Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre V: The Spirit is Greater than the Letter

Authority, Absolutism and Infallibility in Joseph de Maistre V: The Spirit is Greater than the Letter April 10, 2008

Part I                                                  Part II

Part III                                                Part IV

Where did Maistre think sovereignties and political states came from? As has been noted, he believed that their true foundation lies in the providence of God. Each state is different and therefore could require different kinds of sovereignties. This was his “political relativism.” [53] States were, for him, quite organic. “Nations are born and perish like individuals; they literally have fathers, and teachers ordinarily more famous than their fathers, although the greatest merit of these teachers is to penetrate the character of the infant-people, and to establish circumstances where all its energies can be developed.[54] Each nation is distinct, created in a time and place by God. They have their own character, and they develop their individual institutions, their own constitution, in a way which best suits the needs of its people. A constitution for him was “neither a set of legal prescriptions nor even exactly a form of government. It is, rather, a certain consistency in what is done and how one thinks within a given society, a cohesive set of norms, habits, and unexamined beliefs that one might call a political habitus…[55]However, it was up to a sovereign to help illuminate the spirit of his or her nation so that the people within could properly live it out. Laws are useful and important, but at the foundation of each state, these laws first and foremost must come from the people and what they already accept; they are not to be created ex nihilo.

Constitutions are established through historical circumstances. Instead of saying they are made, Maistre thought it was better to say that they are recognized. Writing them down becomes a defect, because this indicates that their principles have been questioned. “Perhaps the greatest folly, in this age of follies, was to believe that fundamental laws could be written a priori, whereas they evidently are the work of a force superior to humanity. Writing them down long after is for them the greatest sign of nullity.[56] In his Essai sur le principle générateur des constitutions politiques, he consistently pointed out the truth of this as found within England and how its history helped justify his position. The English people and their parliamentary system was not created by some idealistic political decision. Their parliamentary system slowly developed and revealed itself in history. It was not created by a political thinker who thought he could create a new legal system from a blank slate. Instead, “The true English Constitution is that admirable, unique and infallible public spirit […] That which is written is nothing.[57]

His way of explaining the establishment and development of a national identity was similar to how he understood and described the origins and development of Christian doctrine. [58] Originally, the Apostles were taught by Jesus and told to go and preach what they had heard. At that time there was no text detailing the doctrines they were to teach. If they wrote anything down, it was not to create any specific doctrine. Instead, it was to remind people what they already knew.  “If dogma is presented under the pen of the sacred historian, it is simply expressed as a thing already known.[59] The early creeds were expressions of the faith written down to contend against heresies, and they cannot be seen as to contain all of which the Christian faith believed. The development of Christian doctrine followed a general pattern: a heretic questioned one of the inherent teachings of the faith; he was given an official refutation through a declaration of an ecclesial authority, and this became the foundation for a “new” doctrine. General agreement resided in the early Christian community about what it was they believed, and they didn’t need all their beliefs to be written down. However, heretics, when they questioned the common faith, forced a reaction, and forced the Church to write down a response; in this sense, he would suggest that the “authors” of written doctrines were the heretics, because they made it impossible for the Church to continue without some written, authoritative pronouncement. He combined his ideas on Christian doctrine and the state in one very important, and clarifying, passage from his writings:

Never, without doubt, would the English have demanded the Magna Carta if the privileges of the nation had not been violated. But as well, never would they have demanded them, if they had not existed before the charter. In effect, as it is with the English so it is with the Church: if Christianity had never been attacked, never would they have written to establish the dogma. But never as well would the dogma have been fixed in writing, if it had not already existed in its natural state, which was as a word (parole) […]

The faith, if the sophisticated opposition had never forced her to write, would be a thousand times more angelic. She cries under the decisions which the revolt snatched from her, and they were always evils, because they all suppose doubt or attack, and they could only be born in a milieu of the most dangerous of commotions. The state of war elevated these venerable ramparts around the truth. While they defend her, they also hide her… [60]

Laws, like the teachings of the church, were set up to protect the customs and beliefs, except they belong to a particular nation instead of a faith. The more laws are written down, the more they conceal the true laws of the land, and the more likely the constitution as a whole will fail. A constitution which tries to set out all possible laws will fail because it will lack the foresight to see what trials and tribulations a nation will later encounter. The more unwritten the constitution, the more the constitution is in the hearts of all, and the more it will be lived out properly, even as the Christian faith resides in the hearts of its faithful. One could say that a large, comprehensive constitution writing down all possible solutions to problems a nation could face would be as silly as a manual which tried to exhaustively lay out the entirety of Christian dogma. [61]


[53] Murray, “Political Thought”:75.
[54] Joseph de Maistre, Étude sur la Souveraineté, OC, 1325.
[55] Bradley, Modern Maistre, 94.
[56] Joseph de Maistre, Essai Sur Le Principle Générateur des Constitutions Politiques. OC, 1:247-8.
[57] Ibid., 241-2.
[58] His understanding of the development of Christian doctrine shares many similarities to that of Cardinal Newman. Whether or not Newman had read the works of Maistre at the time of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is questionable (See Richard A. Lebrun, “Joseph de Maistre in the Anglophone World” in Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence: Select Studies (ed. Richard A. Lebrun; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001):273). Yet it is clear that Newman had at least heard about Maistre, and what he knew was enough for him to write at the beginning of that essay, “The view on which is written has at all times, perhaps, been implicitly adopted by theologians, and, I believe, has recently been illustrated by several distinguished writers of the continent, such as De Maistre and Möhler…” John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame Series in the Great Books; Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 29. But Maistre, unlike Newman, saw the development for doctrines an indication of some sort of failure to preserve the pristine harmony of the faith.
[59] Joseph de Maistre, Essai Sur Le Principle Générateur des Constitutions Politiques, OC, 1:249.
[60] Ibid., 251-2.
[61] Ibid., 241; 251.

Browse Our Archives