Tuesday, February 19, 2008

de Maistre, continued

De Maistre did in fact say quite a lot about the Spanish Inquisition, in a series of Letters, which can be read in translation at this web site: www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/history/links/maistre/maistre.html

Here is de Maistre's extraordinary portrait of the man who, more than anything else it seems, makes civilized life possible, the Executioner:

To come now to detail, let us start with human justice. Wishing men to be governed by men at least in their external actions, God has given sovereigns the supreme prerogative of punishing crimes, in which above all they are his representatives.... This formidable prerogative of which I have just spoken results in the necessary existence of a man destined to inflict on criminals the punishments awarded by human justice; and this man is in fact found everywhere, without there being any means of explaining how; for reason cannot discern in human nature any motive which could lead men to this calling.... Who is then this inexplicable being who has preferred to all the pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honorable jobs that present themselves in hundreds to human power and dexterity that of torturing and putting to death his fellow creatures? Are this head and this heart made like ours? Do they not hold something peculiar and foreign to our nature? For my own part, I do not doubt this. He is made like us externally; he is born like us but he is an extraordinary being, and for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary. He is a species to himself. Look at the place he holds in public opinion and see if you can understand how he can ignore or affront this opinion! Scarcely have the authorities fixed his dwelling place, scarcely has he taken possession of it, than the other houses seem to shrink back until they no longer overlook his. In the midst of this solitude and this kind of vacuum that forms around him, he lives alone with his woman and his offspring who make the human voice known to him, for without them he would know only groans. A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to his house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemera is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up: then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unfastens him; he carries him to a wheel: the shattered limbs interweave with the spokes; the head falls; the hair stands on end, and the mouth open like a furnace gives out spasmodically only a few blood-spattered words calling for death to come. He is finished: his heart flutters, but it is with joy; he congratulates himself, he says sincerely, "No one can break men on the wheel better than I." He steps down; he stretches out his bloodstained hand, and justice throws into it from a distance a few pieces of gold which he carries through a double row of men drawing back with horror. He sits down to a meal and eats; then he goes to bed, where he sleeps. And next day on waking, he thinks of anything but what he did the day before. Is this a man? Yes: God receives him his temple and permits him to pray. He is not a criminal, yet it is impossible to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable and so on. No moral praise can be appropriate for him, since this assumes relationships with men, and he has none. And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner: he is the horror and bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears. God, who is author of sovereignty, is the author also of chastisement: he has built our world on these two poles...

I have a few things I'd like to say about this passage in relation to various other aspects of de Maistre's thought, but first I should like to direct you to the essay by Isaiah Berlin which forms the introduction to de Maistre's Considerations On France, Richard A. Lebrun ed.(Cambridge, 1994)

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