Joseph De Maistre

Joseph De Maistre books and biography


Joseph de Maistre


Joseph de Maistre (portrait by Karl Vogel von Vogelstein, ca. 1810)
Joseph de Maistre (portrait by Karl Vogel von Vogelstein, ca. 1810)

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre (April 1, 1753- February 26, 1821) was a Savoyard lawyer, diplomat, writer, and philosopher. He was one of the most influential spokesmen for a counter-revolutionary and authoritarian conservatism in the period immediately following the French Revolution of 1789. De Maistre argued for the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded as a divinely sanctioned institution, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters.

According to de Maistre, only governments founded on the Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies but especially in that of Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodletting that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, such as that of the 1789 revolution. An enthusiastic believer in the principle of established authority, which the Revolution sought to destroy, de Maistre defended it everywhere: in the State by extolling the monarchy, in the Church by exalting the privileges of the papacy, and in the world by glorifying God's providence.


Early life

De Maistre was born at Chambéry, in the Duchy of Savoy, which at the time belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia. His family was of French origin and had settled in Savoy a century earlier, eventually attaining a high position and aristocratic rank. His father had served as president of the Savoy Senate and his younger brother, Xavier de Maistre, would later become a military officer and a popular writer of fiction. Joseph was probably educated by the Jesuits. After the Revolution, he became an ardent defender of their Order as he came increasingly to associate the spirit of the Revolution with the spirit of the Jesuits' traditional enemies, the Jansenists. After training in the law, he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a senator in 1787.

Response to the French Revolution

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, de Maistre began to write on current events, e.g. Discours à Mme. la marquise Costa de Beauregard, sur la vie et la mort de son fils ("Discourse to the Marchioness Costa de Beauregard, on the Life and Death of her Son," 1794) and Cinq paradoxes à la Marquise de Nav... ("Five Paradoxes for the Marchioness of Nav...," 1795). In Considerations sur la France ("Considerations on France," 1796), [1] he maintains that France has a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and of evil on earth. De Maistre considered the Revolution of 1789 as a Providential occurrence: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the whole of the old French society, instead of using the powerful influence of French civilization to benefit mankind, had instead promoted the destructive atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers. The crimes of the Reign of Terror were at once the apotheosis and logical consequence of the destructive spirit of the eighteenth century, as well as the divinely decreed punishment for it.

When a French revolutionary army invaded Savoy in 1792, de Maistre fled to Switzerland, where he visited the salon of Germaine de Staël and discussed politics and theology with her. In 1803 he was appointed as the King of Sardinia's diplomatic envoy to the Russian Tsar's court in Saint Petersburg. From 1817 until his death, he served in Turin as a magistrate and minister of state for the Kingdom of Sardinia.

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His little 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) [2], centers on the idea that constitutions are not the artificial products of study but come in due time and under suitable circumstances from God, who slowly brings them to maturity in silence. 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, de Maistre published in 1819 his masterpiece Du Pape ("On the Pope"). The work is divided into four parts. In the first he argues that, in the Church, the pope is sovereign, and that it is an essential characteristic of all sovereign power that its decisions should be subject to no appeal. Consequently, the pope is infallible in his teaching, since it is by his teaching that he exercises his sovereignty. In the remaining divisions the author examines the relations of the pope and the temporal powers, civilization and the welfare of nations, and the schismatic Churches. He argues that nations require protection against abuses of power by a sovereignty superior to all others, and that this sovereignty should be that of the papacy, the historical saviour and maker of European civilization. As to the schismatic Churches, de Maistre believed that they would, with time, return to the arms of the papacy because "no religion can resist science, except one."

Besides a voluminous correspondence, de Maistre left two posthumous works. One of these, L'examen de la philosophie de Bacon, ("An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon," 1836), develops a spiritualist epistemology out of a critique of Francis Bacon, whom de Maistre considers as a fountainhead of the Enlightenment in its most destructive form. The Soirées de St. Pétersbourg ("The St. Petersburg Dialogues", 1821) [3] is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue, where de Maistre proposes his own solution to the age-old problem of the existence of evil. For him, the existence of evil throws light on the designs of God; for the moral world and the physical world are interrelated. Physical evil is the necessary corollary of moral evil, which humanity expiates and minimizes through prayer and sacrifice. The shedding of blood, the expiation of the sins of the guilty by the innocent is for de Maistre a law as mysterious as it is indubitable, the principle that propels humanity in its return to God and the explanation for the existence and the perpetuity of war.


De Maistre can be counted, with the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, as one of the fathers of European conservatism. Since the 19th century, however, the providentialist, authoritarian, "throne and altar" strand of conservatism that he represented has greatly declined in political influence when compared to the more pragmatic and adaptable conservatism of Burke. De Maistre's stylistic and rhetorical brilliance, on the other hand, have made him enduringly popular as a writer and controversialist. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 describes de Maistre's style as "strong, lively, picturesque," and adds, "animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone. He possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power." The great liberal poet Alphonse de Lamartine, though a political enemy, could not but admire the lively splendour of de Maistre's prose:

That brief, nervous, lucid style, stripped of phrases, robust of limb, did not at all recall the softness of the eighteenth century, nor the declamations of the latest French books: it was born and steeped in the breath of the Alps; it was virgin, it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once… That man was new among the enfants du siècle.

De Maistre's attacks on Enlightenment thought have long made him an attractive countercultural figure in certain circles. For example, the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire claimed that de Maistre had taught him "how to think" and declared himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary.

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Considérations Sur La France

By Joseph De Maistre
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Considérations Sur La France
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Considerations Sur La France

Les Soirées De Saint-pétersbourg

Lettres à Un Gentilhomme Russe

By Joseph De Maistre
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Lettres à Un Gentilhomme Russe
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