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Burgundy, from which time and warmth have not yet drawn
out a certain native roughness that lingers on the palate. This


hardness, if one must give the quality a name that only im-
perfectly describes it, sprang not from any original want of
impressionableness or sensibility of nature, but partly from the
relentless buffetings which he had to endure at the hands of
fortune, and partly from the preponderance which had been
given to the rational side of his mind by long habits of sedulous
and accurate study. Few men knew so perfectly as he did how
to be touching without ceasing to be masculine, nor how to go
down into the dark pits of human life without forgetting the
broad sunlight, nor how to keep habitually close to visible and
palpable fact while eagerly addicted to speculation. His con-
templations were perhaj)s somewhat too near the ground ; they
led him into none of those sublimer regions of subtle feeling
where the rarest human spirits have loved to travel ; we do not
think of his mind among those who have gone

Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.

If this kind of temper, strong, keen, frank, and a little hard
and mordant, brought him too nigh a mischievous disbelief in
the dignity of men and their lives, at least it kept him well
away from morbid weakness in ethics, and from beating the
winds in metaphysics. But of this we shall see more in con-
sidering his public pieces than can be gathered from his letters.
The discomforts of De Maistre's life at St. Petersburg: were
extreme. The dignity of his official style and title was an
aggravation of the exceeding straitness of his means. The
ruined master could do little to mitigate the ruin of his ser-
vant. He had to keep up the appearance of an ambassador on
the salary of a clerk. ' This is the second winter,' he writes
to his brother in 1810, ' that I have gone through without a
pelisse, which is exactly like going without a shirt at Cagliari.
When I come from court a very sorry lackey throws a common



cloak over my shoulders.' The climate suited him better than
he had expected ; and in one letter he vows that he was the
only living being in Russia who had passed two winters with-
out fur boots and a fur hat. It was considered indispensable
that he should keep a couple of servants ; so for his second De
Maistre was obliged to put up with a thief, whom he rescued
under the shelter of ambassadorial privilege from the hands of
justice, on condition that he would turn honest. The Austrian
ambassador, with whom he was on good terms, would often call
to take him out to some entertainment. * His fine servants
mount my staircase groping their way in the dark, and we
descend preceded by a servant carrying luminare mimis ut
prceesset nodi.' ' I am certain,' he adds pleasantly, ' that they
make songs about me in their Austrian patois. Poor souls,
it is well they can amuse themselves.'

Sometimes he was reduced so far as to share the soup of his
valet, for lack of richer and more independent fare. Then he
was constantly fretted by enemies at home, who disliked his
trenchant diplomacy, and distrusted the strength and inde-
pendence of a mind which was too vigorous to please the old-
fashioned ministers of the Sardinian court. These chagrins he
took as a wise man should. They disturbed him less than his
separation from his family. ' Six hundred leagues away from
you all,' he writes to his brother, ' the thoughts of my family,
the reminiscences of childhood, transport me with sadness.'
Visions of his mother's saintly face haunted his chamber ;
almost gloomier still was the recollection of old intimates with
whom he had played, lived, argued, and worked for years, and
yet who now no longer bore him in mind. There are not many
glimpses of this melancholy in the letters meant for the eye of
his beloved trinite fmiinine, as he playfully called his wife and
two daughters. ' A quoi bon vous attrister,' he asked bravely.


' sans raison et sans profit ? ' Occasionally he cannot help
letting out to them how far his mind is removed from com-
posure. ' Every day as I return home I find my house as
desolate as if it was yesterday you left me. In society the
same fancy pursues me, and scarcely ever quits me.' Music,
as might be surmised in so sensitive a nature, drove him wild
with its mysterious power of intensifying the dominant emotion.
' Whenever by any chance I hear the harjDsichord,' he says,
* melancholy seizes me. The sound of the violin gives me such
a heavy heart, that I am fain to leave the company and hasten
home.' He tossed in his bed at night, thinking he heard the
sound of weeping at Turin, making a thousand efforts to picture
to himself the looks of that ' orphan child of a living father '
whom he had never known, wondering if he ever should know
her, battling with a myriad of black phantoms that seemed to
rustle in his curtains. 'But you, M. de Chevalier,' he said
apologetically to the correspondent to whom he told these
dismal things, ' you are a father, you know the cruel di-eams
of a waking man ; if you were not of the profession, I would
not allow my pen to write you this jeremiad.' As De Maistre
was accustomed to think himself happy if he got three hours'
sound sleep in the night, these sombre and terrible vigils were
ample enough to excuse him if he had allowed them to over-
shadow all other things. But the vigour of his intellect was
too strenuous, and his curiosity and interest in every object
of knowledge too inextinguishable. ' After all,' he said, ' the
only thing to do is to put on a good face, and to march to the
place of torture with a few friends to console you on the way.
This is the charming image under which I picture my present
situation. Mark you,' he added, ' I always count books among
one's consoling friends.'

In one of the most gay and charming of his letters, aj)olo-

K 2


gising to a lady for the remissness of his correspondence, he
explains that diplomacy and books occupy every moment.
* You will admit, madame, there is no possibility of one's
shutting up books entirely. Nay, more than ever, I feel my-
self burning with the feverish thirst for knowledge. I have
had an access of it which I cannot describe to you. The most
curious books literally run after me, and hurry voluntarily to
place themselves in my hands. As soon as diplomacy gives
me a moment of breathing-time, I rush headlong to that
favourite pasture, to that ambrosia of which the mind can
never have enough, —

Et voila ce qui fait que voire ami estmuet.'

He thinks himself happy if, by refusing invitations to dinner,
he can pass a whole day without stirring from his house. ' I
read, I write, I study ; for after all one must know something.'
In his hours of depression, he fancied that he only read and
worked, not for the sake of the knowledge, but to stupefy and
tire himself out, if that were possible.

As a student De Maistre was indefatigable. He never
belonged to that languid band who hope to learn difficult
things by easy methods. The only way, he warned his son,
is to shut your door, to say that you are not within, and
to work. ' Since they have set themselves to teach us how
we ought to learn the dead languages, you can find nobody
who knows them ; and it is amusing enough that people who
don't know them should be so obstinately bent on demon-
strating the vices of the methods employed by us who do know
them.' He was one of those wise and laborious students who
do not read without a pen in their hands. He never shrank
from the useful toil of transcribing abundantly from all the
books he read everything that could by any possibility even-


tually be of service to him in his inquiries. Ilis note-books
were enormous. As soon as one of them was filled, he care-
fully made up an index of its contents, numbered it,, and placed
it on a shelf with its unforgotten predecessors. In one place
he accidentally mentions that he had some thirty of these folios
over the head of his writing-table.

' If I am a pedant at home,' he said, ' at least I am as little
as possible of a pedant out of doors.' In the evening he would
occasionally seek the society of ladies, by way of recovering
some of that native gaiety of heart which had hitherto kept
him alive. 'I blow on this spark,' to, use his own words,
'just as an old woman blows among the ashes to get a light for
her lamp.' A student and a thinker, De IVIaistre was also a
man of the world, and he may be added to- the long list of
writers who have shown that, to take an active part in public
afiairs and to mix in society, give a peculiar life, reality, and
force to both scholarship and speculation. It was computed at
that time that the author of a philosophic piece could not safely
count upon more than a hundred and fifty readers in Russia ;
and hence, we might be sure, even if we had not De Maistre's
word for it, that away from his own house he left his philo-
sophy behind. The vehemence of his own convictions did not
prevent him from being socially tolerant to others who hated
them. * If I had the good fortune to be among his acquaint-
ances,' he wrote of a heretical assailant, ' he would see that
among the people with convictions it would be hard to find one
so free from prejudice as I am. I have many friends among
the Protestants, and now that their system is tottering, they
are all the dearer to me.' In spite of his scanty means, his
shabby valet, his threadbare cloak, and the humbleness of his
diplomatic position, the fire and honesty of his character both
combined with his known ability to place him high in the


esteem of the society of St. Petersburg. His fidelity, devotion,
and fortitude, mellowed by many years and by meditative
babits, and tinged perhaps by the patrician consciousness of
birth, formed in him a modest dignity of manner which men
respected, perceiving it to be no artificial assumption, but the
outward image of a lofty and self-respecting spirit. His brother
diplomatists, even the representatives of France, appear to have
treated him with marked consideration. His letters prove him
to have been a favourite among ladies. The Emperor Alex-
ander showed him considerable kindness of the cheap royal
sort, conferring on his brother, Xavier de Maistre, a post in
one of the public museums, while to the Sardinian envoy's son
he gave a commission in the Russian service.

The first departure of this son for the campaign of 1807
occasioned some of the most charming passages in De Maistre's
letters, both to the young soldier himself and to others. For,
though without a touch of morbid expansiveness, he never
denied himself the solace of opening his heart to a trusted
friend, and a just reserve with strangers did not hinder a
humane and manly confidence with intimates. ' Ce matin,'
he wrote to his stripling, soon after he had joined the army,
*j'ai eprouve un grand serrement de coeur lor sque Biribi' — a
pet dog — ' est entre en courant, et qu'il est saute sur votre lit
ou vous n'etes plus. H a tot bien compris son erreur, et il a
dit tres clairement a sa maniere, Je mc siiis trompe ; ou est-il
done ? Quant a moi j'ai senti tout ce que vous sentirez si
jamais vous exercez ce grand emploi de pere. . . . Souvenez
vous que vous etes toujours devant mes yeux comme mes
paupieres.' And he then begs of his son if he should find
himself with a tape line in his hand, that he will take his exact
measure and forward it. Soon came the news of the battle of
Friedland, and the unhappy father thought he read the fate of


liis son ill the face of every acquaintance lie met. And so it
was in later campaigns, as De Maistre records in correspon-
dence that glows with tender and healthy solicitude. All this
is worth dwelling upon, for two reasons. First, because he has
been too much regarded and spoken of as a man of cold sensi-
bility, and little moved by the hardships which fill the destiny
of our unfortunate race. And, secondly, because his own keen
acquaintance with mental anguish helps us to understand the
zeal with which he attempts to reconcile the blind cruelty and
pain and torture endured by mortals with the benignity and
wisdom of the immortal. 'After all,' he used often to say,
' there are only two real evils — remorse and disease.' This is
true enough for an apophthegm, but as a matter of fact it
never for an instant dulled his sensibility to far less supreme
forms of agony than the recollection of irreparable pain struck
into the lives of others. It is interesting and suggestive to
recall how a later publicist viewed the ills that dwarf our little
lives. ' If I were asked to class human miseries,' said Tocque-
ville, * I would do so in this order : first. Disease ; second.
Death ; third. Doubt.' At a later date, he altered the order
and deliberately declared doubt to be the most insupportable
of all evils, worse than death itself. But Tocqueville was an
aristocrat, as Guizot once told him, who accepted his defeat.
He stood on the brink of the great torrent of democracy, and
shivered. De Maistre was an aristocrat too, but he was in-
capable of knowing what doubt or hesitation meant. He never
dreamt that his cause was lost, and he mocked and defied the
Revolution to the end. We easily see how natures of this
kind, ardent, impetuous, unflinching, find themselves in the
triumphant paths that lead to remorse at their close, and how
they thus come to feel remorse rather than doubt as the con-
summate agony of the human mind.


Having had tliis glimpse of De Maistre's character away
from his books, we need not linger long over the remaining
events of his life. In 1814 his wife and two daughters joined
him in the Russian capital. Two years later an outburst of
religious fanaticism caused the sudden expulsion of the Jesuits
from Russia, to De Maistre's deep mortification. Several con-
versions had taken place from the orthodox to the "Western
faith, and these inflamed the orthodox party, headed by the
Prince de Galitzin, the minister of public worship, with
violent theological fury. De Maistre, whose intense attach-
ment to his own creed was well known, fell under suspicion of
having connived at these conversions, and the Emperor himself
went so far as to question him. ' I told him,' De Maistre says,
'that I had never changed the faith of any of his subjects, but
that if any of them had by chance made me a sharer of their
confidence, neither honour nor conscience would have allowed
me to tell them they were wrong.' This kind of dialogue
between a sovereign and an ambassador implied a situation
plainly unfavourable to efiective diplomacy ; the envoy obtained
his recall, and after twenty-five years' absence returned to his
native country (1817). On his way home, it may be noticed,
De Maistre passed a few days in Paris, and thus, for the first
and last time, one of the most eminent of modern French
writers found himself on what was then French soil.

The king accorded De Maistre an honourable reception,
conferred upon him a high ofiice and distinguished rank and
a small sum of money, and lent his ear to other counsellors.
The philosopher, though insisting on declaring his political
opinions, then, as ever, unwaveringly anti- revolutionary, threw
himself mainly upon that literary composition which had been
his solace in yet more evil days than these. It was at this
time that he gave to the world the supreme fruit of nearly half


a centurj' of study, meditation, and contact with the world,
in Du Papc, Les Soirees de Saint Petershourrj, and VEglise
Gallicane. Their author did not live long to enjoy the vast
discussion which they occasioned, nor the reputation they have
since conferred upon his name. He died in February, 1821,
after such a life as we have seen. We shall now examine
the lessons which he drew as the sum of the mental experiences
of this life.


It is not at all surprising that they upon whom the revo-
lutionary deluge came should have looked with undiscrimi-
nating horror and affright on all the influences which in their
view had united first to gather up, and then to release the
destructive flood. The eighteenth century, to men like De
Maistre, seemed an infamous parenthesis, mysteriously inter-
posed between the glorious age of Bossuet and Fenelon, and
that yet brighter era for faith and the church which was still
to come in the good time of divine providence. The philo-
sophy of the last century, he says on more than one occasion,
will form one of the most shameful epochs of the human mind :
it never praised even good men except for what was bad in
them. He looked upon the gods whom that century had
worshipped as the direct authors of the bloodshed and ruin in
which their epoch had closed ; the memory of mild and
humane philosophers was covered with the kind of black
execration that prophets of old had hurled at Baal or Moloch ;
and Locke and Hume, Voltaire and Housseau, were habitually
spoken of as very scourges of God. From this temper two
consequences naturall}^ flowed. In the first place, while it
lasted there was no hope of an honest pliilosophic discussion of
the great questions which divide speculative minds. Modera-

138 JOSEPH DE 'maistre.

tion and impartiality, for which French disputants have never
at any time been remarkable, were virtues of almost super-
human difficulty for controversialists who had made up their
minds that it was their opponents who had erected the
guillotine, confiscated the sacred property of the church,
slaughtered and banished her children, and filled the land with
terror and confusion. It is hard amid the smoking ruins of
the homestead to do full justice to the theoretical arguments of
the supposed authors of the conflagration. Hence De Maistre,
though, as has been already said, intimately acquainted with
the works of his foes in the letter, was prevented by the
vehemence of his antipathy to the efiects which he attributed
to them, from having any just critical estimate of their value
and true spirit. ' I do not know one of these men,' he says
of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, ' to whom the
sacred title of honest man is quite suitable.' They are all
wanting in probity. Their very names ' me dechirent la hoiiche.^
To admire Voltaire is the sign of a corrupt soul ; and if any-
body is drawn to the works of Yoltaire, then be sure that God
does not love such an one. The divine anathema is written on
the very face of this arch-blasphemer ; on his shameless brow,
in the two extinct craters still sparkling with sensuality and
hate, in that frightful rictus running from ear to ear, in those
lips tightened by cruel malice, like a spring ready to fly back
and launch forth blasphemy and sarcasm ; he plunges into the
mud, rolls in it, drinks of it ; he surrenders his imagination to
the enthusiasm of hell, which lends him all its forces ; Paris
crowned him, Sodom would have banished him.^ Locke,
again, did not understand himself. His distinguishing charac-
teristics are feebleness and precipitancy of judgment. Vagueness
and irresolution reign in his expressions as they do in his
(1) Soirees de Saint P6tersbourg (8th edition, 1862), vol. i. pp. 238—243.


tliouglits. He constantly exhibits that most decisive sign of
mediocrity — he passes close by the greatest questions without
perceiving them. ' In the study of philosophy, contempt for
Locke is the beginning of knowledge.'^ Condillac was even
more vigilantly than anybody else on his guard against his
own conscience. But Hume was 'perhaps the most dangerous
and the most guilty of all those mournful writers who will for
ever accuse the last century before posterity — the one who
employed the most talent with the most coolness to do most
harm.'^ To Bacon De Maistre paid the compliment of com-
posing a long refutation of his main ideas, in which Bacon's
folly, blindness, presiunption, stupidity, profanity, and scien-
tific charlatanry are denounced in vehement and often coarse
terms, and treated as the natural outcome of a low morality.

It has long been the inglorious speciality of the theological
school to insist in this way upon moral depravity as an antece-
dent condition of intellectual error. De Maistre in this respect
was not unworthy of his fellows. He believed that his oppo-
nents were ' even worse citizens than they were bad philo-
sophers,' and it was his horror of them in the former capacity,
that made him so bitter and resentful against them in the
latter. He could think of no more fitting image for opinions
that he did not happen to believe than counterfeit money,
' which is struck in the first instance by great criminals, and
is afterwards passed by honest folk who perpetuate the crime
without knowing what they do.' A philosopher of the highest
class, we may be sure, does not permit himself to be drawn
down from the true object of his meditations by these sinister
emotions. But De Maistre belonged emphatically to minds of
the second order, whose eagerness to find truth is never intense
and pure enough to raise them above perturbing antipathies to
(1) Ibid., Gieme entrcticn, i. 397—442. (2) Ibid. p. 403.


persons. His whole attitude was fatal to his claim to be heard
as a truth-seeker in any right sense of the term. He was not
only persuaded of the general justice and inexpugnableness of
the orthodox system, but he refused to believe that it was capable
of being improved or supplemented by anything which a
temperate and fair examination of other doctrines might per-
adventure be found to yield. With De Maistre there was no
peradventure. Again, no speculative mind of the highest order
ever mistakes, or ever moves systematically apart from, the
main current of the social movement of its time. It is implied
in the very definition of a thinker of supreme quality that he
should detect, and be in a certain accord with, the most forward
and central of the ruling tendencies of his epoch. Three-
quarters of a century have elapsed since De Maistre was driven
to attempt to explain the world to himself, and this interval
has sufficed to show that the central conditions at that time for
the permanent re-organisation of the society which had just
been so violently rent in pieces, were assuredly not theological,
military, nor ultramontane, but the very opposite of all these.

There was a second consequence of the conditions of the
time. The catastrophe of Europe affected the matter as well as
the manner of contemporary speculation. The French Revo-
lution has become to us no more than a term, though the
strangest term, in a historic series. To some of the best of
those who were confronted on every side by its tumult and
agitation, it was the prevailing of the gates of hell, the moral
disruption of the universe, the absolute and total surrender of
the world to them that plough iniquity and sow wickedness.
Even under ordinary circumstances few men have gone through
life without encountering some triumjahant iniquity, some
gross and prolonged cruelty, which makes them wonder how
God sbould allow such things to be. If we remember the


aspect wLicli the Hevolution wore in tlie eyes of tliosc who
seeing it yet did not understand, we can imagine what dimen-
sions this eternal enigma must have assumed in their sight. It
was inevitable that the first problem to press on men with
resistless urgency should be the ancient question of the method
of the Creator's temporal government. What is the law of the
distribution of good and evil fortune ? How can we vindicate,
with regard to the conditions of this life, the different destinies
that fall to men ? How can we defend the moral orderine: of a
world in which the wicked and godless constantly triumj^h,
while the virtuous and upright who retain their integrity are
as frequently buffeted and put to shame ?

This tremendous question has never been presented with
such sublimity of expression, such noble simplicity and force of
thought, as in the majestic and touching legend of Job. But
its completeness, as a presentation of the human tragedy, is
impaired by the excessive prosperity which is finally supposed
to reward the patient hero for his fortitude. Job received
twice as much as he had before, and his latter end was blessed
more than his beginning. In the chronicles of actual history

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 11 of 29)