Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre III: Foundations on Sovereignty

Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre III: Foundations on Sovereignty April 5, 2008

Part I

Part II

demaistre2.jpgUnderstanding the foundations for Joseph de Maistre’s Ultramontanism requires one to overcome simplistic interpretations of his writings. He is far too complex and diverse a thinker for the kind of simplification people often impose upon him. Certainly, as has been pointed out, his experiences helped shape what he would write, but he was capable of appreciating and learning from his opponents, and so his reaction to political theories was not completely a denial of what those theories suggested. As with any person who writes in reaction to others, there is an element of assimilation going on, and this is why his thought (and the ideas of any reactionary responding to a contemporary concern) must be seen as developmentally different from the kind of order and tradition he wanted to defend.

One central concern throughout his writings was the relationship between religion and human society. He believed that religion was important for the success of any nation-state because religion helped civilize nations and provided them the means to sustain their existence. “The most famous nations of antiquity, especially the most solemn and wisest, the Egyptians, the Etruscans, the Spartans and the Romans, precisely had the most religious of constitutions, and the duration of these empires always was proportional to the degree of influence that the religious principle had in the constitution.” [18] More importantly, “Nations never were civilized except by religion. No other known instrument has such a hold upon the savage.” [19]

Among all possible religions, he believed Christianity had elevated and civilized humanity the most. Before Christianity, the world lived in a state of slavery. Only a few men lived free. “In antiquity, the number of free men was always less than that of the slaves.[20] As Christianity spread it overcame this appalling situation. “The Religion [Christianity] began to work, above all, for the abolition of slavery; and this no other religion, legislator, or philosopher ever set about to do, nor ever dream of.[21] And at the heart of Christianity, at the center of its human activity in the world, was the pope. Maistre would often write, in one fashion or another, that there would be no civilization without the pope, and the pope would not be true to himself if he did not have the power or authority needed to undertake his task properly. “There is neither a public morality or national character without religion, and there is no European religion without Christianity, and no true Christianity without Catholicism, and no Catholicism without the pope, and no pope without supremacy given to him.[22]

It is easy to confuse what Maistre is trying to say and to suggest that he used religion only as a pragmatic tool. Many of his contemporary readers did this and ended up creating an often repeated but wrong impression of his work. [23] They failed to comprehend the point he was trying to make. In an age when rationalism and skepticism were beginning to question the usefulness of religion, Maistre wanted to provide an answer to that question. While he saw religion had an important political function, it is not the same thing to say that was all religion did. “It should be noted, however, that Maistre recognizes the political utility of religion as a kind of secondary effect.[24] One of his goals when writing on the papacy was to show that the papacy provided a useful function to society so that even atheists should be able see the necessity for its role in world affairs. [25]

Maistre viewed papal infallibility as being related to papal sovereignty. Before we can turn to his understanding of sovereignty, we need to examine the three major axioms which he held and which served as the foundation for the rest of his ideas. The first was a belief not only in God, but in God’s providence. The second was an “Augustinian” conception of humanity, where humanity has free will, but a will which is corrupted by original sin. The third is his understanding that the function of government is to keep this corruption in check.

His religious sincerity fully comes out with his belief in providence. “For Maistre human affairs can only be understood properly in the larger context of a divine plan, complete knowledge of which is forever beyond human understanding.[26] Belief in God was so important to him that it has been suggested that Maistre associated with the Freemasons because they shared such a belief and he thought that they would be allies against his real opponents, the adherents of modern rationalistic-skepticism. [27] He believed that God directed the general course of human destiny. While humanity has free will, God nonetheless is capable of shaping the course of events so that neither individuals nor states could overcome being used as instruments of God’s providence. “Following the expression of Thales, nations, like individuals, are only the instruments of God, who forms and uses them, following the hidden designs which one can at most only guess.” [28] Providence was quite powerful in his view, and it can almost seem to be so powerful that human freedom was overcome. This is not to mean that he denied human free will. However, whenever he brought it up he found it important to remind his readers its relation to the absolute power of God. It was a difficulty he tried to address, although as we can see in the following quote from the St. Petersburg Dialogues, it was a problematic which tended towards a paradoxical resolution where humanity is declared to be freely led by God. “It is a natural enough image of the action of God on his creatures. He directs angels, men, animals, brute matter, all that exist; but each of them following their own nature. Humanity was created free, and so humanity must be freely led. This law is truly the eternal law, and it is what one must believe.[29] Providence was to hold an important function in his political philosophy because he used it as the means to legitimize sovereignty. He would be quick to point out, “All power is from God.[30]

augustine.jpgMaistre held a very dim view of humanity and the world in which we live. Fundamentally, he held onto a nuanced view of humanity which emphasized the negative qualities of our nature; and his views were founded upon an “Augustinian” view of fallen creation. “He contemptuously dismisses the idea of the ‘natural goodness’ of the species in favor of an Augustinian depiction of a perpetual cosmic battle of good and evil played out both within and among individuals.[31] The problem with the Enlightenment was that it relied too much on human reason: they should have understood it was corrupted with the rest of our nature. To them he would point out that not only did Christians understand this fact, but pre-Christians pagans did as well. [32] Fundamentally, his belief could be summed up as, “Man is bad, horribly bad.[33] God did not create us to be bad. Once our ancestral parents had committed a crime against God, they were criminals, and their children were criminals with them. Human nature suffered in part as a punishment by God for the crimes our first parents had committed. We inherited from our parents their impurity. Seeing it as a fit punishment for Adam’s sin, he said, “Every degradation cannot be anything but a punishment, and every punishment presupposes a crime. Therefore reason alone must be forced to accept original sin: for our disastrous inclination to evil is a true sentiment and experience proclaimed by every age…[34] Maistre considered it important to point out that this inclination to evil did not exist only within humanity, but throughout all of nature. Humanity’s crime, so to speak, tainted creation. Like Hobbes, he said, “There is nothing but violence in the universe; but we are ruined by modern philosophy, which has said, all is good, while [in fact] evil has sullied everything, so that in a very true sense, all is evil, since nothing is in its place, the main note of our creation being lowered, everything else was proportionally lowered, following the laws of harmony.[35] The problem of the Enlightenment is that it held too high a view of humanity. In a very interesting observation, Graeme Garrard points out Maistre shared this criticism of the Enlightenment with one of his foes, Rousseau. “Both criticize what they take to be the Enlightenment’s depreciation of social life, its exaggerated confidence in our rational faculties, and its belief in the natural harmony of individual interests, all of which left it blind to both the importance and the precariousness of our social world.[36]

While the exploration of the dark side of human nature was of great importance to Maistre, it must not be used to indicate that he had some sort of perverse attraction to it. He merely thought that this fundamental observation had to be kept in focus; all political discussion had to deal with the fact that everything touched by humanity was tainted. He believed that it was completely delusional to proclaim humanity as fundamentally good. Philosophers who doubted this fact should study human history and they will be convinced of it. Or, if they wanted to explore this truism beyond humanity, they could look at the so-called natural order and see how everything was at war with everything else. We find this stated in one of the more famous quotes from the St Petersburg Dialogues: “In the vast domain of living nature, there reigns a manifest violence, a prescribed kind of rage which arms all things in mutua funera [ … ] The entire earth, continually imbibed in blood, is nothing else but an immense altar where all which live must be immolated without end, without measure, without relaxation, until the end of things, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death.[37]

hobbes.jpgAs a basic consequence of the corruption of humanity, humanity needs leaders who will be able to keep the instinct towards evil in check. “Hobbes was perfectly right, provided that one does not give too great extension to his principles; society is at a state of war. We find here the necessity for government. Since man is evil he must be governed; it is necessary that when several want the same thing a power superior to human claimants judges the matter and prevents them from fighting.[38] The foundation of a government is not a social contract. To Maistre, that theory was pure nonsense. By the very framework of our nature we are societal. Society could not be seen as the creation of individuals who came together after they saw the need to safeguard common interests. Humanity is by nature social, and there was never a time when there was not some common society which joined humanity together. To create a fictional, isolated human outside of society is to create someone who is not fully human. “An isolated human is not at that point human by nature […] Thus, to speak properly, there has never been for the human a time before society, because before the formation of political societies, a human is not entirely human, and that it is absurd to search for the characteristics of any being in the germination of that being.[39] Finally, if, for humanity to exist, it must exist in a common society, then there was in the original society some form of sovereignty. “It is as impossible to consider a human society, a people without a sovereignty, as it is for a hive and a swarm of bees without a queen…[40] If society had not been created by humanity, what was its origin? For Maistre, with his belief in providence, the answer is clear: “society is only possible if it is itself the ‘immediate’ work of God, whose will is the constitutive will of the social body, a will really existing beyond the individual wills that belong to it.[41]

These three foundations formulate the means by which Maistre was able to propose his views on sovereignty. We have seen that Maistre, like Hobbes, viewed sovereignty as a means by which the human inclination towards is evil is put into check. This is not to say that he believed an absolute sovereign could make a perfect state. He understood that such a sovereign would be human, and so abuse was not only possible, but likely. “Every power is at least somewhat unjust.[42]


[18] Joseph de Maistre, Essai Sur Le Principle Générateur des Constitutions Politiques, OC, 1:269.
[19] “Aucun autre instrument connu n’a de prise sur l’homme sauvage,” Ibid., 269.
[20] Joseph de Maistre, Du Pape, OC, 2:340.
[21] Ibid., 341.
[22] Joseph De Maistre, Letter to Comte de Blacas, May 22, 1814, OC, 12:427-8.
[23] Murray, “Political Thought”: 77.
[24] Lebrun, Throne and Altar, 125.
[25] Charles M. Lombard, Joseph de Maistre (TWAS 407; Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976), 41.
[26] Graeme Garrard, “Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt” in  Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence: Select Studies (ed. Richard A. Lebrun; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001):224.
[27] Lebrun, Intellectual Militant, 55.
[28] Joseph de Maistre, Étude sur la Souveraineté, OC, 1:553.
[29] Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, OC, 4:276.
[30] Berlin, Crooked Timber, 146.
[31] Graeme Garrard, “Joseph de Maistre’s Civilization and its Discontents,” in Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 57, no. 3 (1996):438.
[32] See Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, OC, 4:71.
[33] Ibid., 70.
[34] Ibid., 71.
[35] Joseph De Maistre, Considérations sur La France, OC 1:39.
[36] Graeme Garrard, “Rousseau, Maistre, and the Counter-Enlightenment,” in History of Political Thought vol. 15, no.1 (1994): 120.
[37] Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, OC, 5:22;25.
[38] Joseph de Maistre, “On The State of Nature” in Against Rousseau (trans. Richard. A. Lebrun; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), 37.
[39] Joseph de Maistre, Étude sur la Souveraineté, OC, 1:346;347.
[40] Ibid., 323.
[41] Jean-Yves Pranchère, “The Social Bond According to the Catholic Counter-Revolution: Maistre and Bonald” in Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence: Select Studies (ed. Richard A. Lebrun; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 212.
[42] Owen Bradley, A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 129.

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