By BERNARD WALL HE works of Count Joseph de Maistre are little known in England at present, though the day will surely come when they will be studied. Joseph de Maistre was a Savoyard, an aristocrat, a diplomat, a Catholic, in modern jargon a " reactionary,who was perhaps the foremost of all critics of the ideas of the French Revolution. He lived through the tumultuous period of the Terror and the Napoleonic wars, and his importance lies in his assessment in terms of Catholic thought of the torrent of new theories and facts which the Revolution spread over the world.
By temperament de Maistre hated the French Revolution, and the ideas of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau which were in the ascendent when he was a young man. He saw them as blasphemous half-truths which had led mankind astray, and he viewed the Revolution itself as a scourge from God.
Now these ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as the ideas of the English materialist philosophers Locke and Hume, which de. Maistre attacked, have coloured the whole of modern thought. Hence de Maistre as their critic has been pushed into the background, and he was recently described in an unfortunate article by Professor Denis Saurat in Time and Tide as a writer of the second class. Nothing could be more mistaken.
De Maistre had one of the most penetrating minds of his age, an almost unrivalled encycloptedic information (considerably greater than Rousseau's) and an almost unique power of seeing universal history in a pattern from above.
De Maistre was perhaps the greatest of all Catholic apologists in the early nineteenth century, though there were others of very different sorts stretching over a long period of time—de Bonald in France, Donoso Cortes and Jaime Balrnes in Spain, Gorres in Germany, and Manzoni in Italy —to mention only a few. It is an immense loss that his works have not been translated and read in England.
The three great works by which de Maistre is best known are: Considerations sur la France (Considerations on the state of France), Du Pape (Concerning the Pope) and Les Soirees de Saint-Pet ersbourg (Evenings in St. Petersburg).
The last book is a series of conversations on " the temporal government of Providence," which they wander through a maze of questions concerning the history and philosophy of mankind and human nature. For their variety these conversations remind one of St. Augustine's City of God, but they belong essentially to the nineteenth century in their treatment of current ideas.
The rock of Peter had been badly battered by the storm. At no period of the Church's history, and certainly not since, has Catholicism seemed so near defeat and extinction as during the revolutionary period which was the life-time of de Maistre.
It was de Maistre's first task to show that God's providence was still somehow working in history in spite of the Reformation and the apparently even greater catastrophe of the French Revolution. Why, after this terrible period of bloodshed and upheaval, did man seem no nearer what he wanted? The answer, de Maistre said, lay precisely in man's nature, and it was the misplaced optimism of the revolutionaries concerning man's nature that had led them astray. Rousseau had started out from the idea of the " noble savage," an abstract fiction, an ideal creature who never really existed on earth at all.
De Maistre was not prepared to discuss man as he might be, in some ideal state: instead he considered that all knowledge about man could be found out best through looking around us, and through history, which shows' us all sorts of human beings in all sorts of varied conditions, but always human beings— men as they are in fact. When we look at history we see Empires rising and falling, half inexplicably, and the best laid plans, the beat political and social orders, somehow turning wrong sooner or later, falling into gross abuses and then into decay.
We always see the same everlasting man, who knows the better and does the worse: capable of noble. actioas then ignoble ones, an inconsistent creature whose life is usually full of physical and, moral evils. That is man as he is, said de Maistre in answer to Rousseau, and it is not society which has made him so, but his own nature.
De Maistre considered that the whole course of history made nonsense unless in some way 'or another one admitted Original Sin. And the more one studied the history of mankind, he thought, the more widespread one found some similar idea even outside Judaism and Christianity.
A Reason for Everything
The peculiarity of de Maistre's thought —a peculiarity which seems to roe so thoroughly Catholic—was his inclination, when face to face with long established forms and conventions, however pointless and even absurd they might seem on the surface, to believe that they must have some reason behind them, and hence rather than being superficial and attacking them, we ought to look for that reason.
What is tradition? It is the acquired experience of long ages of mankind and is based on facts: and because of this we can only mock it at our peril. As he said , himself : " Whenever a man who is not a complete fool presents you with a question as being very problematical, distrust those sudden solutions that come to the mind of the man who has concerned himself with it little or not at all . . ."
It was these sudden solutions, that simple explaining away of long standing practises, that de Maistre feared most of all.
History shows that mankind can never neglect certain essential and elementary human conceptions which we find present at the bases of all civilisations however primitive, without falling into decadence. At the basis of all civilisations which deserve the title of human we find not only Common moral conceptions such as courage, truthfulness, respect, family life, etc., but also ideas of God, sin, and even sacrifice and redemption. The denial of simple principles in the modern age meant heading mankind straight for the rocks.
In his Traite sur les Sacrifices (Treatise on sacrifices), de Maistre endeavoured to show that the idea of sacrifice is so universal, can be found in such separated times and places, that it ought to be viewed as something naturally implanted in man which has found a relative realisation in the religions of mankind while its final and sublime realisation lies in Christianity.
De Maistre's traditionalism revolted against a merely deracinate Christianity, and he could not conceive of the Church without a historical Christendom which, whatever its sins, was our one guide to sanity.
The Church and Christendom were two aspects of the same thing, and though Christianity might be driven to the wall it would never abandon its claim to seize on society again and direct it. Hence any break in the traditional Christian order of Christendom, which was more than a reform, was a blasphemy against God: and any separation from the life-giving centre of Rome meant slow death from the roots upwards.
Catholicism was not only spirituality, in the air so to speak, it was also history— and the society of Christendom was worth
fighting for to the last drop of blood. Christendom in itself was something holy.
De Maistre applied this theory down to the details of organised Christian society as he knew it, and he believed in the special sacredness of Christian monarchy.
An even better example of his method of thought can be seen in his dialogue on war. As long as there is injustice in the world war is sure to re-occur, and the soldier at war is invested with a sacred character as being the means through which God's providence is realised in a special way, the hand of the scourge of God. This dialogue on war, the seventh in the Soirees de Saint-Petersbourg, ought to be read by every Catholic before discussing peace and war, as it is an admirable corrective to a certain facile pacifirm.
De Maistre points out ,first that Christian society has. always given a position of peculiar honour to the soldier as distinct say, from the tradesman, as indeed has all society including all the highest civilisations man has known.
This seems so paradoxical that we ought to look for the deeper causes, because while for every apparent reason we ought to honour the executioner more than the soldier, in fact always and everywhere we do just the opposite, even though the soldier may kill innocent men like himself and the executioner kill only those who have been convicted and condemned.
Though de Maistre's first importance was that of the man who restored Catholicism to its proper intellectual position after the avalanche of the French Revolution, and a great deal of what he said no longer applies precisely to society as it is to-day—in one sense it ought to be admitted that our commercial capitalism or socialism has developed far beyond the• point which de Maistre would have thought' the vulgarest possible—his central theses stand out as permanent, as something that would return were Christendom ever restored.
The essential points are: that there is no ideal state but only a sacred order based on tradition, sanctioned by religion, secured by reverence and the simple and most noble virtues: of mankind: that absolute freedom is a ghost and man's essential freedom is assured by religion and the virtues before all else, certainly before counting heads: that Christian government will raise men upwards spiritually and morally, rather than level them downwards.
But above all de Maistre taught that in the maze of new political theories we have an essential guide to truth and falsehood in temporal government just as we have revelation in spiritual .government.
This essential guide is the living trunk • of Christendom which stands out as the best and highest achievement of Providence and mankind in history. Christendom may fall into disorder, but it is an organic thing which can only grow as a tree grows. The bases for man's life are given here, and the essential problems solved. Christendom may be restored, developed and spread if we stand on the shoulders of the past, but we will only reap destruction if we try to start out from the beginning afresh.