Tuesday, February 19, 2008

de Maistre's Executioner

It is pretty clear that De Maistre's Executioner is intended, not only to shock and awe but also to put an end to all talk of reason, progress and human perfectibility. The natural wickedness (or, if you prefer, the inherent sinfulness) of human beings means that no society can long endure in a civilized state without political sovereignty and judicial terror.

de Maistre had the greatest respect for David Hume. He clearly admired his History of England and thought that Hume's account of the English revolution, especially the judicial murder of Charles I, in the previous century, offered an almost exact parallel with the revolution in France. But I think his admiration of Hume went deeper than that: both men had concluded, though for different reasons perhaps, that moral judgments are never the result of reason or reasoning; there is no connection, indeed, between reason and morality. For while our moral judgments may have some slight influence over our passions, reason has none. Reason, indeed, is and could only be the slave of the passions. Believers in original sin had always known this; Hume may have worked it out, as he says, scientifically. Here is how he puts it in A Treatise of Human Nature, at the end of Bk 3 (Of Morals), Section 1 (Of Vice and Virtue):

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, `tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason.

If reason is morally blind and morally impotent--and if the French Revolution proved anything it proved that--does it follow, as de Maistre thought, that law and order can only be based, finally, on brute force and terror? Fear of Hell and/or the executioner? Don't be in a big hurry to answer this one. The jury is still out.

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