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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.

Considerations on France

By Joseph de Maistre

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) has long enjoyed the reputation as réactionnaire par excellence. The historian Émile Faguet, in the nineteenth century, called him "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" whose "Christianity is terror, passive obedience and the religion of the State." M. Faguet was only trying (by comparison with other contemporary critics, that is) to be fair to Maistre, whose sole sin is that he not only accepted the doctrine of original sin as the foundation for his understanding of human history and human institutions, but embraced it with a kind of violent enthusiasm. "There is nothing," Maistre writes in Considerations on France, "but violence in the universe; but we are spoiled by a modern philosophy that tells us all is good, whereas evil has tainted everything, and in a very real sense, all is evil, since nothing is in its place. The keynote of the system of our creation has been lowered, and following the rules of harmony, all the others have been lowered proportionately. All creation groans, and tends with pain and effort towards another order of things." In result, "Unhappily, history proves that war is, in a certain sense, the habitual state of mankind, which is to say that human blood must flow without interruption somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite." Whatever man, by his reason, builds up, man, by his much deeper irrationality, must eventually destroy.

Maistre responded to the invasion of Savoy by the French revolutionary armies with a series of fierce pamphlets against the revolution itself. For his indelicacy, he was dispatched to St. Petersburg as the King of Sardinia's minister, and lived abroad in the Russian capital from 1803 to 1817, where he was summoned on occasion to advise the Emperor, Alexander I. Following the restoration of the Sardinian king, Maistre was recalled to Turin), where he died four years later. Maistre, as he mentions in Considerations, never set foot in France and knew nothing of French intrigues; like Edmund Burke, he admits that the terrible events in that country are none of his business, save for the malign influence they threaten to extend throughout Europe. Maistre read and admired Reflections on the Revolution in France. His Considerations, published in 1797 (seven years after the Reflections, and in the same year as Burke's death), is the Continental equivalent of that work: Edmund Burke in a small space, with added ferocity and minus the peculiar affection, even sweetness, of Burke's magnum opus. In no respect was Maistre more influenced by his predecessor than in his conviction that (in Isaiah Berlin's gloss) "anything which goes back to the mists of antiquity was made by God and not by man."

Maistre considered revolution "the greatest calamity that can befall a people" and the French Revolution an example of what he called "ordained revolution." In result, "the more one examines the apparently most active personages in the Revolution, the more one finds in them something passive and mechanical. We cannot repeat too often," he continues, "that men do not lead the Revolution; it is the revolution that uses men. They are right when they say it goes all alone. This phrase means that never has the Divinity shown itself so clearly in any human event. If the vilest intruments are employed, punishment is for the sake of regeneration." France had abandoned the divine mission to Christianize Europe with which her magistracy-in its religious aspect particularly-had entrusted her, and in doing so she had demoralized all of Europe. Consequently, "It has been a long time since we have seen such frightful punishment inflicted on such a large number of guilty people"-among them the French aristocracy (whom Maistre judges harshly), now either dead or émigrés living abroad. Divine Will has decreed that France should return to her mission once more--after paying the penalty for having abandoned it in the first place.

Maistre was quick to discern the hand of Providence where others saw God's indifference: in the delay of the counter-revolution he firmly expected. "Here again we may admire order in disorder, for it is evident.that the guiltiest revolutionaries could be felled only by the blows of their accomplices. If force alone had accomplished what they call the counter-revolution and restored the king to his throne, there would have been no way of rendering justice." That is to say: For justice to prevail, the revolution must devour its own. "All the monsters born of the Revolution have, apparently, laboured only for the monarchy." Maistre was right-in the long run. In the short run, there was still the Directorate, and after it Napoleon, for the Bourbons to wait through. (A little over a century after he wrote, moreover, the Bourbons were again gone, and France had become, constitutionally, a secular state.)

The French Republic, Maistre insists, will not last, and for two reasons. The first is, that a large and free nation cannot exist under republican government. (This was classical politial doctrine; contradicted, apparently, by the phenomenon of the United States, which Maistre brusquely dismissed. "I know of nothing so provoking as the praises bestowed on this babe-in-arms. Let it grow.") The second is that the Revolution is "radically bad," "pure impurity," and that evil, having nothing in common with life and being out of harmony with the Creator, can destroy but not create: "rottenness leads to nothing." "Look at history," Maistre urges, "and you will not see any institution of any strength or duration that does not rest on a divine idea." That idea, for France, is "liberty through the monarchy." Republican institutions have no roots; the monarchy is a planted and rooted thing. The suffering caused by the Revolution is the result of its having violated every custom, prejudice, and propriety. "This is what made the Revolution so painful, because it tramples underfoot all nobility of opinion..[T]here is no dignity in France at the moment for the same reason that there is no sovereignty"-sovereignty, which is not tangible in a republic as it is in a monarchy: "the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons." This attribute had not prevented the rise of a "fraudulent nobility" anterior to the Revolution. Once, however, the French nobility recognizes its responsibility for the disasters that befell it, it will have done much to rennovate itself and regenerate the country. When these things have been accomplished, and Frenchmen have learned to suspect abstract reason and "believe history, which is experimental politics," the way will have been made straight for Restoration. "The king will bind up the wounds of the state with a gentle and paternal hand. In conclusion, this is the great truth with which the French cannot be too greatly impressed: the restoration of the monarchy, what they call the counter-revolution, will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of revolution."

Maistre believed that no nation has ever been free whose "natural constitution" did not contain "seeds of liberty as old as itself;" it follows that, "No nation can give itself liberty if it is not already free." If this insight was relevant to Maistre's time, it is equally--or even more--so to our own age, when "global democracy" has been set up as an idol and made the object of a vast secular crusade. "The Constitution of 1795," Maistre writes, "like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.." And so, "[A] constitution that is made for all nations is made for none; it is a pure abstraction, an academic exercise made according to some hypothetical ideal, which should be addressed to man in his imaginary dwelling place. What is a constitution? Is it not merely the solution of the following problem? Given the population, the mores, the religion, the geographic situation, the political circumstances, the wealth, the good and the bad qualities of a particular nation, to find the laws that suit it." As for the vaunted Constitution of 1795, it does not even attempt to find those laws; it is only "a school composition."

Government, then, is what we today would call "culturally specific." What goes in the United States does not necessarily go in China, the Sudan-or Iraq. Maistre's skepticism, however, is more radical still: He denies that any nation or government can be created anywhere as a conscious and deliberate act of will, whether indiviudal or collective. "No mere assembly of men can form a nation, and the very attempt exceeds in folly the most absurd and extravagant things that all the Bedlams of the world might put forth." Thus, he likens the revolutionaries' attempt to "reinvent government" (as the modern cant phrase has it) to "mere children killing each other to build a house of cards." The French Republic is dead on the published page; it does not live! "What a multiplicity of springs and clockwork! What a fracas of pieces clanging away!" Great human institutions are not formed by committees; nor is constitution-making on the order of ship-building or erecting a factory. "Modern philosophy is at the same time too materialistic and too presumptuous to perceive the real mainsprings of the political world."

But ancient and medieval philosophy were never up to the task, either; government being one of those massive mysterious forms darkly emergent from the mists of history whose origin is God, not man. For man to seek to recreate government out of a theory is as ignorant, impious, and disastrous an act as is his attempt to recreate man in a test tube. Joseph de Maistre would scarcely have been astonished to learn that, within less than two centuries, the one experiment led directly to the other. Maistre, we might say, was determined to refute and to discredit the intellectual and moral legacy of the Enlightenment; and in this way to destroy the benighted eighteenth century before it could engender the monstrous twentieth, and the twenty-first.


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