Saturday, 16 July 2011

A well-known quotation from Joseph de Maistre

From Considérations sur la France (1797):

"I will simply point out the error of principle that has provided the foundation of this constitution and that has led the French astray since the first moment of their revolution.

The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man.  Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man.  In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian.  But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.  If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.

....This constitution is capable of being applied to all human communities from China to Geneva.  But a constitution which is made for all nations is made for none: it is a pure abstraction, a school exercise whose purpose is to exercise the mind in accordance with a hypothetical ideal, and which ought to be addressed to Man, in the imaginary places which he inhabits....

What is a constitution?  Is it not the solution to the following problem: to find the laws that are fitting for a particular nation, given its population, its customs, its religion, its geographical situation, its political relations, its wealth, and its good and bad qualities?

Now, this problem is not addressed at all by the Constitution of 1795, which is concerned only with Man."

Bruce Robbins comments on this:

"De Maistre's genteel snubbing of 'man' is still remembered often and with satisfaction. But its propriety has never seemed so open to doubt. Recent history has made it difficult to pretend that humanity, assumed to be vague and ungraspable, can be clearly contrasted to particular nationalities, assumed to be indisputably palpable and real. Those Frenchmen De Maistre has seen with his own eyes: are we sure they weren't Alsatians or Occitanians of uncertain allegiance and identity? Could it be that his Russians were not really Russians at all, but Ukrainians or Georgians, Chechens or Abkhazians whose day of national recognition had not yet arrived - and would arrive only to be contested in turn? Nationality, it would appear, is also an artifice, a fragile historical generalization rather than a given fact of nature. And precisely because France and Russia must be acknowledged to be abstractions, it is harder and harder to avoid at least a nodding acquaintance with 'man,' who is nothing but a more unruly, less institutionally grounded abstraction."