Joseph de Maistre  

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"By one party he has been reviled as the apologist of the headsman, the advocate of the Inquisition, the adversary of free inquiry, the virulent detractor of Bacon, the friend of the Jesuits, and the unscrupulous perverter of historic truth for his own controversial purposes; by the other, he is extolled as an austere moralist reacting against the sentimentality and philosophism (to use his own word) of the age, a steadfast believer, and an unshrinking upholder of all he believed, a loyal and devoted subject to a despoiled sovereign, an elegant scholar, a powerful logician, a disinterested statesman, and the unflinching advocate of a persecuted order, which reckoned among its members the friends and instructors of his youth."--Edinburgh Review

"WHEN LITERARY PEOPLE, hard pressed by the threat of democratic reforms, feel the need for a reactionary authority, they are likely to resort to Joseph de Maistre ... he has always been especially useful to conservative-minded intellectuals, because, in reading or remembering him, they are able to tell themselves that in that era all the brilliant brains were not on the subversive side. "--The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties by Edmund Wilson

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821) was a Savoyard lawyer, diplomat, writer, and philosopher. He was the most influential spokesmen for hierarchical authoritarianism in the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789. De Maistre remained throughout all his life a loyal subject of the King of Sardinia, whom he served as member of the Savoy Senate (1787–1792), ambassador to Russia (1803–1817), and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).

Maistre argued for the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded as a divinely sanctioned institution, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters. According to Maistre, only governments founded upon a Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies but especially in Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodshed that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, such as the 1789 revolution. Maistre was an enthusiastic proponent of the principle of hierarchical authority, which the Revolution sought to destroy; he extolled the monarchy, he exalted the privileges of the papacy, and he glorified God's providence.



Maistre was born in 1753 at Chambéry, in the Duchy of Savoy, which belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia. His family was of French origin and had settled in Savoy a century earlier, attaining an aristocratic rank. His father had served as president of the Savoy Senate and his younger brother, Xavier de Maistre, become a military officer and a popular writer of fiction.

Joseph was probably educated by the Jesuits. After the Revolution, he became an ardent defender of their Order, increasingly associating the spirit of the Revolution with the spirit of the Jesuits' traditional enemies, the Jansenists. After completing his training in the law at the University of Turin in 1774, he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Senator in 1787.

Maistre, a member of the progressive Scottish Rite Masonic lodge at Chambéry from 1774 to 1790, was initially sympathetic to reform movements in France and supported the efforts of the magistrates in the Parlements to force King Louis XVI to call the States-General. As a landowner in France, Maistre was eligible to join that body, and there is some evidence that he contemplated that possibility. He was alarmed, however, by the decision of the States-General to join the three orders of clergy, aristocracy, and commoners into the single legislative body that became the National Constituent Assembly, and he turned against the course of events in France after the revolutionary legislation of 4 August 1789 was passed (see August Decrees).

Maistre fled Savoy after a French revolutionary army invaded the region in 1792. He briefly returned to Chambéry the following year, but decided that he could not support the French-controlled regime and departed for Switzerland, where he visited the salon of Germaine de Staël and discussed politics and theology with her. Maistre then began his career as a counter-revolutionary writer with works such as Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien ("Letters from a Savoyard Royalist", 1793), Discours à Mme. la marquise Costa de Beauregard, sur la vie et la mort de son fils ("Discourse to the Marchioness Costa de Beauregard, on the Life and Death of her Son", 1794) and Cinq paradoxes à la Marquise de Nav... ("Five Paradoxes for the Marchioness of Nav...", 1795).

In 1803 Maistre was appointed the King of Sardinia's diplomatic envoy to the court of Russia's Tsar, Alexander I in Saint Petersburg. From 1817 until his death, he served in Turin as a magistrate and minister of state for the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Political and moral philosophy

In Considérations sur la France ("Considerations on France," 1796), Maistre maintained that France had a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and of evil on Earth. He considered the Revolution of 1789 a Providential occurrence: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the whole of the old French society, instead of using the influence of French civilization to benefit mankind, had promoted the atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers. The crimes of the Reign of Terror were the apotheosis and logical consequence of the destructive spirit of the eighteenth century, and the divinely decreed punishment for it.

His short book Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines ("Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions," 1809), Maistre argues that constitutions are not artificial products but come from God, who slowly brings them to maturity. After the appearance in 1816 of his French translation of Plutarch's treatise On the Delay of Divine Justice in the Punishment of the Guilty, in 1819 Maistre published Du Pape ("On the Pope").

Besides a voluminous correspondence, Maistre left two posthumous works. One of these, L'examen de la philosophie de Bacon, ("An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon," 1836), develops a spiritualist epistemology out of a critique of Francis Bacon, whom Maistre considers a fountainhead of the Enlightenment in its most destructive form. The Soirées de St. Pétersbourg[1] ("The Saint Petersburg Dialogues", 1821) is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which Maistre proposes his own solution to the age-old problem of the existence of evil. He argues that evil throws light upon the designs of God. The shedding of blood, the expiation of the sins of the guilty by the innocent, is for Maistre a law as mysterious as it is indubitable, the principle that propels humanity in its return to God, supplying an explanation for the existence and the perpetuity of war.

Influence and repute

Maistre can be counted, with the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, as one of the fathers of European conservatism. Since the 19th century, however, his providential, authoritarian, "throne and altar" conception of conservatism has declined in comparison with the more pragmatic conservatism of Burke. His stylistic and rhetorical brilliance, on the other hand, have made him enduringly popular as a writer and controversialist. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 describes Maistre's style as "strong, lively, picturesque," and adds, "animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone. He possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power." Alphonse de Lamartine, though a political enemy, could not but admire the splendour of Maistre's prose:

"That brief, nervous, lucid style, stripped of phrases, robust of limb, did not at all recall the softness of the eighteenth century, nor the declamations of the latest French books: it was born and steeped in the breath of the Alps; it was virgin, it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once… That man was new among the enfants du siècle."

Émile Faguet described Maistre as "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 and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner".

Isaiah Berlin in his Freedom and Its Betrayal views his writings as "the last despairing effort of resist the march of progress". In his lecture Two Enemies of the Enlightenment he describes him as an angry man. However in his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox Berlin acknowledges his influence upon Tolstoy's philosophy of history in his novel War and Peace. In the long essay, "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism", Berlin accounts de Maistre the earliest precursor of the Fascist 'vision of the universe'.

Maistre's critique of the Enlightenment, especially its rationalism, made him an attractive countercultural figure. For example, the Decadent poet Charles Baudelaire declared himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary. More recently, Pat Buchanan has described Maistre as a "great conservative".

See also

Work in English translation

  • Memoir on the Union of Savoy and Switzerland (1795).
  • Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809, English translation 1847).
  • The Pope: Considered in His Relations with the Church, Temporal Sovereignties, Separated Churches and the Cause of Civilization (1817, English translation 1850).
  • Letters to a Russian Gentleman on the Spanish Inquisition (1822, English translation 1851)
  • Blum, Christopher Olaf (editor and translator), 2004. Critics of the Enlightenment. Wilmington, Delaware : ISI Books.
    • 1798, "Reflections on Protestantism in its Relations to Sovereignty". 133-56.
    • 1819, "On the Pope". 157-96.
  • Lively, Jack, 1965. The Works of Joseph de Maistre. Macmillan.

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