Joseph de Maistre

The French political philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) is considered perhaps the leading contemporary philosophical opponent of the Enlightenment on the European continent.

Joseph de Maistre was born on April 1, 1753, at Chambéry in Savoy, which is now part of France but was then part of the kingdom of Sardinia. His family had for generations been among the leading families of this state, where they served as virtual hereditary magistrates. When the relatively progressive Savoy was invaded by Napoleon's troops, Maistre left his property and family and took refuge in Switzerland and Italy. Although he could have returned to regain his ancestral estates, out of loyalty to his sovereign he endured many lonely and impecunious years, from 1803 until 1817, as ambassador to the Russian court at St. Petersburg.

While in this virtual exile in Russia, awaiting the defeat of Napoleon, Maistre wrote at least 13 volumes of collected works, including letters and diplomatic correspondence, most of which was designed to refute the principles and programs of the philosophical Enlightenment and its concrete historical expression, the French Revolution. He died in Savoy on Feb. 26, 1821.

Maistre's first major work was Considerations on France (1796), in which he perceptively argues that paper constitutions never have and never will establish rights for a people. Disputing in particular the theories of J. J. Rousseau, he maintains that no people can ever give itself a body of rights through the fiat of a social contract. If the rights do not exist in the political tradition of a people, then that written document either will not be followed, or it will be interpreted in such a way that the rights become meaningless. Thus, in examining the political practices of two nations, each with virtually the same bill of rights, it is often found that in the one they are effective guarantees, but in the other they are not. The reason why rights are meaningful in the one nation, then, cannot be the written document which supposedly guarantees them; it can only be the tradition of liberty in that nation, with the written constitution being at most the visible manifestation of these deeply felt ideas. In no sense can the written constitution produce rights where they had not existed in the historical habits of the people. History in turn is determined by divine providence, and thus it alone makes a government truly legitimate. The most influential agent on the world scene is the Church, which civilizes men to their social duties.

Most of Maistre's views are succinctly stated in The Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, written in 1808-1809 before his much longer major works On the Pope (1819) and Soirées de St. Petersbourg (1821). In this essay may be found his critical analysis of the French Revolution, his providential view of history, and his justification of ultramontanism (the theocratic view that the pope and/or Church was meant to be not only the spiritual but the indirect temporal ruler of the world).

The true constitution of any nation, Maistre contended, was unwritten and the product of a slow organic growth, not the arbitrary consent or will of a moment. There was, in his opinion, no absolutely best form of government, but each nation has a spirit or soul of its own for which a specific form of government is best. In most cases it would be monarchy, since that form had the longest history and was the most common. For France, for example, he advocated a restoration of the monarchy which would be restrained by newly instituted councils named by electors appointed by the king. If such checks on the power of the king proved inadequate, it would be necessary to submit a question to the authority of the pope, whom he believed to be divinely instituted as the ultimate judge for human affairs. It is this aspect of his thought which has led some commentators to characterize him as an ultramontanist, or theocrat. He believed also that because of original sin man was inclined to be selfish; furthermore, all human institutions are the work of God operating through secondary causes, such as the character of a people, and natural, moral, and physical laws. He attacked his opponents for being dogmatic and abstract and for deducing propositions from an arbitrarily and artificially developed ideology. In his own methods he relied on history, experience, and comparative analyses.


Further Reading on Joseph de Maistre

A comprehensive edition of Maistre's writings is his Works, translated and edited by Jack Lively (1965). Richard Allen Lebrun, Throne and Altar: The Political and Religious Thought of Joseph de Maistre (1965), is recommended. Elio Gianturco, Joseph de Maistre and Giambattista Vico (1937), includes an extensive bibliography.

Additional Biography Sources

Lebrun, Richard, Joseph de Maistre: an intellectual militant, Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988.