Maistre, Joseph Marie de

views updated


Philosophical writer, proponent of traditionalism, who influenced the antirevolutionary movement in France; b. Chambéry, Savoy, April 1, 1754; d. Turin, Italy, February 26, 1821. Austerity and unquestioning obedience were demanded both in his noble family and in his schooling with the Jesuits. He made the early acquaintance of the philosophes whom he, like louis de bonald, combated all his life. After studying law at Turin, he entered the magistracy of Savoy in 1774, rose in the civil service, and in 1788 became a member of the Senate, of which his father was president. When the French revolutionary army occupied and annexed Savoy in 1792, he fled to Lausanne. There he wrote first his Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien (1793), published anonymously, to warn his countrymen that the horrors of the revolution would produce no lasting benefits. The wealth of ideas he gained in exile inspired him to produce "a work which would be read with avidity," the Considérations sur la France (1796), which established his reputation as an enthusiastic defender both of the divine mission of France and of the principle of authority. On the restoration of Charles Emmanuel IV in 1799, Maistre became regent of the Sardinian kingdom. In 1802 Victor Emmanuel I appointed him ambassador at St. Petersburg, and there, for 14 years, his profound learning and frank judgment enabled him to exercise considerable influence on Czar Alexander and the leading Russian nobility. Although he published only a single treatise during this time, it was in Russia that he wrote most of his notable works.

In his Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (1814), he elaborated his theory of the divine origin of constitutions. His masterpiece, Du pape (1819), contained his doctrine of papal supremacy and became the charter of ultramontanism. He translated and expanded Plutarch in Sur les délais de la justice divine (1816) and wrote De l'Église gallicane dans son rapport avec les Souverains Pontifes (1821), and the posthumously published Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (1821) and L'Examen de la philosophie de Bacon (1836). The unfinished Soirées exemplified the versatility of his intellectual and religious interests through 11 "conversations" on virtue and vice and the divine management of the world, conducted between a young and impetuous French officer, a serious and stubborn Russian senator, and a Sardinian count, Maistre himself. The last years at St. Petersburg were not agreeable because of the Czar's suspicion of Maistre's religious activities. He returned to Turin in 1817 to serve as regent of the kingdom, a position that allowed him some leisure to attend to the publication of his works, the task in which death overtook him.

The idea of a superintending Providence is the dominant theme in Maistre's interpretation of history. In his view, religious truth was not to be discovered in individuals but in tradition, which God revealed steadily throughout the development of history. bossuet had pictured Providence as erasing empires and writing the gospel in the hearts of the gentiles or the monogram of Christ on Constantine's banners. Maistre placed more emphasis on a divine equation; he held that the great amount of wrong done in the world required a proportionate quantity of punishment to satisfy the justice of a stern Judge. For example, having found "the most striking feature" of the French Revolution to be "the sweeping force that curbs all obstacles, the revolution guiding men more than being guided by them" (Considérations ), he saw the Reign of Terror as God's way of chastising the assault against sovereignty in the execution of Louis XVI. In promoting the doctrines of the philosophes and independence of God, France had abused its influence and demoralized Europe; therefore, "one must not be surprised that she be brought back by terrible means" (ibid. ). The mysterious power of redemption by suffering and warcalled "divine" in the Soirées was Maistre's law of expiation: good results from evil.

He defended papal infallibility ardently, especially in Du pape, declaring that "no sovereign pontiff has ever made a mistake in speaking on matters of faith." Moreover, the papacy better than any other sovereignty could serve as arbiter in settling the mutual differences of nations, because the popes had always promoted progress in European civilization.

Maistre's clear, forceful style proclaimed obedience as the highest political virtue, in order to restore the power of God, the pope, and the monarch. His influence on 19th-century philosophy and history was unquestionably important.

Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes (Lyons 188486). l. arnould, La Providence et le bonheur d'après Bossuet et Joseph de Maistre (Paris 1917). f. bayle, Les Idèes politiques de J. de M. (Paris 1945). a. caponigri, Some Aspects of the Philosophy of J. de M. (Chicago 1945). g. cogordan, J. de M. (Paris 1894; 2d ed.1922). j. lacroix, Vocation personnelle et tradition nationale (Paris 1942). j. lively, Works of J. de M. (New York 1965).

[l. du s. c. mercier]