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Maistre, Joseph De (1753-1821): Savoyard/French, Philosopher.

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre, was the most prominent anti-Enlightenment thinker of his time, denouncing French philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot, Denis and promoting reactionary political causes.

De Maistre was born on 1 April 1753 at Chambéry, the capital of Savoy before it became part of France. Although de Maistre wrote in French, he never sought to become a French citizen. After a Jesuit education culminating in a law degree, de Maistre entered the Savoy Senate which his father had headed. Fleeing the French Revolution, de Maistre served the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as a diplomat and regent in such locales as Lausanne, St. Petersburg, and Sardinia for over twenty years, during which time he never saw his wife and children. De Maistre held membership in the Masonic Lodge, which encouraged him to combine mysticism with his Catholicism.

He gained notoriety from his paradoxical analysis of the French Revolution. While denouncing the revolution’s goals, he declared the Reign of Terror an act of divine intervention, a providential punishment upon the French people for their indulgence in what he perceived as the evil Enlightenment principles of secularism and egalitarianism. Only from such a cataclysm, he reasoned, could France be purged and a proper restoration achieved.

In his numerous writings, most notably Du Pape (On the Pope,1817) and his clever book of dialogues Les Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg (St. Petersburg Nights, published posthumously in 1821), de Maistre developed a complex theory of society involving interlocking ideas about religion, government, and violence. There are basically five parts to his argument. First, he posits that the one thing to be valued above all else is order. Thus, a chain of authority entailing unquestioned obedience to God and his anointed is essential. Second, de Maistre proclaims the Pope infallible in religious matters. Comparing the Papacy to a court of last appeal, de Maistre sees no one in a position to overrule the Pope, so concludes that the Pope must always be right. Third, de Maistre makes a similar argument regarding the sovereignty of monarchs in secular matters. But whereas there is only one Pope, there are many monarchs and they are often in conflict. Hence his fourth point: war is good. For it is through war that Providence crowns its favorites. De Maistre sees bloodshed as a mysteriously positive thing, as a necessary part of religious sacrifice and human expiation even in the political and military realms. This leads to his fifth point, the glorification of capital punishment. To de Maistre, the executioner is an almost mystical figure, publicly shedding blood to purify the populace of sin and frighten all into obeying authority. Hence, there is a spiritual obligation for the state to use terror to enforce order.

Denounced by pro-Enlightenment thinkers who found his ideas shockingly repugnant, and mistrusted by non-papist aristocrats celebrating a return to power, de Maistre died in Turin on 26 February 1821. His theories did, however, inspire the first Vatican Council, in 1870, to declare the Pope infallible in matters of faith. De Maistre also displayed influence as a proponent of pre-fascistic thought. And his work is often viewed today as a provocative precursor of the sociological study of violence.

Further Reading:

Richard A. Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant, 1988.

Kenneth T. Rivers