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Joseph de Maistre, revolution, and tradition

Thomas Garrett Isham’s defense of the French author and literary critic highlights Maistre’s importance and rebuffs caricatures, but also opens the door to serious questions and reservations.

Émile Faguet, the French author and literary critic of the second half of the 19th century, described Joseph de Maistre as “a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, and intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of Pope, King and Hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest, and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner” whose “Christianity is terror, passive obedience, and the religion of the State.”

In fact, Maistre never interrogated or executed anyone, nor was he a statist, not at least in the modern sense of the word. His Considerations on France, published in 1797 (seven years after Edmund Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France appeared, and in the same year as Burke’s death), accused his country of having demoralized all of Europe by abandoning her divine mission to Christianize the Continent. Every institution of strength and duration can be shown to rest on a divine idea, Maistre argued. In the case of France, that idea was “liberty through the monarchy.” The French Republic had no roots—unlike the monarchy, which had been rooted in history. In creating the Republic, the Revolution had destroyed all dignity in France by its destruction of the sovereignty of the monarchy, whose foundations, established in extreme antiquity, came from God, not from man.

Faguet no doubt had in mind Maistre’s infamous defense of the public executioner as a figure essential to social order. In Les Soirées de St. Pétersburg he had written:

A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to [the executioner’s] house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemer is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up; then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones….

Or perhaps Faguet was recalling Maistre on warfare, blood sacrifice, and the Spanish Inquisition. “Beyond a doubt,” Thomas Garrett Isham concedes, Maistre, though personally a just and kindly man, “harbored a lifelong fascination with violence and irrationality. Beyond a doubt, he relished pushing principles to their logical conclusions and—it must be admitted—probably enjoyed shocking his readers from time to time.” One result of his intemperate style is that even so judicious and scholarly a person as Isaiah Berlin considered him a prototypical fascist and totalitarian. The truth is otherwise, as Mr. Isham shows.

Far from wishing to serve as Grand Inquisitor for Europe, Maistre skirted the boundaries of orthodoxy himself. Though Isham insists that he was always an orthodox Catholic, his fascination with esoterism, theosophy, and Illuminism (the belief in the possibility of a form of personal enlightenment unavailable to ordinary persons and knowledge of God attained through spiritual ecstasy and direct intuition of Him) and his decades-long membership in the Masonic Order tests that claim rather severely. Maistre himself admitted that

I once consecrated a good deal of my time to getting to know these gentlemen. I frequented their assemblies…I maintained a certain correspondence with some of their principal personages. But I remained in the…Roman Church; not however without having acquired many ideas from which I have profited.

Isham defends these vagaries—if that indeed is all they were—by explaining that Maistre’s interest in Masonry had to do with something more than a desire to associate himself with fashionable ideas and fashionable people, as was the case with Mozart. “It seems,” he says, “it was based on a felt need for [a] compensating balance…a need to widen the bounds of a much-loved but rigorously one-sided Catholicism by way of complementary and expansive influences.” Catholicism “rigorously one-sided”? St. Theresa of Avila, a true mystic, would have neither understood nor approved of this aspect of the mind and character of the man of whom Jean Rebotton observed that he “lived a triple experience: that of astrological divination, that of theurgy, and that, finally, which involved a more interior mysticism purified of all magical practice.”

Isham defends esoterism as being concerned with achieving the union of opposites, thus “equilibrating the soul.” But why should a Catholic need to go abroad, so to speak, to achieve that? Isham explains further that Maistre believed in “perennial philosophy,” the belief that all religions are one in the sense that their traditions are variations of a single primordial tradition. That may be true to a greater or lesser degree, but for an orthodox Catholic the fact is either obvious, or essentially irrelevant—or both.

Maistre considered the Protestant separation from the Church of Rome to have been a civil rebellion as well as a religious heresy that freed Christians and everyone else from “the yoke of obedience” by declaring their “sovereignty” in the secular as well as the ecclesiastical realms. Protestantism itself was “the fatal ulcer” that consumed sovereign bodies, “the son of pride, the father of anarchy, the universal dissolvent,” and the “insurrection” of individual against received reason. Observing that Maistre’s condemnation of Protestantism largely neglected theological issues, Isham tellingly speculates that this may be explained by “the striking similarity between Maistre’s theology and that of the reformers themselves, an awkward circumstance that would have been troubling to Maistre if faced head-on.” Richard LeBrun concurs: “[W]ith both Maistre and the reformers there was an extreme emphasis on divine activity at the expense of human initiative.” In this respect, Calvin’s teaching on the subject of predestination comports with Maistre’s insistence on God’s providential ordering of history.

This view caused him to understand the French Revolution as a supernatural event with a supernatural character. The Revolution, he thought, was God’s retribution on a corrupt nation, one directed by God acting as the director of events though He Himself was not the author of the accompanying evils. Maistre condemned the philosophes of the Enlightenment for their inability (or refusal) to grasp the profound truth that human creatures respond to experience from a basis of innate ideas: Correct understanding comes from first principles. In Isham’s gloss, “he held that every rational belief was founded on prior knowledge, for man can learn nothing but what he already knows in part. All sound reasoning, he believed, proceeded from already known principles; it was a sort of recollection.” (Doctor Johnson memorably expressed the same thing in his remark, recorded by Boswell, that men more often need to be reminded of the truth than instructed in it.) Maistre expresses his contempt for the opposing view when he has the Count, in Soirées, joke that “Locke is perhaps the only author known who has taken the trouble to refute his whole book or declare it useless, from the beginning, by telling us that all our ideas come from the senses or from reflection.”

Yet, culpable as the philosophes certainly were for their organized campaign of philosophical, intellectual, and moral mayhem, those who bore the greatest responsibility for the Revolution, Maistre, believed, were the decadent and most prominent members of the ancien régime (not including King Louis XVI whom he thought wholly blamelesss, as indeed he was) and the Revolutionary leaders themselves, whose most heinous crimes were their attack on established sovereignty and the execution of the King, in Maistre’s view an unspeakable atrocity. When one considers the mediocre quality of Robespierre and the other leaders of the Revolution, he argued, the colossal damage it accomplished can only be set down to satanic influence. “All life, all wealth, all power was in the hands of the revolutionary authority, [a] monstrous power, drunk with blood and success, the most frightful phenomenon that has ever been seen….” Yet the French Revolution was also “both a horrible chastisement for the French, and the sole means of saving France.” This “most frightful phenomenon” was the work of the Devil, nevertheless permitted by God on behalf of a greater good.

The Revolution in France was preceded by another one 3000 miles away across the Atlantic. Maistre’s understanding of the American Revolution should dispel the liberal misconception of him as a hard shelled, hard boiled, irrational reactionary. While intellectually and temperamentally opposed to revolution in principle, and though he correctly blamed the French Revolution in part on its American predecessor, Maistre took a moderate view of the events that produced and shaped the United States of America. Like Tocqueville four decades later, he did not believe that democracy in its American form was a suitable, or even a workable, model for France. And he expected the young American nation to fail in the long run. Yet he recognized that it had been produced in unique circumstances and within the context of the principles of ancient British tradition, not the fanciful speculations of abstract Continental thinkers. Even so, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights failed to impress him. Maistre put his trust in “the wisdom of the ages,” while the new American inventions were as thin in his opinion as the parchment they were written on.

Thomas Isham thinks Joseph de Maistre has real relevance for the 21st century. Maistre understood intuitively that the French Revolution was not an isolated historical catastrophe but the beginning of a “great epoch” that would endure for the foreseeable future. “In a word [he predicted], if there is no moral revolution in Europe, if the religious spirit is not reinforced in this part of the world, the social bond will dissolve,” with consequences of every sort that “will be felt far beyond the time of its explosion [in 1789], and the limits of its birthplace.” As Isham says, “Maistre saw it all coming:” more revolutions, more wars, more tyranny, and the murderous and nihilistic totalitarian state.

More generally, he argues Maistre’s importance for his insistence on the necessity of recovering the primordial tradition common to both East and West, and the rightful preeminence of the spiritual power over the secular one. This explains the inclusion in his book of the modern French writer René Guénon (1886-1951), the author of Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, in a way that is occasionally distracting and apparently irrelevant but ultimately useful. Guénon was an odd duck, a devoutly Catholic Frenchmen who converted to Islam, believing, in Isham’s summary, “that in a healthy traditional civilization knowledge is supreme over action and the sacerdotal class over the royal class.” Guénon is in agreement here with Aquinas, who made human functions subordinate to the contemplation of the truth, and –pari passu—governors and their civil servants subordinate to contemplatives. The claim is an anti-statist one, and indeed Guénon claimed that it is no historical accident that France, the first European country to abolish the monarchy, was also the first to establish the state. By reestablishing a traditional order, Guénon believed, the creation of a domain for “the immutable and the eternal” would be achieved along with it.

One suspects that Maistre, a practical man of affairs who served as Regent of Sardinia and later the island’s Ambassador to Russia, would have found this idea bemusing, much as he agreed with Guénon about the primacy of the intellect. For this reason, and perhaps others, it seems rather fanciful on Isham’s part to have discovered in René Guénon Maistre’s 20th-century “analogue.”

How interesting, by the way, to learn that Joseph de Maistre, a distinguished contributor to French letters, never lived in France and made a single visit to Paris only several years before his death.

Contra Mundum: Joseph de Maistre & The Birth of Tradition
By Thomas Garrett Isham
Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2017
Softcover/Hardcover, 154 pages

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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 18 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at


  1. Thank you very much for this thoughtful review. It made me want to know more about de Maistre, so I started with the entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which is also quite illuminating, and ends with this paragraph:

    “To appreciate de Maistre in his writings as a whole, one may remark that his ideas are bold and penetrating, and his views so clear and accurate that at times they seem prophetic. An enthusiastic believer in the principle of authority, which the Revolution tried to destroy, he defends it everywhere: in the State by extolling the monarchy, in the Church by exalting the privileges of the papacy; in the world by glorifying the rights and the conduct of God. His style is strong, lively, picturesque; animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone, and he might even be deemed eloquent. It is true he does not disdain paradox in his thinking or violence in his language: he has neither the moderation nor the serenity of Bossuet. But he possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power. He influenced the age that followed him: he dealt Gallicanism such decisive blows that it never rose again. In a word, he was a great and virtuous man, a profound thinker, and one of the finest writers of that French language of which his works are a distinguished ornament.”

    It would be interesting to hear de Maistre’s take on our own ’60s revolution. Regarding which, what would he have thought of Fatima?

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