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regenerating, conquering, perfecting.'

De Maistre was probably conducted to his theory by an
analogy, which he tacitly leaned upon more strongly than it
could well bear, between temporal organisation and spiritual
organisation. In inchoate communities, the momentary self-
interest and the promptly stirred passions of men would rend

(1) ' II n"y a point de souverainef e qui pour le bonlieur des hommea, et pour
le sien surtout, ne soit bornee de quelque maniere, mais dans I'interieur de ces
bomes, placees comme il plait a Dieu, elle est toujours et partout absolue et tenue
pour infaillible. Et quand je parle de I'exercice legitime de la souverainete, je
n'entends point ou je ne dis point I'exerciee juste, ce qui produirait une amphi-
bologie dangereuse, a moins que par ce dernier mot on ne veuille dire que tout ce
qu'elle opine dans son cercle est juste ou tcnn pour fel, ce qui est la verite. C'est
ainsi qu'un tribunal supreme, tant qu'il ne sort pas de ses attributions, est toujours
juste ; car c'est la mime chose dans la pratique, d'etre infaillible, ou de se tromper
sans appel.' — Bk. ii. c. xi. p. 212 (foot-note).


the growing society in pieces, unless they were restrained Ly
the strong hand of law in some shape or other, written or
unwritten, and administered by an authority, either physically
too strong to be resisted, or else set up by the common consent
seeking to further the general convenience. To divide this
authorit}^, so that none shoidd know where to look for a
sovereign decree, nor be able to ascertain the commands of
sovereign law ; to embody it in the persons of many discordant
expounders, each assuming oracular weight and equal sanc-
tion ; to leave individuals to administer and interpret it for
themselves, and to decide among themselves its application to
their own cases ; what would this bo but a deliberate prej)ara-
tiou for anarchy and dissolution ? For it is one of the
clear conditions of the efficacy of the social union, that
every member of it shoidd be able to know for certain the
terms on which he belongs to it, the compliances which it
will insist upon in him, and the compliances which it will in
turn permit him to insist upon in others, and therefore it is
indispensable that there should be some definite and admitted
centre where this very essential knowledge should be accessible.
Some such reflections as these must have been at the bottom
of De Maistre's great apology for the Papal supremacy, or at
any rate they may serve to bring before our minds with greater
clearness the kind of foundations on which his scheme rested.
.For law substitute Christianity, for social union spiritual union,
for legal obligations the obligations of the faith. Instead of
individuals bound together by allegiance to common political
institutions, conceive communities united in the bonds of
religious brotherhood into a sort of universal rej)ublic, under
the moderate supremacy of a supreme spiritual 2>ower. As
a matter of fact, it was the intervention of this spiritual power
which restrained the anarchy, internal and external, of the

N 2


ferocious and imperfectly organised sovereignties that figure in
the early history of modern Europe. And as a matter of
theory, what could be more rational and defensible than such,
an intervention made systematic, with its rightfulness and
disinterestedness universally recognised? Grant Christianity
as the spiritual basis of the life and action of modern com-
munities ; supporting both the organised structure of each of
them, and the interdependent system composed of them all ;
accepted by the individual members of each, and by the
integral bodies forming the whole. But who shall declare
what the Christian doctrine is, and how its maxims bear upon
special cases, and what oracles they announce in particular sets
of circumstances ? Amid the turbulence of popular passion, in
face of the crushing despotism of an insensate tyrant, between
the furious hatred of jealous nations or the violent ambition of
rival sovereigns, what likelihood woidd there be of either party
to the contention yielding tranquilly and promptly to any
presentation of Christian teaching made by the other, or by
some suspected neutral as a decisive authority between them ?
Obvioiisly there must be some supreme and indisputable
interpreter, before whose final decree the tyrant should quail,
the flood of popular lawlessness flow back within its accustomed
banks, and contending sovereigns or jealous nations embrace
fraternally. Again, in those questions of faith and discipline,
which the ill-exercised ingenuity of men is for ever raising and
pressing upon the attention of Christendom, it is just as
obvious that there must be some tribunal to pronounce an
authoritative judgment. Otherwise, each nation is torn into
sects ; and amid the throng of sects, where is unity ? * To main-
tain that a crowd of independent churches form a church, one
cind universal, is to maintain in other terms that all the political
governments of Europe only form a single government, one


and universal.' There could no more be a kingdom of France
without a king, nor an empire of Russia without an emperor,
than there could be one universal church without an acknow-
ledged head, and that this head must be the successor of
St. Peter, is declared alike by the voice of tradition, the explicit
testimony of the early writers, the repeated utterances of later
theologians of all schools, and that * general sentiment ' which
presses itself upon every conscientious reader of religious

The argument that the voice of the Church is to be sought
in general councils is absurd; to maintain that a council has
any other function than to assure and certify the Pope, when
he chooses to strengthen his judgment or to satisfy his doubts,
is to destroy visible unity ; and suppose there to be an equal
division of votes, as happened in the famous case of Fenelon,
and might as well happen in a general council, the doubt
would after aU be solved by the final vote of the Poidc. And
' what is doubtful for twenty selected men is doubtful for the
whole human race : those who suppose that by multiplying the
deliberating voices doubt is lessened, must have very little
knowledge of men, and can never have sat in a deliberative
body.' Again, supposing there to present itself one of those
questions of divine metaphysics that it is absolutely necessary
to refer to the decision of the supreme tribunal ; our interest is
not that it should be decided in such or such a manner,
but that it should be decided without delay and without appeal.
Besides, the world is now grown too vast for general councils,
which seem to be made only for the youth of Christianity. In
fine, why pursue futile or mischievous discussions as to whether
the Pope is above the Council, or the Council above the Pope ?
Just as in ordinary questions in which the king is conscious of
sufficient light, he decides them himself, while tlie others


in whicli he is not conscious of this assistance, he transfers to
the States- General presided over by himself, but is equally-
sovereign in either case; so with the Pope and the Council.
Let us be content to know, in the words of Thomassin,^ that
' the Pope in the midst of his Council is above himself,
and that the Coimcil decapitated of its chief is below

The point so constantly dwelt upon by Bossuet, the obligation
of the canons upon the Pope, was of very little worth in De
Maistre's judgment, and he almost speaks with disrespect of the
great Catholic defender for being so prolix and pertinaciovis in
elaborating it. Here again he finds in Thomassin the most
concise statement of what he held to be the true view, just as
he does in the controversy as to the relative superiority of the
Pope or the Council. * There is only an apparent contradic-
tion,' says Thomassin, * between saying that the Pope is above
the canons, and that he is bound by them ; that he is master of
the canons, or that he is not. Those who place him above the
canons or make him their master, only pretend that he has a
dispensing poicer over them ; while those who deny that he is
above the canons or is their master, mean no more than that he
can only exercise a dispensing power for the convenience and in the
necessities of the church.' This is an excellent illustration of

(1) Thomassin, the eminent French theologian, flourished from the middle
to the end of the seventeenth century. The aim of his writings generally
■was to reconcile conflicting opinions on discipline or doctrine by exhibiting a
true sense in all. In this spirit he wrote on the Pope and the councils, and on
the never-ending question of Grace. Among others things, he insisted that all
languages could be traced to the Hebrew. He wrote a defence of the edict in
which Louis xiv. revoked the Edict of Nantes, contending that it was less harsh
than some of the decrees of Theodosius and Justinian, which the holiest fathers
of the church had not scrupled to approve — an argument which would now be
thought somewhat too dangerous for common use, as cutting both ways. Gibbon
made use of his Discipline de V Eylise in the twentieth chapter, and elsewhere.


tlie thorouglily political temper in which De IMaistre treats the
whole subject. He looks at the power of the Pope over the
canons much as a modern English statesman looks at the
question of the coronation oath, and the extent to which it
binds the monarch to the maintenance of the laws existing at
the time of its imposition. In the same spirit he banishes from
all account the crowd of nonsensical objections to Papal
supremacy, drawn from imaginary possibilities. Suppose a
Pope, for example, were to abolish all the canons at a single
stroke ; suppose him to become an unbeliever ; suppose him to
go mad ; and so forth. * ^VTiy,' De Maistre says, ' there is not
in the whole world a single power in a condition to bear all
possible and arbitrary hypotheses of this sort ; and if you judge
them by what they can do, without speaking of what they
have done, they will have to be abolished every one.' ^ This, it
may be worth noticing, is one of the many passages in De
Maistre' s writings which, both in the solidity of their argu-
ment and the direct force of their expression, recall his great
predecessor in the anti-revolutionary cause, the ever-illustrious

The vigour with which De Maistre sums up all these pleas
for supremacy is very remarkable ; and to the crowd of enemies
. and indijfferents, and especially to the statesmen who are among
them, he appeals with admirable energy. * What would you
then ? Do you mean that the nations should live without any
religion, and do you not begin to perceive that a religion there
must be ? And does not Christianity, not only by its intrinsic
worth but because it is in possession, strike you as preferable to
every other ? Have you been better contented with other
attempts in this way ? Peradventure the twelve apostles might
please you better than the philanthropists and Martinists ? Does

(1) Bid. bk. i. c. xviii. p. 122.


the Sermon on tlie Mount seem to you a passable code of morals ?
And if the entire people were to regulate their conduct on this
model, should you be content ? I fancy that I hear you reply
affirmatively. Well, since the only object now is to maintain
this religion for which you thus declare your preference, how
could you have, I do not say the stupidity, but the cruelty, to
turn it into a democracy, and to place this precious deposit in
the hands of the rabble ?

' You attach too much importance to the dogmatic part of this
religion. By what strange contradiction would you desire to
agitate the universe for some academic quibble, for miserable
wranglings about mere words (these are your own terms) ? Is
it so then that men are led? Will you call the Bishop of
Quebec and the Bishop of Lucon to interpret a line of the
Catechism ? That believers should quarrel about infallibility is
what I know, for I see it ; but that statesmen should quarrel
in the same way about this great privilege, is what I shall

never be able to conceive That all the bishops in the

world should be convoked to determine a divine truth necessary
to salvation — nothing more natural, if such a method is
indispensable ; for no effort, no trouble, ought to be spared for
so exalted an aim. But if the only point is the establishment
of one opinion in the place of another, then the travelling
expenses of even one single Id fallible are sheer waste. If you
want to spare the two most valuable things on earth, time and
money, make all haste to write to Rome, in order to procure
thence a lawful decision which shall declare the unlawful doubt.
IS^othing more is needed ; policy asks no more.' ^

Definitely, then, the influence of the Popes restored to
their ancient supremacy, would be exercised in the renewal and
consolidation of social order resting on the Christian faith,
(1) Bk. i, c. xvii. p. 117.


somewliat after this manner. Tlie anarchic dogma of the
sovereignty of peoples, having failed to do anything beyond
showing that the greatest evils resulting from obedience do not
equal the thousandth part of those which result from rebellion,
would be superseded by the practice of appeals to the authority
of the Holy See. Do not suppose that the Revolution is at an
end, or that the column is replaced because it is raised up from
the ffround. 'A man must be blind not to see that all the
sovereignties in Europe are growing weak ; on all sides confi-
dence and affection are deserting them ; sects and the spirit
of individualism are mxdtiplying themselves in an appalling
manner.' There are only two alternatives : you must either
purify the will of men, or else you must enchain it; the monarch
Avho will not do the first, must enslave his subjects or perish ;
servitude or spiritual unity is the only choice open to nations.
On the one hand is the gross and unrestrained tyranny of what
in modern phrase is styled Imperialism, and on the other a wise
and benevolent modification of temporal sovereignty in the
interests of all by an established and accepted spiritual power.
No middle path lies before the people of Europe. Temporal
absolutism we must have. The only question is whether or no
it shall be modified by the wise, disinterested, and moderating
counsels of the Church, as given by her consecrated chief.

There can be very little doubt that the effective way in which
De Maistre propounded and vindicated this theory made a deep
impression on the mind of Comte. Very early in his career
this eminent man had declared, ' De Maistre has for me the
peculiar property of helping me to estimate the philosophic
capacity of people, by the repute in which they hold him ; ' and
among his other reasons at that time for thinking well of M.
Guizot was that notwithstanding his transcendent Protestantism


he complied with the test of appreciating De Maistre;'^^ Cbmte's
rapidly assimilative intelligence perceived that here at last
there was a definite, consistent, and intelligible scheme for the
re-organisation of European society, with him the great end of
philosophic endeavour ; and its principle of the division of the
spiritual and temporal powers, and of the relation that ought
to subsist between the two, was the base of Comte's own scheme.
In general form the plans of social reconstruction are
identical ; in substance, it need scarcely be said, the differences
are fundamental. The temporal power, according to Comte's
design, is to reside with industrial chiefs, and the spiritual
power to rest upon a doctrine scientifically established, De
MaistrCy on the other hand, believed that the old authority of
kings and Christian pontiffs was divine, and any attempt to
supersede it in either case would have seemed to him as
desperate as it seemed impious. In his strange speculation on
Le Principe Generatenr des Constitutions Politiques, he con-
tends that all laws in the true sense of the word (which by the
way happens to be decidedly an arbitrary and exclusive sense)
are of supernatural origin, and that the only persons whom we
have any right to call legislators, were those half-divine men
who appear mysteriously in the early history of nations, and
counterparts to whom we never meet with in later days.
Elsewhere he maintains to the same efiect, that royal families
in the true sense of the word ' are growths of nature, and difier
from others, as a tree difiers from a shrub.' People suppose
a family to be royal because it reigns ; on the contrary, it reigns
because it is royal, because it has more life, plus d' esprit royal,
as mysteriious and occult a force as the virtus dormitira of
opium. The common life of man is about thirty years ; the
average duration of the reigns of European sovereigns, being
(1) Littre, Augitste Comte et la Phil. Fosit., p. 152.


ChristiaTi, Is at the very lowest calculation twenty. How is it
possible that ' lives should be only thirty years, and reigns from
twenty-two to twenty-five, if princes had not more common life^
than other men ? ' Mark, again, the influence of religion in
the duration of sovereignties. All the Christian reigns are
longer than all the non- Christian reigns, ancient and modern,
and Catholic reigns have been longer than Protestant reigns ;
the reigns in England, which averaged more than twenty-three
years before the Heformation, have only been seventeen years
since, and those of Sweden, which were twenty- two, have fallen
to the same figure of seventeen. Denmark, however, for some
unlcnown cause does not appear to have undergone this law of
abbreviation ; so, says De Maistre with rather unwonted restraint,
let us abstain from generalising. As a matter of fact, however,
the generalisation was complete in his own mind, and there was
nothing inconsistent wdth his view of the government of the
universe in the fact that a Catholic prince should live longer
than a Protestant ; indeed such a fact was the natural condition
of his view being true. Many differences among the people who
hold to the theological interpretation of the circumstances of
life arise from the different degrees of activity which they
variously attribute to the intervention of God, from those who
explain the fall of a sparrow to the ground by a special and
direct energy of the divine will, up to those at the opposite end
of the scale, who think that direct participation ended when-
the universe was once fairly launched. De Maistre was of'
those who see the divine hand on every side and at all times.
If, then. Protestantism was a pernicious rebellion against the
faith which God had provided for the comfort and salvation
of men, why should not God be lilcely to visit princes, as
offenders with the least excuse for their backslidings, with the
curse of shortness of days ?


In a trencliant passage De Maistre has expounded the
Protestant confession of faith, and shown what astounding gaps
it leaves as an interpretation of the dealings of God with man.
*By virtue of a terrible anathema,' he supposes the Protestant
to say, ' inexplicable no doubt, but much less inexplicable than
incontestable, the human race lost all its rights. Plunged in
mortal darkness, it was ignorant of all, since it was ignorant of
God ; and, being ignorant of him, it could not pray to him, so
that it was spiritually dead without being able to ask for life.
Arrived by rapid degradation at the last stage of debase-
ment, it outraged nature by its manners, its laws, even by its
religions. It consecrated all vices, it wallowed in filth, and its
depravation was such that the history of those times forms a
dangerous picture, which it is not good for all men so much as
to look iipon. God, however, having dissembled for forty cen-
turies, bethought him of his creation. At the appointed
moment announced from all time, he did not despise a virgin's
womb ; he clothed himself in our unhappy nature, and appeared
on the earth ; we saw him, we touched him, he spoke to us ; he
lived, he taught, he suffered, he died for us. He arose from
his tomb according to his promise ; he aj)peared again among
us, solemnly to assure to his Church a succour that would last
as long as the world.

* But, alas, this effort of almighty benevolence was a long
way from securing all the success that had been foretold. For
lack of knowledge, or of strength, or by distraction maybe,
God missed his aim, and could not keep his word. Less sage
than a chemist who shoidd undertake to shut up ether in
canvas or paper, he only confided to men the truth that he had
brought iipon the earth ; it escaped, then, as one might have
foreseen, by all human pores ; soon, this holy religion revealed
to man by the Man- God, became no more than an infamous


idolatry, wliicli Tvould remain to this very moment if Christianity
after sixteen centuries had not been suddenly brought back
to its original purity by a couple of sorry creatures.' ^ Perhaps
it would be easier than he supposed to present his own system
in an equally irrational aspect. If you measure the proceed-
ings of omnipotence by the uses to which a wise and benevo-
lent man woidd put such superhuman power, if we can imagine
a man of this kind endowed with it, De Maistre's theory of the
extent to which a supreme being interferes in human things, is
after all only a degree less ridiculous and illogical, less inade-
quate and abundantly assailable, than that Protestantism which
he so heartily despised. Would it be difficvdt, after borrowing
the account, which we have just read, of the tremendous efforts
made by a benign creator to shed moral and spiritual light upon
the world, to perplex the Catholic as bitterly as the Protestant,
by confronting him both with the comparatively scanty results
of those efforts, and with the too visible tendencies of all the
foremost agencies in modern civilisation to leave them out of
account as forces practically spent ?

De Maistre has been surpassed by no thinker that we know
of as a defender of the old order. If anybody could rationalise
. the idea of supernatural intervention in human afiliirs, the idea
of a Papal supremacy, the idea of a spiritual unity, De Maistre's
acuteness and intellectual vigour, and, above all, his keen sense
of the urgent social need of such a thing being done, would
assuredly have enabled him to do it. In 1817, when ho wrote
the work in which this task is attempted, the hopelessness of
such an achievement was less obvious than it is now. The
Bourbons had been restored. The Hevolution lay in a deep
slumber that many persons excusably took for the quiescence of
(1) Bu Pape, Conclusion, p. 380.


extinction. Legitimacy and the spiritual system tliat was its
ally in the face of the Revolution, though mostly its rival or
foe when they were left alone together, seemed to be restored
to the fulness of their power. Fifty years have elapsed since
then, and each year has seen a progressive decay in the prin-
ciples which then were triumphant. It was not, therefore, with-
out reason that De Maistre warned jjeople against believing
' que la colonne est replacee, parcequ'elle est relevee.' The
solution which he so elaborately recommended to Europe has
shown itself desperate and impossible. Catholicism may long
remain a vital creed to millions of men, a deep source of spi-
ritiml consolation and refreshment, and a bright lamp in per-
plexities of conduct and morals ; but resting on dogmas which
cannot by any amount of compromise be incorporated with the
daily increasing mass of knowledge, assuming as the condition
of its existence forms of the theological hypothesis which all
the preponderating influences of contemporary thought concur
directly or indirectly in discrediting, upheld by an organisation
which its history for the last five centuries has exposed to the
distrust and hatred of men as the sworn enemy of mental
freedom and growth, the pretensions of Catholicism to renovate
society are among the most jjitiable and impotent that ever
devout, high-minded, and benevolent persons deluded them-
selves into maintaining or accepting. Over the modern '
invader it is as powerless as paganism was over the invaders of
old. The barbarians of industrialism, grasping chiefs and

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 15 of 29)