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civilisation, because they had organised Europe of old, was as
infatuated as it would have been to expect the later emperors to
equal the exploits of the Republic and their greatest predeces-
sors in the purple. To despise philosophers and men of science
was only to play over again in a new dress the very part which
Julian had enacted in the face of nascent Christianity. The
eighteenth century, instead of being that home of malaria which
the ■Catholic and Royalist party represented, was in truth the
seed-ground of a new and better future ; its ideas were to
furnish the material and the implements by which should be
repaired the terrible breaches and chasms in European order
that had been made alike by despots and Jacobins, by priests
and atheists, by aristocrats and sans-culottes ; amidst all the
demolition upon which its leading minds had been so zealously
bent, they had been animated by the warmest love of social
justice, of human freedom, of equal rights, and by the most
fervent and sincere longing to make a nobler happiness more
imiversally attainable by all the children of men. It was to
these great principles that we ought eagerly to turn, to liberty,
to equality, to brotherhood, if we wished to achieve before the
new invaders a work of civilisation and social reconstruction,
such as Catholicism and feudalism had achieved for the multitu-
dinous invaders of old.

Such was the difference which divided opinion when men


took heart to survey the appalling scone of moral desolation
that the cataclysm of '93 had left behind. "VVe may admire the
courage of either school ; for if the conscience of the Liberals
was oppressed by the sanguinary tragedy in which freedom and
brotherhood and justice had been consummated, the Catholic
and the Royalist were just as sorely burdened with the weight of
kingly basenesses and priestly crimes and hypocrisies. If the one
had some diflScidty in interpreting Jacobinism and the Terror,
the other was still more severely pressed to interpi-et the fact
and origin and meaning of the Revolution ; if the Liberal had
Marat and Hebert, the Royalist had Louis xv., and the
Catholic had Dubois and De Rohan. Each school could
intrepidly hurl back the taunts of its enemy, and neither of
them did full justice to the strong side of the other. Yet we
who are, in England at all events, removed a little aside from
the centre of this great battle, may perceive that at that time
both of the contending hosts fought under honourable banners,
and could inscribe upon their shields a rational and intelligible
device. Indeed, unless the modern Liberal admits the strength
inherent in the cause of his enemies, it is impossible for him to
explain to himself the duration and obstinacy of the conflict, the
slow advance and occasional repulse of the host in which he has
enlisted, and the tardy progress that Liberalism has made in
that stupendous reconstruction which the Revolution has forced
the modern political thinker to meditate upon, and the modern
statesman to promote and control.

De Maistre, from those general ideas as to the method of
the government of the world, of which we have already seen
something, had formed what he conceived to be a perfectly
satisfactory way of accounting for the eighteenth century and
its terrific climax. The will of man is left free ; he acts
contrary to the will of God ; and then God exacts the shedding


of blood as tlie penalty. So mucli for the past. The only hope
of the future lay in an immediate return to the system which
God himself had established, and in the restoration of that
spiritual power which had presided over the reconstruction of
Europe in darker and more chaotic times than even these.
Though, perhaps, he nowhere expresses himself on this point in
a distinct formula, De Maistre was firmly impressed with the
idea of historic unity and continuity. He looked upon the
history of the West in its integrity, and was entirely free from
anything like that disastrous kind of misconception which
makes the English Protestant treat the long period between
St. Paul and Martin Luther as a howling waste, or which
makes the American republican contemptuously omit from all
account the still longer period of human effort from the cruci-
fixion of Christ to the Declaration of Independence. The rise
of the vast structure of western civilisation during and after
the dissolution of the Empire, presented itself to his mind as a
single and uniform process, though marked in portions by
temporary, casual, parenthetical interruptions, due to depraved
will and disordered pride. All the dangers to which this
civilisation had been exposed in its infancy and growth were
before his eyes. First, there were the heresies with which the
subtle and debased ingenuity of the Greeks had stained and
distorted the great but simple mysteries of the faith. Then
came the hordes of invaders from the North, sweeping with
irresistible force over the regions that the weakness or cowardice
of the wearers of the purple left defenceless before them.
Before the northern tribes had settled in their possessions, and
had full time to assimilate the faith and the institutions which
they had found there, the growing organisation was menaced
by a more deadly peril in the incessant and steady advance of
the bloody and fanatical tribes from the East. And in this way


his mind continued tlie picture down to the latest days of all,
when there had arisen men who, denying God and mocking at
Christ, were bent on the destruction of the very foundations of
society, and had nothing better to oifer mankind than a
miserable return to a state of nature.

As he thus reproduced this long drama, one benign and cen-
tral figure was ever present, changeless in the midst of ceaseless
change, laboriousl}^ building up with preter-human patience
and preter-himian sagacity, when other powers, one after
another in evil succession, were madly raging to destroy and to
pull down, thinking only of the great interests of order and
civilisation, of which it had been constituted the eternal
protector, and shoAving its divine origin and inspiration alike by
its unfailing wisdom and its unfailing benevolence. It is the
Sovereign Pontiff who thus stands forth throughout the history
of Europe as * the great Demiurgus of universal civilisation.'
If the Pope had filled only such a position as the Patriarch held
at Constantinople, or if there had been no Pope, and Christianity
had depended exclusively on the East for its propagation, with
no great spiritual organ in the West, what would have become
of Western development ? It was the energy and resolution of
the Pontiffs which resisted the heresies of the East, and
preserved to the Christian religion that plainness and intelligi-
bility, without which it would never have made a way to the
rude understanding and simple hearts of the barbarians from
the North. It was their wise patriotism which protected Italy
against the Greek oppression, and by acting the part of mayors
of the palace to the decrepit Eastern emperors, it was they who
contrived to preserve the independence and maintain the fabric
of society until the appearance of the Carlovingians, in whom,
with the rapid instinct of true statesmen, they at once recog-
nised the founders of a new empire of the West. If the Popes,


again, ' had possessed over the Eastern empire the same
authority they had over the other, they would have repulsed not
only the Saracens, but the Turks too, and none of the evils
which these nations have inflicted on us would ever have taken
place.' ^ Even as it was, when the Saracens threatened the
West, the Popes were the chief agents in organising resistance,
and giving spirit and animation to the defenders of Europe.
Their alert vision saw that to crush for ever that formidable
enemy, it was not enough to defend ourselves against his
assaults ; we must attack him at home. The Crusades, vulgarly
treated as the wars of a blind and superstitious piety, were in
truth wars of high policy ; and from the Council of Clermont
down to the famous day of Lej)anto, the hand and spirit of the
Pontiff were to be traced in every part of that tremendous
struggle which prevented Europe from being handed over to the
tyranny, ignorance, and barbarism that have always been the
inevitable fruits of Mahometan conquest, and had already
stamped out civilisation in Asia Minor, and Palestine, and
Greece, once the very garden of the universe.

This admirable and politic heroism of the Popes in the face
of foes pressing from without, De Maistre found more than
equalled by their wisdom, courage, and activity in organising
and developing the elements of a civilised system within. The
maxim of old societies had been that which Lucan puts into the
mouth of Caesar, hnmanum paucis vivit genus, and a vast popu-
lation of slaves had been one of the inevitable social conditions
of the period : the Popes never rested from their endeavours to
banish servitude from among Christian nations. Women in

(1) De Maistre forgot or under-estimated the services of Leo the Isaurian,
whose repulse of the Caliph's forces at Constantinople (a.d. 717) was perhaps
as important for Europe as the more renowned victory of Charles Martel. But
then Leo was an Iconoclast and heretic. Cf. Finlay's Byzantine Empire, pp. 22, 23.


old societies had filled a mean and degraded place : it was re-
served for the new spiritual power to rescue the race from that
vicious circle in which men had debased the nature of women,
and women had given back all the weakness and perversity they
had received from men, and to perceive that ' the most effec-
tual way of perfecting the man is to ennoble and exalt the
woman.' The organisation of tlie priesthood, again, was a
masterpiece of practical wisdom ; such an order, removed from
the fierce or selfish interests of ordinary life by the holy
regulation of celibacy, and by the austere discipline of the
church, was indispensable in the midst of such a society as
that which it was the function of the church to guide. Who
but the members of an order thus set apart, acting in strict
subordination to the central power, and so presenting a front of
unbroken spiritual unity, could have held their way among
tumultuous tribes, half-barbarous nobles, and proud and unruly
kings, protesting against wrong, passionately inculcating new
and higher ideas of right, denouncing the darkness of the false
gods, calling on all men to worship the cross and adore the
mysteries of the true God ? Compare now the impotency of the
Protestant missionary, squatting in gross comfort with wife
and babes among the savages he has come to convert, preaching
a disputatious doctrine, wrangling openly with the rival sent
by some other sect, — compare this impotency with the success
that follows the devoted sons of the church, impressing their
proselytes with the mysterious virtue of their continence, the
self-denial of their lives, the unity of their dogma and their
rites ; and then recognise the wisdom of these great churchmen
who created a priesthood after this manner in the days when
every priest was as the missionary is now. Finally, it was the
occupants of the holy chair who prepared, softened, one might
almost say sweetened, the occupants of thrones ; it was to them


that providence had confided the education of the sovereigns of
Europe. The popes brought up the youth of the European
monarchy ; they made it, precisely in the same way in which
Eenelon made the Duke of Burgund3^ In each case the task
consisted in eradicating from a fine character an element of
ferocity that would have ruined all. ' Everything that con-
strains a man, strengthens him. He cannot obey without
perfecting himself ; and by the mere fact of overcoming him-
self he is better. Any man will vanquish the most violent
passion at thirty, because at five or six you have taught him of
his own will to give up a plaything or a sweetmeat. That
came to pass to the monarchy, which happens to an individual
who has been well brought up. The continued efforts of the
church directed by the Sovereign Pontiff did what had never
been seen before, and what will never be seen again where that
authority is not recognised. Insensibly, without threats or
laws or battles, without violence and without resistance, the
great European charter was proclaimed, not on paper nor by
the voice of public criers ; but in all European hearts, then all
Catholic. Kings surrender the power of judging by themselves,
and nations in return declare kings infallible and inviolable.
Such is the fundamental law of the European monarchy, and it
is the work of the popes.' ^

All this, however, is only the external development of De
Maistre's central idea, the historical corroboration of a truth to
which he conducts us in the first instance by general con-
siderations. Assuming, what it is less and less characteristic
of the present century at any rate to deny, that Christianity
was the only actual force by which the regeneration of Europe
could be effected after the decline of the Roman civilisation, he
insists that, as he again and again expresses it, ' without the
(1) Bu Pape, bk. iii. c. iv. p. 298 (ed. 1866).


Pope ttere is no veritable Christianity.' AVhat lie meant by
this condensed form needs a little explanation, as is always the
case with such simple statements of the products of lon

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 14 of 29)