V. THE CASE FOR CONSERVATISM

The philosophes of the eighteenth century had weakened the French government by impairing the credibility and moral standing of the Church, and by calling for an “enlightened despotism” to mitigate the evils of ignorance, incompetence, corruption, oppression, poverty, and war. The French philosophers of the early nineteenth century replied to these “dreamers” by defending the necessity of religion, the wisdom of tradition, the authority of the family, the advantages of legitimate monarchy, and the constant need of maintaining political, moral, and economic dikes against the ever-swelling sea of popular ignorance, cupidity, violence, barbarism, and fertility.

Two men, in this period, drew up in angry detail an indictment of the eighteenth-century appeal from faith to reason, and from tradition to enlightenment. Vicomte Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise de Bonald was born (1754) to class comfort, and was schooled in a secure and obedient piety. Astonished and threatened by the Revolution, he emigrated to Germany, joined for a time the antirevolutionary army of the Prince de Condé, resented its suicidal disorder, and retired to Heidelberg to carry on the war with his disciplined pen. In his Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux (1796) he defended absolute monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, patriarchal authority in the family, and the moral and religious sovereignty of the popes over all the kings of Christendom. The Directory condemned the book, but allowed him to return to France (1797). After a cautious pause he resumed his philosophic offensive with an Essai analytique sur les lois naturelles de l’ordre social (1800). Napoleon welcomed its defense of religion as indispensable to government. He offered Bonald a place in the Council of State; Bonald refused, then accepted (1806), saying that Napoleon had been appointed by God to restore the true faith.23

After the Restoration he occupied a succession of public offices, and issued a succession of conservative pronouncements, fervent but dull. He opposed divorce and the “rights of women” as disruptive of the family and social order, condemned freedom of the press as a threat to stable government, defended censorship and capital punishment, and proposed to punish with death the profanation of the sacred vessels used in Catholic services.24 Some conservatives smiled at the enthusiasm of his orthodoxy; but he was consoled by his correspondence with Joseph de Maistre, who, from St. Petersburg, sent him assurances of complete support, and later published volumes that must have gladdened and maddened Bonald by the completeness of their conservatism and the brilliance of their style.

Maistre was born (1753) in Chambéry, where, twenty years earlier, Mme. de Warens had taught Rousseau the art of love. As capital of the duchy of Savoy, the city was subject to the kings of Sardinia; however, the Savoyards used French as their native language, and Joseph learned to write it with almost the verve and force of Voltaire. His father was president of the Savoy Senate, and he himself became a member in 1787; they had more than philosophical reasons for defending the status quo. Politically the son of his father, Joseph was emotionally akin to his mother, who transmitted to him a passionate loyalty to the Catholic Church. “Nothing,” he later wrote, “can replace the education given by a mother.”25 He was schooled by nuns and priests and then in a Jesuit college at Turin; for them too his affection never waned; and after a brief flirtation with Freemasonry he accepted completely the Jesuit view that the state should be subordinate to the Church, and the Church to the pope.

In September, 1792, a French revolutionary army entered Savoy, and in November the duchy was annexed to France. The shock of this sudden transvaluation of all values, classes, powers, and creeds left Maistre with a hatred that darkened his mood, wrote his books, and heated his style. He fled with his wife to Lausanne, where he survived as official correspondent for Charles Emmanuel IV, king of Sardinia. He took some comfort in frequenting the salon of Mme. de Staël at nearby Coppet; but the intellectuals whom he met there, like Benjamin Constant, seemed to him infected with the scandalous skepticism of eighteenth-century France. Even the émigrés who were huddling in Lausanne were addicts of Voltaire; Maistre marveled at their unawareness that the anti-Catholicism of the philosophes had undermined the whole structure of French life by weakening the religious supports of the moral code, the family, and the state. Too old to shoulder arms against the Revolution, he resolved to fight the unbelievers and the revolutionists with his pen. He mingled vitriol with his ink, and left his mark upon the century. Only Edmund Burke, in that age, surpassed him in expounding the conservative view of life.

So in 1796, through a Neuchâtel press, he issued Considérations sur la France. He admitted that the government of Louis XVI had been vacillating and incompetent, and that the French Church needed moral renovation;26 but to change the form, policies, and methods of the state so rapidly and drastically was to betray an adolescent’s ignorance of the recondite foundations of government. No polity, he believed, could long survive which lacked roots in tradition and time, or supports in religion and morality. The French Revolution had shattered those supports by beheading the King and dispossessing the Church. “Never has such a great crime had so many accomplices…. Each drop of Louis XVI’s blood will cost France torrents; perhaps four million Frenchmen will pay with their lives for the great national crime of an antireligious and antisocial insurrection crowned by regicide.”27 Soon, he predicted (in 1796), “four or five people will give France a king.”28

In 1797 King Charles Emmanuel summoned Maistre to serve him in Turin; but shortly thereafter Napoleon took Turin, and the philosopher fled to Venice. In 1802 he was appointed Sardinian plenipotentiary at the court of Czar Alexander I. Expecting his mission to be brief, he left his family behind, but the service of his King kept him in St. Petersburg till 1817. He bore banishment impatiently, and drowned his cares in manuscript.

His basic production, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (1810), derived such constitutions from the conflict, in man, between good and evil (social and unsocial) impulses, and the need for an organized and lasting authority to maintain public order and group survival by supporting cooperative, as against individualistic, tendencies. Every man naturally longs for power and possession, and, until tamed, is a potential despot, criminal, or rapist. Some saints control earthly appetites, and a fewphilosophers may have accomplished this through reason; but in most of us virtue cannot of itself master our basic instincts; and to let every supposed adult judge all matters by his own reason (weak through inexperience, and slave to desire) is to sacrifice order to liberty. Such undisciplined liberty becomes license, and social disorder threatens the power of the group to unite against attack from without or disintegration from within.

Consequently, in Maistre’s view, the ebullient Enlightenment was a colossal mistake. He compared it to the youth who, by his eighteenth year, has concocted or adopted schemes for the radical reconstruction of education, the family, religion, society, and government. Voltaire was a choice example of such jejune omniscience; he “talked of everything for a whole age without once piercing below the surface”; he was “so continually occupied with instructing the world” that he “had only very rarely time to think.”29If he had studied history humbly as a transitory individual seeking instruction from the experience of the race, he might have learned that impersonal time is a better teacher than personal thought; that the soundest test of an idea is its pragmatic effects in the life and history of mankind; that institutions rooted in centuries of tradition must not be rejected without careful weighing of losses against gains; and that the campaign to écraser l’infâme—to destroy the moral authority of the Church which had disciplined adolescence and formed social order in Western Europe—would bring the collapse of morality, the family, society, and the state. The murderous Revolution was the logical outcome of the blind “Enlightenment.” “Philosophy is an essentially destructive force”; it puts all its trust in reason, which is individual, in intellect, which is individualistic; and the liberation of the individual from political and religious tradition and authority endangers the state, and civilization itself. “Hence the present generation is witnessing one of the most dramatic conflicts humanity has ever seen: the war to the death between Christianity and the cult of philosophy.”30

Since the individual lives too briefly to be fit to test the wisdom of tradition, he should be taught to accept it as his guide until he is old enough to begin to understand it; he will, of course, never be able to understand it fully. He should be suspicious of any proposed change in the constitution or the moral code. He should honor established authority as the verdict of tradition and racial experience, and therefore the voice of God.31

Monarchy—heredity and absolute—is the best form of government, for it embodies the longest and widest tradition, and makes for order, continuity, stability, and strength; while democracy, with its frequent changes in leaders and ideas, its periodical exposure to the whims and ignorance of the commonalty, makes for discontent, disorder, reckless experimentation, and an early end. The art of government includes mollifying the masses; the suicide of government lies in obeying them.

Leisurely (1802–16), in his most famous production, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (1821), Maistre expounded some incidental aspects of his philosophy. He thought that science proved God, for it revealed in nature a majestic order that implied a cosmic intelligence.32 We must not be disturbed in our faith by the occasional successes of the wicked or the misfortunes of the good. God allows good and evil to fall indifferently, like sun and rain, upon the criminal and the saint, for he is reluctant to suspend the laws of nature;33 in some cases, however, he may be moved by prayer to change the incidence of a law.34 Besides, most evils are penalties for faults or sins; probably every malady, every pain, is a punishment for some taint in ourselves, or our ancestry, or our living group.

If this is so, we should defend corporal punishment, execution for certain crimes, and even the tortures of the Inquisition. We should honor the public executioner instead of making him an outcast; his work, too, is the work of God, and is vital to social order.35The persistence of evil requires the persistence of punishment; relax this, and crime will grow. Moreover, “there is no punishment that does not purify, no disorder which Eternal Love does not turn against the principle of evil.”36

“War is divine, since it is a law of the world”—permitted by God through all history.37 Wild animals obey this rule. “Periodically an exterminating angel comes and clears away thousands of them.”38 “Humanity can be considered as a tree that an invisible hand is continually pruning, often to its benefit… A great deal of bloodshed is often connected with a high population.”39 “From the worm even to man there is accomplished the great law of the violent destruction of living beings. The whole earth, drinking blood, is merely an immense altar, where every living being must be immolated, time without end, without limit, without rest, even unto the destruction of all things, even to the death of death.”40

If we object that such a world hardly moves us to worship its creator, Maistre answers that we must worship nonetheless, because all nations and generations have worshiped him, and so lasting and universal a tradition must contain a truth beyond the capacity of human reason to understand or refute. In the end, philosophy, if it loves wisdom, will yield to religion, and reason to faith.

In 1817 the King of Sardinia, restored to his Turin throne, recalled Maistre from Russia; and in 1818 he made him a chief magistrate and a councilor of state. In those two years the grim philosopher produced his last work, Du Pape, which was published soon after his death (1821). The book was his uncompromising answer to the question that had been raised by his exaltation of the monarch as society’s protection against the individualism of the citizen: What if the monarch too, like Caesar or Napoleon, is as individualistic and self-centered as any citizen, and much more in love with power?

Maistre unhesitatingly replied that all rulers must accept subordination to an authority older, greater, and wiser than their own: they must submit, in all matters of religion or morality, to the verdict of a pontiff who inherits the power conferred upon the Apostle Peter by the Son of God. At that time (1821), when the states of Europe were struggling to recover from the brutality of the Revolution and the despotism of Napoleon, their leaders should recall how the Catholic Church had saved the remnants of Roman civilization by checking and taming the multiplying barbarians; how she had established, through her bishops, a system of social order and disciplined education which slowly, through the Dark and Middle Ages, begot a civilization based upon the agreement of kings to recognize the moral sovereignty of the pope. “Nations have never been civilized except by religion,” for only the fear of an all-seeing and all-powerful God can control the individualism of human desire. Religion accompanied the birth of all civilizations, and the absence of religion heralds their death.41 Therefore the kings of Europe must again accept the pope as their overlord in all moral or spiritual concerns. They should take education out of the hands of scientists and return it to the priests, for the ascendancy of science will coarsen and brutalize the people,42 while the restoration of religion will give peace to the nation and the soul.

But what if the pope too should be selfish, and seek to turn every issue to the temporal advantage of the Papacy? Maistre had a ready answer: since the pope is guided by God, he is infallible when, on matters of faith or morals, he speaks as official head of the Church founded by Christ. So, half a century before the Church herself proclaimed it as an inseparable part of the Catholic faith, Maistre announced the infallibility of the pope. The Pope himself was a bit surprised, and the Vatican found it advisable to check the “ultramontanists” who were making embarrassing claims for the political authority of the Papacy.

Barring this final point, and some other exaggerations that could be passed with a smile, the conservatives of Europe welcomed Maistre’s uncompromising defense of their views, and compliments came to him from Chateaubriand, Bonald, Lamennais, and Lamartine. Even Napoleon agreed with him on a number of items—the benevolence of Louis XVI, the vileness of the regicides, the excesses of the Revolution, the frailty of reason, the presumptuousness of the philosophers, the necessity of religion, the value of tradition and authority, the weaknesses of democracy, the desirability of hereditary and absolute monarchy, the biological services of war…

As for Napoleon’s reigning enemies, they could feel that in Maistre’s straightforward philosophy were some of the reasons why they had to overthrow this Corsican parvenu, this heir of a revolution that threatened every monarchy in the world. Here was the secret doctrine that they had never been able—never would be able—to explain to their subjects: the reasons why they, the hereditary kings, emperors, and aristocracies of Europe, had accepted the burdens, dangers, and ritual of rule, while the Marats, Robespierres, and Babeufs had accused them of mercilessly exploiting an innocent commonalty which claimed by divine right—really by assassination and massacre—all the benefits of social organization, and all the goods of the earth. Here was a doctrine on which the legitimate sovereigns of Europe could unite to restore an ancient order to their own lands and peoples, and even to barbarous, unforgivable, regicidal, God-betraying, Godforsaken France.

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