Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

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. 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.

But the Revolution did not bring about the desired result, and in the last years of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth, it became increasingly clear both to disinterested historical observers and still more to the victims of the new industrial age in Europe that the sum of human misery had not been appreciably decreased, although its burden had to some degree been shifted from one set of shoulders to another. Consequently, attempts to analyze this state of affairs, springing partly from a genuine desire to understand it, partly from a craving for attributing responsibility, or, alternatively, for self-justification, were, as might be expected, made from many quarters.

The history of these attempts to diagnose the causes of the failure, and to prescribe remedial measures, is in large part the history of political thought in the first half of the nineteenth century. To pursue its ramifications would take us too far. But the main types of explanation, both critical and apologetic, are familiar enough. Liberals put the blame for everything on the Terror, on rule by the mob and the fanaticism of its leaders, which overthrew moderation and reason. Human beings had indeed been within sight of liberty, prosperity, and justice, but their own unbridled passions (avoidably or unavoidably, in accordance with the optimism or pessimism of the analyst) or erroneous ideas—for example, belief in the compatibility of centralization with individual freedom—caused them to lose their way before they reached the promised land. The socialists and communists disagreed, and laid stress on the culpable lack of attention, shown by the principal leaders of the revolution, to (and consequent impotence in the face of) social and economic factors—above all, the structure of property relations. Gifted innovators like Sismondi and Saint-Simon offered acute and original explanations of the origins, nature, and results of social, political, and economic conflicts, very different from the largely a priori methods adopted by their rationalist predecessors.

The religiously and metaphysically inclined German romantics attributed the debacle to the sway of the wrong kind of rationalist ideology, with its deeply fallacious interpretation of history, and its mechanistic view of the nature of man and of society. Mystics and illuminists, whose influence was a good deal more powerful and widespread in the last decades of the eighteenth and the beginning of the next century than is commonly supposed, spoke of failure to understand and, still more, to enter into rapport with the occult spiritual forces that (far more than material causes or consciously held opinions) govern the destinies of men and nations. Conservatives, both Catholic and Protestant—Herder, Burke, Chateaubriand, Mallet du Pan, Johannes Mueller, Carl Ludwig Haller, and their allies—spoke of the unique power and value of the infinitely complex and unanalyzable network of the life of communities—Burke’s myriad strands of social and spiritual relationships by which the successive generations of mankind were shaped from birth, and to which they owed most of what they possessed and were.

These thinkers celebrated the mysterious strength of inherited, traditional development; they likened it to a broad stream: to resist its current—as advocated by the foolish French philosophes whose minds were addled by abstractions—was certainly futile, and likely to prove suicidal; some among them compared it to a spreading tree, whose roots lost themselves in obscure depths that could not be plumbed, a tree in the shade of whose intertwined branches the great human flock peacefully grazed. Some spoke of the gradually unrolling pattern of the divine plan, whose successive historical phases were but the revelation in time of the timeless whole, eternally present, in all its manifestations, to the mind of the incorporeal Creator. Whatever the image, the moral was always much the same: reason, in the sense of a capacity for abstraction or ingenious calculation, or for classification and analysis of reality into ultimate ingredients, or in the sense of a faculty capable of developing an empirical or a deductive science of man, was a figment of the philosophes’ shallow imagination.

The philosophes—whether they were influenced by Newtonian physics, or accepted the intuitionist and egalitarian doctrines of Rousseau—spoke of “man” as such, man as nature made him, identical in all human beings, whose basic attributes, capacities, needs, constitution could be uncovered and analyzed by rational methods. Some taught that civilization constituted a development of this natural man, some that it perverted him; but they agreed that it was on the satisfaction of his permanent needs that all progress—moral, political, social, intellectual—depended.

Maistre, like Burke, rejected the very notion of the reality of this creature:

The Constitution of 1795, just like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I know, too, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never met him in my life; if he exists, he is unknown to me.9

A science founded on the notion of this figment was impotent before the great cosmic process. Efforts to explain it, still more to alter or deflect it, according to formulas provided by scientific specialists, were merely grotesque, and could be dismissed with a smile of pity or amusement did they not cause so much unnecessary suffering and, at their worst, rivers of blood—the punishment of history or nature or nature’s God upon human folly and presumption.

Maistre is usually included in this group of critics by historians. His name is often coupled with that of Vicomte de Bonald, whom he never met, but whose ideas he greatly admired—indeed he liked to describe himself as Bonald’s spiritual twin. It is therefore not surprising that the two men are usually represented as indissolubly united, two leaders of a single movement, the double-headed eagle of the Catholic Restoration. This is the impression that several generations of historians, critics, and biographers, largely repeating and echoing each other, have conspired to give; but it seems to me misleading. Bonald was no less dogmatic and obscurantist than Maistre, and, like him, a furious opponent of both the natural sciences and individual liberty; but he was a leaden writer, and remained to the end of his long life a dully retrograde, remorselessly repetitive, propagandist, blind leader of the blindest clericals of his time.

Maistre was a personality and a thinker of a different cast. His light was no less dry, his intellectual core was equally hard and icy, but his ideas—both positive, of the world as he found it to be and wished it to become, and negative, directed to the destruction of other schools of thought and feeling—were bolder, more interesting, more original, more violent, indeed more sinister than any dreamed of within Bonald’s narrow legitimist horizon. For Maistre understood, as Bonald gave no sign of doing, that the old world was dying, and he perceived, as Bonald could never have done, the terrifying contours of the new order that was coming in its place. Maistre’s version of the new order, though he did not frame it in the language of prophecy, profoundly shocked his contemporaries. But prophetic it was, and judgments which seemed perversely paradoxical in his day are almost platitudes in ours. To his contemporaries, perhaps to himself, he seemed to be gazing calmly into the classical and feudal past, but what he saw even more clearly proved to be a blood-freezing vision of the future. Therein lie his interest and his importance.


Joseph de Maistre was born in 1753 in Chambéry, the eldest of ten children of the president of the Senate, who had been granted his title as the highest judicial official of the dukedom of Savoy. His family came from Nice, and all his life he felt toward France that admiration which is at times found among those who live on the outer rim or just beyond the border of a country to which they are attached by ties of sentiment, and of which they cherish a lifelong romanticized vision. All his life Maistre was a loyal subject of the rulers of his country, but he truly loved only France, which he called (after Grotius) “the fairest kingdom after the Kingdom of Heaven.” Destiny meant him to be born in France, he wrote on one occasion, but, having lost her way in the Alps, dropped him in Chambéry.

He received the normal education of a young Savoyard of good family: he went to a Jesuit school and became a member of a lay order, one of whose duties it was to minister to criminals, and in particular to attend executions and give last aid and comfort to their victims. Perhaps it was because of this that the imagery of the scaffold fills his thoughts. He flirted mildly with constitutionalism and Freemasonry (for which he retained an admiration, even while in later years he obediently condemned it) and, following in his father’s footsteps, became a senator of Savoy in 1788.

Maistre’s sympathy for the very mild Freemasons of Savoy left a mark on his outlook. In particular he was influenced by the works of the late-eighteenth-century mystic, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, and his predecessor Martinez Pasqually. He deeply approved of Saint-Martin’s call for beneficence, for pursuit of a virtuous life, his resistance to skepticism, materialism, the truths of natural science; from Saint-Martin he may have derived his lifelong ecumenism—his yearning for Christian unity, his condemnation of the “stupid indifference that we call tolérance.” Martinist, too, was his love of tracing esoteric doctrines in the Bible, occult hints and intimations, visionary interpretations, his interest in Swedenborg, his stress on the mysterious ways in which God moves his wonders to perform, of the cunning of providence in turning the unintended consequences of human activity into factors in the fulfillment of the divine plan, unsuspected by its hopelessly purblind beneficiaries. During his youth the Church, at any rate in Savoy, placed no obstacles to Masonic tendencies among the faithful—if only because in France, under the leadership of Willermoz, they were a weapon against such enemies as the materialism and anticlerical liberalism of the Enlightenment. Maistre’s early Masonic sympathies duly became a permanent source of suspicion (which pursued him all his life) on the part of the more bigoted supporters of the Church and the royal court, even though his devotion to both remained unswerving.

But this only began later: during his early years the House of Savoy was, in comparison with the kings of France, mildly progressive. Feudalism had been abolished at the beginning of the eighteenth century; the king’s rule was paternalistic but moderately enlightened, the peasants were not crushed by the burden of taxation, nor were the merchants and manufacturers as greatly hampered by the ancient privileges of the nobility and the Church as in the principalities of Germany or Italy. The government of Turin was conservative but not arbitrary; there was little extremist feeling, either reactionary or radical; the country was then—as later—governed by a cautious bureaucracy, anxious to preserve peace and avoid complications with its neighbors.

When the Terror broke out in Paris it was greeted with incredulous horror; the attitude toward the Jacobins was not unlike that to be found in conservative circles in Switzerland toward the French Commune in 1871, or indeed toward the French Resistance during the Second World War, when frightened bien pensant circles in Geneva and Lausanne sympathized with Marshal Pétain. Similarly the reputable, liberally inclined aristocracy of the court recolled violently from the cataclysm unchained in France. When the militant French Republic duly invaded and annexed Savoy, the king was forced to flee first to Turin, then for some years to Rome, and, after Napoleon had put pressure on the Pope, to his capital of Cagliari in Sardinia.

Maistre, who had at first approved of the acts of the States-General in Paris, soon changed his mind and left for Lausanne; from there he went on to Venice and Sardinia (to which at that time Savoy belonged), where he lived the typical life of an impoverished royalist émigré, in the service of his master, the king of Sardinia, who became the pensioner of England and of Russia. Maistre’s radical temper and his views, always too strongly held and expressed, made him an uncomfortable member of that conservative, provincial, apprehensive little court. He had had some inkling of this when his friend Costa warned him against the publication of a work he composed in 1793 (Lettres d’un royaliste savoisien à ses compatriotes): “Anything too vigorously thought, which contains too much energy, sells poorly in this country.” There was probably some relief when he was sent to St. Petersburg early in the next century as the official representative of the kingdom of Sardinia.

The Revolution, not surprisingly, had the effect on Maistre’s strong and tenacious mind of causing him to reexamine the foundations of his faith and outlook. His at best marginal liberalism disappeared without a trace. He emerged a ferocious critic of every form of constitutionalism and liberalism, an ultramontane legitimist, a believer in the divinity of authority and power, and of course an unyielding adversary of all that the lumières of the eighteenth century had stood for—rationalism, individualism, liberal compromise, and secular enlightenment. His world had been shattered by the satanic forces of atheistical reason, and could be rebuilt only by cutting off all the heads of the hydra of the Revolution in all its multiple disguises. Two worlds had met in mortal combat. He had chosen his side and meant to give no quarter.


The central spring of Maistre’s entire intellectual activity, from the Considérations sur la France, published anonymously in Switzerland in 1797, a powerful, brilliantly written polemical treatise which contains a great many of his most original and influential theses, to the posthumous Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg and the Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, was his reaction to what seemed to him the shallowest view of life ever held by influential thinkers.

What angered him most was the bland, naturalistic optimism the validity of which the fashionable philosophers of the age, particularly in France, seemed to take wholly for granted. True knowledge, it was held in enlightened circles, could be obtained only by the methods of the natural sciences, although, no doubt, the notion of what a natural science was, and what it could do, was in the mid-eighteenth century somewhat different from what it grew to be in the two centuries that followed. Only the use of the faculty of reason aided by the growth of knowledge founded on sense perception—not mystical inner light or uncritical acceptance of tradition, dogmatic rules, or the voice of supernatural authority, whether vouchsafed by direct revelation or recorded in sacred texts—only that would provide final answers to the great problems that had occupied men since the beginning of history.

There were, of course, sharp disagreements, both between schools of thought and between individual thinkers. Locke believed in intuitive truths in religion and ethics, while Hume did not; Holbach was an atheist, like most of his friends, and was castigated for this by Voltaire. Turgot (whom Maistre once admired) believed in inevitable progress; Moses Mendelssohn did not, but defended the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, which Condorcet rejected. Voltaire believed that books had a dominant influence on social behavior, whereas Montesquieu believed that it was climate, soil, and other environmental factors that created unalterable differences in national character and social and political institutions. Helvétius thought that education and legislation could by themselves wholly alter, and indeed perfect, the character of both individuals and communities, and was duly attacked for this by Diderot. Rousseau spoke of reason and feeling but, unlike Hume and Diderot, suspected the arts and detested the sciences, laid stress on the education of the will, denounced intellectuals and experts and, in direct opposition to Helvétius and Condorcet, held out small hopes for humanity’s future. Hume and Adam Smith regarded the sense of obligation as an empirically examinable sentiment, while Kant founded his moral philosophy on the sharpest possible denial of this thesis; Jefferson and Paine considered the existence of natural rights to be self-evident, while Bentham thought this nonsense on stilts, and called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen bawling on paper.

But sharp as the genuine differences between these thinkers were, there were certain beliefs that they held in common. They believed in varying measure that men were, by nature, rational and sociable; or at least understood their own and others’ best interests when they were not being bamboozled by knaves or misled by fools; that, if only they were taught to see them, they would follow the rules of conduct discoverable by the use of the ordinary human understanding; that there existed laws which govern nature, both animate and inanimate, and that these laws, whether empirically discoverable or not, were equally evident whether one looked within oneself or at the world outside. They believed that the discovery of such laws, and knowledge of them, if it were spread widely enough, would of itself tend to promote a stable harmony both between individuals and associations, and within the individual himself.

Most of them believed in the maximum degree of individual freedom and the minimum of government—at least after men had been suitably reeducated. They thought that education and legislation founded upon the “precepts of nature” could right almost every wrong; that nature was but reason in action, and its workings therefore were in principle deducible from a set of ultimate truths like the theorems of geometry, and latterly of physics, chemistry, and biology.

They believed that all good and desirable things were necessarily compatible, and some maintained more than this—that all true values were interconnected by a network of indestructible, logically interlocking relationships. The more empirically minded among them were sure that a science of human nature could be developed no less than a science of inanimate things, and that ethical and political questions, provided that they were genuine, could in principle be answered with no less certainty than those of mathematics and astronomy. A life founded upon these answers would be free, secure, happy, virtuous, and wise. In short they saw no reason why the millennium should not be reached by the use of faculties and the practice of methods that had for over a century, in the sphere of the sciences of nature, led to triumphs more magnificent than any hitherto attained in the history of human thought.

All this Maistre set himself to destroy. In place of the a priori formulas of this idealized conception of basic human nature, he appealed to the empirical facts of history, zoology, and common observation. In place of the ideals of progress, liberty, and human perfectibility, he preached salvation by faith and tradition. He dwelt on the incurably bad and corrupt nature of man, and consequently the unavoidable need for authority, hierarchy, obedience, and subjection. In place of science he preached the primacy of instinct, Christian wisdom, prejudice (which is but the fruit of the experience of generations), blind faith; in place of optimism, pessimism; in place of eternal harmony and eternal peace, the necessity—the divine necessity—of conflict and suffering, sin and retribution, bloodshed and war. In place of the ideals of peace and social equality, founded on the common interests and the natural goodness of man, he asserted the inherent inequality and violent conflict of aims and interests as being the normal condition of fallen man and the nations to which he belonged.

Maistre denied any meaning to such abstractions as nature and natural right; he formulated a doctrine of language which contradicted all that Condillac or Monboddo had said on this topic. He breathed new life into the discredited doctrine of the divine right of kings, he defended the importance of mystery and darkness—and above all of unreason—as the basis of social and political life. With remarkable brilliance and effectiveness, he denounced all forms of clarity and rational organization.

Temperamentally he resembled his enemies, the Jacobins; like them he was a total believer, a violent hater, a jusqu’au boutiste in all things. What distinguished the extremists of 1792 was the completeness of their rejection of the old order: they denounced not merely its vices but its virtues; they wished to leave nothing standing, to destroy the whole evil system, root and branch, in order to build something entirely new, with no concessions, not the smallest debt to the world upon whose ruins the new order was to be raised. Maistre was the polar opposite of this. He attacked eighteenth-century rationalism with the intolerance and the passion, the power and the gusto, of the great revolutionaries themselves. He understood them better than the moderates, and he had some fellow feeling for some of their qualities; but what was to them a beatific vision was to him a nightmare. He wished to raze the entire “heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers,”10 not leaving stone on stone.

The methods that he used, as well as the truths that he preached, although he claimed to have derived them largely from Thomas à Kempis or Thomas Aquinas, from Bossuet or Bourdaloue, in fact did not owe a great deal to these great pillars of the Roman Church; they have more in common with the antirationalist approach of Augustine or the teachers of Maistre’s youth—the illuminism of Willermoz and the followers of Pasqually and Saint-Martin. Maistre was at one with the fathers of German irrationalism and fideism; as well as with those in France who, like Charles Maurras, Maurice Barrès, and their followers, acclaimed in more recent times the values and authority of the Roman establishment without in some cases being believing Christians; with all those who continue to regard the Enlightenment as a personal enemy; and with those who defend transcendent principles whose very meaning would in their view be obscured and misrepresented by any assumption that they could occur on the same level as the sciences and common sense, and so be open to, or need, defense against intellectual or moral criticism.


Holbach and Rousseau were adversaries, but both spoke of nature with piety, as being in some not too metaphorical a sense harmonious, benevolent, and liberating. Rousseau believed that she disclosed her harmony and beauty to the untutored hearts of uncorrupted men, Holbach was convinced that she did so to the educated senses and minds, unclouded by prejudice and superstition, of those who employ rational methods of inquiry to uncover her secrets.

Maistre on the contrary accepted the ancient view that men before the Flood were wise; but they sinned and were destroyed; and now their degenerate descendants can find truth not by the harmonious development of their faculties, not in philosophy or physics, but in revelation vouchsafed to the saints and doctors of the Church of Rome, supported only too clearly by observation. We are told to study nature. Let us do so. What are the findings of such impeccable studies as history and zoology? The spectacle of harmonious self-fulfillment of the optimistic rationalist, the Marquis de Condorcet? The very opposite: that nature turns out to be red in tooth and claw. In the Soirées de Saint Pétersbourg Maistre tells us that

In the whole vast dome of living nature there reigns an open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all the creatures to their common doom: as soon as you leave the inanimate kingdom you find the decree of violent death inscribed on the very frontiers of life. You feel it already in the vegetable kingdom: from the great catalpa to the humblest herb, how many plants die and how many are killed! but, from the moment you enter the animal kingdom, this law is suddenly in the most dreadful evidence. A power, a violence, at once hidden and palpable, has in each species appointed a certain number of animals to devour the others: thus there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fishes of prey, quadrupeds of prey. There is no instant of time when one creature is not being devoured by another. Over all these numerous races of animals man is placed, and his destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to obtain food and he kills to clothe himself; he kills to adorn himself; he kills in order to attack and he kills to defend himself; he kills to instruct himself and he kills to amuse himself; he kills to kill. Proud and terrible king, he wants everything and nothing resists him…from the lamb he tears its guts to make his harp resound… from the wolf his most deadly tooth to polish his pretty works of art; from the elephant his skin to make a whip for his child—his table is covered with corpses…. And who [in this general carnage] exterminates him who will exterminate all the others? Himself. It is man who is charged with the slaughter of man…. So is accomplished…the great law of the violent destruction of living creatures. The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.11

This is Maistre’s famous, terrible vision of life. His violent preoccupation with blood and death belongs to another world from the rich and tranquil England of Burke’s imagination, from the slow, mature wisdom of the landed gentry, the deep peace of the country houses great and small, the eternal society founded on the social contract between the quick and the dead and those yet unborn, secure from the turbulence and the miseries of those less fortunately situated. It is equally remote from the private spiritual worlds of the mystics and illuminists whose lives and teachings touched Maistre in his youth. This is neither quietism nor conservatism, neither blind faith in the status quo, nor merely the obscurantism of the clericals and priests. It has an affinity with the paranoiac world of modern fascism, which it is startling to find so early in the nineteenth century.

Yet life is not for Maistre a meaningless slaughter, not what the Spanish thinker Miguel de Unamuno called the “abattoir of the late Count Joseph de Maistre.”12 For although the issue of the battle is uncertain, although victory cannot be planned, and cannot be gained by mere ingenuity, nor by the kind of knowledge that scientists or lawyers claim to possess, yet the invisible hosts, in the end, fight on one side rather than the other, and the ultimate outcome is not in doubt. The divine element is something not altogether unlike the spirit of world history or of humanity, or of the universe, in terms of which the German romantics of the turn of the century—Schelling, the brothers Schlegel—tended to describe and explain the world, a supernatural agency which acts at one and the same time as the power to create and to understand—the maker and interpreter of all there is.

In ironical language which at times resembles Tacitus and at other times Tolstoy, Maistre, no less than the German romantics (and after them the French anti-positivists Ravaisson and Bergson), declared that the method of the natural sciences is fatal to true understanding. To classify, abstract, generalize, reduce to uniformities, deduce, calculate and summarize in rigid, timeless formulas is to mistake appearances for reality, describe the surface and leave the depths untouched, break up the living whole by artificial analysis, and misunderstand the processes both of history and of the human soul by applying to them categories which at best can be useful only in dealing with chemistry or mathematics.

In order truly to understand the way things happen a different attitude is required, one that the German metaphysician Schelling, and before him Hamann, found in the inspiration of the divinely inspired poet or prophet; this is the condition that, being at one with the creative processes of nature itself, causes the seer, in his struggle to fulfill his own or his society’s ends, to perceive them as an element in the goal toward which the universe—conceived almost as an animate organism—is striving. Maistre sought the answer in revealed religion, and in history, as the embodiment of the inner pattern which at best we see darkly and intermittently, but which we will not see at all unless we place ourselves in the great framework of the tradition of our society, of its modes of feeling and action and thought—in which alone is truth.

Perhaps Burke would not altogether have disagreed with this: not at any rate as much as those German romantic thinkers who recoiled from politics and celebrated the poetry and wisdom of ancient myths and fables, or the genius of artists and thinkers endowed with uncommon powers of creation and divination. Every government founded upon settled law is founded on a usurpation of the prerogative of the divine lawgiver. Hence all constitutions are bad as such. This would have been too much even for Burke; and in any case both the English traditionalists and the German romantics looked on mankind without contempt or pessimism, whereas Maistre, at any rate in the works of his maturity, is consumed by the sense of original sin, the wickedness and worthlessness of the self-destructive stupidity of men left to themselves. Again and again he dwells on the fact that suffering alone can keep human beings free from falling into the bottomless abyss of anarchy and the destruction of all values.

On one side ignorance, willfulness, idiocy; on the other, as the remedy, blood, pain, punishment: these are the concepts which haunt Maistre’s dark world. The people—the mass of mankind—is a child, a lunatic, an absentee owner, who most of all needs a guardian, a faithful mentor, a spiritual director to control both his private life and the use of his possessions. Nothing that is worthwhile can be performed by men who are incurably corrupt and feeble, unless they are protected from the temptations to dissipate their strength and wealth upon futile ends, unless they are disciplined into doing their appointed task by the perpetual vigilance of their guardians. These in their turn must sacrifice their lives to the maintenance of the fixed and rigid hierarchy which is the true order of nature, with the vicar of Christ at their head, stretching in symmetrical rows from the highest to the humblest members of the great pyramid of mankind.

It is not for nothing that Maistre thought that he saw, at the beginning of every true road which leads to knowledge and salvation, the great figure of Plato, pointing the way. He looked to the Society of Jesus to act as the elite of Platonic guardians and save the states of Europe from the fashionable and fatal aberrations of his time. But the central figure in it all, the keystone of the arch on which the whole of society depends, is a far more frightening figure than king or priest or general: it is the executioner. The most celebrated passage of the Soirées is devoted to him:

Who is this inexplicable being, who, when there are so many agreeable, lucrative, honest, and even honorable professions to choose among, in which a man can exercise his skill or his powers, has chosen that of torturing or killing his own kind? This head, this heart, are they made like our own? Is there not something in them that is peculiar, and alien to our nature? Myself, I have no doubt about this. He is made like us externally. He is born like all of us. But he is an extraordinary being, and it needs a special decree to bring him into existence as a member of the human family—a fiat of the creative power. He is created like a law unto himself.

Consider what he is in the opinion of mankind, and try to conceive, if you can, how he can manage to ignore or defy this opinion. Hardly has he been assigned to his proper dwelling place, hardly has he taken possession of it, when others remove their homes elsewhere whence they can no longer see him. In the midst of this desolation, in this sort of vacuum formed round him, he lives alone with his mate and his young, who acquaint him with the sound of the human voice: without them he would hear nothing but groans…. The gloomy signal is given; an abject servitor of Justice knocks on his door to tell him that he is wanted; he goes; he arrives in a public square covered by a dense, trembling mob. A poisoner, a parricide, a man who has committed sacrilege is tossed to him: he seizes him, stretches him, ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises his arm; there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but that of bones cracking under the bars, and the shrieks of the victim. He unties him. He puts him on the wheel; the shattered limbs are entangled in the spokes; the head hangs down; the hair stands up, and the mouth gaping open like a furnace from time to time emits only a few bloodstained words to beg for death. He has finished. His heart is beating, but it is with joy: he congratulates himself, he says in his heart, “Nobody quarters as well as I.” He steps down. He holds out his bloodstained hand, justice throws him—from a distance—a few pieces of gold, which he catches through a double row of human beings stiff with horror. He sits down to table, and he eats. Then he goes to bed and sleeps. And on the next day, when he wakes, he thinks of something totally different from what he did the day before. Is he a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines, and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal. Nevertheless no tongue dares declare that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable. No moral praise seems appropriate to him, for everyone else is assumed to have relations with human beings: he has none. And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rest on the executioner. He is the terror and the bond of human association. Remove this mysterious agent from the world, and in an instant order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society disappears. God, who has created sovereignty, has also made punishment; he has fixed the earth upon these two poles: “for Jehovah is master of the twin poles and upon them he maketh turn the world….” (1 Samuel 2:8)13

This is not a mere sadistic meditation about crime and punishment, but the expression of a genuine conviction, coherent with all the rest of Maistre’s passionate but lucid thought, that men can only be saved by being hemmed in by the terror of authority. They must be reminded at every instant of their lives of the frightening mystery that lies at the heart of creation, must be purged by perpetual suffering, must be humbled by being made conscious of their stupidity, malice and helplessness at every turn. War, torture, suffering are the inescapable human lot; men must bear them as best they can. Their appointed masters must do the duty laid upon them by their maker (who has made nature a hierarchical order) by the ruthless imposition of the rules—not sparing themselves—and equally ruthless extermination of the enemy.

And who is the enemy? All those who throw dust in the eyes of the people or seek to subvert the appointed order. Maistre calls them “la secte.” They are the disturbers and subverters. To the Protestants and Jansenists he now adds deists and atheists, Freemasons and scientists, democrats, Jacobins, liberals, utilitarians, anticlericals, egalitarians, perfectibilians, materialists, idealists, lawyers, journalists, secular reformers, and intellectuals of every breed; all those who appeal to abstract principles, who put faith in individual reason or the individual conscience; believers in individual liberty or the rational organization of society, reformers and revolutionaries: these are the enemy of the settled order and must be rooted out at all costs. This is “la secte,” and it never sleeps, it is forever boring from within.

This is a catalog of which we have since heard a good deal. It assembles for the first time, and with precision, the list of the enemies of the great counterrevolutionary movement that culminated in fascism. Maistre attempts to turn against the new and satanic order that had made the fatal revolution, first in America, then in Europe, all the violence and fanaticism that he believed them to have unloosed upon the world.

All intellectuals are bad, but the most dangerous are the natural scientists. Maistre tells a Russian nobleman in one of his treatises that Frederick the Great was right when he said that scientists were a great danger to the state:

The Romans had the rare good sense to buy in Greece, for money, the talents which they lacked; and to despise those who purveyed them. They said, and they smiled when they said it, “The starveling Greek will do anything to please you.”14 If they had chosen to imitate such creatures they would have made themselves ridiculous. Because they disdained them, they were great.”15

So too among the ancients, the Jews and the Spartans attained to true greatness because they did not contaminate themselves with the scientific spirit. “Too much, even of literature, is dangerous, and the natural sciences are still more worthless to the statesman. The ineptitude shown by scientists when it comes to dealing with people or understanding them or leading them is something known to everybody.” 16 The scientific outlook finds fault in all authority; it leads to the “disease” of atheism:

One of the inevitable drawbacks of science in every country, and every place, is to extinguish that love of action which is the true vocation of man; to fill him with sovereign pride, pervert him from himself and the ideas which are proper to him, to make him the enemy of all subordination, a rebel against every law and every institution, a born champion of every innovation…. The first among the sciences is that of statesmanship. That cannot be learnt in academies. No great minister, from Suger to Richelieu, ever occupied himself with physics or mathematics. The genius of the natural sciences makes impossible that other kind of genius, which is a talent unto itself. 17

So much for the conviction of the believer in the possibility of leading a happy, harmonious, productive life, under the secure guidance of what in the eighteenth century was often referred to as “Mother Nature” or “Dame Nature”—all this springs from the self-deception of shallow minds unable to face reality.

Peace is one thing, reality another “What inconceivable magic is it,” Maistre asks, “which makes a man always ready at the first beat of the drum…to go without resisting, often even with a kind of eagerness (which also has a peculiar character of its own), in order to blow to pieces on the field of battle his brother who has done him no wrong, and who on his side advances to subject him to the same fate if he can?”18 Men who shed tears if they have to kill a chicken, kill on the battlefield without a qualm. They do so purely for the common good, repressing their human feeling as a painful, altruistic duty. Executioners kill a very few guilty men, parricides, forgers, and the like. Soldiers kill thousands of guiltless men, indiscriminately, blindly, with wild enthusiasm. Supposing an innocent visitor from another planet were to ask which of these two groups were shunned and despised on earth and which were acclaimed, admired, rewarded, what should we answer? “Explain to me why the most honorable thing in the world—in the opinion of the entire human race without exception—is the right innocently to shed innocent blood.” 19 What has shown this more vividly than the evil, corrupt, vicious republic of the Jacobins? That satanic kingdom, Milton’s Pandemonium?

Yet man is born to love. He is compassionate, just, and good. He sheds tears for others and such tears give him pleasure. He invents stories to make him weep. Whence then this furious desire for wars and slaughter? Why does man plunge into the abyss, embracing with passion that which inspires him with such loathing? Why do men who revolt over such trivial issues as attempts to change the calendar allow themselves to be sent like obedient animals to kill and be killed? Peter the Great could send thousands of soldiers to die in defeat after defeat; but when he wanted to shave off his boyars’ beards he almost faced a rebellion. If self-interest is what men pursue, why do they not form a league of peoples and attain to that universal peace which they profess that they so ardently yearn for.

There is only one valid answer: men’s desire to immolate themselves is as fundamental as their desire for self-preservation or happiness. War is the terrible and eternal law of the world. Indefensible on the rational plane, it is nevertheless mysteriously and irresistibly attractive. At the level of reasoned utilitarianism, war is indeed all it is thought to be, mad and destructive. If nevertheless it has governed human history, this only shows the inadequacy of rationalist explanations, in particular of examining war as if it were a deliberately planned or explicable, or justifiable, phenomenon. Wars will not cease, however hateful, because wars are not a human invention: they are divinely instituted.

Education may alter the level of knowledge and of the overt opinions of men, but there is a deeper level at which it is impotent. This Maistre calls the invisible world, in which the inscrutable, because supernatural, element in the individual (as in societies) plays its irresistible part. Reason, so exalted in the eighteenth century, is in reality the feeblest of instruments, a “flickering light,” weak in theory and practice, incapable alike of altering the behavior of men or explaining its causes. Whatever is rational collapses because it is rational, man-made: only the irrational can last. Rational criticism will erode whatever is susceptible to it: only what is insulated against it, by being inherently mysterious and inexplicable, can survive. What man makes, man will mar: only the superhuman endures.

History abounds in examples of this truth. What is more absurd than hereditary monarchy? Why should wise and virtuous kings be expected to be succeeded by equally good descendants? Freedom to choose the monarch—elective monarchy—is surely more reasonable. Yet the unhappy state of Poland is evidence enough of the unfortunate consequences to which this leads; while the totally irrational institution of hereditary kingship is one of the most stable of all human institutions. Democratic republics are certainly more rational than monarchy: yet even at its most splendid, in Periclean Athens, how long did democracy survive? And at what ultimate cost? Whereas sixty-six kings, some bad, some good, but on average, adequate enough, have governed the great French kingdom well enough for fifteen hundred years. Again, what could prima facie be more irrational than marriage and the family? Why should two beings remain joined to each other even though their tastes and views of life come to differ? Why should so obstinate a pretense survive? Yet the unbroken union of two beings, and the mysterious bond of the family, persist, despite their insult to abstract reason.

In an effort to refute the view that history is reason in action, if by reason is meant the operation of anything resembling the normal working of the discursive human intellect, Maistre multiplies examples of the self-defeating nature of rational institutions. The rational man seeks to maximize his pleasures, minimize his pains. But society is not an instrument for this at all. It rests on something much more elemental, on perpetual self-sacrifice, on the human tendency to immolate oneself to the family or the city, or the Church, or the state, with no thought of pleasure or of profit, on the craving to offer oneself upon the altar of social solidarity, to suffer and die in order to preserve the continuity of hallowed forms of life. Not until a good deal later in the nineteenth century do we again find such violent emphasis on irrational goals, romantic conduct unrelated to self-interest or pleasure, acts springing from the passion for self-surrender and self-annihilation.

An action in Maistre’s universe is ineffective precisely in proportion as it is directed to the achievement of day-to-day interests and derives from calculating, utilitarian tendencies that compose the outer surface of human character; and it is effective, memorable, in tune with the universe precisely to the degree to which it springs from unexplained and unexplainable depths, and not from reason, or from individual will. The heroic individual, to whom Byron and Carlyle pay homage, the contemner of danger who defies the storm, is to Maistre just as blind in his self-reliance as the foolish scientist or social planner or captain of industry. What is best and strongest is often violent, irrational, gratuitous, and therefore necessarily misrepresented and made to seem absurd, only by being falsely ascribed to intelligible motives.

Human action in his sense is justified only when it derives from that tendency in human beings which is directed neither to happiness nor to comfort, nor to neat, logically coherent patterns of life, nor to self-assertion and self-aggrandizement, but to the fulfillment of an unfathomable divine purpose which men cannot, and should not try to, fathom—and which they deny at their peril. This may often lead to actions involving pain and slaughter, which in terms of the rules of sensible, normal, middle-class morality may well be regarded as arrogant and unjust, but which nevertheless derive from the dark unanalyzable center of all authority. This is the poetry of the world, not its prose, the source of all faith and all energy, whereby alone man is free, capable of choice, of creation and destruction, superior to the causally determined, scientifically explicable, mechanical movements of matter, or of natures lower than his, ignorant of good and evil.

Like all serious political thinkers, Maistre has before his mind a view of the nature of man. This view is deeply, but not wholly, Augustinian. Man is weak and very wicked, but he is not fully determined by causes. He is free, and an immortal soul. Two principles struggle for supremacy within him: he is both a theomorph—made in the image of his maker, a spark of the divine spirit—and a theomach, a sinner, a rebel against God. His freedom is very limited: he belongs to a cosmic stream that he cannot escape. He cannot indeed create, but he can modify. He can choose between good and evil, God and the Devil, and he is responsible for his choices. Alone in all creation he struggles: for knowledge, for self-expression, for salvation.

Condorcet compared human society with that of bees and beavers. But no bee, no beaver, wants to know more than its ancestors; birds, fishes, mammals remain fixed in their monotonous, repetitive cycles. Man alone knows he is degraded. It is “the proof of his greatness and his wretchedness, of his sublime rights and his unbelievable degradation.” He is a “monstrous centaur,” living at once in the world of grace and that of nature, a potential angel and soiled with vice.

He does not know what he wants; he wants what he does not want; he does not want what he wants; he wants to want; he sees within himself something which is not himself, and which is stronger than himself. The wise man resists and cries “Who will deliver me?” The fool gives in and calls his weakness happiness.20

Men—moral beings—must submit freely to authority: but they must submit. For they are too corrupt, too feeble to govern themselves; and without government they collapse into anarchy and are lost. No man, and no society, can govern itself; such an expression is meaningless: all government comes from some unquestioned coercive authority. Lawlessness can only be stopped by something from which there is no appeal. It may be custom, or conscience, or a papal tiara, or a dagger, but it is always a something. Aristotle is plainly right, some men are slaves by nature; to say that they should not be so is unintelligible. Rousseau says that man is born free, but is everywhere in chains. “What does he mean? This mad pronouncement, Man is born free, is the opposite of the truth.”21 Men are too wicked to be let out of the chains immediately they are born: born in sin, they are made tolerable only by society, only by the state, which repress the aberrations of untrammeled individual judgment. Like Burke, by whom he was influenced, and perhaps like Rousseau (on some interpretations), Maistre believes that societies have a general soul, a true moral unity, by which they are shaped. But he goes further:

Government is a true religion. It has its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests. To submit it to the discussion of each individual is to destroy it. It is given life only by the reason of the nation, that is by a political faith, of which it is a symbol. Man’s first need is that his growing reason be put under the double yoke [of Church and state]. It should be annihilated, it should lose itself in the reason of the nation, so that it is transformed from its individual existence into another—communal—being, as a river that falls into the ocean does indeed persist in the midst of the waters, but without name or personal identity.22

Such a state cannot be created by, or on the basis of, a written constitution: a constitution may be obeyed, but it cannot be worshiped. And without worship, without superstition even, which is “un ouvrage avancé,” a forward position, of religion—nothing can stand. What this religion demands is not conditional obedience—the commercial contract of Locke and the Protestants—but the dissolution of the individual in the state. Men must give, not merely lend, themselves. Society is not a bank, a limited liability company formed by individuals who look on one another with suspicious eyes—fearful of being taken in, duped, exploited. All individual resistance in the name of imaginary rights or needs will atomize the social and the metaphysical tissue, which alone has the power of life.

This is not authoritarianism in the sense advocated by Bossuet or even Bonald. We have left far behind us the symmetrical Aristotelian constructions of Thomas Aquinas or Suarez and are fast approaching the worlds of the German ultra-nationalists, of the enemies of the Enlightenment, of Nietzsche, Sorel and Pareto, D.H. Lawrence and Knut Hamsun, Maurras, d’Annunzio, of Blut und Boden, far beyond traditional authoritarianism. The façade of Maistre’s system may be classical, but behind it there is something terrifyingly modern, and violently opposed to sweetness and light. Nor is the tone remotely that of the eighteenth century, not even of the most violent and hysterical voices who mark its highest point of revolt—like Sade or Saint-Just—nor yet is it that of the frozen reactionaries who immured themselves against the champions of freedom or revolution within the thick walls of medieval dogma.

The doctrine of violence at the heart of things, the belief in the power of dark forces, the glorification of chains as alone capable of curbing man’s self-destructive instincts, and using them for his salvation, the appeal to blind faith against reason, the belief that only what is mysterious can survive, that to explain is always to explain away, the doctrine of blood and self-immolation, of the national soul and the streams flowing into one vast sea, of the absurdity of liberal individualism, and above all of the subversive influence of uncontrolled critical intellectuals—surely we have heard this note in our time. In a simpler and no doubt much cruder form, Maistre’s vision is deeply pessimistic: the regime that he advocated is a despotic theocratic monarchy, closer to those of Franco and Salazar than to that of Mussolini, but in practice if not always in theory (which has, at times, been offered in a transparently false scientific guise) it is the heart of the totalitarianisms, both of the left and of the right of our terrible century.

This is the first part of a three-part article.


No Conservative December 20, 1990

  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). 

  9. 9

    Maistre, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, p. 74. 

  10. 10

    The title of a book by Carl L. Becker (Yale University Press, 1932). 

  11. 11

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 5, pp. 22–25. 

  12. 12

    “[el] matadero de difunto conde José Maistre.” Miguel de Unamuno, La agonía del christianismo: p. 308 in Obras completas, ed. Manuel García Blanco (Madrid, 1966), Vol. 7. 

  13. 13

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 4, pp. 32–33. 

  14. 14

    In a footnote he quotes Juvenal’s “Graeculus esuriens in caelum jusseris, ibit” (Satire 3.78), misascribing it to Martial. 

  15. 15

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 299. 

  16. 16

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 305. 

  17. 17

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, pp. 297–298. 

  18. 18

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 5, pp. 3–4. 

  19. 19

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 5, p. 10. 

  20. 20

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 4, pp. 67–68. 

  21. 21

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 2, p. 38. Faguet, paraphrasing Maistre, uses a brilliant epigram apparently of his own devising: “Dire: les moutons sont nés carnivores, et partout ils mangent de l’herbe, serait aussi juste.” It is as if one were to wonder why sheep, which are born carnivorous, nevertheless always nibble grass. 

  22. 22

    Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, p. 376. 


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