own. This thesis may at first seem as absurd a paradox as any for which Maistre used to be derided; clearly it needs evidence to render it even plausible. This study is an endeavor to provide support for it.


The problem uppermost in public consciousness during Maistre’s most creative years was a specific form of the general question of how man could best be governed. The French Revolution discredited the great cluster of rationalist solutions which had been urged with the most ardent eloquence during the last decades of the eighteenth century. What, it was asked, had made it fail to achieve its proclaimed purposes? The Great Revolution was an event unique in human history, if only because it was perhaps the most persistently anticipated, discussed, deliberately undertaken reversal of an entire form of life in the West since the rise of Christianity. It was well for those whom it had ruined to talk of it as inexplicable cataclysm, a sudden outbreak of mass depravity or insanity, a violent eruption of divine anger, or a mysterious thunderstorm out of a clear sky which swept away the foundations of the old world.

This, no doubt, is how it may genuinely have appeared to the more bigoted or stupid royalist exiles in Lausanne or Coblenz or London. But to the ideologists of the middle class, and to all those men, of whatever class, who had been influenced by the steady propaganda of the radical or liberal intellectuals, it was, at least in its beginning, a long-awaited deliverance: the decisive victory of light over ancient darkness, the beginning of the phase when human beings would at last begin to control their own destinies, made free by the application of reason and science, no longer victims of nature, called cruel only because she was misunderstood, or of man, oppressive and destructive only when he was morally or intellectually blind or perverted.

  1. 1

    References for quotations from Maistre are by volume and page to Oeuvres complètes de J. Maistre, 14 vols. and index (Lyon/Paris, 1884–1887, and later unchanged impressions), thus Vol. 5, p. 26, the reference for this epigraph.

  2. 2

    Emile Faguet, Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvième siècle, first series (Paris, 1899), p. 1.

  3. 3

    Samuel Rocheblave, “Etude sur Joseph Maistre,” Revue d’histoire et de philosophie réligieuses 2 (1922), p. 312.

  4. 4

    George Brandes, Main currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (London, 1901–1905), Vol. 3, The Reaction in France, p. 112.

  5. 5

    Edgar Quinet, Le Christianisme et la révolution française (Paris, 1845), pp. 357–358).

  6. 6

    Correspondence de Stendhal (1800–1842), ed. Ad. Paupe and P.A. Cheramy (Paris, 1908), Vol. 2, p. 389.

  7. 7

    René Doumic, Etudes sur la littérature francaise, 1st series (Paris, 1896), p. 216.

  8. 8

    But this opinion is not shared by his Canadian biographer Richard A. Lebrun, nor by Emile Cioran, nor, indeed, by myself. I wish I could be so dismissive: but the darkest events of our century do not bear this out. See Richard Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988).

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