Saturday, February 23, 2008

Maistre's god

You could sum up a lot of Maistre by saying that his God has a taste for dramatic irony. He and Maistre delight in the fact that no one ever knows the meaning or consequences of his or her actions, which usually turn out very differently from what one had intended.

Audiences experience dramatic irony when an actor's words and actions have meanings that the character being enacted is unaware of. The equivalent of dramatic irony out in the political world occurs when the words and actions of important people have what we call 'unintended consequences.' It is virtually a law of history for Maistre that god always makes hash of our intentions—and especially the intentions of the men who came to prominence during the Revolution.

The following selections from Considerations on France,which would have been more aptly entitled, Reflections on the Ways of Providence, are strictly intended by me to be illustrative, merely:

It has been correctly pointed out that the French Revolution leads men more than men lead it.... The very rascals who appear to lead the Revolution are involved only as simple instruments, and as soon as they aspire to dominate it they fall ignobly. Those who established the Republic did it without wanting to and without knowing what they were doing....Robespierre, Collot, or Barere never thought to establish the revolutionary government or the Reign of Terror; they were led to it imperceptibly by circumstances... These extremely mediocre men exercised over a guilty nation the most frightfull despotism in history, and surely they were more surprised at their power than anyone else in the kingdom....

All those who laboured to free the people from their religious beliefs, all those who opposed the laws of property with metaphysical sophisms, all those who said 'Strike, so long as we win something', all those who counselled, approved, or favoured the use of violent measures against the king, etc., all these willed the Revolution, and all who willed it have very justly, even according to our limited insight, become its victims.

We groan to see illustrious scholars fall beneath Robespierre's axe. Humanly, we cannot be too sorry for them; but divine justice has not the least respect for geometers or physicists. Too many French scholars were the principal authors of the Revolution, too many approved and gave their support so long as the Revolution...struck down only the tallest heads. Like so many others, they said, 'It is impossible to make a great revolution without incurring misfortunes.' But when a philosopher justifies evil by the end in view, when he says in his heart, 'Let there a hundred thousand murders, provided we are free,' and Providence replies, 'I accept your offer, but you must be included in the number,' where is the injustice? Would we judge otherwise in our own tribunals?

Maistre thinks that his Christian faith gives him unique access to God's intentions and historical truth. He is like a person watching a play, who is in a position to know much more about the world of the play than the characters IN the play, on stage.

So now here's my question: Am I correct in thinking that this is actually a rather modern way of thinking about history? One has only to strip away Maistre's idea of Providence, and of God as the author of the play we call History, to arrive at, say, Henry Adams's insight that history or reality--not Providence--necessarily makes fools of us all; we never understand the larger meaning of our words and actions until later; the law of unintended consequences merely reflects that fact.

1 comment:

  1. Is de Maistre saying that God is a practical joker? The soothsayers in Oedipus Rex were part of a divine practical joke in which Oedipus was deceived by telling him pieces of the truth but keeping silent about most of it. The story of the binding of Isaac can be read as a practical joke played on Abraham and called a "test."