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
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
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
All the testimony that Maistre’s well-known Russian friends have left to the sweetness of his character, his sharp wit, mordant irony, and his high spirits in conditions of exile and material indigence, further support this verdict. His moral and political world is the exact opposite: it is full of sin, cruelty, and suffering, only able to survive through the violent repression exercised by the chosen instruments of power, who wield absolute and crushing authority, and carry on an unceasing war against every tendency to free inquiry or the pursuit of life or liberty or happiness by any secular path.
His world is much more realistic and ferocious than that of the Romantics. Half a century had to pass before this same unmistakable note is heard in Nietzsche or Drumont or Belloc, or the French intégralistes of the Action française, or, in a still more debased form, in the spokesmen of the totalitarian regimes of our own times; yet Maistre himself felt that he was the last defender of a high civilization that was perishing. It was surrounded by enemies and must be defended with a most merciless ferocity. Even his attitude to such apparently theoretical subjects as the nature of language or the progress of chemistry takes on a fierce polemical glow. When one is engaged in a desperate defense of one’s world and its values, nothing can be given away, any breach in the walls might be fatal, every point must be defended to the death.
Five years after Maistre’s death the leaders of the Saint-Simonian school declared that the task of the future consisted in the reconciliation of the ideas of Maistre with those of Voltaire. At first this seems absurd. Voltaire stands for individual liberty and Maistre for chains; Voltaire cried for more light, Maistre for more darkness. Voltaire hated the Roman Church so violently that he denied it even a minimum of virtue. Maistre liked even its vices, and regarded Voltaire as the devil incarnate. His celebrated pages on Voltaire in the Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg—which rise to a climax of hatred as he describes his enemy’s grimace, his perpetual hideous leering grin, as a kind of horrible rictus—come from the heart.
Yet there is a curious and, as time would show, frightening truth in this Saint-Simonian observation, as in so much of the doctrine of that confused but strikingly prophetic movement. Modern totalitarian systems do, in their acts if not in their style of rhetoric, combine the outlooks of Voltaire and Maistre; they have inherited, particularly, the qualities which the two have in common. For, polar opposites as they are, they both belong to the tough-minded tradition in classical French thought. Their ideas may have strictly contradicted one another, but the quality of mind is often exceedingly similar (as later critics have indeed remarked without, as a rule, investigating what this quality is, and what its influence has produced).
Neither Voltaire nor his enemy is guilty of any degree of softness, vagueness, or self-indulgence of either intellect or feeling, nor do they tolerate it in others. They stand for the dry light against the flickering flame of liberal feeling, they are implacably opposed to all that is turbid, misty, gushing, impressionistic—to the eloquence of Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Michelet, Bergson, Péguy. They are ruthlessly skeptical writers, contemptuous, sardonic, genuinely heartless, and, at times, genuinely cynical. Beside their icy, smooth, clear surface Stendhal’s prose is romantic, and Flaubert’s writings are an imperfectly drained marsh. Marx, Tolstoy, Sorel, Lenin are—in the cast of their minds (not their ideas)—their true successors. The tendency to cast a glance upon the social scene so chilly as to cause a sudden surprise, to deflate and dehydrate, to use ruthless political and historical analysis as a deliberate method of shock treatment, has entered into modern political techniques to a marked degree.
If the capacity for the uncompromising exposure of sentimental and confused processes of thought, for which Voltaire was so largely responsible, be combined with Maistre’s historicism, his political pragmatism, his equally low estimate of human capacity and goodness, and his belief that the essence of life is the craving for suffering and sacrifice and surrender; and, added to this, Maistre’s considered belief that government is impossible without perpetual repression of the weak and confused majority by a minority of dedicated rulers, hardened against all temptation to indulge in humanitarian experiments, we begin to approach the strong strains of nihilism in all modern totalitarianism. Voltaire can be made to strip away all liberal delusions, and Maistre to provide the nostrum by which the bleak, bare world which results is to be administered.
Voltaire, it is true, defended neither despotism nor deception, whereas Maistre preached the need for both. “The principle of the sovereignty of the the people,” he says (echoing Plato and Machiavelli, Hobbes and Montesquieu), “is so dangerous that even if it were true, it would be necessary to conceal it.” This is echoed by the famous remark attributed to Rivarol that equality is wonderful, but why tell the people? The Saint-Simonians were not perhaps being so paradoxical after all; and their founder’s admiration for Maistre, which seemed so odd to the liberals and socialists whom Saint-Simon inspired, is founded on a genuine affinity. The content of Orwell’s celebrated nightmare (as well as the actual systems which inspired it) is directly related to the visions of both Maistre and Saint-Simon. It owes something also to the deep political cynicism to be found in Voltaire, to which the words of that incomparable writer gave a far wider influence than the work of truly great original thinkers like Machiavelli or Hobbes.
An eminent philosopher once remarked that, in order truly to understand the central doctrines of an original thinker, it is necessary, in the first place, to grasp the particular vision of the universe that lies at the heart of his thought, rather than attend to the logic of his arguments. For the arguments, however cogent and intellectually impressive, are, as a rule, only the outworks—the defensive weapons against real and possible objections on the part of actual and potential critics and opponents. They illuminate neither the mental process by which the thinker in question came to his conclusion nor even the essential, let alone the sole, means of conveying and justifying the central conception which those whom the thinker seeks to convince must grasp, if they are to understand and accept the ideas that are being put forward.
As a generalization this plainly goes too far; however they may have arrived at their positions, such thinkers as Kant or Mill or Russell, for example, seek to convince us by rational arguments, and Kant at any rate by nothing else. They make it plain that, if such arguments are exposed by counterarguments as fallacious, or their conclusions are refuted by common experience, they are prepared to regard themselves as mistaken.
But the generalization does hold of many thinkers of a more metaphysical type: Plato, Berkeley, Hegel, Marx, not to speak of more deliberately romantic or poetical or religious writers, whose influence has extended both for better and for worse far beyond the confines of academic circles. They may use arguments—indeed they often do—but it is not by these, whether valid or invalid, that they stand or fall or are justly estimated. For their essential purpose is to expound an all-embracing conception of the world and man’s place and experience within it; they seek not so much to convince as to convert, to transform the vision of those whom they seek to address, so that they see the facts “in a new light,” “from a new angle,” in terms of a new pattern in which what had earlier seemed to be a casual amalgam of elements is presented as a systematic, interrelated unity. Logical reasoning may help to weaken existing doctrines, or refute specific beliefs, but it is an ancillary weapon, not the principal means of conquest: that is the new model itself, which casts its own emotional or intellectual or spiritual spell upon those who are converted.
It used to be said of Maistre, principally by his admirers in the nineteenth century, that he used the weapon of reason to defeat reason, of logic to prove the inadequacy of logic. But this is not so. Maistre is a dogmatic thinker whose ultimate principles and premises nothing can shake, whose considerable ingenuity and intellectual power is devoted to making the facts fit his preconceived notions, not to developing concepts that fit newly discovered, or newly visualized, facts. He is like a lawyer arguing to a brief: the conclusion is forgone—he knows that he must arrive at it somehow, for he is convinced of the truth, no matter what he may learn or encounter. The problem is only how to convince the doubting reader, how to dismiss awkward or plainly contrary evidence. James Stephen is right in saying that his principal mode of argument is to beg the question.12 He starts from unquestioned principles, and is then determined to carry his theories through, no matter what the evidence. Any theory can, in fact, be triumphantly vindicated, given a sufficient number of ad hoc hypotheses (like the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy) to account for apparent exceptions, and any doctrine can be “saved,” although it will of course become progressively useless as the number of cases it would seem to apply to grows smaller with each extra ad hoc hypothesis superimposed to meet some logical obstacle.
For his fundamental beliefs—in innate ideas planted in us by God; in spiritual truths of which rational or empirical formulations are a mere, at times distorting, veil; in ancient wisdom, possessed by men before the Flood, of which we now have merely unconnected fragments; in intuitive certainty about good and evil, right and wrong; in all the undemonstrated and indemonstrable dogmas of his Church at its most unyielding—for all this Maistre offers no serious argument. It is clear that he would not consider any empirical experience, anything that common sense or science would regard as evidence, as in principle capable of upsetting these truths. The proposition that if two beliefs contradict each other, or are each contradicted by apparently unanswerable objections, yet are laid down by faith, or by authority, then both must be believed and are in principle reconcilable, even though we cannot see how they are so because of the feebleness of our intellect—this proposition is not argued, but simply asserted. Similarly the notion that if reason conflicts with common sense it must be treated like a poisoner, and expelled with curses upon its head, is not compatible with any degree of respect for rational thought; the appeal is to authority not experience, it is pure dogma used as a polemical battering ram.
So, for example, Maistre maintains that all suffering, whether it falls on the heads of the guilty or the innocent, must be expiation of sin committed by someone at some time. Why is this so? Because pain must have a purpose, and since its only purpose is penal, there must, somewhere in the universe, exist a sum of transgression sufficient to cause a corresponding sum of suffering to occur; else the existence of evil could not be explained or justified, and the universe would lack moral government. But this is unthinkable: that the world is governed by a moral purpose is self-evident.
He boldly asserts that no constitution is the result of deliberation; that the rights of individuals or peoples are best unwritten, or if they are written down must be merely the transcription of unwritten rights that have existed for all time, and are metaphysically intuited, for whoever lives by a text is weakened by it. What then of written constitutions? In Maistre’s last years (even at the time of the writing of his essay on constitutions) the American Constitution was functioning vigorously and successfully; but that is only because it is based on England’s unwritten constitution. But this is not true of France, or the Code Napoléon, or the new Spanish constitution: Maistre knows that they must fail. He needs no argument. He knows, as Burke knew, what is lasting and what is transient, what is destined to exist forever, and what is the brittle work of human hands. “Institutions…are strong and durable to the extent that they are conceived of as divine.”
Man creates nothing. He can plant a tree but not make it. He can modify but not create. The French constitution of 1795 is a mere “academic exercise”; “a constitution which is made for all nations is made for none.” It must grow out of the particular circumstances and character of a nation, at a particular time, at a particular place. Men fight for abstract principles—“children killing each other to build a huge house of cards.” “Republican institutions”—the product of the rickety structures of human deliberation—“have no roots; they are just placed on the ground, whereas what came before [monarchy and Church] was planted.”
A man must have lost his senses to believe that God has commissioned academies to tell us what He is and what is our duty to him. It belongs to prelates, nobles, great officers of state…to teach nations what is good and bad;…others have no right to argue about matters of this sort…. Those who speak or write in such a way as to rob a people of its natural dogma should be hanged like burglars.13
And whence do prelates, nobles, great offices of state derive their authority? In the secular state from the sovereign; but ultimately from the source of all spiritual authority, the pope. Liberty is the gift of kings: a nation cannot give itself liberty; rights and all liberties must have been conceded by the sovereign at some date. Basic rights are not conceded: they exist because they exist, born in the mists of the past, of inscrutable divine origin. The rights of the sovereigns themselves have no date, for they are eternal. Sovereignty must be indivisible, for if it is distributed there is no center of authority, and all things fall to pieces. Earthly sovereigns and legislators can act only in the name of God, and all they can do is to reassemble or reorganize already existing rights, duties, liberties, privileges, which have existed since the day of creation.
All this seems dead medieval dogma, and Maistre believed in it precisely because it was so. When he meets with apparent exceptions he has a short way of dealing with them: he notes that someone might point out that the British constitution, for instance, seems to rest securely on the division of powers (the empirical study of actual governments did not enter his sphere of interests; on this point he simply repeats the famous misjudgment of Montesquieu). How is one to explain this? The answer is that the British constitution is a marvel; it is divine. For no human minds could have formed an order out of elements so chaotic. If letters cast out of a window were to form a poem would not that be an argument for the working of a force more than human? The very absurdities and conflicts of British laws and customs are evidence of divine power guiding the faltering hands of men. For there can be no doubt that the British constitution would have collapsed long ago had it been of merely human origin. This is an argument in a circle with a vengeance.
Someone might at this point object, as against the thesis that whatever is written is a feeble instrument as against what is unwritten, that the Jews have after all survived successfully by belief in the text of the Old Testament. Maistre is ready for this too: the Bible has preserved the Jews precisely because it is divine; otherwise they would of course have collapsed long ago. Yet elsewhere he forgets the unique status of the Old Testament, and speaks of the fact that what has preserved social stability in Asia or Africa is not mere brute force, but the immense political authority of the Koran, or Confucius, or of other sacred texts of conspicuously non-divine origin, embodying propositions clearly not compatible with the revealed truths of the scriptural Testaments, either Old or New. Thus he not merely begs the question and argues in circles, but does not bother to be consistent. But then if reason is a poisoner to be avoided at all costs, this is all to the good.
It is not in rational argument, not even in ingenious casuistry, that the strength of Maistre lies. His language may at times wear the mask of reason, but it is irrationalist and dogmatic through and through. Nor is the conviction that some of his theses undoubtedly carry due only to the fact that his style is vigorous, brilliant, original, and amusing. “They both [Maistre and Newman] write as well-bred men talk,” said James Stephen. The declamation is often dazzling. Maistre is the most readable of the French publicists in the nineteenth century, but that is not what constitutes his strength. His genius consists of the depth and accuracy of his insight into the darker, less regarded, but potent factors in social and political behavior.
Maistre was an original thinker, swimming against the current of his time, determined to explode the most sacrosanct platitudes and pious formulas of his liberal contemporaries. They stressed the power of reason; he pointed out, perhaps too gleefully, the persistence and extent of irrational instinct, the power of faith, the force of blind tradition, the willful ignorance about their human material of the progressives—the idealistic social scientists, the bold political and economic planners, the passionate believers in technocracy. While all around him there was talk of the human pursuit of happiness, he underlined, again with much exaggeration and perverse delight, but with some truth, that the desire to immolate oneself, to suffer, to prostrate oneself before authority, indeed before superior power no matter whence it comes, and the desire to dominate, to exert authority, to pursue power for its own sake—that these were forces historically at least as strong as the desire for peace, prosperity, liberty, justice, happiness, equality.
His realism takes violent, rabid, obsessed, savagely limited forms, but it is realism nevertheless. The acute sense of what could or what could not be undone, which made him say as early as 1796 that once the revolutionary movement had done its work, France as a monarchy could have been saved only by the Jacobins, that efforts to restore the old order were blind folly, that the Bourbons, even if restored, could not last, never deserted him. Blindly dogmatic in matters of theology (and theory generally), in practice he was a clear-eyed pragmatist, and knew this. It is in this mood that he insists that religion need not be true, or rather that its truth simply consists of the fact that it fulfills our aspirations. “If our conjectures are plausible…if above all they are comforting and able to make us better, what more can one ask? If they are not true, they are good; or rather, since they are good does that not make them true?”
No one who has lived through the first half of the twentieth century, and, indeed, after that, can doubt that Maistre’s political psychology, for all its paradoxes and the occasional descents into sheer counterrevolutionary absurdity, has proved to be, if only by revealing and stressing, what the German Romantics called the dark, nocturnal side of things, at times a better guide to human conduct than the faith of believers in reason; or at any rate can provide a sharp, by no means useless, antidote to their often over-simple, superficial, and, more than once, disastrous remedies.
It is not perhaps surprising that so bold and articulate a figure provoked very sharp reactions on the part of his critics throughout his century, as, indeed, he has in our own day. He has excited at various periods curiosity, disgust, adulation, and blind hatred. Certainly few men have had comments so inept made about them by their commentators. Because he was a good father and husband and a good friend, F.-A. de Lescure says that this “aigle de l’intelligence fut débonnaire comme l’agneau, candid comme la colombe.”14 Even the bishops who have paid him tribute have stopped short of this. Because he spoke of the divinity of war he seems to J. Dessaint to be a Darwinian before Darwin. Because he upsets accepted views, he is compared to the heretical Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss; because he conceded the importance of nationalism he is a precursor of the Italian Risorgimento, of President Wilson, and of the doctrine of self-determination; and because he is among the first to use the term “societé des nations” he was a prophet of the League of Nations, although he only used the term to deride this as a typical rationalist absurdity.
The reminiscences of those who met him describe a man of great charm alternating between shafts of brilliant wit and fierce philippics, always found fascinating by his audience, particularly in St. Petersburg, where he was much in demand in aristocratic circles, liable to put paradoxical questions, and prone not to listen much to the answers, a wonderful stylist—Lamartine called him the heir to Diderot—equally admired by the great Sainte-Beuve, unique in his kind. The best account of him is indeed that of Sainte-Beuve, who speaks of him as an austere, sober, but passionately lonely thinker, ferocious for truth, brimming with ideas, with no one much in St. Petersburg or anywhere else to address them to or discuss them with, and hence liable to write for himself alone, and, if only for that reason, push things too far with his “ultra-vérités,” always on the attack, striking at the strongest suit of his opponents, eager to draw fire, aiming to kill.
Consequently he was often offensive: one of Sainte-Beuve’s best examples is Maistre’s riposte to Madame de Staël, who lectured him on the merits of the Church of England. “Yes,” he said, “…it is like an orangoutang among the apes”—his typical description of the other Protestant denominations. Sainte-Beuve calls him “un grand et puissant esprit,” under whose charm he remained all his life. In appearance Maistre was dignified, handsome, and described by a Sicilian visitor as “la neve in testa ed il fuoco in bocca” (with snow upon his head and fire in his mouth).
Maistre, like Hegel, was aware that he was living at a time of the passing away of a long epoch of civilization. “Je meurs avec l’Europe, je suis en bonne compagnie,” he wrote in 1819. Léon Bloy saw his writings as a funeral oration over the civilized Europe of his day, and of ours. Nevertheless it is not as the last voice of a dying culture, as the last of the Romans (as he saw himself), that he is of interest today. His works and his personality are significant not as an end but as a beginning. They matter because he was the first theorist in the great and powerful tradition which culminated in Charles Maurras, a precursor of fascists, and of those Catholic anti-Dreyfusards and supporters of the Vichy regime who were sometimes described as being Catholics before they were Christians. Maurras may have been prepared to collaborate with Hitler’s regime for some of the same reasons as those that attracted Maistre to Napoleon (whom he vainly attempted to meet) and made him respect his archenemy, Robespierre, far more than the moderates whom they destroyed, or the knock-kneed regiment of bien pensant mediocrities who formed his sovereign’s entourage in Cagliari.
In Maistre’s scale of values power comes almost highest, because power is the divine principle that governs the world, the source of all life and action, the paramount factor in the development of mankind; and whoever knows how to wield it, above all to make decisions, acquires the right to obedience, and is by that token the instrument chosen by providence or history, at that particular moment, to work its mysterious purposes. The concentration of power in a single source, the very essence of the despotic rule of Robespierre and his henchmen against which moderates like Constant and Guizot reacted so passionately, is to Maistre infinitely preferable to its dispersion according to man-made rules. But, of course, to locate power where it should truly and securely lie—in ancient, established, socially created institutions, not made by the hand of man or democratically chosen of self-appointed individuals—that is political and moral insight and wisdom. All usurpation must fall in the end, because it flouts the divine laws of the universe; power resides only in him who is the instrument of such laws. To resist them is to put the fallible resources of a single intellect against the cosmic stream, and that is always childishness and folly, and more than that—criminal folly, directed against the human future. What this future is, only a realistic appraisal of history and men’s natures in their great variety can tell you. For all his theoretical apriorism Maistre preached the doctrine that events must be studied empirically, and with due regard to changing historical conditions—each situation in its proper context—if we are to understand the working of the divine will.
This historicism, and indeed interest in the varieties of power over human beings, and in the processes of the formation of societies and their spiritual and cultural components, which Herder and Hegel and the German Romantics were preaching in far darker language, and Saint-Simon in a more abstract fashion, is today so much part of our historical outlook that we have forgotten how little time has passed since the day when these notions were not platitudes but paradoxes. Maistre is our contemporary, too, in denouncing the impotence of abstract ideas and deductive methods which, though he may not say so, dominated pious Catholic apologists no less than their opponents. No one has done more to discredit the attempt to explain how things happen, and to lay down what we are to do, by deduction from such general notions as the nature of man, the nature of rights, the nature of virtue, the nature of the physical world, and so on—a deductive procedure whereby we can derive in the conclusion only what we import into the premises, without noticing or admitting that this is all that we are doing.
Maistre is rightly called reactionary, yet he attacked uncritically accepted concepts more fiercely and effectively than many a self-styled progressive. His method is far closer to modern empiricism than, say, those of the scientifically minded Comte or Spencer, or for that matter those of liberal historians of the nineteenth century. Again, Maistre was among the earliest thinkers to perceive the very great social and philosophical importance of such “natural” institutions as linguistic habits, modes of speech, prejudices and national idiosyncrasies in molding the character and beliefs of men.
Vico had spoken of language, images, mythology as offering an insight into the growth of men and institutions which is obtainable nowhere else. Herder and German philologists studied them as issuing out of the deepest aspirations and most typical characteristics of their nation; the fathers of political romanticism, in particular Hamann, Herder, Fichte, thought of them as free and spontaneous forms of self-expression fulfilling the true demands of human nature, in contrast with the rigid despotism of the centralized French state, which crushed the natural inclinations of its subjects. Maistre stresses not these amiable and, in part, imaginary attributes of the “Volksseele,” acclaimed by enthusiastic champions of the life and growth of societies, but on the contrary the stability, permanence, impregnability, authority of the dark mass of half-conscious memories and traditions and loyalties, together with the even darker forces below the level of consciousness, and above all the power of institutions, regarded as supernatural, in the exacting of collective obedience.
He lays great emphasis on the fact that absolute rule succeeds best when even to question its roots is terrifying. He feared and detested science because it poured too much light, and so dissolved the mystery which alone resisted skeptical inquiry. Keen as his eye was, even he could scarcely have foreseen that a day would come when the technical resources of science would have combined with those not of reason but of unreason, that liberalism would be faced by two enemies instead of one—the despotism of rational scientific organization on one side, and the forces of antirational, mystical bigotry on the other—and that these two forces, celebrated by the followers of Voltaire and those of Maistre respectively, would join hands in that very alliance which Saint-Simon had prophesied with such fervent and mistaken optimism.
Maistre, like Pareto, believed in elites, but without Pareto’s cynical indifference to the choice of particular scales of moral values—to wit, those adopted by the elite, and the very different ones preached by it to the masses; even if he thought that too much light was not good for the majority of mankind. Like Georges Sorel he believed in the necessity of a social mythology and the inevitability of wars, both national and social, but unlike him he did not allow that the leaders of the victorious class themselves must see through the myths by the adherence to which alone the masses can and should be led to victory. Like Nietzsche he detested equality, and thought the notion of universal liberty an absurd and dangerous chimera, but he did not revolt against the historical process, or wish to break the frame within which humanity had thus far made its painful way.
He was not taken in by the social and political shibboleths of his time, and saw the nature of political power as clearly, and stated it in terms as naked, as did Machiavelli and Hobbes, or Bismark and Lenin in their day. For this reason, Catholic leaders in the nineteenth century, both priests and laymen, who paid him much formal homage as a strong and pious doctrinaire, nevertheless felt disquiet at the mention of his name, as if the weapons he had forged, in good faith, for defensive purposes were too dangerous—bombs that might explode unexpectedly in the hands of those who held them.
Maistre saw society as an inextricable network of weak, sinful, helpless human beings, torn by contradictory passions and desires, driven hither and thither by forces too violent for their control, too destructive to be justified by any comfortable rationalist formula. All achievement was painful, and likely to fail, and could be accomplished, if at all, only under the guidance of a hierarchy of beings of great wisdom and strong will, who, being the repositories of the forces of history (which to him is almost God’s word made flesh), laid down their lives in performing their task of organization, repression, and preservation of the divinely ordained order; by this act of sacrifice achieving communion with the divine order, whose law is a self-immolation that defies explanation and brings with it no reward in this world. The social structure that he advocated derived from Plato’s Guardians in The Republic and The Politicus at least as much as from Christian tradition; it has affinities with the sermon of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s famous parable. His vision may be detestable to those who truly value human freedom, resting as it does on a dogmatic rejection of a light by which most men still live, or wish to live; yet in the course of constructing his great thesis Maistre boldly, more than once, and often for the first time, revealed (and violently exaggerated) central truths, unpalatable to his contemporaries, indignantly denied by his successors, and recognized only in our own day not, indeed, because of our more perfect insight or greater self-knowledge or honesty, but because an order which Maistre regards as the only remedy against the dissolution of the social fabric came into being, in our own time, in its most hideous form. In this way totalitarian society, which Maistre, in the guise of historical analysis, had visualized, became actual; and thereby, at inestimable cost in human suffering, has vindicated the depth and brilliance of a remarkable, and terrifying, prophet of our day.
This is the last part of a three-part article.
October 25, 1990
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. ↩
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. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 288–289. ↩
Yemelyan I. Pugachev was the leader of a peasant and Cossak rebellion crushed in the reign of Catherine the Great. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 291–292. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 300. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 344. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 354. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 357. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 358–359. ↩
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. ↩
Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Horae Sabbaticae, third series (London: 1892), p. 254. ↩
Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 5, p. 108. ↩
This “eagle of the intellect was meek as a lamb, innocent as a dove.” [F.-A.] de Lescure, Le comte de Maistre et sa famille 1753-1852: études et portraits politiques et littéraires (Paris: 1892), p. 6. ↩