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looked for the sources of knowledge, the sanctions of morals,
the inspiring fountain and standard of a3sthetics, to the outside
of men, to matter, and the impressions made by matter on the
corporeal senses. The second looked to divine revelation,
authority, and the traditions of the Church. The third, steer-
in o- a middle course, looked partly within and partly without,
relied partly on the senses, partly on revelation and history,
but still more on a certain internal consciousness of a direct
and immediate kind, that is the supreme and reconciling judge
of the reports alike of the senses, of history, of divine reve-
lation.^ Each of these schools had many exponents. The
three most conspicuous champions of revived Catholicism were
De Maistre, De Bonald, and Chateaubriand. The last of them,
the author of the Genie du Christianisme, was efiective in
France because he is so deeply sentimental, but he was too
little trained in speculation, and too little equipped with know-
led o-e, to be fairly taken as the best intellectual representative
of their way of thinking. De Bonald was of much heavier
calibre ; he really thought, while Chateaubriand only felt, and
the Legidation Primitive and the Pensees stir Divers Stijets
contain much that an enemy of the school will find it worth

(1) See Damiron's Za Fhilosojihie en France ati XlXcme Siecle. Introduction
to Vol. I. (Fifth edition.)


while to read, in spite of an artificial, and, if a foreigner may-
judge, detestable style.

De Maistre was tlie greatest of the three, and deserves
better than either of the others to stand as the type of the
school for many reasons. His style is so marvellously lucid,
that, notwithstanding the mystical, or, as he said, the illu-
minist side of his mind, we can never be in much doubt about
his meaning, which is not by any means the case with Bonald.
To say nothing of his immensely superior natural capacity,
his extensive reading in the literature of his foes was a source
of remarkable strength, which might indeed have been thought
indispensable, if only other persons had not attacked the same
people as he did, without knowing much or anything at first-
hand about them. Then he goes over the whole field of allied
subjects, which we have a right to expect to have handled by
anybody with a systematic view of the origin of knowledge,
the meaning of ethics, the elements of social order and pro-
gressiveness, the government and scheme of the universe. And
above all, his writings are penetrated with the air of reality
and life which comes of actual participation in the affairs of
that world with which social philosophers have to deal.
Lamennais had in many respects a finer mind than De Maistre,
but the conclusions in which he was finally landed,, no less
than his liberal aims, make him a less completely satisfactory
example of the truly Catholic reaction. He in fact represented
the Revolution, or the critical spirit, within the Catholic limits,
while De Maistre's ruling idea was, in his own trenchant phrase,
* absolument tuer I'esprit du dix-huitieme siecle.' On all these
accounts he appears to be the fittest expositor of those concep-
tions which the anarchy that closed the eighteenth century
provoked into systematic existence.


JosepL. de Maistre was born at Cliambery in the year 1754.^
His family was the younger branch of a stock in Languedoe,
which about the beginning of the seventeenth century divided
itself into two, one remaining in France, the other establishing
itself in Piedmont. It is not wonderful that the descendants of
the latter, settled in a country of small extent and little political
importance, placed a high value on their kinship with an
ancient line in the powerful kingdom of France. Joseph de
Maistre himself was always particularly anxious to cultivate
close relations with his French kinsfolk, partly from the old
aristocratic feeling of blood, and partly from his intellectual
appreciation of the gifts of the French mind, and its vast
influence as an universal proj)agating power. His father held
a high office in the government of Savoy, and enjoyed so
eminent a reputation that on his death both the Senate and the
King of Sardinia deliberately recorded their appreciation of his
loss as a public calamity. His mother is said to have been a
woman of lofty and devout character, and her influence over
her eldest son was exceptionally strong and tender. He used
to declare in after life that he was as docile in her hands as the
youngest of his sisters. Among other marks of his afiectionate
submission to parental authority, we are told that during the
whole time of his residence at Turin, where he followed a course
of law, he never read a single book without previously writing
to Chambery to one or other of his parents for their sanction.
Such traditions linger in families, and when he came to have

(1) The facts of De Maistre's life I have drawn from a very meagre biography
by his son, Count Eodolphe de Maistre, supplemented by two volumes of Lettres
et Opuscules (Fourth edition. Paiis: Vaton. 1865), and a volume of his Diplo-
matic Correspondence, edited by M. Albert Blanc.


cliildren of Ms own, they too read nothing of whicli their father
had not been asked to express his approbation. De Maistre's
early education was directed by the Jesuits ; and as might have
been expected from the generous susceptibility of his temper, he
never ceased to think of them with warm esteem. To the end
of his life he remembered the gloom which fell upon the house-
hold, though he was not nine years old at the time, when the
news arrived of the edict of 1762, abolishing the Society in the
kingdom of France. One element of his education he com-
memorates in a letter to his favourite daughter. ' Let your
brother,' he says, 'work hard at the French poets. Let him
learn them by heart, especially the incomparable Racine ; never
mind whether he understands him yet or not. I didn't under-
stand him when my mother used to come repeating his verses
by my bedside, and lulled me to sleep with her fine voice to
the sound of that inimitable music. I knew hundreds of lines
long before I knew how to read ; and it is thus that my ears,
accustomed betimes to this ambrosia, have never since been able
to endure any sourer draught.'

After his law studies at the University of Turin, then
highly renowned for its jurisconsults, the young De Maistre
went through the successive stages of an ofiicial career, perform-
ing various duties in the public administration, and possessing
among other honours a seat in the Senate, over which his
father presided. He led a tranquil life at Chambery, then as
at all other times an ardent reader and student. Unaided he
taught himself five languages. English he mastered so per-
fectly, that though he could not follow it when spoken, he
could read a book in that tongue with as much ease as if it
had been in his own. To Greek and German he did not apply
himself untd afterwards, and he never acquired the same pro-
ficiency in them as in English, French, Italian, Latin, and


Spanish. To be ignorant of German then, it will be remem-
bered, was not what it would be now, to be without one of
the literary senses.

Like nearly every other great soldier of reaction, he showed
in his early life a decided inclination for new ideas. The truth
that the wildest extravagances of youthful aspiration are a
better omen of a vigorous and enlightened manhood than the
decorous and ignoble faith in the perfection of existing arrange-
ments, was not belied in the case of De Maistre. His intelli-
gence was of too hard and exact a kind to inspire him with the
exalted schemes that present themselves to those more nobly
imaginative minds who dream dreams and see visions. He
projected no Savoyard emigration to the banks of the Susque-
hanna or Delaware, there to found a millennial community on
pantisocratic principles. These generous madnesses belong to
men of more poetic temper. But still, in spite of the deaden-
ing influences of officialism and relations with a court, De
Maistre had far too vigorous and active a character to subside
without resistance into the unfruitful ways of obstruction and
social complacence. It is one of the most certain marks, we
may be sure, of a superior spirit, that the impulses earliest
awakened by its first fresh contact with the facts of the outer
world, are those which quicken a desire for the improvement of
the condition of society, the increase of the happiness of men,
the amelioration of human destiny. With this unwritten
condition of human nature De Maistre, like other men of his
mental calibre, is found to have complied. He incurred the
suspicion and ill-will of most of those by whom he was
immediately surrounded by belonging to a Reform Lodge at
Chambery. The association was one of a perfectly harmless
character, but being an association, it diffused a tarnishing
vapour of social disaffection and insurgency over the names of


all who ventured to belong to it, and De Malstre was pointed
out to the Sardinian court as a man with leanings towards
new things, and therefore one of whom it were well to beware.
There was little ground for apprehension. In very small
countries there is never room enough for the growth of a- spirit
of social revolution ; not at least until some great and dominant
country has released the forces of destruction. For this there
is needed a huge momentum and impetus, that is only to bo
acquired over a vast field. Small states have usually been the
most tenacious of old institutions, unless some violent hostility
of race or caste is at work. So, when the menacing sounds
of the approaching hurricane in France grew heavy in the
air, the little lodge at Chambery voluntarily dissolved itself,
and De Maistre was deputed to convey to the king, Victor
Amedee iii., the honourable assurance of its members that
they had assembled for the last time.

In 1786, at the age of thirty-two, De Maistre had married,
and when the storm burst which destroyed all the hopes of his
life, he was the father of two children. In one of his gay
letters to a venerable lady who was on intimate terms with
them both, he has left a picture of his wife, which is not any
less interesting for what it reveals of his own character. * The
contrast between us two is the very strangest in the world.
For me, as you may have found out, I am the pococurante
senator, and above all things very free in saying what I think.
She, on the contrary, will take care that it is noon before
allowing that the sun has risen, for fear of committing herself.
She knows what must be done or must not be done on the
tenth of October, 1808, at ten o'clock in the morning, to avoid
some inconvenience which otherwise would come to pass at
midnight between the fifteenth and sixteenth of March, 1810.
"But, my dear husband, you pay attention to nothing; you


believe tliat nobody is thinking of any harm. Now I know,
I have been told, I have guessed, I foresee, I warn you," etc.
" Come now, my dear, leave me alone. You are only wasting
your time : I foresee that I shall never foresee things : that's
your business." She is the supplement to me, and hence when
I am separated from her, as I am now, I suffer absurdly from
being obliged to think about my own affairs ; I woidd rather

have to chop wood all day My children ought to kiss

her very stejis ; for my part, I have no gift for education.
She has one that I look upon as nothing less than the eighth
gift of the Holy Ghost ; I mean a certain fond persecution by
which it is given her to torment her children from morning to
night to do something, not to do something, to learn, — and
yet without for a moment losing their tender affection for her.
How ever does she manage ? I cannot make it out a bit.'
She was laughingly called by himself and her friends, Madame
Prudence. It is certain that few women have found more
necessity for the qualities implied in this creditable nickname.
They had not been married many years before they were
overtaken by irreparable disaster. The French Revolution,
broke out, and Savoy was invaded by the troops of the new
Republic. Count de Maistre, with his wife and children, fled
from Chambery across the Alps to Aosta. ' Ma chere amie,'
he said to his wife, by the side of a great rock which he
never afterwards forgot, ' the step that we are taking to-day
is irrevocable ; it decides our lot for life ; ' and the presenti-
ment was true. Soon the Loi des Allohroges was promulgated,
which enjoined ujDon all who had left their homes in Savoy to
return instantly, under pain of confiscation of all their property.
It was the very depth of winter. Madame de Maistre was in
the ninth month of her pregnancy. She knew that her husband
would endure anything rather than expose her to risk such a


journey in sucli a season. So, urged by a desire to save some-
thvag from tlie wreck of their fortune by compliance with the
French decree, she seized the opportunity of her husband's
absence at Turin, and started for Savoy without acquainting
him with her design. She crossed the Great St. Bernard in the
beginning of January on the back of a mtde, accompanied by
her two little children wrapped in blankets. The Count, on
his return to Aosta two or three days afterwards, forthwith set
off in her steps, in the trembling expectation of finding her
dead or dying in some Alpine hovel. But the favour of fate
and a stout heart brought her safe to Chambery, where shortly
afterwards she was joined by her husband. The authorities
vainly tendered him the oath, vainly bade him inscribe his
name on the register of citizens ; and when they asked him for
a contribution to support the war, he replied curtly that he did
not give money to kill his brothers in the service of the King
of Sardinia. As soon as his wife was delivered of their third
child, whom he was destined not to see again for nearly twenty
years, he quitted her side, abandoned his property and his
country, and took refuge at Lausanne, where in time his wife
and his two eldest children once more came to him.

Gibbon tells us how a swarm of emigrants, escaping from
the public ruin, was attracted by the vicinity, the manners, and
the language of Lausanne. ' They are entitled to our pity,'
he reflected, ' and they may claim our esteem, but they cannot
in their present state of mind and fortune contribute much to
our amusement. Instead of looking down as calm and idle
spectators on the theatre of Europe, our domestic harmony is
somewhat embittered by the infusion of party spirit.' Gibbon
died in London almost at the very moment that De Maistre
arrived at Lausanne, but his account of things remained true,
and political feUds continued to run as high as ever. Among


the people with whom De Maistre was thrown was Madame de
Stael. 'As we had not been to the same school,' he says,
* either in theology or in politics, we had some scenes enough
to make one die of laughter ; still without quarrelling. Her
father, who was then alive, was the friend and relative of people
that I love with all vay heart, and that I would not vex for all
the world. So I allowed the emigres who surrounded us to cry
out as they would, without ever drawing the sword.' De Maistre
thought he never came across a head so completely turned
wrong as Madame de Stael's, the infallible consequence, as he
took it to be, of modern philosophy operating upon a woman's
nature. He once said of her, 'Ah ! if Madame de Stael had
been Catholic, she would have been adorable, instead of famous.'
We can believe that his position among the French emigres was
not particularly congenial. For though they hated the Revo-
lution, they had all drunk of the waters of the eighteenth
century philosophy, and De Maistre hated this philosophy worse
than he hated the Eevolution itself. Then, again, they would
naturally vapour about the necessities of strong government.
'Yes,' said the Savoyard exile, 'but be quite sure that, to
make the monarchy strong, you must rest it on the laws, avoid-
ing everything arbitrary, too frequent commissions, and all
ministerial jobberies.' "We may well believe how unsavoury
this rational and just talk was to peoj)le who meant by strong
government a system that should restore to them their old pre-
rogatives of anti-social oppression and selfish corruption. The
order that De Maistre vindicated was a very different thing
from the deadly and poisonous order which was the object of
the vows of incorrigible royalists around him.

After staying three years at Lausanne, De Maistre went to
Turin, but shortly afterwards the Sardinian king, after a long
struggle, was forced to succumb to the power of the French,


then in tlic full tide of success. The bi'illiant Italian cam-
paign of General Bonaparte needs no words liere. The
French entered Turin, and De Maistre, being an emigri, had
to leave it. Furnished with a false passport, and undergoing
a thousand hardships and dangers, he made his way, once
more in the depth of a severe winter (1797), to Venice. He
went part of the way down the Po in a small trading ship,
crowded with ladies, priests, monks, soldiers, and a bishop.
There was only one small fire on board, at which all the cook-
ing had to be done, and where the unhappy j)assengers had to
keep themselves warm as they could. At night they were
confined each to a space about three planks broad, separated
from neighbours by pieces of canvas hanging from a rope
above. Each bank of the river was lined by military posts —
the left by the Austrians, and the right by the French ; and the
danger of being fired into was constantly present to aggravate
the misery of overcrowding, scanty food, and bitter cold. Even
this wretchedness was surpassed by the hardshijjs which con-
fronted the exiles at Yenice. The physical distress endured
here by De Maistre and his unfortunate family exceeded that
of any other period of their wanderings. He was cut ofi" from
the court, and from all his relations and friends, and reduced
for the means of existence to a few fragments of silver plate,
which had somehow been saved from the general wreck. This
slender resource grew less day by day, and when that was ex-
hausted the prospect was a blank. The student of De Maistre's
philosoj)hy may see in what crushing personal anguish some of
its most sinister growths had their roots. When the cares of
beggary come suddenly upon a man in middle life, they burn
very deep. Alone, and starving for a cause that is dear to
him, one might encounter the grimness of fate with a forti-
tude in which there should be many elevating and consoling


elements. But the destiny is intolerably liard wliicli condemns
a man of humane mould, as De Maistre certainly was, to look
helplessly on the physical pains of a tender woman and famish-
ing little ones. The anxieties that press upon his heart in such
calamity as this are too sharp, too tightened, and too sordid for
him to draw a single free breath, or to raise his eyes for a
single moment of relief from the monstrous perplexity that
chokes him. The hoiir of bereavement has its bitterness, but
the bitterness is gradually suffused with soft reminiscence.
The grip of beggary leaves a dark and deep mark on such a
character as De Maistre' s, which no prosperity of after days
effaces. The seeming inhumanity of his theory of life, which
is so revolting to comfortable people like M. Yillemain, was in
truth the only explanation of his own cruel sufferings in which
he could find any solace. It was not that he hated mankind,
but that his destiny looked as if God hated him, and this was
a horrible moral complexity out of which he could only extri-
cate himself by a theory in which pain and torment seem to
stand out as the main facts in human existence.

To him, indeed, prosperity never came. Hope smiled on
him momentarily, but, in his own words, 'ce n'etait qu'un
eclair dans la nuit.' While he was in Venice, the armies
of Austria and Russia re-conquered the north of Italy, and
Charles Emanuel iv., in the natural anticipation that the
allies would at once restore his dominions, hastened forward.
Austria, however, as De Maistre had seen long before, was
indifferent or even absolutely hostile to Sardinian interests,
and she successfully opposed Charles Emanuel's restoration.
The king received the news of the perfidy of his nominal ally
at Florence, but not until after he had made arrangements for
rewarding the fidelity of some of his most loyal adherents.

It was from Florence that De Maistre received the king's


nomination to tlie cMef place in the goyernment of the island of
Sardinia. Througb the short time of his administration here,
he was overwhelmed with vexations only a little more endurable
than the physical distresses which had weighed him down at
Venice. During the war, justice had been administered in a
very irregular manner. Hence, people had taken the law into
their own hands, and retaliation had completed the round of
wrong-doing. The taxes were collected with great difficulty.
The higher class, after the manner of their order, exhibited an
invincible repugnance to paying their debts. Some of these
difficulties in the way of firm and orderly government were
insuperable, and De Maistre vexed his soul in an unequal and
only partially successful contest. In after years, amid the
miseries of his life in Russia, he wrote to his brother thus :
' Sometimes in my moments of solitude that I multiply as
much as I possibly can, I throw my head back on the cushion
of my sofa, and there with my four walls around me, far from
all that is dear to me, confronted by a sombre and impenetrable
future, I recall the days when in a little town that you know
well,' he meant Cagliari, 'with my head resting on another
sofa, and only seeing around our own exclusive circle, (good
heavens, what an impertinence !) little men and little things,
I used to ask myself, "Am I then condemned to live and die
in this place, like a limpet on a rock?" I suflFered bitterly;
my head was overloaded, wearied, flattened, by the enormous
weight of Nothing.'

But presently a worse thing befell him. In 1802 he
received an order from the king to proceed to St. Petersburg
as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at the
Russian court. Even from this bitter proof of his devotion to
his sovereign he did not shrink. He had to tear himself from
his wife and children, without any certaintj'- when so cruel a


separation would be likely to end ; to take up new functions
which the circumstances of the time rendered excessively diffi-
cult ; while the petty importance of the power he represented,
and its mendicant attitude in Em^ope, robbed his position of
that public distinction and dignity which may richly console a
man for the severest private sacrifice. It is a kind destiny
which veils their future from mortal men. Fifteen years
passed before De Maistre's exile came to a close. From 1802
to 1817, he did not quit the inhospitable latitudes of northern

De Maistre's letters during this desolate period furnish a
striking picture of his manner of life and his mental state.
We see in them his most prominent characteristics strongly
marked. Not even the painfulness of the writer's situation
ever clouds his intrepid and vigorous spirit. Lively sallies of -,
gallant humour to his female friends, sagacious judgments on
the position of Europe to political people, bits of learned criti-
cism for erudite people, tender and playful chat with his two
dauo-hters, all these alternate with one another with the most
delio-htful effect. ^Tiether he is writing to his little girl whom
he has never known, or to the king of Sardinia, or to some
author who sends him a book, or to a minister who has foxmd
fault with his diplomacy, there is in all alike the same constant
and remarkable play of a bright and penetrating intellectual
light, coloured by a humour that is now and then a little sar-
donic, but more often is genial and lambent. There is a
certain semi-latent quality of hardness lying at the bottom of
De Maistre's style, both in his letters and in his more elaborate
compositions. His writings seem to recall the flavour and
bouquet of some of the fortifying and stimulating wines of

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 10 of 29)