Sunday, 26 June 2011

Review of "On the Pope" by Joseph de Maistre

"How blind is not prejudice, even in the most penetrating minds!"

Originally written in 1816-17, On the Pope (Du Pape) was the masterpiece of Count Joseph de Maistre, an extreme right-wing intellectual and an implacable opponent of the French revolution, liberalism, Protestantism, democracy and modern civilisation.


Sir Isaiah Berlin counted de Maistre* as one of his Six Enemies of Human Liberty, and wrote that he had "a deeply violent, deeply revolutionary, ultimately Fascist inner passion".  This is a somewhat strong judgement, but it is fair to say that history has not remembered de Maistre as a great friend of human freedom.  The closest he comes in this book to advocating civil liberty is in expressing his approval of the abolition of slavery, though this was mainly because the demise of slavery stopped men from being able legally to compel women to have sex with them.  He wrote candidly that "man in general, if left to himself, is too wicked to be free".  It had been possible to abolish slavery only because Christianity had taken its place, and, commenting on contemporary European politics, he predicted that "good order will not be thoroughly established until either slavery or religion be restored".

* = Yes, I know that his name should technically be rendered in English as 'Maistre'.  Sue me.

I have previously described this book as "ultra-right-wing porn", but it is actually less revealing of the dark things that went on inside de Maistre's head than some of his other writings.  It is polemical after a fashion, but it could be worse.  Occasionally, de Maistre even manages to sound like a sensible, pragmatic British conservative in the mould of Burke, commending tradition and experience over a priori theories.  He deplores the Enlightenment tendency to "judge everything according to abstract rules", and affirms that "it never can be permitted to reason according to hypotheses without any regard to facts".  Given the absolutist nature of his convictions, however, it is difficult to take such statements at face value.  De Maistre's political opinions were not distinguished by their empirical pragmatism or their "regard to facts".  It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that they were as strongly coloured by ideology and prejudice as anything that his Jacobin enemies came up with.

The book's fundamental themes are authority, hierarchy and power.  De Maistre's basic worldview is summed up thus:
No human society can exist without government, nor government without sovereignty, nor sovereignty without infallibility; and this last privilege is so absolutely necessary, that we are obliged to suppose infallibility, even in temporal sovereignties (where it is not), on pain of beholding society dissolved.
As the title of the book implies, de Maistre's principal focus is the spiritual sovereignty of the Pope.  He had an extreme ultramontanist conception of the papal office.  He denounced the anti-papal school of French Catholicism known as Gallicanism, and he argued in favour of the Pope's supreme and infallible authority half a century before the still-debated theory of papal infalliblity was officially adopted as Catholic dogma.  In de Maistre's conception, the Pope was not merely the head of the Church, he was essential to the Church: "without the Papal monarchy, the Church no longer exists".  The pontiff was "the necessary, the only, the exclusive basis of Christianity".  The popes were "the founders, the tutors, the saviours, and the real constituent minds of the social state of Europe", and there was to be seen "on the throne which they have filled, more wisdom, more science and more virtue than on any other".

De Maistre was aware that it might be objected that he was advocating some kind of universal papal tyranny.  He make a point of noting that the doctrinal authority of the pontiffs was confined to religious matters, and "the human mind has quite enough whereon to exercise itself beyond this sacred perimeter".  He also pointed to the checks to which papal authority was subject:
As to those who by birth or by system are without the Catholic circle, if they address to me the same question, What can check the Pope? I will answer, EVERYTHING - the canons, the laws, the customs of nations, sovereignties, the great tribunals, national assemblies, prescription, representations, negotiations, duty, fear, prudence, and, above all, opinion, which rules the world.
It is not clear, however how far de Maistre envisaged the laws, tribunals, assemblies and so on as providing a formal, legal check on the Pope's authority as opposed to a moral and customary check.  In any event, he is being disingenuous here.  As we will see, he attributed to the papacy a crucially important political role which could not be checked by any power on earth.


In the temporal sphere, de Maistre was a strong supporter of absolute monarchy in the mould of Louis XIV.  Monarchy, he wrote, was "the best, the most durable of governments, and the most natural to man".  Of course, even the best of monarchies would entail certain "evils", but then "every government is more or less attended with abuses", and the alternatives were definitely worse: "in democracies particularly... we must look for some excesses of popular madness".

De Maistre may have been an absolutist, but it is not strictly correct to say that he thought that monarchs should or could be omnipotent.  He affirmed that sovereignty is absolute only in its own sphere and not outside its proper boundaries, and he acknowledged that nations have "fundamental laws" that even the king must respect.  He also suggested, rather hopefully, that "there is always in close proximity to every government some kind of power which acts as a check upon it.  Whether it be a law, a custom, conscience, a [papal] tiara, or a poniard [dagger] - there is always something."

That said, there is only one specific formal limitation that de Maistre was prepared to accept on kingly authority, and that was that a king should not personally hand out punishments to his subjects, but should delegate this function to professional judges.  The "fundamental law of European monarchy", he wrote, is that "[k]ings abdicate the power of judging by themselves, and the people, in return, declare kings INFALLIBLE AND INVIOLABLE".  This rather strange social contract - which, needless to say, de Maistre gives the papacy credit for introducing - had the effect of giving monarchs all the authority they could wish for whilst giving their subjects all the freedom that they needed.

What de Maistre hated above all was the idea that subjects had the right to rebel against an unjust king.  The idea of a right of rebellion was not a new-fangled Jacobin notion - Jesuit theologians had put forward the idea long before 1789.  But de Maistre had seen what had happened when the subjects of Louis XVI had rebelled against him, and he didn't like it one bit: "A pretty fair experience has just taught us that the greatest evils resulting from subordination amount not to a thousandth part of those arising from rebellion."  He elsewhere describes the French Revolution as "essentially satanical".

These were not wholly unreasonable sentiments for a man who had lived through the reign of terror, the revolutionary wars and the rise of Napoleon (though, oddly, de Maistre preferred the radical Jacobins to the more moderate revolutionaries - they at least understood what power was all about).  What is more difficult to excuse is his reluctance to concede even the modest proposition that it is no bad thing for a king to share power with an elected parliament or to govern through a constitution.  He denounced the "rage for constitutions [which] has taken possession of all minds", and he loftily opined that "we do not find that the numerous attempts made to restrain sovereign power have ever succeeded in a way calculated to inspire the wish to imitate them".  We don't?  A British reader might find this sentiment particularly implausible, but de Maistre tries to minimise the significance of Britain as an example of a strong and successful constitutional monarchy, and suggests that the British constitution would not stand the test of time.  (At this point, even the translator thought that de Maistre had gone too far, and inserted a sarcastic footnote implying that he didn't know what he was talking about.)

As far as the quality of governance was concerned, de Maistre did not think that constitutional systems made for better laws than absolute monarchies.  In fact, parliaments were pretty dangerous unless they had a powerful king to discipline them: "every assembly that has no check," he wrote, "is immoderate".  It takes some audacity to argue in favour of autocratic monarchy on the basis that power will inevitably be abused by an elected parliament, but then de Maistre was an audacious guy.

There was one external check on monarchic power that de Maistre was prepared to allow: he was a supporter of the mediaeval idea that the Pope had the right to depose civil rulers who transgressed the bounds of propriety.  Kings had no need to worry that this represented a dilution of their rightful authority: it was a purely spiritual power, to be used on extraordinary occasions, and it did not impair the sovereignty of the royal house.  In this connection, de Maistre was cheeky enough to quote Voltaire's disapproving summary of mediaeval high politics and to endorse it as true and correct:
Every prince who wished to usurp or recover a domain, applied to the Pope, as to his master....  No new prince dared to style himself sovereign, and could not be recognized as such by the other princes, without the permission of the Pope; and the ground of the whole history of the middle ages is always that the Popes believe themselves lords paramount of all the states, without a single exception.
Of course, this sort of thing was a glaring anachronism two decades into the 19th century.  The popes had not attempted to exercise anything like a deposing power since Elizabethan times.  To be fair, de Maistre does say that he isn't fool enough to want to return to the ways of the middle ages.  But his writings on the proper relationship between the popes and civil rulers - and his ideas on monarchy and government in general - are clearly anachronistic.  By this point in history, even the restored Bourbons in France had accepted a British-style constitution, and ultramontanist Catholics looking for another Pope Gregory VII had to content themselves with the more modest figure of Pius VII Chiaramonti.


A significant part of the book is taken up with sectarian controversy.  As already noted, de Maistre didn't like Gallicanism.  He also regarded the Eastern Orthodox churches as no better than Protestantism, which was itself the first step on the road to apostasy.  He was particuarly sarky about the Church of England: "To know that the Anglican religion is false, there is no need either of research or of argument....  Either this religion is false, or God has become incarnate specially for the English people..."  Well, Joseph, you never know....

De Maistre was worried about the rise of religious scepticism which had followed the development of "science" (by which he seems to have meant not merely the natural sciences but human knowledge in general).  This "science", he writes, is a "fire" and an "ordeal", and it had disfigured the last century:
Chronology, natural history, astronomy, physics - were all, so to speak, in insurrection against religion.  A shameful coalition combined against her; - talents, knowledge, all the powers of the human mind.  Infidelity took possession of the theatre....  Women, who are all-powerful for evil as well as for good, lent it their influence....
This trend towards infidelity had penetrated the Protestant clergy.  It would overwhelm the Orthodox churches too when western learning reached them.  Catholics needn't worry, however.  De Maistre laid down this lapidary rule: "NO RELIGION, EXCEPT ONE, CAN STAND THE TEST OF SCIENCE."  Acid might corrode other metals, but it could not corrode gold.  One wonders what the old boy would have made of Vatican II.

Aside from this, the book contains some odd disgressions on matters ranging from the Latin language to clerical celibacy.  There is a bizarre chapter on the length of kings' lives, which de Maistre argued were longer in Christian countries than elsewhere and longer in Catholic countries than in Protestant ones.  He makes a few dubious predictions.  There would never again be an independent Greek or Egyptian state.  It would be impossible for another general council of the Catholic Church to be convened (there have been two so far, Vatican I in 1869-70 and Vatican II in 1962-65).

These days, de Maistre's theories are little more than historical curiosities, and this book is unlikely to be of much interest to anyone who is not an aficionado of the history of political ideas.  Isaiah Berlin thought that de Maistre was something of a prophet and that his ideas achieved their second life in 20th century totalitarianism.  On this view, his conservative Catholic monarchism merely disguised a darker obsession with power - the voice was that of Aquinas and Gregory VII, but the mindset was that of Himmler.  This is not entirely convincing, however.  The relationship between counterrevolutionary conservatism and 20th century fascism is too ambiguous to allow for a close comparison - Mussolini, for one, explicitly rejected de Maistre as an inspiration.  In all, it is difficult to see this celebrated tome as much more than an unusually clever and elegantly written period piece from the dustbin of history.