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sets up is below the moral level of the time in respect of
Punishment. In intellectual matters he vehemently pro-
claimed the superiority of the tenth or the twelfth over the
eighteenth century, but it is surely carrying admiration for
those loyal times indecently far to seek in the vindictive
sackings of revolt^ towns, and the miscellaneous butcheries of
men, women, and babes, which then marked the vengeance
of outraged sovereignty, the most apt parallel and analogy
for the systematic administration of human society by its
creator. It is open to a man with De Maistre's convic-
tions to say to the state, ' The man whom you have just hung
for murder was born and bred up amidst associations of
violence, lawlessness, disregard of life, and absolute mental



154 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

darkness : is not the pimisliment of sucli an oflPender a visita-
tion of tlie sins of tlie fathers on the children, and an act there-
fore of the same kind of inj ustice which you charge against the
divine government ? ' This would have been a pertinent thing
to say once, when penalties were inflicted vindictively and
retributively. But the retributive theory is no longer held by
enlightened minds. We value punishment as a deterrent and
reforming agency, and as that only. Now the mass of general
evil which has been visited upon men, and which still confronts
them with hardly diminishing volume as a punishment for
the general degradation by original sin, cannot be deterrent,
because the sin has been committed long ago, and can neither
be undone nor repeated. Therefore what is it but vindictive
and retributive castigation, inflicted without any view to pre-
vent the repetition of the onence, since it cannot be repeated ?
This is an idea which few enlightened men now hold. Such
punishment can no longer be regarded as moral in any deep or
permanent sense ; it implies a gross, harsh, and revengeful
character in the executioner, that is eminently perplexing and
incredible to those who expect to find an idea of justice in the
government of the world, at least not materially below that
attained in the clumsy eflbrts of uninspired publicists.

3. In mere point of administration, the criminal code which
De Maistre put into the hands of the Supreme Being works in
a more arbitrary and capricious manner tha^ any device of an
Italian Bourbon. As Voltaire asks, —

Lisbonne, qui n'est plus, eut-elle plus des vices
Que Londres, que Paris, plonges dans les delices ?
Lisbonne est abimee, et Ton danse a Paris.

Stay, De Maistre replies, look at Paris thirty years later,
not dancing, but red with blood. This kind of thing is often
said, even now ; but it is really time to abandon the prostitu-



JOSEPH DE MAISTRE. 155

tion of the name of Justice to a process which brings Louis
XVI. to the block and consigns Be Maistre to poverty and
exile, because Louis xiv., the Regent, and Louis xv., had
been profligate men and injudicious rulers. The reader may
remember how the unhappy Emperor Maurice as his five inno-
cent sons were in turn murdered before his eyes, at each stroke
piously ejaculated, 'Thou art just, Lord! and thy judg-
ments are righteous.' ^ Any name would befit this kind of
transaction better than that which, in the dealings of men with
one another at least, we reserve for the honourable anxiety
that he should reap who has sown, that the reward should be
to him who has toiled for it, and the pain to him who has
deliberately incurred it. What is gained by attributing to
the divine government a method tainted with every quality
that could vitiate the enactment of penalties by a temporal
sovereign ?

4. Though De Maistre holds that the scheme of faith is in
truth the best friend and harmoniser of reason, he rests the
entire superstructure of the divine government upon what he
calls the original degradation of man. On this j^revaricalioii,
which exhibits itself in our language, thought, conduct,
method, he is never weary of expatiating ; yet he never once
, explains, or even attempts to explain, in precise and intelligible
language, what this original sin was, which weighs so mightily
on the childrea of earth. It is avowedly a mystery. Nobody
who has asked himself fruitless questions — why the race of
man inhabits the earth, or what is the final upshot of the
endless series of successive transfusions among forms of life and
growth — is likely to deny that outside the ever-widening circle
within which reason reigns and works there lies the darkened
and sterile land of mystery eternally unfathomable. But this
(1) Gibhoii, c. xlvi. vol. V. 385,



156 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

general recognition of the inscrutability of final causes is an
entirely different process from tlie assertion of any one special,
particular, and defined mj'-stery, to be received as the founda-
tion-stone of a system claiming to be rational in every other
part but its foundation-stone.

How long will men of all creeds, Ultramontanes, Angli-
cans, Presbyterians, continue to pretend to take a stand on
reason, when they are forced to admit that you must believe
on the very threshold that something once happened of which
they can give you no details, of which there is no shred of
authentic record, unless conflicting myths of early races
constitute an authentic record, and which has all the air of an
artificial invention devised in primitive times, when men's
conceptions of a deity were of a gross and simple kind, for the
purpose of explaining human sufi'ering ? Even if we had a
record of the fall of men from the estate of demi-gods, nobody
either before or since De Maistre has attempted rationally —
and they pretend to be working with rational instruments — to
explain what ought to be their major premiss, that suffering is
expiatory of sin. Why and how^ does misery purge degrada-
tion ? What is this expiatory process ? How does the exac-
tion of a fine from a drunkard purge his offence morally ?
If the apologists would all courageously say, as some of them
have done, that these things are mysteries, things absolutely
unintelligible, and therefore are true, good ; but if they are
honest in believing their reconcilableness with reason, then
they are bound, at all events, to admit these questions fully
into their meditations. He Maistre saw the necessity for some
elucidation of the nature of punishment, sacrifice, purifica-
tion, and the like, when he wi'ote that most extraordinary of
all his pieces, the Eclaircissement sior les Sacrifices. The
manner of his elucidation will be sufiiciently visible when we



JOSEPH DE jiAisruE. lo7

say that it turns upon some mysterious qualities which he
believed to exist in the blood, and that he supports it, among
other arguments of about the same calibre, by two strange
allegations : that the happiest changes in nations have almost
invariably been brought about by bloody catastrophes, and that
the families which endure longest are those which have lost
most members in war. One can understand the curious
fascination which the character of the public executioner
always exercised over De Maistre's mind.^ He was nothing
less than a mysterious high-priest of society, and the type, as
we have already seen, of the supreme government of the whole
earth.

5. De Maistre's explanation of pain and misery is equally
open with all others which issue from the same laboratory, to
the objection of failing to satisfy that sense which the progress
of scientific knowledge is every day intensifying, of the kinship
of all sentient beings. The pleasure and pain of brutes are in
some aspects identical with, and where they are not identical are
closely analogous to, the same sentiments in men. We desire
some commiunity of explanation where there is such community
of circumstance. What is the law of the distribution of
pleasure and pain among these humbler creatures ? Has there
been original sin here too ? Did some fabled ancestor of
elephant or oyster inflict a curse upon his descendants ? All
through animated creation we behold pain and disaster. When
a weasel throttles a rabbit, we explain the fact by reference to
the great principle of the conditions of existence. A\Tien
a shark crushes the bones of a man who has fallen overboard,
we are to attribute the wretch's fate to heaven's judgment, by
supposing either that he had sinned specially, or that his

(1) The elaborate picture of the Executioner in the Soin'es de St. Fetersbourg
(i. p. 39) is very striking.



158 JOSEPH DE MAI5TRE.

bloody eud was a trifling instalment of the fine inflicted on the
race for having sinned generally. Would it not be simpler
and more rational to explain all the pain as well as all the
happiness of all creatures with organisations capable of per-
ceiving the difierence between the two states, by reference to a
single principle ? This principle we have in the conditions of
existence. De Maistre appears to have been on the verge of
recognising the adequateness of this, as we have already
noticed. But the ingenuity of men who have resolved to move
in the theological groove is inexhaustible in finding artificial
reasons why they should remain in it.

Finally, De Maistre was prevented by the methods of his
time from examining in the only efiective way possible those
questions of the origin and nature of Justice, which in truth
are the key to all fertile speculations on the government of the
universe. He never thought of morality in connection with
growth and development. It represented to him some entity,
absolute and rigid, established and promulgated once for all.
Now philosophic history shows that Justice is the social idea
in its highest, widest, and most binding expression ; and,
therefore, that its form and precepts vary with the variations
in the general conditions of communities. It signifies the
moral principle which obliges each so to shaj)e his conduct and
relations, his claims and his achievements, that they harmonise
with the highest good of all. The same account would ajjply
to Virtue, spoken of generally. Justice or virtue, therefore,
being thus only means to the universal weal, of which material
prosperity and strength are elements, it flows from the
definition, that provided the moral sentiment of a community is
enlightened by a correct intellectual appreciation of the cir-
cumstances amid which its movement is, material goods will
come to it in proportion to its love of justice and virtue, and



JOSEPH DE MirSTRE. 159

the average amount of conformity to tlie particular precepts in
wliicli they are specialised. To this extent it is perfectly true
that justice is likely under certain conditions to conduce to
external prosperity and security. For example, in the case
where De Maistre asks whether we expect God to send do\vn
an angel to guard against the robber the doors of the just man
who has not taken the precaution to bolt them, he really misses
what might have been said in favour of his own suppressed
half belief that after all it is well with the just even externally ;
because in communities where property happens to be an
institution, respect for it in the individual case is one of the
components of a just character, so that by setting an example
of justice in his own person, our honest man on whose behalf
Grod refuses to send an angel, is in fact adopting the best
means open to him, beyond bolts and bars, of securing his gold
and precious things. Beyond and outside of this, there is only
one certain result of virtue in a man.

No good is certain, but the steadfast mind,
The undivided will to seek the good.

De Maistre's ideas upon Prayer fit in rather oddly with his
theories of the chastising judge, and of the sufferings which
overtake all men in their quality of human beings ; and he
exhibits the inconsistencies on this subject common to men who
come near to the positive stand-point, while still holding tight
as with one hand to theological hypotheses. God, he says, is
not responsible for evil, because it is a punishment for sin,
which you may avoid first by forbearing from sinful acts (one
would like to know how he reconciled this with his notions
about original sin), and next by prayer. lie vindicates prayer
in the first instance by the usual sarcastic onslaught upon the
conception of eternal and immovable laws, as if, says he, there



160 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

were no such things as secondary laws, by which an almighty
being could interfere to accomplish the objects of devout
solicitation. But in his discourse on this subject the atmo-
sphere of law very soon becomes too oppressive, and he is not
long in throwing himself back upon ' the secrets of the spiritual
world.' Beginning by resting on prayer as a really con-
trolling objective agency, he comes at last by a silent but
judicious transition to place it among the almost exclusively
subjective influences. At first we find prayer held out as a
means of tempering and even wholly averting external disaster ;
but by-and-by we learn that its purifying virtue, its subjective
efficacy, in other words, is infinitely more valuable than
anything that we can ask in our miserable ignorance. Just as
in his former enterprise to show that some temporal reward
falls to virtue, he winds up by showing that virtue is filthy
rags and deserves no reward at all ; so here, while starting
from the point that prayer modifies the heavenly judgments
and stays the divine hand, being encountered on his argu-
mentative way by the objection that prayer does not often
succeed in effecting this modification, he indignantly assails the
supplicants : Aveugles e.t insenses que nous sommes ! au lieu de
nous plaindre de n'etre pas exauces, tremblons platot d'nvoir mal
demande, on d'' avoir demande le mal. It is quite true, he holds,
that the prayers of a nation are heard, only let us be sure that
we know first what is a nation, and second that we know what
is true prayer. The more you examine the thing, he says in
one place, the more convinced you will be that there is nothing
so difficult in the whole world as to utter a genuine prayer. It
is thus that the hopes of men are ever mocked ; the officious
theologist profiers us a fair and stout support along the stony
roadways, and ere we have well grasped it he shreds it all
away in sophistical explanations.



JOSEPH DE MAISTRE. IGl

It will be inferred from De Maistre's general position that
lie was no friend to physical science. Just as moderns see
in the advance of the methods and boundaries of jshysical
knowledge the most direct and sure means of displacing the
unfruitful subjective methods of old, and so of renovating the
entire field of human thought and activity, so did De Maistre
see, as his school has seen since, that here was the stronghold
of those whom he held foes, *Ah, how dearly,' he exclaimed,
* has man paid for the natural sciences ! ' Not but that
providence designed that man should know something about
them ; only it must be in due order. The ancients were not
permitted to attain to much or even any sound knowledge of
physics, indisputably above us as they were in force of mind,
a fact shown by the superiority of their languages, which
ought to silence for ever the voice of our modern pride. Why
did the ancients remain so ignorant of natural science ?
Because they were not Christian. ' When all Europe was
Christian, when the priests were the universal teachers, when
all the establishments of Europe were Christianised, when
theology had taken its place at the head of all instruction, and
the other faculties were ranged around her like maids of
honour round their queen, the human race being thus prepared,
then the natural sciences were given to it.' Science must be
kept in its jDlace, for it resembles fire which, when confined in
the grates prepared for it, is the most useful and powerful of
man's servants ; scattered about anyhow, it is the most terrible
of scourges. Whence the marked supremacy of the seven-
teenth century, especially in France ? From the happy accord
of religion, science, and chivalry, and from the supremacy
conceded to the first. The more perfect theology is in a
country, the more fruitful it is in true science ; and that is
why Christian nations have surpassed all others in the sciences,

M



162 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

and whj the Indians and Chinese will never reach us, so long
as we remain respectively as we are. The more theology is
cultivated, honoured, and supreme, then, other things being
equal, the more perfect will human science be : that is to
say, it will have the greater force and expansion, and will be
the more free from every mischievous and perilous connection.^

Little would be gained here by serious criticism of a view of
this kind from a positive point. How little, the reader will
understand from De Maistre's own explanation of his principles
of proof and evidence. ' They have called to witness against
Moses,' he says, * history, chronology, astronomy, geology, &c.
The objections have disappeared before true science ; but those
were profoundly wise who despised them before any inquiry, or
who only examined them in order to discover a refutation, but
without ever doubting that there was one. Even a mathe-
matical objection ought to be despised, for though it may be a
demonstrated truth, still you will never be able to demonstrate
that it contradicts a truth that has been demonstrated before.'
His final formula he boldly announced in these words : — ' Que
toutes les fois qu\me proposition sera proiwee par le genre de
preuve qui lui appartient, V objection qiielconque, meme insoluble,
ne doit plus etre ecoutee.' Suppose, for example, that by a con-
sensus of testimony it were perfectly proved that Archimedes
set fire to the fleet of Marcellus by a burning-glass ; then all the
objections of geometry disappear. Prove if you can, and if you
choose, that by certain laws a glass to be cajaable of setting fire
to the Roman fleet must have been as big as the whole city of
Syracuse, and ask me what answer I have to make to that.
' J^ai d fous i^ejMndre qu'Archimede hrula la jiotte romaine amc
un miroir ardent.'

The interesting thing about such opinions as these, is not
(1) See the Examen de la FMlosojphie de Bacon, vol. ii. 58 seq.



JOSEPH DE MAISTRE. 163

the exact height and depth of their falseness, but the considera-
tions which could recommend them to a man of so much
knowledge, both of books and of the outer facts of life, and of
so much natural acuteness as De Maistre. Persons who have
accustomed themselves to ascertained methods of proof, are apt
to look on a man who vows that if a thing has been declared
true by some authority whom he respects, then th-xt constitutes
proof to him, as either the victim of a preposterous and barely
credible infatuation, or else as a flat impostor. Yet he was
no ignorant monk. He had no selfish or official interest in
taking away the keys of knowledge, entering not in himself,
and them that would enter in hindering. The true reasons for
his detestation of the eighteenth-century philosophers, science,
and literature, are simple enough. Like every wise man, he
felt that the end of all philosophy and science is emphatically
social, the construction and maintenance and improvement of a
fabric under which the communities of men may find shelter,
and all the other conditions for living their lives with dignity
and service. Then he held that no truth can be harmful to
society ; if he found any system of opinions, any given attitude
of the mind, injurious to tranquillity and the public order, he
instantly concluded that, however plausible they might seem
when tested by logic and demonstration, they were funda-
mentally untrue and deceptive. What is logic compared with
eternal salvation in the next world, and the practice of virtue in
this ? The recommendation of such a mind as De Maistre's is
the intensity of its appreciation of order and social happiness.
The obvious weakness of such a mind and the curse inherent in
its influence, is that it overlooks the prime condition of all ; that
social order can never be established on a durable basis so long
as the discoveries of scientific truth in all its departments are
suppressed, or incorrectly appreciated, or socially misapplied.

M 2



164 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

De Maistre did not perceive that the cause which he supported
was no longer the cause of j^eace and tranquillity and right
living, but was in a state of absolute and final decomposition,
and therefore was the cause of disorder and blind wrong living.
Of this we shall now see more.

III.

When the waters of the deluge of '89 began to assuage, the
best minds soon satisfied themselves that the event which
Bonaparte's restoration of order enabled them to look back upon
with a certain tranquillity and a certain completeness, had
been neither more nor less than a new irruption of barbarians
into the European world. The monarchy, the nobles, and the
church, with all the ideas that gave each of them life and
power, had fallen before atheists and Jacobins, as the ancient
empire of Rome had fallen before Huns and Goths, Vandals and
Lombards. The leaders of the revolution had succeeded one
another, as Attila had come after Alaric, and as Genseric had
been followed by Odoacer. The problem which presented itself
was not new in the history of western civilisation ; the same
dissolution of old bonds which perplexed the foremost men at
the beginning of the nineteenth century, had distracted their
predecessors from the fifth to the eighth, though their condi-
tions and circumstances were widely difierent. The practical
question in both cases was just the same — how to establish a
stable social order which, resting on principles that should
command the assent of all, might secure the co-operation of all
for its harmonious and efficient maintenance, and might offer a
firm basis for the highest and best life that the moral and
intellectual state of the time allowed. There were two courses
open, or which seemed to be open, in this gigantic enterprise of
reconstructing a society. One of them was to treat the case of



JOSEPn DE iMAISTRE. IGu

the eighteentli century as if it were not merely similar to, but
identical with, the case of the fifth, and as if exactly the same
forces which had knit western Europe together into a compact
civilisation a thousand years before, would again suffice for a
second consolidation. Christianity, rising with the zeal and
strength of youth out of the ruins of the Empire, and feudalism
by the need of self-preservation imposing a form upon the
unshapen associations of the barbarians, had between them
compacted the foundations and reared the fabric of mediaeval
life. Why, many men asked themselves, should not Christian
and feudal ideas repeat their great achievement, and be the
means of re-organising the system which a blind rebellion
against them had thrown into deplorable and fatal confusion ?
Let the century which had come to such an end be regarded as
a mysteriously intercalated episode, and no more, in the long
drama of faith and sovereign order ; or, as a sombre "and
pestilent stream, whose fountains no man should discover, whose
waters had for a season mingled with the mightier current of
the divinely allotted destiny of the race, and had then gathered
themselves apart and flowed off, to end as they had begun, in
the stagnation and barrenness of the desert. Philosophers and
men of letters, astronomers and chemists, atheists and repub-
licans, had shown that they were only powerful to destroy, as the
Goths and Vandals had been, and that they were impotent, as
the Goths and Vandals had been, in building up again. Let
men turn their faces, then, once more to that system by which,
in the ancient times, Europe had been delivered from a relapse
into eternal night.

The second course was very different from this, as the minds
to whom it commended itself were cast in a different mould and
drew their inspiration from other traditions. In their view the
system which the church had been the main agency in organ-



166 JOSEPH DE MAISTRE.

ising, had fallen quite as mucli from its own irremediable weak-
ness as from the direct onslaughts of assailants within and
without. The barbarians had rushed in, it was true, in 1793 ;
but this time it was the church and feudalism which were in
the position of the old empire on whose ruins they had built.
What had once restored order and belief to the West, were now
in their own turn overtaken by decay and dissolution. To look
to them to unite these new barbarians in a stable and vigorous



Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 13 of 29)