Joseph de Maistre

From New World Encyclopedia

Joseph de Maistre (portrait by Karl Vogel von Vogelstein, ca. 1810)

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre (April 1, 1753 - February 26, 1821) was a Savoyard lawyer, diplomat, writer, and philosopher who, after being uprooted by the French Revolution, became a great exponent of the conservative tradition. He was one of the most influential spokesmen for a counter-revolutionary and authoritarian conservatism in the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789. De Maistre argued for the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded as a divinely sanctioned institution, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters as a prerequisite for stability in Europe.

De Maistre developed a theological view of the French Revolution as an event ordained by divine Providence, both to punish the French monarchy and aristocracy for promulgating the destructive atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth century philosophers, and to prepare the way for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the regeneration of France. Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (The St. Petersburg Dialogues), published posthumously in 1821, contained an explanation of the existence of evil in which the shedding of innocent blood represented the expiation of the sins of the guilty by the innocent, a spiritual principle which de Maistre considered mysterious and indubitable, and which explained the perpetuity of war.


Early life

Kingdom of Sardinia map: in yellow on top left, the Duchy of Savoy

De Maistre was born April 1, 1753, at Chambéry, in the Duchy of Savoy, which at the time belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia. His family was of French origin and had settled in Savoy a century earlier, eventually attaining a high position and aristocratic rank. His father had served as president of the Savoy Senate (a high law court equivalent to a French parliament), and his younger brother, Xavier de Maistre, would later become a military officer and a popular writer of fiction.

Joseph was probably educated by the Jesuits.[1] After the French Revolution, he became an ardent defender of their Order as he came increasingly to associate the spirit of the Revolution with the spirit of the Jesuits' traditional enemies, the Jansenists. After training in the law in Turin University (1774), he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a senator in 1787.

Maistre’s notebooks and early correspondence show that he was much more interested in philosophy, theology, politics, and history than in the law. His native language was French, and he also read Greek, Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and, with some difficulty, German. His writings indicate that he was familiar with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the Church Fathers, Greek and Latin classical authors, Renaissance and seventeenth century authors, and all the major figures of the European Enlightenment.

During the period from 1774 to 1790, Maistre was a member of Masonic lodges in Chambéry and associated with an esoteric and "illuminist" brand of Scottish Rite Masons in neighboring Lyon. At that time, these clubs were often frequented by priests and bishops as well as Catholic noblemen, and provided an opportunity to discuss politics and meet friends who could help to advance a young man’s career. He was attracted to the mystical doctrines of the Masonic circles, which seemed a providential counter-force to the rationalism and the irreligion of the time.

Response to the French Revolution

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, de Maistre began to produce writings about current events, such as Discours à Mme. la marquise Costa de Beauregard, sur la vie et la mort de son fils (Discourse to the Marchioness Costa de Beauregard, on the Life and Death of her Son, 1794) and Cinq paradoxes à la Marquise de Nav… (Five Paradoxes for the Marchioness of Nav…, 1795). In Considerations sur la France (Considerations on France, 1796),[2] he maintained that France had a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and of evil on earth. De Maistre considered the Revolution of 1789 as a Providential occurrence, brought on by the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the whole of the old French society, who instead of using the powerful influence of French civilization to benefit mankind, had promoted the destructive atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth century philosophers. He saw the crimes of the Reign of Terror as the apotheosis and the logical consequence of the destructive spirit of the eighteenth century, as well as the divinely decreed punishment for it.

In the years preceding the French Revolution, de Maistre had regarded the magistrates of the French parliaments as the natural leaders who could bring about moderate reform and approved of their efforts to force the King of France to call the Estates-General. He may even have considered joining the Estates-General himself, since he owned property across the frontier in France. However, he was disillusioned by the developments taking place in Versailles. He opposed the joining together of the three orders of clergy, nobility, and third estate, and by mid-July 1789, predicted that a "deluge of evils" would follow such "leveling." The revolutionary legislation of the night of August 4, 1789, appears to have completely turned de Maistre against the Revolution.

When a French revolutionary army invaded Savoy in 1792, de Maistre, now firm in his opposition to the Revolution, immediately fled to Piedmont with his wife and children. He returned to Chambéry briefly in January 1793, to try to protect his property from confiscation, and because Turin seemed unwilling to reward his loyalty by offering him a suitable position. He soon found that he could not support the new French-sponsored regime, and he departed again, this time to Switzerland, where he began a new career as a counter-revolutionary publicist.

There, he visited the salon of Germaine de Staël and discussed politics and theology with her. He became an active publicist against the French Revolution. In 1803, he was appointed as the King of Sardinia's diplomatic envoy to the court of Russia's Tsar, Alexander I in Saint Petersburg, and remained at the Russian court for fourteen years. From 1817 until his death, he served in Turin as a magistrate and minister of state for the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Political and moral philosophy


De Maistre was master of a great store of knowledge which, combined with a talent for writing French prose, made him a powerful literary enemy of eighteenth century rationalism, in which he delighted to detect logical weakness and shallowness.

Maistre's first counter-revolutionary work, four Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien, published in 1793, for clandestine circulation in French-occupied Savoy, complained that political loyalty was becoming a matter of calculated reason and deliberate self-interest rather than a natural instinct as it had been in the past. He contradicted himself, however, by appealing to rationalism by asking his readers to judge the rule of the House of Savoy by examining its achievements, and by exhorting Savoyards to "Love your sovereign as you love order with all the strength of your intelligence."

By the summer of 1794, Maistre had worked out a religious and providential interpretation of events. The publication of his Considérations sur la France in early 1797, presented his new theological explanation of the French Revolution, and established his reputation as a conservative. Maistre advanced the French Revolution as a cosmic Providential event, both a divine punishment and a necessary prelude to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the regeneration of France. Similar theories had been proposed by other royalists, but de Maistre presented his ideas with eloquence and clarity. De Maistre had read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and shared Burke's emotional reaction against the violence, "immorality," and "atheism" of the Revolution. De Maistre's work reflected many of the same themes as Burke’s, such as reverence for established institutions, a distrust of innovation, and the defense of prejudice, aristocracy, and an established church; but de Maistre added his assertion that events were directed by divine Providence, and adamantly defended traditional Roman Catholicism and papal authority.

According to de Maistre, only governments founded on the Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies, but especially in that of Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodletting that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, such as that of the 1789 revolution.

Theological theory

De Maistre gradually shifted from an emphasis on politics to fundamental philosophical and theological issues. His little book, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines (Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions, 1809), centered on the idea that constitutions are not the artificial products of study but come in due time and under suitable circumstances from God, who slowly brings them to maturity in silence.

After the appearance in 1816, of his French translation of Plutarch's treatise On the Delay of Divine Justice in the Punishment of the Guilty, in 1819, de Maistre published his masterpiece, Du Pape (On the Pope). The work is divided into four parts. In the first he argues that, in the Church, the pope is sovereign, and that it is an essential characteristic of all sovereign power that its decisions should be subject to no appeal. Consequently, the pope is infallible in his teaching, since it is by his teaching that he exercises his sovereignty. In the remaining divisions, de Maistre examined the relationship between of the pope and the temporal powers, civilization and the welfare of nations, and the schismatic Churches. He argued that nations required protection against abuses of power from a sovereignty superior to all others, and that this sovereignty should be that of the papacy, the historical savior and maker of European civilization. As to the schismatic Churches, de Maistre believed that they would, with time, return to the arms of the papacy because "no religion can resist science, except one." De Maistre promoted infallible papal authority as a prerequisite for political stability in Europe.

Existence of evil

The Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (The St. Petersburg Dialogues, (published shortly after Maistre's death in 1821)[3] is a theodicy in the form of a witty Platonic dialogue, proposing de Maistre’s own solution to the age-old problem of the existence of evil. De Maistre explained that the existence of evil throws light on the designs of God, because the moral world and the physical world are interrelated. Physical evil is the necessary corollary of moral evil, which humanity expiates and minimizes through prayer and sacrifice. In an appendix, called an "Enlightenment on Sacrifices," de Maistre explained that the shedding of innocent blood, such as the execution of aristocratic families on the guillotine, represented the expiation of the sins of the guilty by the innocent, a spiritual principle which he considered mysterious and indubitable. This principle propelled humanity in its return to God and explained the existence and the perpetuity of war.

Besides a voluminous correspondence, de Maistre left two posthumous works. One of these, L'examen de la philosophie de [[Francis Bacon|Bacon] (An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon, 1836), developed a spiritualist epistemology out of a critique of Francis Bacon, whom de Maistre considered as a fountainhead of the scientism and atheism of the Enlightenment in its most destructive form.


The writings of Joseph de Maistre stimulated such thinkers as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Charles Maurras, and inspired generations of French royalists and ultramontane Catholics. De Maistre can be counted, with the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, as one of the fathers of European conservatism. Since the nineteenth century, however, the providentialist, authoritarian, "throne and altar" strand of conservatism that he represented has greatly declined in political influence when compared to the more pragmatic and adaptable conservatism of Burke. De Maistre's stylistic and rhetorical brilliance, on the other hand, have made him enduringly popular as a writer and controversialist. The great liberal poet Alphonse de Lamartine, though a political enemy, could not but admire the lively splendor of de Maistre's prose:

That brief, nervous, lucid style, stripped of phrases, robust of limb, did not at all recall the softness of the eighteenth century, nor the declamations of the latest French books: It was born and steeped in the breath of the Alps; it was virgin, it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once… That man was new among the enfants du siècle.

De Maistre's attacks on Enlightenment thought have long made him an attractive counter-cultural figure in certain circles. For example, the poet Charles Baudelaire claimed that de Maistre had taught him "how to think" and declared himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary.

His influence is controversial among American conservatives. Contemporary conservative commentator Pat Buchanan calls de Maistre a "great conservative" in his 2006 book, State of Emergency. Along with paleoconservative theorist Samuel Francis, Buchanan considers de Maistre an early intellectual precursor on issues of nationalism and universalism.[4]


Maistre has been criticized for his extreme views, and in particular for his interpretation of the social role of the executioner, of war, and of bloodshed. Maistre sought to comprehend the irrational and violent dimensions of social and political life; rather than being considered an advocate of violence, he should be considered as an innovative political theorist.

Isaiah Berlin counts him, in his Freedom and Its Betrayal, as one of the six principal enemies of liberty amongst major Enlightenment thinkers. He maintains that Maistre's works were regarded as "the last despairing effort of feudalism in the dark ages to resist the march of progress." Émile Faguet, whom Berlin thinks the most accurate and fairest-minded critic of Maistre in the nineteenth century, described Maistre as

a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of Pope, King and Hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner.[5]

A great many Enlightenment thinkers loathed Maistre's counter-reformation views, but were at the same time in awe of his style and intellectual prowess. De Maistre was painted as a fanatical monarchist and a still more fanatical supporter of papal authority, proud, brilliant but embittered, strong-willed and inflexible in all matters, and in possession of potent but rigid powers of reasoning.


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  2. De Maistre, Considerations on France. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  3. Jack Lively, The St. Petersburg Dialogues. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  4. Patrick Buchanan, State of Emergency, p. 146.
  5. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Berlin, Isaiah and Henry Hardy. 1991. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0679401318
  • Buchanan, Patrick J. 2006. State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312360037
  • Lebrun, Richard. 2001. Joseph de Maistre's Life, Thought and Influence: Selected Studies. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773522883
  • Lombard, Charles M. 1976. Joseph de Maistre. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0805762477
  • Muller, Jerry Z. 1997. Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691037124
  • This article incorporates text from the public domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910.

External links

All links retrieved August 10, 2022.

General philosophy sources


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