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Summary of de Maistre

I wrote this up for class today. No doubt, it could be much improved upon in light of O'Donovan's fantastic remarks in class, but this covers some of the main bases, and other important insights might make up a separate post.

Joseph de Maistre, born in 1753, lived and served as a public official in the Duchy of Savoy, part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, but occupying a portion of the European mainland right next to France. He lived until 1821 and wrote much political philosophy after the French Revolution and deeply critical of it. Fervently Catholic, he saw the collapse of respect for civil authority and, along with it, European order and civilization, as the inevitable fruit of a rejection of the Christian religion. Indeed, he went further than this in arguing that the same principles of disrespect for tradition and authority that the Protestant Reformers introduced were liable to yield the fruit of political revolution and chaos.


We see both of these arguments in the pithy and provocative Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions. In this essay, he mocks the arrogant anthropocentrism of the French Revolution, which proceeded on the assumption that a successful constitution could be fabricated all at once, written down, and then become authoritative. This supposition is false on a number of levels. First, written documents are only authoritative insofar as they represent what is already, on unwritten grounds, generally accepted. They can reflect and enshrine custom and authority, but they cannot create it out of thin air. Indeed, a written law only emerges in response to a challenge to accepted authority, and serves as a poor substitute for the acceptance of that authority which precedes it. This principle, he thinks, operates in the realm of religion as well, and he musters his Catholic understanding of the priority of unwritten tradition as evidence for his case. The same Protestant faith in the naked Word he sees in the French Revolutionaries. Second, human action cannot create sovereignty; only God can, and God usually takes his sweet time to do it. No great authority is legitimate at its outset, but only when it has grown to maturity under God’s guidance.

So, a written ordinance is only authoritative if it was already authoritative unwritten, and it is often better left unwritten. Authority cannot be created, but only inherited. Only God can create sovereignty. What else? These are de Maistre’s basic points, but he intensifies them with some corollaries--man must also beware of confidently undertaking reform or even renaming of political institutions. Here too God’s authority exceeds his own, and modesty and dependence on divine aid must be the order of the day. Moreover, no society can succeed or prosper unless it is constituted firmly on religion, preferably the Christian religion.

De Maistre concludes by blaming the chaos and violence that succeeded the French Revolution, and what he sees as the breakdown of European civilization, on the wholesale rebellion against God that took place in the eighteenth century.

De Maistre’s account, while powerful, raises a number of questions: first, is de Maistre blurring the crucial line between God’s sovereign will and his revealed will? De Maistre seems to almost be saying, “God acts in history to bring a particular government to power, and therefore, that government now rightfully has sovereignty and should not be overthrown.” But just because God caused or permitted it to happen in some ultimate sense does not mean that he has stamped his approval on it and we should not change it. One might make this argument with the Church, as de Maistre does, since the Church has the promise of the Spirit. One can thus argue that, guided by the Spirit, the Church has assumed a divinely authorized form. But can we claim the same special divine guidance for states?

Second, is writing really a poor substitute for unwritten tradition, used only by necessity? His account of the New Testament might seem to fit this account, but what about the Old? He admits that Israel’s constitution is the exception to his rule, but it’s more than just this. The Old Testament prophets, for example, seemed to think writing a very important way of communicating truth. And, one might argue that the US Constitution provides an easy counterexample to de Maistre’s skepticism about written constitutions...or does it provide solid proof of his case?

Third, Christianity on his account seems to be firmly on the side of the powers that be. Is this accurate? Is this desirable? Jesus Christ certainly wasn’t, and those who have wanted to remain faithful to him have always wanted to preserve something of the antagonism between Christian practice and the principalities and powers.

Finally, assuming we accept his general point, where does this leave us? Just because a sovereignty exists does not mean that it should always continue to exist, does it? Surely there are times when abuses must be corrected; indeed, even times when an edifice is collapsing and a fresh start must be made. Does de Maistre have any wisdom to offer to such endeavors? Put another way, is de Maistre really saying, “Constitutions can’t be written, so just relax and let God choose sovereigns?” or is he merely cautioning his contemporaries against pretentious overconfidence in their ability to fashion a utopia and make people embrace it?

2 comments:

Great questions. It struck me that most of those questions could be posed to Burke, as well, from one angle or another.

On a somewhat related note, do you have any plans to read Charles Taylor's A Secular Age? With O'Donovan perhaps?

January 29, 2010 at 6:20 PM  

Yes, good old Burke...he didn't exercise as much attraction for me as de Maistre, though...either because of the curious Catholic pull or because of de Maistre's eloquence.

O'Donovan wouldn't assign anything that huge. It's certainly in the back shelves of my mental to-read list. I suppose I should move it forward to the front shelves?

January 30, 2010 at 12:38 PM  

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