Sunday, February 10, 2008

On First Reading de Maistre

Reading CONSIDERATIONS ON FRANCE (1796) has been a pleasant surprise. This is no 18th century christian Qutb, no narrow-minded, anti-science, fundamentalist. De Maistre is a clear, terse, well informed, wittily ironic and very entertaining writer, a sort of conservative Voltaire.

Later: having read further, however, I want to qualify what I just said.

Maistre is at his best in his remarks about the Revolution which strike me as correct: the end (and no one knew in 1796 how or when the casual slaughter would end) could not justify the means. No one could or ever has been able to agree about the object of all that killing--three million dead according to Maistre, by 1796--all in the name of indefinable abstractions: 'liberty', 'reason', 'virtue.'

Our Civil War, which may have cost us a similar percentage of the population, about 2%, eliminated a tangible evil, slavery. And while the end of slavery did not really liberate the ex-slaves, who remained largely under the thumb of the white ruling class in the South for the next hundred years, we were not forced to re-fight either the civil war or our own revolution, unlike France which was forced to re-fight the Revolution at least twice during the 19th century.

Maistre may be largely correct when he describes the revolutionary leaders as unscrupulous men who only cared about power and were debased by it. Power corrupts. No one caught up in the desperate struggle not only for power but survival was unaffected. That goes, as well, for all those big words, 'liberty', 'reason', etc. that people thought they were fighting for. So many became so disillusioned and so bitter that there had to be a word for it. That, I think, was when the ancient philosophical word 'cynic' reversed its meaning: no longer a believer in virtue as the highest good but a disbeliever, like Shakespeare's Iago--and Maistre himself. Maistre was a product of the Revolution, just as Napoleon was.

Here are a couple of sentences that give you something of the Swiftian flavor of Maistre's prose at this time: "I know very well, that in all these discussions, we are assailed continually with the wearisome picture of the innocents who perish with the guilty. But, without penetrating far into this extremely profound question, it can be considered solely in its relation to the universally held dogma, as old as the world itself, that the innocent suffer for the benefit of the guilty."

I shall have more to say about Maistre's ideas about law, sovereignty, and republican forms of government as set forth in this and the following essays. These ideas are clearly and cogently set forth; Maistre is a brilliantlly logical writer. Nothing he says about sovereignty in these earlier writings should give us pause. The dark side of Maistre--the original of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor--appears in the ST. PETERSBERG DIALOGUES (1821)

Now, in what could be called Modernity's Golden Age, we take if for granted that while modern science may never give us the last word about nature and the universe, it is on the right track. We know without a doubt about how old the earth is, and the sun and the universe. Maistre knew a lot about "the exact sciences" (his phrase). He knew, for instance, that the new sciences of geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy were beginning to provide evidence that the earth has to be a LOT older than scripture would lead us to believe. But it didn't matter. In THE DIALOGUES, Catholic dogma trumps science from the get-go; he applauds the intellectual integrity of those who defiantly ignore whatever those rascally scientists might have to say. An iron curtain in Maistre's mind separates catholic doctrine and dogma from the vast enterprise of scientific inquiry in the early 19th century. Or, to alter the metaphor, he becomes a man in an iron mask: the Executioner who, as a professional breaker-of-men (literally), becomes for Maistre the image and symbol of sovereign power, and the last defence of a civilization now increasingly surrounded and infested by people who have cast off all the restraints on our natural sinfulness that Christianity had once-upon-a-time taught us to respect.

Though Maistre is his usual urbane and polished self, the imaginative power that goes into his terrifying portrait of the Executioner (with his bloody hands and exemplary home life) as the pillar of civilization and last defence against the barbarians within, shows that Maistre knew he had lost the argument with or about modernity.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I am not familiar with the writings of de Maistre. Did he know that the Crusades and the Inquisition were as bloody as the French Revolution? Did he believe that there was water above the sky, as Genesis tells us?