Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review of "Considerations on France" by Joseph de Maistre

This pamphlet was the response of the extreme right-wing intellectual Joseph de Maistre to the French Revolution - a kind of more robust, Francophone equivalent of Burke's Reflections (which de Maistre had read and admired).

It has to be said that de Maistre didn't like the Revolution very much:
Now what distinguishes the French Revolution and makes it an event unique in history is that it is radically bad.  No element of good disturbs the eye of the observer; it is the highest degree of corruption ever known; it is pure impurity.
On what page of history will you find such a great quantity of vices assembled at one time on the same stage?  What a horrible assemblage of baseness and cruelty!  What profound immorality!  What absence of all decency!
He saw the Revolution as being akin to a living being, having a life and energy of its own.  By the time that he wrote this tract, around late 1796, the Revolution had begun to devour its children.  The likes of Robespierre had gone to the guillotine, and Napoleon's day was at hand.  When de Maistre discusses this turn of events, he displays a certain Schadenfreude which bears some resemblance to sadism.

De Maistre's view of France was that she stood at the head of Europe, possessing a kind of "magistracy" over the continent.  Before the Revolution, she had been ruled by the blameless Louis XVI.  The French monarchy had been an admirable institution, and the country had had a constitution fitted to its own character.  The power of the kings had not been limitless: there had been "fundamental laws" which were beyond their reach.

What had happened in the Revolution was that a gang of diabolical radicals had committed the "great national crime of an antireligious and antisocial insurrection crowned by a regicide".  For the time being, de Maistre was content for the Republic to subsist and to win the wars in which it was embroiled.  A counterrevolution in the near term would mean that the destructive energy of the Revolution would be succeeded too suddenly by goodness and virtue, and that would not do at all.  It was also necessary to allow enough time for the French people themselves to become hostile to the Revolution:
[T]he weight of the usurping power must crush the people long enough to disgust them.  They have only seen the Revolution; they must feel it; they must, so to speak, savour its bitter consequences.  Perhaps, at the moment I am writing, they have not yet had enough.
Nevertheless, the royalist cause would triumph in the end: "the king will reascend his throne with all his pomp and power, perhaps even with an increase of power".  The counter-revolution would be accomplished gently and virtuously.  The ultimate result of the French Revolution would be "the glorification of Christianity and the monarchy".

As we have discussed elsewhere, the notion of sovereignty played a major role in de Maistre's political thought, he equated the notion with the rule of a hereditary monarch legitimised by the Catholic Church.  An attack on sovereignty like the French Revolution was an appalling act, "one of the greatest crimes that can be committed".  His desire for undisturbed social order contrasted with the revolutionaries' beliefs in liberty and the rights of man.  In his view, "the art of the legislator is not to make a people free, but free enough", and he believed that natural political rights were enjoyed only by kings and noblemen:
The rights of the people, properly so called, often enough proceed from the concessions of sovereigns... but the rights of the monarch and the aristocracy, at least their essential rights, those which we may call constitutive and basic, have neither date nor author.
As for religious faith, this was necessary if a nation was to have stable and durable civic institutions.  Once one started basing the political order on philosophical theories, people would start to think for themselves and things would begin to unravel.

De Maistre was hence against drawing up constitutions on a rationalistic basis.  The republican French constitution, he believed, was unnatural and artificial - even the American constitution had emerged in a more organic fashion.  It was the French Constitution of 1795 that called forth his famous criticism of the idea of "Man", in which he accused the revolutionaries - not, it has to be said, without reason - of drawing up an abstract document that failed to take account of the French national character and traditions.

It is fair to say that de Maistre was not a friend of democracy.  "God warns us", he warns us, "that He has reserved to Himself the establishment of sovereignties by never confiding to the masses the choice of their masters."  Like other reactionaries of the time, de Maistre thought that it was impossible for a large nation to exist under a republican government.  He claimed that such a thing had never happened before.  Nor was he impressed with the idea of using a representative system as a means of governing a large and populous republic.  He pointed out, tritely but rightly, that making use of representatives would exclude the vast majority of the supposedly sovereign people from participation in political power.  He recognised that representative systems had existed in practice, including the British constitution.  But he tries to diminish their significance, arguing that the British system in particular had developed relatively recently, that it did not provide for the representation of the whole country, and that its development was closely entwined with royal power.  As for the great representative republic across the Atlantic, he was unimpressed:
America is often cited.  I know of nothing so provoking as the praises bestowed on this babe-in-arms.  Let it grow.
He elsewhere predicted that Washington DC would never be built.

Finally, de Maistre gives some evidence of the more sinister side of his character.  He includes a whole chapter entitled "On the violent destruction of the human species".  It is in this section that the well-known passage appears affirming that there is "nothing but violence in the universe".  De Maistre saw war as the natural or usual state of mankind.  He may, unfortunately, have been right about this, but the way in which he makes the point leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.  When he talks about bloodshed and carnage, about "war raging without interruption", and when he goes with pedantic thoroughness through a catalogue of wars and conflicts from antiquity to modern times, one can perhaps detect a note of dark satisfaction in his funereal prose.  Did he, one wonders, enjoy writing this chapter a little too much?  He argues explicitly that war isn't as bad as most people think.  It is, he says, a remedy for societies which have become too overcivilised and decadent.  It serves to expiate the wrath of God.  It engenders great art, science and virtue: "blood", he tells us, "is the manure of the plant we call genius."  Manure, indeed.  Say what you like about Burke, he never wrote stuff like this.