Conservative, Reactionary or Moderate Revolutionist? Joseph de Maistre in the Light of History


Joseph de Maistre, Karl Vogel von Vogelstein, c.1810

by Carolina Armenteros

Centuries after his death, the name of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) can still trigger shudders. To non-specialists, it evokes Catholic zealotry, reaction incarnate, the taste for violence and the praise of war. After all, this is the Counter-revolutionary who wrote an apology of the Spanish Inquisition, and it is the pessimist who claimed that, ‘the whole earth, continually drenched with blood, is but an immense altar where everything that lives must be immolated without end, without measure, without respite, until the consummation of things, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death’.

Since the nineteenth century, critics have had a field day taking statements like this out of context to parody their author. From Emile Faguet to Isaiah Berlin (whose portrait of Maistre as a proto-fascist remains the most influential image of the Savoyard philosopher in the English-speaking world today), commentators have singled out the most sensational portions of Maistre’s abundantly provocative and stylistically brilliant oeuvre to denounce his character and gloss over the depth and complexity of his thought.

Not all, of course, has been defamation: when Maistre’s correspondence was published in 1859, revealing the humane, humorous and affectionate individual that lay behind the authoritarian persona he always played in his published works, the public was taken aback, and criticism relented. Yet over a century later, he was still being condemned as a celebrant of oppression. In 1968, Robert Triomphe published a massive doctoral thesis on Maistre, the story of a monstrous Machiavellian hypocrite who was responsible for nothing less than Vichy. Triomphe’s angry prose coupled with its improbable accusations and imposing erudition, jolted disbelieving French scholars who set out in search of a more plausible Maistre. Delving into archives that Triomphe had not been able to consult, they put the Savoyard count in biographical and historical context. Maistre studies have exploded since then, retrieving unsurprisingly, a figure who was less deranged than rational.

My book, The French Idea of History: Joseph De Maistre and His Heirs, 1794-1854, likewise uses contextualization to present a new Maistre. I argue that, far from being the undisputed representative of reaction, repression, and extreme conservatism, he was often an advocate of moderation; that he defended liberty zealously; that by the end of his life his monarchism had dissolved into ultramontanism; and that his conservatism, far from being extreme, acknowledged the necessity for political change so consistently that it ended up promoting the very revolutionism he had spent decades opposing. In this last respect, Maistre’s intellectual project was a failure by his own standards, a testament that the Revolution had triumphed despite all the damage it had done, and that the revolutionary spirit had slipped even into the finest cracks of his own philosophy. I believe that this realization, this horrifying intuition of the demise of everything he had valued, explains the despondency that possessed him in his final years. ‘My book will only do evil’, he confided to his daughter Constance regarding The Pope (1819), the founding text of ultramontanism that was his last publication – and that would start a flurry of speculation among the left. Constance tried to reassure her father, but he would not be consoled. He kept saying that he was dying with Europe, and indeed he soon passed away, succumbing to a Guillain-Barré infection in February of 1821.

The study of Maistre’s theory of history enables the recovery of these two seemingly antithetical, yet actually complementary, personae: Maistre the moderate and Maistre the revolutionist. The dependence of these figures on Maistre the historicist has not been previously discerned. Maistre’s providentialist insistence on God’s direction of history has traditionally been taken as evidence of his adherence to Reaction. The Considerations on France (1797), the pamphlet that first brought him fame, encourages this interpretation by depicting the French Revolution as a divine punishment, a killing machine that ‘leads men more than men lead it’, confirming human impotence in the face of the inexorable will of God. Yet the French Revolution is an extraordinary moment in history. ‘Miraculous’, it is the time when the chain that binds humanity to God’s throne tightens extremely, depriving it of freedom. More tranquil times allow the blossoming of humanity’s nearly unbounded liberty. During these longer, more fruitful ages, Maistrian Providence shows itself to be not so much a punitive force, as has been invariably maintained, but rather an educator that leads humanity to discover within itself the resources it needs to progress morally, intellectually and even physically. So free is Maistre’s humanity, in fact – and so greatly possessed of agency – that its will can, at certain moments, contradict God’s in the process of making history.

Herein lies Maistre’s political moderation. Given human freedom and history’s constant flux, change, including political change, must always be the order of the day. Maistre’s positions on current events reflected this acceptance. Where, for instance, a conventional counter-revolutionary would have opposed the deposition of Gustav IV (1778-1837), the ‘mad’ king of Sweden, Maistre agreed with the measure and recognized its necessity. People were not obliged to wail under unreasonable or incompetent kings: during hard times, a change of government could be needed. It is on this point that Maistre the moderate transmutes into Maistre the revolutionist: that the man who acquiesces to ordered mutation becomes the designer of peaceful upheavals. The Pope, long considered an epitomy of Reaction (who in their right mind would advocate, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the papacy should manage international crises?) is in reality a manifesto of moderate Revolution. It is a proposition that in the future, when a people had suffered so greatly that a new government becomes imperative, the pope – in his guise as a foreign and neutral sovereign – should mediate between peoples and states and arrange, when appropriate, bloodless transitions between governments.

This view is an unwitting betrayal of the counter-revolutionary ethic that Maistre had advocated since his first works. The Considerations had announced that the Counter-revolution would be angelic or not be at all, because Counter-revolution – as opposed to Anti-Revolution – was the art of waiting for Providence to speak, of refusing to fight the Revolution with its own means. The Revolution’s tragedy – and its failure – derived from the fact that it had manufactured politics frantically and deliberately, that instead of responding to political circumstances as they arose, it had set out to arrange political contingency itself. The contrary of this spirit – the counter-revolutionary spirit – was the willingness to wait patiently for circumstances to surface, for politics to emanate slowly and gradually out of institutions – a proposition that may sound preposterous today, but that was very reasonable in the eighteenth-century experience of time.

Paradoxically, Maistre violated the counter-revolutionary ethic as soon as he started writing pamphlets. By the time that The Pope appeared, the paradox had deployed itself fully. It was that book that made of the Church a revolutionary machine that turned the popes into the Robespierres of the future, fabricators of political circumstance and makers and breakers of states. Their goal, of course, was still to minimize the conflict born of deliberate politics, to prevent social and political violence. But they used revolutionary means to thwart Revolution, so that they were, in effect, the agents of moderate Anti-revolution.

Robert de Lamennais, Paulin Jean-Baptiste Guerin, 1827

Thus, Maistre’s providentialism ensured his acceptance of historical and political change, and thereby his political moderation; while his Pelagian insistence on the human ability to direct history signified not Reaction, but conservative revolutionism. This unexpected mixture of moderation and revolutionism, until now undiscerned, explains what is otherwise inexplicable: that Maistre’s most avid readers in nineteenth-century France, the ones who engaged most extensively with his historical thought, should be on the left. Certainly, Catholic traditionalists – Pierre-Simon Ballanche (1776-1847), the early Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854), Ferdinand von Eckstein (1790-1861), Augustin Bonnetty (1798-1879) – read him too and formulated historical theories inspired on his. Yet even they had leftward leanings. Ballanche, for instance, tried invariably to reconcile left and right, while Lamennais ended his career as a socialist deist.

As for Maistre’s most enthusiastic readers, they were stunningly, the founders of industrial socialism: Claude-Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and his heirs. At first sight, the affinity looks exceedingly improbable, since Maistre never wrote a line about industry, and had he lived long enough to hear of socialism, he would probably have hated it. Yet the strangeness dispels on considering the historical thought that Maistre and Saint-Simon shared in common. Both believed that history alternates between periods of crisis and of social synthesis. Both thought that European history had been rendered unique by the freedom-generating struggle between spiritual and temporal powers. Both lamented modernity’s disorder. Both looked back to the Middle Ages as a period of social harmony which it was the present’s task to recapture. And both expected that the recapturing would begin with the appearance of a genius, perhaps already born, who would reconcile religion and science.

Besides interpreting history in similar ways, Maistre and Saint-Simon both made historicism serve an anti-political desire. Maistre studied history to forestall revolutionary violence by subordinating politics to morality. Saint-Simon also intended that historical knowledge should lend to morality and the spiritual precedence over politics and the temporal. But Saint-Simon wished for this to happen thoroughly, radically, completely, until kings disappeared and politics withered away. Counter-intuitively, Saint-Simon was more medieval – in the sense of more insistent on spiritual primacy – than Maistre. More logically, the latter was more providentialist, but less obviously, his providentialism betrayed an acceptance of politics. For although human beings could direct the course of time, they were still operating within bounds drawn by God; and if God had ordained political existence, it was because it suited humanity’s fallen state. A constant tension between Revolution and Providence as historical principles inheres in both of these views, with Revolution representing the belief that humans can enforce change without limits, and Providence embodying the restraint of human freedom across time by circumstances beyond human control.

The same tension occurs in the work of Maistre’s other French heirs in the nineteenth century, who also theorized history with the aim of exiting politics. Maistre inspired them in three major ways: by defining the history-knowledge relationship; by claiming that sacrifice was the motor of history; and by prophesying that a new revelation would soon descend to resolve Europe’s post-revolutionary crisis and precipitate the end of time.

Those who most favored Revolution as a historical principle were Ballanche and the Saint-Simonians, who thought that humans could finish history by reorganizing religion. The Saint-Simonians founded an orgiastic cult headed by a Supreme Father who celebrated spiritual healing through free love. Heralds of equality, they had little use for erudition, confident that God engraves divine knowledge liberally within the hearts of all, and that we need only know ourselves to change the world. They did not eschew specialized knowledge entirely: they dreamt, for example, of a new historiography and a new geography. But specialized knowledge for them was at best the equivalent, and more often the inferior, of the wisdom that flows naturally from within, and whose secrets one day everyone will unlock. The Saint-Simonians shared these views with Ballanche, whose Social Palingenesis (1820-31) had converted them to religious sociology. Ballanche believed that the knowledge of ‘initiation’ – the primitive knowledge that God had imparted to humanity – was ensconced in all hearts, and that the life’s goal of poet-initiators like himself was to diffuse it universally. From the point of view of spirituality, this was a revolution, and cogently, in matters of knowledge Ballanche and the Saint-Simonians were the most egalitarian of Maistre’s heirs.

By contrast, Maistre’s traditionalist readers – Eckstein, Bonnetty and the early Lamennais – were providentialist dealers in erudition. Following Maistre’s lead in the St Petersburg Dialogues (1821), they insisted that God had bestowed a primitive revelation to humanity at the beginning of time; that this revelation had been lost and dispersed through the centuries; and that it was the task of the moment to piece it back together so as to help end history – but only to help, since God ultimately determined time’s unfolding.For the traditionalists, the knowledge that could make the future was the privilege of the spiritually endowed, and the acquired prize of the studious. The vision implied a spiritual and political hierarchy, a dependence on higher powers, and indeed these thinkers were all Catholic monarchists.

As for Comte’s theory of knowledge, it was politically centrist. The Religion of Humanity was a creed pervaded by rituals, prayers, saints, and holidays, and positivist priests had to devote decades to absorbing it. But Comte was an enemy of reading, the inventor of a regime of ‘cerebral hygiene’ which consisted in reading nothing but a few select classics. Maistre would have approved of this mental diet: like Comte, he thought that modernity had abused tremendously of publication, and that the frenzy of writing, of deadening the word, had contributed steadfastly to the dissolution of society. Rather than read vastly and indiscriminately, what mattered for Comte – and Maistre – was to meditate on high-quality reading in socially useful ways. Comte thus rendered religion providential by requiring an enormous erudition that made access to the sacred difficult, but he promoted the revolutionary principle by restricting reading in favour of readers’ meditative creativity.

The revolutionary model of history-making also inspired nineteenth-century interpretations of Maistre’s concept of sacrifice. Defining sacrifice as any willed moral action – any voluntary restraint of the selfish passions for the sake of the common good, any deposition of love in society, any submission to a higher moral good – Comte and the traditionalists vindicated it as history’s motor. Their world was hence regenerated piecemeal, through the moral and religious action of every individual.

Not so the world of the Saint-Simonians. They aspired to do away with suffering altogether, and not through expiation, as their fellow Maistrians assumed, but through unbounded self-expression and magical incantation. This is no hyperbole: they were convinced that they could dispel suffering by simply declaring that it was over, and instituting empathy in its place. In their view, all that was needed to bring about history’s end was to understand and accept other people’s passions. A huge contradiction ensued: in abolishing sacrifice, the Saint-Simonians also eliminated sacrality, and by extension, the very religion on which world transformation depended.

The subject, however, that was perhaps the greatest indicator of a commitment to Revolution versus Providence as historical principles was the end of time. The Saint-Simonians weighed in on the side of Revolution, convinced that, since humans controlled religion and hence history completely, they could predict the future perfectly. The contrary opinion likewise confirmed Ballanche’s final traditionalism. Like Eckstein, Bonnetty, the early Lamennais, and Maistre himself, the author of Orpheus (1818) believed that God was a historical actor. The future therefore could only be vaguely drawn, since humans could discern it only in ephemeral portents, in flashes of revelation. As ever, Comte was in the middle, sketching the contours of positivist society with precision but leaving much of the detail to the uncertainties deriving from positivists’ meditative and religious activities.

In the end, for better or for worse, Maistre the revolutionist had a descent, while Maistre the moderate retreated into silence. The asymmetry has its logic. Not only did Maistre’s incendiary style obscure Maistre the man of compromise, but moderation, as the quality of the reasonable, cannot seize attention or command remembrance for long. This is where Maistre’s historical thought is illuminating. It suggests, firstly, that we have been looking for centuries at a grotesque caricature of the Savoyard count that needs some radical redrawing. And it unveils, secondly, the existence of a Francophone tradition of historical thinking that flourished independently of developments in Germany, that constituted the bridge between the Enlightenment and the liberal historiography of the nineteenth century, but that fed on the dual rejection and adoption of not so much Enlightenment as revolutionary thought.

About the Author:

Carolina Armenteros is Rosalind Franklin Fellow, Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen, and Visiting Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of The French Idea of History: Joseph De Maistre and His Heirs, 1794-1854, which was published by Cornell University Press in the summer of 2011. Carolina is also coeditor of Joseph de Maistre and the Legacy of Enlightenment (Oxford, 2011), Joseph de Maistre and his European Readers: From Friedrich von Gentz to Isaiah Berlin (Leiden and New York, 2011), The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (St Andrews, 2011), and Historicising the French Revolution (Newcastle, 2008). She is currently working on the history of monarchical political thought in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.