Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre IV: The Theoretical Authority and Practical Limits of Sovereignty

Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre IV: The Theoretical Authority and Practical Limits of Sovereignty April 8, 2008

Part I

Part II
Part III

There are several different kinds of sovereignty, and Joseph de Maistre believed none of them were without flaw because all of them require a human person to be in charge. While he preferred monarchy to aristocracy or democracy, he made it clear that he thought none of them could be said to be the best form of government. The form of government which is best is that which suits the needs of those being governed. “The best government for each nation is that which, in the space occupied by that nation, is [the one] capable of procuring the greatest possible summation of happiness and strength possible, for the greatest number of people possible, for the longest amount of time possible. [43]

It might be shocking to see such an utilitarian view from a political theorist trying to preserve the old Catholic order in Europe. One could wonder why, for example, he could find democracy acceptable, if he prefered to be under a monarchy? To answer this, he said that democracies could work, but only for short periods of time, and only within a small territory, but when they did, something great could indeed be made from them. “The democracy has a brilliant moment, but it is only a moment, and for it, it must pay dearly.” [44]  Why such a dear price? Because a democracy, more than any other system, relies upon the goodness of humanity; it requires the cooperation of everyone involved to be successful. With human inclination to evil, how long could such an endeavor last? Indeed, he did not think, in its pure form, it could ever exist. Yet one could examine relative forms of democracy and use them to discover democracy’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. In this fashion, one could believe that its weaknesses are more numerous the longer it lasts and the larger it becomes. Indeed, Maistre would say that its fundamental error comes from the fact that it seeks to undermine what it means to govern. He brought this out with a thought experiment. If the people are governing themselves, who can be said to be the rulers, and who are the governed? “Surely there is something equivocal here, if not an error, for the people who command are not the people who obey.[45] He also believed that justice would be a problem for democracies, because it would be a mob which determines what course of action one should take. “Justice in democracies is sometimes feeble and sometimes passionate; one could say that, in these governments, no head is able to stand up to the sword of the law. This signifies that the punishment of a criminal or someone famous who has been accused will be a pure joy for the people […] but if the criminal is obscure, or in general if the crime does not hurt the pride or immediate interests of the majority of the people, that same opinion hinders and paralyzes the action of justice.[46]

Fundamentally, the role of the sovereign is to guide and protect the people from themselves. Their inner, evil nature is ever ready to come to the surface and create havoc. The way it is put in check is through a legitimate sovereign established by God. Even if it happens that for some nation that a form of democracy such as a republic is the best form of government, this does not undermine the general framework in which a sovereignty would rule. All forms of sovereignty are pyramidal. There will always be a leader, be it one person, or a council which acts as one. Whoever that leader is, that leader is sovereign. The sovereign could be limited in duration of time, limited in place, limited in resources, but in the end, that one sovereignty must be seen as absolute. There has to be a time and place in all governments where there will be no higher appeal; no one has the authority to contradict the final decision of the sovereign. He saw this as analogous to how justice is carried in any judicial system:

In the judicial order, which is only one section of government, it is absolutely necessary to come to a power which judges but is not judged, precisely because it speaks in the name of the most supreme power […] One can take it as they will, give to this power whatever name you like, it is always necessary that you come to someone to whom it is not possible to say, You have erred. But of course the condemned man is always upset with the finish, and never doubts the iniquity of the tribunal; but the disinterested policy, which sees things far off, scorns these vain complaints. It knows that there is a point where it must stop, it knows that never-ending delays, appeals without end, […] are, if one permits this expression, more unjust than injustice. [47]

There has to be a final source of authority which cannot be questioned. If it can be questioned, the one who has the power to question and dispute with it would be the real the authority in such a society. Somewhere there is an end to the governmental process, and that end becomes, in all practicality, absolute. Even if there are checks and balances, they exist only as a part of the decision making process; the process will eventually be brought to a conclusion, and all checks and balances will have played their part in its making, but in the end, the final decision will indeed be absolute. To the criticism that this might appear to some that this would end up creating a despot, Maistre said he did not think that this would be the case. “Maistre never ceases to emphasize that the absolute monarchy is not a despotism of the Oriental type but a state of law in which the sovereign power holds its legitimacy in conformity to the fundamental laws of state.” [48] There were several reasons for this response. One is the fundamental fact that no authority can ever possess absolute power in any real sense. The absolute authority of the sovereign must be seen within the context of law and governing. While the sovereign is absolute in theory, they are not in reality omnipotent. There will always be people who could resist them, to make sure they sovereign does not abuse their subjects, or if sovereignty is abused, to put an end to that sovereign. “There is never a governmental head who can do all things. In virtue of a divine law, there is always next to every sovereign some force which serves to hold it in, be it a law, a custom, a conscience, a tiara, a dagger, there is always something.” [49]  Secondly, the sphere of authority where the sovereign is absolute is limited. “When I say that no sovereign is limited, I mean within its legitimate exercise, and this must be carefully noticed. For one can equally say, with two points of view, that all sovereignty is limited and that no sovereignty is limited.” [50] By his or her human nature, no sovereign has unlimited power, and must act within his or her proper sphere, which is to govern society so that their people can become good citizens. It is only in their function that no one has the right to question such a sovereign; it is in this way Maistre ends up saying a sovereign is infallible. He is not suggesting that the sovereign cannot err. Instead, he believed that no one has the right or authority to determine when he is in error. As John Courtney Murray puts it, “he went out of his way to explain that infallibility so ‘necessary’ to the temporal sovereign does not involve inability to err. Rather, it means the sovereigns are infallible ‘puisque nulle part il n’est permis de dire qu’elles se sont trompées.‘” [51]

From this we can begin to see how Maistre linked sovereignty with infallibility: he understood infallibility to be about the practical authority of a sovereign. It is impossible for someone to have the authority to declare a sovereign in error unless they possess a superior sovereignty. It is to this extent a pragmatic infallibility which he granted to sovereigns because he feared if it were not given it, the state would not have the authority needed to govern and chaos would follow. A sovereign either has all authority or no authority, and if there is no authority, society falls, revolution comes, and in the end, all would suffer. He thought that a right of resistance, a right to question authority, could be considered in the light of possibility of tyranny, but in practicality, even if the right were granted, who could say when that right could be acted upon? Who has the authority to determine when a sovereign is a tyrant? If everyone has it, then the sovereign no longer is the authority, but instead he is the one being governed. Perhaps the sovereigns of other nations could have that right? “A king dethroned by deliberation, from a formal judgment of his colleagues! It is an idea a thousand times more terrible than any accounted to a tribunal of Jacobins! […] If sovereignty is amenable before some tribunal, it no longer exists! [52] Indeed, it would allow the people to pit sovereigns against each other, with one sovereign dispensing the sovereignty of another; the end result, once again, would be the chaos which Maistre wanted to avoid. He sought for a solution to the impasse, and as we shall see, he thought the solution lay with the papacy. Before we can examine his solution further, we need to go continue our examination of Maistre’s political views. For they will nuance how he was able to see infallibility as an issue of authority, and understanding this will help us better appreciate how he discussed the authority of the papacy.


[43] Joseph de Maistre, Étude sur la Souveraineté, OC, 1:494.
[44] Ibid., 495.
[45] Ibid., 311-12.
[46] Ibid., 469.
[47] Joseph de Maistre, Du Pape, OC, 2:2-3.
[48] Jean-Yves Pranchère, “Joseph de Maistre’s Catholic Philosophy of Authority,” in Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence: Select Studies (ed. Richard A. Lebrun; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 137.
[49] Joseph de Maistre, Du Pape, OC, 2:255.
[50] Ibid., 478.
[51] “Because nowhere it is permitted to say that it erred.” Murray, “Political Thought”: 74-5.
[52] Joseph de Maistre, Letter to the Marquis de Saint-Marsan, October 28, 1814, OC 12:463.

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