Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre II: A Brief Biography

Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre II: A Brief Biography April 4, 2008

Part I

demaistre.jpgAlthough he was born on April 1, 1753, Joseph de Maistre was no fool. He was born in Chambéry, a province of Savoy in the kingdom of Sardinia. He was the eldest surviving son of an important senator, and it was decided that he should follow the example of his father. After he was protored by Jesuits in his youth, he went to Turin in 1769 to study law.

In 1772 he became a magistrate in Sardinia. In 1786, at the age of thirty three, he married Francois-Marguerite de Moraud. After his father’s death in 1789, he inherited his father’s title of Count. From the time of his youth, he believed it was an important to be charitable, and he was involved with many charitable societies throughout his life. At the age of fifteen he joined the Confrérie des Pénitents Noirs (a religious lay order which helped take care of condemned prisoners). Like many of his contemporaries, these interests also led him to the Freemasons. He joined their ranks at the age of twenty in 1773. He was initiated at the lodge of Trois Mortiers in Chambéry, and became a very active participant, rising through the Masonic ranks rather quickly. In 1778, after joining an esoteric branch of Masonry in Lyon, he helped to create a lodge following the Scottish Rite. [9]

As a young jurist, and later as a senator, it appears that he was initially a political moderate.Prior to the Revolution, he shared the anti-absolutist and anti-clerical ideas fashionable in his milieu […] The future advocate of absolute sovereign power was, in his early writings, a champion of a sort of separation of powers in which religion ensured social cohesion.” [10] The French Revolution which erupted in 1789 was to have a lasting influence on his life. Initially, he was hesitant to criticize the revolution. After reading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution and having to deal with pro-revolutionary riots in Chambéry, he became hostile towards the revolution and all that he thought had caused it. When the revolutionaries entered Sardinia, Maistre fled to Northern Italy. When he was in Turin, his wife tried to return to Chambéry. “He followed her back to Chambéry immediately but he soon found life under the new regime unbearable. When he was asked to contribute to the support of the revolutionary armies that were fighting the Piedmontese army in which his own brothers were serving, he refused and emigrated again, this time to Switzerland.[11] In 1792 he ended his official contacts with the Masons, although he would be influenced throughout his life by what he learned from them.

In 1793 he went to Lausanne, where he was to stay until 1797. Having lost the land his family had held in Chambéry to the revolution, he was quite bitter. Nonetheless, he was to attain a position of honor among the exiles, and even helped to establish a spy-network against the French for his king. [12] It was during this time that he wrote, in the midst of the grief and pain he and his family suffered, his Étude sur la souveraineté against Rousseau (written from 1794 – 1796, it was not published until after his death) and his first major work, the Considérations sur la France (published in 1796).

What distinguishes the French Revolution,” he wrote, “and what makes a unique event in history, is that it is radically evil, there is not anything good to relieve the pain in the eye of the observer: it is pure impurity, having the highest degree of known corruption.” [13] For him, the revolution would represent the fulfillment of the age which preceded it. It had come from the union of three different forces: Gallicanism, rationalism, and Protestantism. They worked against the legitimate authority of the monarchy and the Church and therefore against a proper social order. He believed that it was because they had been given too much liberty in France before the revolution that the revolution itself was inevitable. God was angry at France for allowing these errors to propagate. The revolution was “an act of Providence, a scourge inflicted upon France as a punishment for her crimes.” [14]

Maistre continued to develop his political theories as he found himself taking on more important roles for Sardinia. When Charles-Emmanuel IV was made king, it looked like Maistre would get a ministerial position. Financially, his situation improved, for he was granted a pension. And he did get the position which he expected: from 1799 – 1802 he held judicial post on the island of Sardinia. In 1802, he was made the Sardinian ambassador to Russia, a position he was to hold until 1817. Originally, he was sent to Russia without his family, and this caused him and his family much grief. Yet he made the most of the situation and became a favorite in the court of the Tsar, even becoming a friend of the Tsar himself. Except for not being with his family, it was one of the best times of his life. He held a great reputation in Russia, and even got many favors from the Tsar, such as the establishment of a new Jesuit college in Russia. [15] It was the fears that the Russians would eventually have with the Jesuits which would also lead to his dismissal from the court. They felt the Jesuits were converting too many people, and Joseph’s association with them placed suspicion upon him and his work in Russia.

During the time he lived in Russia, most of his significant works were written, including his Essai sur le principle générateur des constitutions politiques, Du Pape and Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. [16] While Du Pape was his most prolonged exposition on papal authority, it was in reality the culmination and summation of many ideas he expressed elsewhere. Du Pape would be published only after his return to Italy, being the last major work of his published while he was alive.

Despite being dismissed from Russia, the Tsar respected his friendship with Joseph, and helped secure him his only visit to Paris as part of his return trip to Sardinia. Once back at Sardinia, he was to live in semi-retirement, and given an honorary title for his work. He was to see the Restoration take place in France, but on principles he thought would secure its failure. Fearing the worst, and knowing his time was near the end, he wrote to a friend, “I die with Europe and I die in good company.[17] He died on February 26, 1821.


[9] His interests towards “illuminist” masonry did not mean he believed what he was taught by them without question. On the one hand, he saw it as a spiritual movement which could help combat the atheism of the day, on the other hand he found much of what they said to be difficult to believe. Willermoz, one of the founders of this new masonry, received many letters and criticisms from Maistre throughout the rest of Maistre’s association with the masons. See Antoine Faivre, “Joseph de Maistre et L’Illuminisme: Rapports Avec Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.” Revue des Études Maistriennesvol. 5-6 (1980):131- 2 for a summary of the relationship between Maistre and Willermoz.
[10] Jack Hayward, After the Revolution: Six Critics of Democracy and Nationalism (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1991), 45 – 6.
[11] Richard Allen Lebrun, Throne and Altar: The Political and Religious Thought of Joseph de Maistre (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1965), 9.
[12] Richard. A. Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988),127.
[13] Joseph De Maistre, Considérations sur La France, OC 1:50.
[14] John C. Murray, “The Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre,” in Review of Politics 11 (1949): 68.
[15] See. Leburn, An Intellectual Militant, 203-4.
[16] The Saint Petersburg Dialogues reflect a series of discussions between a Senator, a Knight, and a Count (with the Count representing more than any of the others the ideas of Maistre himself).
[17] Joseph de Maistre, Letter to Comte de Marcellus, August 9, 1819, OC, 14:183.

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