Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

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.
Joseph De Maistre
Joseph De Maistre; drawing by David Levine

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.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.