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men fare not so. There is a terribly logical finish about some of
the dealings of fate, and in life the working of a curse is seldom
stayed by any dramatic necessity for a smooth consummation.
Destiny is no artist. The facts that confroiit us are relentless.
No statement of the case is adequate which maintains, by ever so
delicate an implication, that in the long run and somehow it is
well in temporal things with the just, and ill with the unjust.
Until we have firmly looked in the face the grim truth that
temporal rewards and punishments do not follow the possession
or the want of spiritual or moral virtue, so long we are still
ignorant what that enigma is which speculative men, from the
author of the book of Job downwards, have striven to resolve.


We can readily imagine tlie fulness witli whicli the question
would grow up in the mind of a roj^alist and Catholic exile at
the end of the eighteenth century.

The common speech of the world on the subject involves an
extraordinary kind of compromise. As De Maistre says, the
generality of men seem to be persuaded of two contrary propo-
sitions. In familiar conversation we constantly hear how the
success of such and such a merchant is owing to his probity, his
exactness, his economy, which have procured for him universal
esteem and confidence ; or that God blesses this and this family
because they are good people who have pity on the poor ; no
wonder that all goes well with them. On the other hand,
there runs equally through our discourse an assumption of the
exact opposite to this ; of the triumph of audacity, fraud, and bad
faith, and of the corresponding disappointment that eternally
awaits ingenuous honesty. Witness ' the expression of a man
of wit writing to a friend about a certain person of their
acquaintance who had just obtained a distinguished post ;

M icas admirably fitted for this post in every respect, yet he

has got it for all that.' In the discourse of a single hour you
shall hear the same man take it equally for granted, first, that
cunning and unscrupulousness are certain of success in this
world, and next that the virtuous man is certain to triumph
in the long run.^ ^ De Maistre's explanation of this striking
inconsistency in the popidar mind is curiously maladroit.
The entire universe, he says, obeys two forces ; there are two
men in each man. Go to the play, and will you find a single
sublime trait of filial piety, conjugal love, even of religious
devotion, of which the audience is not profoundly sensible, and
which it will not drown in aj)plause ? Yet, go the next night,
and you will hear just as much noise over the couplets of

(1) Soiries, 3ieme cntretien, i. 183—186.


Figaro. But granting that our sympatliies are two-sided, and
thus liable to be attracted almost equally by virtue and vice,
now by the sublimest and now by the least sublime sentiments,
how does this bear on the familiar inconsistency of our
two proverbial beliefs about the temporal destiny which the
virtuous man may expect ? When the cynical Preacher
declared that there be just men unto whom it happeneth
according to the work of the wicked, again there be wicked
men unto whom it hajjpeneth according to the work of the
righteous, he was not avowing sympathy, but recording a
result of his observation of life. The simple truth is that such
observation discloses to us two sets of instances. We see
virtuous men loaded with temporal prosperity, and with a
natural enthusiasm we hasten to establish a general law on
their merited good fortune.^ Then we cannot help seeing
examples of craft, and wickedness, and violence, just as amply
loaded with temporal advantages ; and on these also we build

(1) It is one of the weaknesses of untrained minds not to be able to stop at
such generalisations. After they have reached them by process of observation,
they are by-and-by so misled by a confused idea that those general records of facts
are laws, as to import into them legal ideas of invincible necessity, of obligation,
and so forth. Thus, that ' The man of blood shall not live out half his days,' is
very likely to be true as a register of fact, because the man of blood naturally
surrounds himself with dangerous physical conditions, but there is no pronun-
ciation of a necessary moral doom in such a generalisation. Let us take a more
striking instance of confusion, which has played a curious and remarkable part
in European history. When a sovereign or great feudal potentate remonstrated
with parsimonious burghei-s, he charged them with scandalous disobedience to the
declared will of God, whose prophet had told the Israelites concerning the king
whom they sought, — ' He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for
his chariots and to be his horsemen ; and he will take your daughters to be con-
fectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers ; he will take the tenth of your
sheep, and ye shall be his servants.' Samuel was warning the people of the
usual temper and dealings of kings with their subjects, as a matter of fact ; the
feudal potentate of the fifteenth century borrowed his words to be the divine
sanction of lordly prerogatives, as matters of moral and indpfe.isiblo ri^ht.


a generalisation about the course of human affairs. Each
generalisation is exactly as true to fact as the other, and there-
fore each in the end neutralises the other ; thus showing the
cardinal truth that prosperity conies of compliance with the
conditions requisite for obtaining it, and that of these conditions
virtue sometimes is and sometimes is not one.

It was De Maistre's fondness for dwelling on the two
natures within the human breast, that led him away from this
simplest and most obviously intelligible explanation of the
popular contradiction. For his own way of dealing with the
main subject, to which we shall now proceed, rests wholly on
the base implied in this explanation. He exhibits, indeed,
some of the inevitable inconsistency of the theological philoso-
pher, in an occasional appeal as by a side-wind to any stray
superstition, even while professing to beat mere reasoners on
their own grounds and fighting with their own weapons. Now
and again, he shifts the question back into positions which are
supposed to be abandoned before the controversy can really
begin. For example, in one place he compares God to a
temporal ruler, who in the siege of a hostile town cannot
always be sure of sparing innocent persons. ' Xo,' aptly
interrupts one of the interlocutors ; ' but why should not this
good prince take under his protection the loyal inhabitants of
this town, and transport them to some happy province where
they may be rewarded for their fidelity ? ' Well, this is just
what God does when innocent beings perish in a general
catastrophe, De Maistre replies, referring evidently to the
rewards that await the just in the next world. For one thing,
this rather reminds one of the fanatical priest who implored a
victorious captain to put to death every one of the inhabitants
of a certain place, whether orthodox or heretical ; ' Dieu saura
reconnoitre les siens.' In De Maistre's case, such a position


involved not only an indirect justification of inliumanity, but a
petit io principii as well. The discussion Avliicli it is the pro-
fessed work of his book to conduct, is only possible on condition
that its field is confined to the rewards and punishments of this
world. It is just, however, to De Maistre to say that there are
few writers on his side who are so free from the detestable
logical sin of pretending to argue on grounds and principles
of reason, when in reality they postulate the acceptance of all
the dicta of authority ; who when the scale is turning against
them with reference to the rewards and pains of time, achieve
an imitation of victory by clandestinely slipping eternity into
the dish.

Nothing can be more clearly put than De Maistre's answers
to the question which the circumstances of the time placed
before him to solve. What is the law of the distribution of
good and evil fortune in this life ? Is it a moral law ? Do
prosperity and adversity fall respectively to the just and the
unjust, either individually or collectively ? Has the ancient
covenant been faithfully kept, that whoso hearkens diligently
to the divine voice, and observes all the commandments to do
them, shall be blessed in his basket and his store and in all the
work of his hand ? Or is God a God that hideth himself ?
Writers on natural theology have, as a rule, taken care to
restrict their vision and discourse exclusively to those circum-
stances in the order of the world, which seem to imply the
controlling watchfulness of perfect benevolence and unvarying
tenderness towards all created things. They see only the
steady recurrence of the seasons, the rich fruitfulness of the
earth, the fitness of the human organisation for the circum-
stances in which it is placed, the helpfulness of the humbler
organisations that are man's ministers, and all the glorious
ideas and apprehensions that are implanted in his nature.



They invite the pious gratitude of men for the sunshine, but
say nothing of the hurricane. All that is black and mis-
chievous alike in the external world and in human nature they
are wont to ignore, or else to solve by the arbitrary invention
of a second deity, the devil. One is all benevolence, while the
other is made up of malignity, and the benign government of
the universe is satisfactorily asserted by the attribution of all
good things to the one, and of all evil to the malice of the
other, — a malice as entirely unaccountable as it is fatal.

De Maistre did not resort to this grotesque explanation of
the disasters which come upon men. He did not account for
the occasional triumph of the wicked, and the occasional depres-
sion of the righteous, by the hypothesis that there is a division
of the patronage of the universe between two contending
powers. To ask that temporal rewards and punishments
should follow respectively virtue and wickedness, he held most
wisely to imply a fundamental misconception of the conditions
of the divine government. ' We do not wonder,' he says,
' that in a battle the cannon-ball hits the righteous man as
well as the wicked, or even spares the wicked while it destroys
the righteous. There is no more reason why we should be
surprised that misfortunes sometimes appear to single out the
just, and to pass by on the other side in the case of the unjust.'
The true question which the impugners of the divine govern-
ment habitually misstate, is whether a bad man is sometimes
seen to be exempt from calamity because he is bad, and the
good man stricken by it because he is good. If this were the
fact, that the good man suffered for being good, and the bad
man triumphed for being bad, then the moral problem would
be insoluble. There is a confusion between two questions : —
Why does the just man suffer ? and Why does man suffer ?
When evil overtakes the righteous, it is not in their quality of


righteous, but in tlicir quality of men. Every human bciiig in
his quality of man is subject to all the misfortunes to Avhich
humanity is liable. * To say that crime is happy in this
world, and innocence unhappy, is a thorough contradiction in
terms ; it is just like saying that poverty is rich and opulence
is poor. But this shows the perversity of man. It is not
enough that God should have attached imspeakable happiness
to the exercise of virtue ; it is not enough that he should have
promised to this the greatest share beyond all comparison in
the general distribution of the good things of this world ; these
infatuated people, dont h raisonnement a hanni la raison, refuse
to be satisfied. It is absolutely necessary that their imaginary
Just Man should be beyond suffering ; that no ill should ever
befall him ; that the rain should not wet him ; that the mildew
should respectfully stop short at the boundaries of his field ;
and that if he should perchance forget to bar his door, then
God should be under the obligation of sending an angel with a
flaming sword, lest some forfunnfe robber should come and carry
ofi" the gold and pretty things of the Just.' i Justice in the
husbandman has nothing to do with the copiousness of the
yield of his land. If his yield is inferior to the supply of the
wicked husbandman, it is because certain general laws regulate
agricultural things ; and so long as there is no special and
particular interruption of them for the benefit of the bad, nor
to the detriment of the good, then the good have no rightful
grounds of complaint against the ruler of the universe.

So far it will be seen that De Maistre is strictly in the path
that leads to the root of the entire matter. If he had followed
it as steadily to the end, he must have come to the positive
solution. But this he had no intention of doinff, and the
admirable vigour with which he began to confront the question,

(1) Soirees, 3ibme entretien, i. 212.
L 2


and to pursue a solution which it perhaps demands some forti-
tude to accept, first begins to waver, and then swiftly changing
face, carries him to one of the most terrible theological supposi-
tions that have ever been propounded. His main position is
plain. Material prosperity, all outward good fortune, is
acquired and retained by certain means ; it follows certain
conditions which very often do not lie in the moral order at all.
We shall see presently to what extent and in what sense moral
conditions enter into even external success and comfort. Mean-
while it is clear that De Maistre admits that there is no
necessary connection, and holds it to be no disparagement of
the divine method of governing the world, that there shoidd
not be this necessary connection, between success and virtue.
Instead, however, of consistently adhering to this, and explain-
ing it as he well might, without weakening his hold of theistic
principle, he instantly sets to work to soften down his position
and make it contribute as little as possible to the permanent
elucidation of the diiBculty. It is true that he always keeps
away from what he justly stigmatizes as ' the mad hypothesis
of optimism ; ' but he shrinks, perhaps involuntarily, from the
only really tenable theory in its complete and logical form.
After all, he asks, what is virtue ? ' Strip our miserable
virtues of all that we owe to temperament, to sense of honour,
to opinion, to pride, to want of power, to opportunity or circum-
stance ; what is left ? ' This, it will be observed, is in tLe
well-known theological vein, which vindicates providence at the
cost of mankind, and exalts the divine clemency and justice by
lowering the level of human dignity. Necessarians are tmjustly
reproached with robbing man of all credit or discredit for the
way in which he exercises his will ; to deny the freedom of the
will, it is said, is to rob virtue of all merit, and therefore of all
claim to praise. Yet the persons who especially resort to this


kind of talk, seldom speak of our virtues except as miserable
rags, just as De Maistre does here. Even if we concede that
virtue is but a sorry possession at the very best, it is still un-
deniable that some men have more of it than others ; and the
thesis is that external prosperity distribiites itself, upon the
whole, without exact relation or proportion to virtuous quality.
De Maistre believed this, yet could not refrain from a return
upon insinuations which really neutralise and stultify his
deliberate position.

Let us take another instance of this half reluctance to accept
a truth which his reasoned observation imposes. Although his
whole argument professes to be a solution of the fact which he
does not deny, that virtue does not appear to bring any outward
good thing to the persons who practise it, yet he more than
once dwells upon the long life which holy persons have often
enjoyed ; and he quotes with exultation Voltaire's recognition
of the length of days which the saints of old in their religious
solitude constantly attained. De Maistre was much too acute,
however, seriously to rest on an argument which might prove
that Voltaire was a more righteous person than St. Paul.. There
is one more example of his lurking desire to be able to point
out the temporal advantage of virtue, which is too quaint to be
passed over. There are some diseases, he says, of a special and
peculiar character, like phthisis, dropsy, apoplexy ; while there
are others which can only be described by general names^ as
malaises, incommodites, douleurs, Jievres innommees. ' Now ' —
and this is the astounding part of the passage — ' the more
virtuous a man is, the more sheltered he is against diseases that
have names' What can be more monstrous than thus to make
a purely artificial division of diseases, and then to hang a sort of
apology for divine providence upon it ? As if good men seldom
died of Bright's disease of the kidneys. Why not say that the


more virtuous a man is, the more sheltered he is against
Eustachian tubes or Malj^ighian capsules ?

This curious attempt to connect diseases that have special
names with moral offences is the more remarkable because he
has expressly said, in his most striking manner, that the mode
of a man's death is indifferent to the Supreme Being. ' If it
is decided,' he says in one place, 'that a certain number of
children must die, I do not see what difference it makes to them
whether they die in one way or another. Whether a dagger
pierces a man's heart, or a little blood collects in his brain, he
falls dead equally ; but in the first case we say that he has
ended his days by a violent death. For God, hoivever, there is
no such thing as violent death. A steel blade fixed in the heart is
a malady, just like a simple callosity that we should call a
polypus.' ^ For the innocent children who were crushed to
death beneath the falling houses at the earthquake of Lisbon,
what mattered it before God, whether they came to an end in'
this way, or by scarlatina, epilepsy, and difficult teething ?
"Whether three or four thousand perish spread over a great
space, or all at once and at a blow by an earthquake or a rising
of the sea, is the same thing for the reason, though it makes
an enormous difference for the imagination.

This brings us to the most characteristic part of De Maistre's
speculations on this subject. He perceived that the optimistic
conception of the deity as benign, merciful, infinitely forgiving,
was very far indeed from covering the facts. So he insisted on
seeing in human destiny the ever-present hand of a stern and
terrible judge, administering a Draconian code with blind and
pitiless severity. God created men under conditions which left
them free to choose between good and evil. All the physical
evil that exists in the world is a penalty for the moral evil that
(1) Soirics, 4!eme entrolien, i. 2G3.


has resulted from the abuse by men of this freedom of choice.
For these physical calamities God is only responsible, in the
way in which a criminal judge is responsible for a hanging.
Men cannot blame the judge for the gallows ; the fault is their
own in committing those offences for which hanging is pre-
scribed beforehand as the penalty. These curses which domi-
nate human life are not the result of the cruelty of the divine
ruler, but of the folly and wickedness of mankind, who seeing
the better course, yet deliberately choose the worse. The order
of the world is overthrown by the iniquities of men ; it is we
who have provoked the exercise of the divine justice, and called
down the tokens of his vengeance. The misery and disaster
that surround us like a cloak, are the penalty of our crimes and
the price of our expiation. As the divine St. Thomas has said,
Deus est auctor mail quod est poena, -non autem mali quod est culpa.
There is a certain quantity of wrong done over the face of the
world ; therefore the great Judge exacts a proportionate quan-
tity of punishment. The total amount of evil suffered makes
nice equation with the total amount of evil done ; the extent of
human suffering tallies precisely with the extent of human
guilt. Of course you must take original sin into account,
' which explains all, and without which you can explain
nothing.' ' In virtue of this primitive degradation we are
subject to all sorts of physical sufferings in general ; just as in
virtue of this same degradation we are subject to all sorts of
vices in general. This original malady therefore [which is the
correlative of original sin] has no other name. It is only the
capacity of suffering all evils, as original sin is only the capa-
city of committing all crimes.' ^ Hence all calamity is either
the punishment of sins actually committed by the sufferers, or
else is the general penalty exacted for general sinfulness.

(I) Soirees, i. 76.


Sometimes an. innocent being is stricken, and a guilty being
appears to escape. But is it not the same in the transactions
of earthly tribunals ? And yet we do not say that they are
conducted without regard to justice and righteousness. * When
God punishes any society for the crimes that it has committed,
he does justice as we do justice ourselves in these sorts of cir-
cumstance. A city revolts ; it massacres the representatives
of the sovereign ; it shuts its gates against him ; it defends
itself against his arms ; it is taken. The prince has it dis-
mantled and deprived of all its privileges ; nobody will find
fault with this decision on the ground that there are innocent
persons shut up in the city.' 1

The reader will observe the following points in this marvel-
lous theory : —

1. That De Maistre's deity is a colossal Septembriseur, a
veritable Marat enthroned high in the peaceful heavens,
demanding ever-renewed holocausts of blood in the name of
divine justice, exactly as the Terrorists cried for holocausts in
the name of the public safety. ' Give me,' cried the Friend
of the People, ' the lives of ten, twenty, thirty, three hundred
thousand, ci-devants and aristocrats, and the state will be saved.
The foundation of the commonwealth can only be cemented by

(1) De Maistre found a curiously characteristic kind of support for this view
in the fact that evils are called Jleaux : flails are things to beat with : so evils
must be things with which men are beaten ; and as we should not be beaten if we
did not deserve it, argal, suffering is a merited punishment. Apart from that com-
mon infirmity which leads people after they have discovered an analogy between,
two things, to argue from the properties of the one to those of the other, as if,
instead of being analogous, they were identical, De Maistre was particularly fond
of inferring moral truths from etymologies. He has an argument for the deterio-
ration of man, drawn from the fact that the Eomans expressed in the same word,
supplidum, the two ideas of prayer and punishment (Soirees, 2ieme entretien, i.
p. 108). His profundity as an etymologist may be gathered from his analysis of
cadaver : ca-io, du-ia,, i'« - niibus. There are many others of the same quality.


their blood, whlcli lias peculiar virtue in it. You say hundreds
of them, women and youths, have done no harm ; has not their
order done harm ? ' Just so, the being to Avhom De Maistre
ascribed the government of the universe is supposed on his
theory to cry out for an uninterrupted supply of human misery
and destruction. It may seem odd that De Maistre should
have invited our reverence and love for such a, conception ; he
lived, however, in times when the Parisians had begun to invest
even mere GniUotine with endearing associations.

2, It is true, as a general rule of the human mind, that the
objects which men have worshipped have improved in morality
and wisdom as men themselves have improved, and that the
quiet gods, without effort of their own, have grown holier and
purer by the agitations and toil which civilise their worship-
pers ; in other words, that the same influences which elevate and
widen our sense of human duty, also give corresponding height
and nobleness to our ideas of the divine character. The history
of the civilisation of the earth is the history of the civilisation of
Olympus also. It will be seen that the deity whom De Maistre

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 12 of 29)