“Man is insatiable for power; he is infantile in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only what he has not. People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man.”
Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) was a key figure of the “Counter-Enlightenment“, Maistre regarded monarchy as both a divinely sanctioned institution and as the only stable form of government. He called for the restoration of the House of Bourbon to the throne of France and for the ultimate authority of the Pope in temporal matters. Maistre argued that the rationalist rejection of Christianity was directly responsible for the disorder and bloodshed which followed the French Revolution of 1789.
In Considérations sur la France (“Considerations on France,” 1797), Maistre claimed that France has a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and evil on Earth. He interpreted the Revolution of 1789 as a Providential event: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Ancien Régime in general, instead of directing the influence of French civilization to the benefit of mankind, had promoted the atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers. He claimed that the crimes of the Reign of Terror were the logical consequence of Enlightened thought, as well as its divinely-decreed punishment.
In his short book Essai sur le Principe Générateur des Constitutions Politiques et des Autres Institutions Humaines (“Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions,” 1809), Maistre argued that constitutions are not the product of human reason, but come from God, who slowly brings them to maturity. After the appearance in 1816 of his French translation of Plutarch‘s treatise On the Delay of Divine Justice in the Punishment of the Guilty, in 1819 Maistre published Du Pape (“On the Pope“), the most complete exposition of his authoritarian conception of politics.
According to Maistre, any attempt to justify government on rational grounds will only lead to unresolvable arguments about the legitimacy and expediency of any existing government, and that this, in turn, will lead to violence and chaos. Maistre therefore argued that the legitimacy of government must be based on compelling but non-rational grounds, which its subjects must not be allowed to question. Maistre went on to argue that authority in politics should therefore derive from religion, and that in Europe this religious authority must ultimately lie with the Pope.
What was novel in Maistre’s writings was not his enthusiastic defense of monarchical and religious authority per se, but rather his arguments concerning the practical need for ultimate authority to lie with an individual capable of decisive action, as well as his analysis of the social foundations of that authority’s legitimacy. In his own words, which he addressed to a group of aristocratic French émigrés, “you ought to know how to be royalists. Before, this was an instinct, but today it is a science. You must love the sovereign as you love order, with all the forces of intelligence.” Maistre’s analysis of the problem of authority and its legitimacy foreshadows some of the concerns of early sociologists such as Comte and Saint-Simon.
In addition to his voluminous correspondence, Maistre left two books that were published posthumously. Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (“The Saint Petersburg Dialogues”, 1821) is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which Maistre argues that evil exists because of its place in the divine plan, according to which the blood sacrifice of innocents returns men to God, via the expiation of the sins of the guilty; Maistre sees this as a law of human history, as indubitable as it is mysterious. Examen de la Philosophie de Bacon, (“An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon,” 1836), is a critique of the thought of Francis Bacon, whom Maistre considers to be the fountainhead of the destructive Enlightened thought.