Sunday, February 22, 2015

Joseph de Maistre and the Reaction

“The present generation is witnessing one of the most dramatic conflicts humanity has ever seen: the war to the death between Christianity and the cult of philosophy.”

We've seen, in earlier pieces, how the Enlightenment saw itself. For the rest of the series, I'd like to look at how the Enlightenment has been seen by others, whether contemporary critics or philosophers looking on it in retrospect.

Joseph deMaistre (1753 – 1821) was a Savoyard diplomat and political philosopher who repudiated the Enlightenment and the Revolution, and opposed to them the prerogatives of Monarchy and the Church. He was an early proponent of an extreme form of conservatism sometimes called "the reaction" in political philosophy.

In Considerations on France (1796), he argued that tradition is the sanity of civilization, as memory is of a person. The institutions of Monarchy and Church represent the wisdom of centuries – it’s childish for the French or anyone else to imagine they can be legislated out of existence. Voltaire, who had spent a lifetime tearing away at the foundations of civilization, was a witty fool, “so continually occupied with instructing the world that he had only very little time to think.” If he had written less and learned more, he might have appreciated the fragility of the social order, and the necessity of institutions like the Church and the Monarchy to prop it up. Terror, war, and chaos had been the necessary and foreseeable results of the execution of the King and the disestablishment of the Church. “Soon,” he predicted (1796), “four or five people will give France a King.”

He expanded on these arguments in his Essay on Political Constitutions (1810). Rousseau was a fool to imagine that men are born good, but their institutions make them bad. It’s just the other way around. Every man’s natural inclinations are to tyranny and violence – it is the sword of the Monarch that teaches him restraint, and the rituals and community of the Church that teaches him compassion. Thus protected and encouraged, virtue and reason can win occasional victories over the barbarism of mankind. Without them, sooner or later all must descend into bloody chaos.

A hereditary, absolute monarchy is the best government, because it has stood the test of time. Republics, by contrast, stake everything on the wisdom of the fickle crowd. Frequent rotation in office disorganizes institutions, laws, goals, and policy, If we complain about the evils such a state inflicts on the innocent, we complain about God, for, as St. Paul said, “there is no authority but that which God has established - whoever rebels against authority rebels against God.” Besides that, most of our sufferings are just retribution for the suffering we have inflicted on others.

War, which men think is evil, is actually divine, “since it is the law of the world… the whole earth, drinking blood, is merely an immense altar, where every living thing must be immolated, time without end, without limit, without rest, even unto the destruction of all things, even to the death of death.” People only pretend they want peace. In fact, they are “never so happy as when immolating themselves on a common altar.” If we protest that the creator of such a world hardly deserves our worship, de Maistre refers us back to the authority of tradition, which always knows best how to sift good ideas from bad. If we protest that the Monarch is often stupid or cruel, he refers us to the authority of the Pope, the arbitrator between nations. If we protest that the Pope is no better, he replies that the Pope, God’s regent on earth, cannot err when he speaks for the Church.

Everyone and everything must submit to the authority of tradition. Reason is a mirage, and the Enlightenment a vast and terrible mistake. "Wherever there is an altar," he said, "there you will find civilization."

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XII of XVII)

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