Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Maistre's God, Maistre's Politics

Though Maistre is a dogmatic Catholic, it is not at all clear that his god is a Christian god. Maistre's is a vengeful, punishing god. The revolution is both crime and punishment, all rolled into one.

The Revolution, says Maistre, is a force beyond human control, "an overwhelming force that bends every obstacle...a whirlwind carrying along like light straw everything that human force has opposed to it." To what end? Why has Providence deigned to inflict such a catastrophe on the French people? To punish the guilty,of course. And who are the guilty? Just about everyone, it seems: 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. These are the crimes for which the French people are being punished: thought crimes.

Toward the end of the St. Petersberg Dialogues, we learn if we have not already guessed, where Maistre is leading us:

Do you realize, gentlemen, the source of this flood of insolent doctrines which unceremoniously judge God and call him to account for his orders? They come to us from that great phalanx we call "intellectuals" and whom we have not been able in this age to keep in their place, which is a secondary one. At other times there were very few intellectuals, and a very small minority of this small minority were ungodly; today one sees nothing but "intellectuals"; it is a profession, a crowd, a nation; and among them the already unfortunate exception has become the rule. On every side they have usurped a limitless influence, and yet if there is one thing certain in this world, it is to my mind that it is not for science to guide men. Nothing necessary for this is entrusted to science. One would have to be out of one's mind to believe that God has charged the academies with teaching what he is and what we owe him. It rests with the prelates, the nobles, the great officers of state to be the depositaries and guardians of the saving truths, to teach nations what is bad and what good, what true and what false in the moral and spiritual order: others have no right to reason on this kind of matter. They have the natural sciences to amuse them, what are they complaining about? As for those who talk or write to deprive a people of a national belief, they should be hung like housebreakers.... What folly it was to grant everyone freedom of speech! This is what has ruined us. The so-called philosophers have all a certain fierce and rebellious pride which does not compromise with anything; they detest without exception every distinction they themselves do not enjoy; they find fault in every authority; they hate anything above them. If they are allowed, they will attack everything, even God, because he is master. See if it is not the same men who have attacked both kings and the God who established them....

So, you may well ask, Why Maistre? Because there was a time in the 19th and early 20th century when he was taken very seriously by those who were violently opposed to what I am calling modernity. Joseph de Maistre is the first reactionary; he virtually defines that word.

One might also ask, Why this interest in the French Revolution? That was more than two hundred years ago; what's it to us or we to it? How could those events of long ago and the controversies they aroused, be of any interest or relevance NOW? And why should we take any interest whatsoever
in a fellow like Maistre, whom nobody reads anymore?

The French Revolution--or Explosion--was touched off when the French government was forced by extreme financial pressures to call a meeting of the French Parliament, the Estates General, for the first time in about 175 years. During that time, a modernizing economy and culture had been blocked by the structures and assumptions of the ancient, feudal world. Unlike England, France had no experience of Parliamentary government to fall back on when the problems and hatreds that had been fermenting for almost two centuries began to thrust themselves upon the attention of inexperienced parliamentarians. Naturally, under the circumstances, those men who had thought about history and politics were listened to. These were men who knew all about The Rights of Man, the state of nature and the origins of political culture in the abstract, having been educated by reading Rousseau, Condorcet and Voltaire. The rest, as we say, is history--an extraordinarily bloody history indeed, as it turned out, that settled nothing and proved nothing, and became therefore a source of further conflict. The First World War and the Russian Revolution are both rooted in the French Revolution. Maistre's reflections became gospel for all those who had been disinherited or marginalized by the Revolution and by the seemingly irresistible pressures of modernity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

No one reads Maistre anymore, but that could change should it ever become obvious that modernity can no longer deliver the goods. Who do you think the people will blame when or if the balance of nature turns against us?

I should like to turn my attention, now, to Edmund Burke who like Maistre found in the Revolution the occasion that he had, perhaps, been looking for, to set forth his deepest reflections about human nature, politics and history. It will be immediately obvious, to anyone who reads Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that he is a deeper thinker and writer than Maistre, with a much 'thicker' understanding of human nature and human societies. So Burke's conservatism is still relevant, unlike the reactionary politics of Maistre.

1 comment:

  1. "Maistre's is a vengeful, punishing god":

    Of course he is. Who is more punishing than Jesus? Jesus believed in Hell and approved of it. Think of the story of the rich man in Hell (Luke 16:19-31). Who could possible deserve eternal torment? May Hitler or Pol Pot, but certainly not a guy who didn't invite a beggar with oozing sores into his house.

    In order to be saved and not go to Hell, one must have faith. What could possibly be more unjust than basing reward and punishment on faith? You can't know the rules until you're already in Hell, and then it's too late.