The Works of Joseph de Maistre

Selected, Translated, and Introduced by Jack Livery 1965.

De Maistre is probably the most famous continental counter-revolutionary.  He has a reputation as being the crazy reactionary in comparison with Edmund Burke, his more moderate-seeming English equivalent.  Like Burke, de Maistre is concerned with defending long-established customs against reckless innovation.  However, while Burke’s defense of tradition was very general, de Maistre focuses almost exclusively in his political writings on the issue of authority.  He regards established political sovereignty as literally miraculous.  To be superior to men’s wills, it must not be the product of men’s wills, but rather the work of God through long history.  Philosophes and constitution-writers will thus be unable to replace what they are destroying.

De Maistre was a strong supporter of papal authority.  He preferred the pope as a check on the despotism of princes to a right of rebellion on the part of subjects.  When the pope dispenses the people from their duty to obey the temporal sovereign, he implicitly recognizes the normal validity of this duty.  De Maistre also devoted a great deal of thought to theodicity in his Saint Petersburg Dialogues.  All suffering, he believes, is a punishment for sin.  However, rather than punishing individuals for their personal sins in this life—an arrangement that de Maistre thinks would render virtue meaningless—God punishes the human race as a whole.  The sacrificial offering of the innocent for the guilty is, he believes, a truth recognized by all religions.  The Dialogues also contain an extended attack on the writings of John Locke and a defense of the existence of innate ideas, by which de Maistre seems to mean ideas that cannot be derived from the senses.  It is perhaps a sign that Kant’s influence was not yet felt outside of Germany that these writings assume that to prove an idea is innate is to prove that it is absolutely true.

To summarize these writings is to miss the main attraction, which is the striking ways that de Maistre manages to express his delightfully grim view of the world.  Here is a sample:

Government is a true religion; it has its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests; to submit it to individual discussion is to destroy it; it has life only through the national mind…What is patriotism?  It is this national mind of which I am speaking; it is individual abnegation.  Faith and patriotism are the two great thaumaturges of the world…Do not talk to them of scrutiny, choice, discussion, for they will say that you blaspheme.  They know only two words, submission and belief; with these two levers, they raise the world.

People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man.  We are all born despots, from the most absolute monarch in Asia to the infant who smothers a bird with its hand for the pleasure of seeing that there exists in the world a being weaker than itself.

Thus is worked out, from maggots up to man, the universal law of the violent destruction of living beings.  The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world…

And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner:  he is the horror and the bond of human association.  Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.

I thank God for my ignorance still more than for my knowledge; for my knowledge is mine, at least in part, and in consequence I cannot be sure that it is good, but my ignorance, at least that of which I am speaking, is His, therefore I trust it fully.

One Response

  1. His demolition of Locke is also very funny

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