Maistre, Joseph de

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MAISTRE, JOSEPH DE (1753–1821), Savoyard writer and diplomat.

A provocative and controversial opponent of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the Comte Joseph-Marie de Maistre was as often reviled by nineteenth-century liberals as an unscrupulous apologist of the executioner and the Inquisition as he was praised by French royalists and ultramontane Catholics as a steadfast and loyal monarchist and Catholic. It has only been since the late twentieth century, with the appearance of revisionist interpretations of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and access to Maistre's private papers, that scholars have been able to formulate a reasonably objective assessment of this important and original counter-Enlightenment writer.

A native of Savoy, then a province of the Italian kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, Maistre served that state all his life as a magistrate and diplomat. Born in Chambéry, where he received his early education (in part from the Jesuits), he did his legal training in Turin. Maistre's early career (1772–1792) was in the senate of Savoy (a law court), where he was named a senator in 1788. When the French invaded Savoy in 1792, he fled, at first to Turin, and then to Lausanne, where from 1793 to 1797 he took up a new career as the Piedmontese consul and a counterrevolutionary propagandist. After an interlude as a refugee in northern Italy, and three years (1799–1803) as regent (head of the court system) in Sardinia, he served as the Piedmontese ambassador in St. Petersburg from 1803 to 1817. After his recall to Turin, he ended his career as regent (justice minister) of Piedmont-Sardinia (1818–1821).

Though Maistre had inherited a substantial legal library and followed a legal career for more than half his working life, his notebooks, works, and correspondence suggest that he was always much more interested in broad humanistic subjects than in narrow legal questions. The beneficiary of an excellent classical education, he read Latin, Greek, Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German as well as his native French. Well-versed in the Scriptures, the church fathers, Greek and Latin classical authors, and Renaissance and seventeenth-century authors, he was also thoroughly familiar with all the major authors of the Enlightenment.

Maistre's first major work, which won him immediate renown as a theorist of throne and altar, was Considérations sur la France (Considerations on France), published anonymously in 1797. Construing the Revolution as both a divine punishment and as a providently ordained means for the regeneration of France, Maistre was able to condemn the Revolution and the ideas that it embodied, and, at the same time portray it as a necessary prelude to the restoration of the monarchy. Maistre had read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France soon after that work appeared in 1790, and he shared Burke's reaction against the violence, "immorality," and "atheism" of the Revolution. Maistre's work echoed Burkean themes, including reverence for established institutions, distrust of innovation, and defense of prejudice, aristocracy, and an established church. Maistre differed from Burke primarily in his providentialism, and in his adamant defense of traditional Roman Catholicism and papal authority.

Maistre's later works reveal a shift from politics to fundamental philosophical and theological issues. His Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (written in 1807 and published in 1814; Essay on the generative principle of political constitutions) generalized the constitutional principles he had enunciated in his Considérations sur la France. Du Pape (1819; On the pope) argued forcefully for infallible papal authority as a prerequisite for political stability in Europe. Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (1821; St. Petersburg dialogues) published shortly after Maistre's death, explored a host of philosophical and theological issues in witty dialogue form, while an appendix, called an "Enlightenment on Sacrifices," developed Maistre's ideas about suffering and violence. Finally, an Examen de la philosophie de Bacon (published in 1836; Examination of the philosophy of Bacon) located the origins of Enlightenment scientism and atheism in the works of the English writer. Maistre's writings, all distinguished by a vigorous French literary style, include a number of other minor works, some published only long after his death, and an extensive correspondence, most of which has also been published.

Maistre has been criticized for his extremism, and in particular for his reflections on the social role of the executioner, on war, and on bloodshed. His speculations were certainly original; rejecting what he castigated as naive Enlightenment forms of rationality, Maistre struggled to comprehend the irrational and violent dimensions of social and political life. Though his ideas shocked many, he should probably be regarded as an innovative theorist of violence, rather than its advocate.

See alsoBonald, Louis de; Burke, Edmund; Conservatism; French Revolution; Papal Infallibility.


Primary Sources

Maistre, Joseph de. Works. Selected translated and introduced by Jack Lively. New York, 1965.

——. Oeuvres complètes contenant ses oeuvres posthumes et toute sa correspondance inédite. Hildesheim, Germany, and New York, 1984.

Secondary Sources

Benoist, Alain de. Bibliographie générale des droites françaises. 4 vols. Paris, 2005. See vol. 4, pp. 13–131 for a complete bibliography of works by and about Maistre.

Bradley, Owen. A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre. Lincoln, Neb., 1999.

Lebrun, Richard A. Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant. Kingston, Ont., 1988.

Richard A. Lebrun

Joseph de Maistre

views updated Jun 08 2018

Joseph de Maistre

The French political philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) is considered perhaps the leading contemporary philosophical opponent of the Enlightenment on the European continent.

Joseph de Maistre was born on April 1, 1753, at Chambéry in Savoy, which is now part of France but was then part of the kingdom of Sardinia. His family had for generations been among the leading families of this state, where they served as virtual hereditary magistrates. When the relatively progressive Savoy was invaded by Napoleon's troops, Maistre left his property and family and took refuge in Switzerland and Italy. Although he could have returned to regain his ancestral estates, out of loyalty to his sovereign he endured many lonely and impecunious years, from 1803 until 1817, as ambassador to the Russian court at St. Petersburg.

While in this virtual exile in Russia, awaiting the defeat of Napoleon, Maistre wrote at least 13 volumes of collected works, including letters and diplomatic correspondence, most of which was designed to refute the principles and programs of the philosophical Enlightenment and its concrete historical expression, the French Revolution. He died in Savoy on Feb. 26, 1821.

Maistre's first major work was Considerations on France (1796), in which he perceptively argues that paper constitutions never have and never will establish rights for a people. Disputing in particular the theories of J. J. Rousseau, he maintains that no people can ever give itself a body of rights through the fiat of a social contract. If the rights do not exist in the political tradition of a people, then that written document either will not be followed, or it will be interpreted in such a way that the rights become meaningless. Thus, in examining the political practices of two nations, each with virtually the same bill of rights, it is often found that in the one they are effective guarantees, but in the other they are not. The reason why rights are meaningful in the one nation, then, cannot be the written document which supposedly guarantees them; it can only be the tradition of liberty in that nation, with the written constitution being at most the visible manifestation of these deeply felt ideas. In no sense can the written constitution produce rights where they had not existed in the historical habits of the people. History in turn is determined by divine providence, and thus it alone makes a government truly legitimate. The most influential agent on the world scene is the Church, which civilizes men to their social duties.

Most of Maistre's views are succinctly stated in The Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, written in 1808-1809 before his much longer major works On the Pope (1819) and Soirées de St. Petersbourg (1821). In this essay may be found his critical analysis of the French Revolution, his providential view of history, and his justification of ultramontanism (the theocratic view that the pope and/or Church was meant to be not only the spiritual but the indirect temporal ruler of the world).

The true constitution of any nation, Maistre contended, was unwritten and the product of a slow organic growth, not the arbitrary consent or will of a moment. There was, in his opinion, no absolutely best form of government, but each nation has a spirit or soul of its own for which a specific form of government is best. In most cases it would be monarchy, since that form had the longest history and was the most common. For France, for example, he advocated a restoration of the monarchy which would be restrained by newly instituted councils named by electors appointed by the king. If such checks on the power of the king proved inadequate, it would be necessary to submit a question to the authority of the pope, whom he believed to be divinely instituted as the ultimate judge for human affairs. It is this aspect of his thought which has led some commentators to characterize him as an ultramontanist, or theocrat. He believed also that because of original sin man was inclined to be selfish; furthermore, all human institutions are the work of God operating through secondary causes, such as the character of a people, and natural, moral, and physical laws. He attacked his opponents for being dogmatic and abstract and for deducing propositions from an arbitrarily and artificially developed ideology. In his own methods he relied on history, experience, and comparative analyses.

Further Reading

A comprehensive edition of Maistre's writings is his Works, translated and edited by Jack Lively (1965). Richard Allen Lebrun, Throne and Altar: The Political and Religious Thought of Joseph de Maistre (1965), is recommended. Elio Gianturco, Joseph de Maistre and Giambattista Vico (1937), includes an extensive bibliography.

Additional Sources

Lebrun, Richard, Joseph de Maistre: an intellectual militant, Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988. □

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