Joseph de Maistre
by Darrin M. McMahon
Ben Weider Professor of History
Florida State University
Joseph de Maistre was born in 1753 in the Savoyard alpine town of Chambéry where Rousseau had wiled away his days with Madame de Warens in the 1730s and early 40s. A subject of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, which in the eighteenth century controlled the province of Savoy, Maistre was thus French-speaking by birth, but not French. Indeed, he spent very little time in France over the course of his life, and only visited Paris once for roughly six weeks toward the end of his career. Trained in law, he served, like his father, as a high official in the Piedmontese state, first as a civil servant and later as magistrate in the Senate of Savoy, an institution roughly equivalent to a French parlement, which conferred life-time (non-transmissible) nobility. Then, for the better part of his career, he acted in a diplomatic function, initially in Lausanne from 1793-1797 and afterwards, following a stint in Sardinia, as ambassador to the court of the tsar in Saint Petersburg from 1803-1817. Upon his return to Piedmont-Sardinia after the long posting in Russia, Maistre served as Regent of the country, in effect the Minister of Justice, before dying in Turin, the nation's capital, in 1821.
Yet if Maistre's direct experience of France was limited, that country and its culture exercised a strong, even predominant, influence on his life. His mother read Racine to him as a child, and his legal studies in Turin as a young man exposed Maistre to the leading lights of the French lumières - Montesquieu, Mirabeau, Mably, Voltaire. Their works, and many others, lined the shelves of his private library, one of the largest in Savoy. Nor did that initial exposure prompt the virulent reaction that one might expect from a man whose later work was so marked by intense opposition to the Enlightenment. To be sure, Maistre professed a real and consistent religiosity from early on, the fruit in part of strong familial piety, favorable contact with the Jesuits, and his membership in such fraternal organizations as the Black Penitents. Thus, in a notebook entry from the early 1770s on Rousseau's Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard, Maistre could note critically with regard to Rousseau's attempt to hold the revealed word of God up to the scrutiny of reason, "Show me the rule, the touchstone you use to distinguish the true from the false in a book containing only facts... I believe nothing of the Gospel or believe it all." Nonetheless, as Maistre's biographer Joseph Lebrun observes, although "Maistre's position with respect to the Gospels may have been all or nothing, ...when it came to other Catholic 'authorities,' from the Church Fathers to contemporary apologists, he was always disposed to question and to argue his own point of view" (43). Similarly, Maistre displayed a far from unenlightened stance toward many of the leading political issues of the time. He read the French physiocrats with favor, endorsing the doctrine of free trade. He spoke favorably of American independence, observing that "Liberty, insulted in Europe, has taken its flight to another hemisphere." And he supported the French parlements and other such intermediary authorities, including the Savoyard Senate and the English Parliament, as bulwarks against the absolute power of European monarchs. A Freemason for nearly twenty years (from 1773-1792), Maistre even incurred the suspicion of his own government as a reformist and liberal!
Thus, much like Edmund Burke, whose own Reflections on the Revolution in France would greatly influence the Savoyard count, Maistre can hardly be thought an entrenched adversary of change on the eve of the French Revolution. Indeed he was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the calling of the Estates General. And yet, the experience of the coming years would shake Maistre's intellectual universe. Astounded by the news of the precipitous changes of the early Revolution - the abolition of feudalism on the night of August 4, the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen later that same month, and the nationalization of the property of the Church in November, 1789 - he was appalled by accounts of what seemed the shocking violence of the October Days, reports of which he heard from first-hand witnesses as they traveled out of France through Chambéry. Only miles from the French border, the city was conveniently situated on one of the main émigré routes, exposing Maistre to a steady stream of visitors and informants hostile to the Revolution. Already, by December of 1789 Maistre was writing to a friend of the dizzying effects of this "sudden irruption of irrationality into the century of rationality, of savagery and inhumanity into the century of civilization and philanthropy." The propensity of human beings to the irrational and the savage would emerge as major themes in Maistre's subsequent thought. By the time that French revolutionary armies invaded Savoy in September of 1792, sending Maistre into exile, his opposition to the Revolution and its principles was assuming concrete form.
Maistre spent most of the next twenty-five years of his life abroad, rehearsing the themes that would come together in what is generally considered his masterpiece, the Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg, published posthumously in 1821, and which he himself described, in a letter his friend Guy Marie La Place in 1818, as "my great work." First in a series of counter-revolutionary pamphlets, and then in a number of more ambitious theoretical works - Considérations sur la France (1797), the Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (1814), and Du Pape (1817) - Maistre developed his providential reading of the Revolution as God's punishment for human sins, gave shape to an evolving Ultra-Montanism, and lay the foundations of his interpretation of human history as theodicy. In muscular, emotional prose he called attention to the limitations of human reason, to our deep propensity for violence, and to the consequent need for strong institutions - social, religious, and political - to reign in human perversity, which was ever-lurking below the thin veneer of civilization, as the Revolution demonstrated only too well. For Maistre, the Revolution's worst excesses - regicide, the destruction of the church, the Terror - were signs and symptoms of its fundamental aberration and evil. For Maistre, in short, the Terror was the Revolution, the Revolution was the Terror.
Such sweeping convictions - combined with a propensity for highly charged rhetoric - have led generations of critics to write off Maistre as either nothing more than a hidebound reactionary or alternatively, as something far worse. Isaiah Berlin, for one, in an insightful, if ultimately misguided, essay argued famously that Maistre was an ultra-modern, the intellectual forefather of fascism, whose preoccupation with blood and violence foreshadowed the dark irrational world of the Nazis.
There can be little doubt that Maistre was drawn, repeatedly and ineluctably, to the dark and irrational. His famous account of sacrifice set forth at length in the Soirées des Saint-Petersbourg; his chilling description there of the performative and symbolic role of the executioner, his infamous tirades against Voltaire, and his frank acceptance of the awful logic of theodicy certainly make for uncomfortable reading today. Whereas Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov was moved to deny the existence of God by the thought of the suffering of innocent children, Maistre does not flinch from asserting that there are no innocents. "Where is innocence, I ask you?," enjoins one of the three interlocutors of the Soirées. And since there are no innocents, the blood of any - the blood of all - serves to expiate our collective guilt. Just as the natural world, for Maistre, is red in tooth and claw, the human world is a vast slaughter bench. La terre entière, he writes in a famous passage in the seventh dialogue of the Soirées, continuellement imbibée de sang, n'est qu'un autel immense où tout ce qui vit doit être immolé sans fin, sans mesure, sans relâche, jusqu'à la consommation des choses, jusqu'à l'extinction du mal, jusqu'à la mort de la mort."
But if Maistre's thought undeniably dwells on that awful, perpetual struggle - forcing us to confront the ubiquity of human suffering and our ever-present will to immolation - it is quite another thing to say that he celebrated the world he describes. Admittedly, there are those who have read him as such - and not only Berlin - although it is worth recalling too that Baudelaire could describe Maistre as his teacher and Balzac as a thinker of genius (aigle penseur). Far more sinister interpreters of the likes of Charles Maurras and Carl Schmitt claimed to find in Maistre sanction for their fascistic views. Perhaps just as Nietzsche cannot be absolved entirely of responsibility for the misuses of his work, Maistre must bear some onus for his own (mis)-appropriation. Readers, of course, must decide that for themselves. And yet there is merit to the claim, made forcefully by Owen Bradley, that Maistre is far more the analyst of violence than its proponent, far more a theoretician of sacrifice than its advocate, far more an investigator of the shadowy realms of humanity than a purveyor of black arts. As George Steiner once remarked, Maistre had uncanny "night vision." If read openly - though never uncritically - he may help us to see in realms where we usually stumble. He may well help us to see in the dark.
In addition to the works cited below, readers are encouraged to consult the much fuller bibliography, as well as usual information on Maistre's life and works, at the "Joseph de Maistre Homepage," maintained by the prominent Maistre scholar Richard Lebrun and the University of Manitoba:
Berlin, Isaiah, "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism," in Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
Bradley, Owen, The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
Darcel, Jean-Louis, Recherches maistriennes. Joseph de Maistre et la Révolution française, 1788-1797 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Université de Montpellier III, 1985).
Lebrun, Richard A., Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988).
Maistre, Henri de, Joseph de Maistre (Paris: Perrin, 1990).
McMahon, Darrin M., Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Miquel, Bastien, Joseph de Maistre: Un Philosophe à la cour du Tsar (Paris: Albin Michel, 2000).
Steiner, George, "Darkness Visible," London Review of Books 24 (November 1988).