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Maistre, Joseph

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(count) de, an eminent French Roman Catholic writer, the greatest advocate of Ultramontanism in the 19th century, was born at Chambery April 1, 1753. His father was president of the senate of Savoy, and he became himself a member of that body in 1787. When the French armies invaded Savoy in 1792 he retired to Piedmont, where he wrote his Considerations sur la France (1796, 8vo; three editions in one year). Charles Emanuel IV called De Maistre to Turin, where he remained until the downfall of that prince, Nov. 19, 1798; he then retired to Venice, and lived there one year in great poverty. In 1799 he was created grand chancellor of Sardinia, and in September, 1802, was sent by that country as ambassador to Russia. While there he published (in 1810) his Essai sur le principe regnebateur des constitutions politiques, a full exposition of his political views, advocating the principle of divine right, and declaring the rights of the people derived from the sovereign withal a sort of theocratic form of government more adapted to the Middle Ages than to the 19th century. "M. de Maistre," in this work, "represents men as connected with God by a chain which binds them to his throne, and holds them without enslaving them. To the full extent of this chain we are at liberty to move; we are slaves indeed, but we are freely slaves (librement esclaves); we must necessarily work out the purposes of the Supreme Being, and yet the actions by which we work out these purposes are always free. So far so good; but here come the peculiarities of our author's system.

He does not consider men as individually responsible before God; he takes them as nations. and the nation, for M. de Maistre, is made up of the king and the aristocracy. Even considering each order separately, he asserts that all the members of the same order are indissolubly bound together, each bearing a share of the mutual and joint responsibility which weighs on the whole order. Now let us suppose the case of a revolution. In those terrible events which follow the disregard of all the laws of right and wrong, although the persons who fall victims to the fury of the multitude may sometimes be those whose very crimes have called down the divine vengeance, yet very often, nay, in most cases, the individually innocent suffer most. But, then, although individually innocent, they must come in for the share of the solidarity which belongs to the whole order. This results from the fact that the doctrine of atonement is the principle on which rests the constitution of society; the sins of the guilty are visited on the innocent, and the blood of the innocent, in its turn, atones for the guilty. Here is to be found the key-stone of count De Maistre's theory; the Savoyard publicist develops it with all the resources of logic and erudition." It has been well remarked that a system such as this is fatalism of the very worst description. Not only does it take away the free agency of men considered as individuals, but it effectually proclaims the validity of the maxim that might is right. "Wishing to transform all earthly governments into one homogeneous theocracy, he proposed, as a control over absolutism, an absolutism of a much more dangerous character. M. de Maistre's leading idea is a good one: he swishes to appeal from the passions and depraved will of man to the Deity itself as to the eternal source of right and good; but not being, of course, able to receive immediately from God the counsel and the laws he wishes to reduce into practice for the good of society, he traces them to the pope, as the vicegerent of Heaven! an error common to all reactionary movements from the fear of allowing anything like vagueness to exist in the minds of men respecting their connection with the Almighty. He is not satisfied with anything short of what is really tangible, visible, perceptible to the senses, thus forgetting the character of the true Mediator. Failing to understand that both divinity and humanity have met together only in the man Christ Jesus, he would fain make us believe that the pope is God made manifest in the flesh.' With such views, he could not but condemn severely the charter of 1814, which introduced new institutions into France, and he turned his face towards Russia with a view of making it his home. By a ukase of December, 1815, Russia expelled the Jesuits. To them De Maistre and his family were much attached, and being on this account himself suspected of proselytism, he quitted the country and returned to Savoy in 1817, and became minister of state. He died Feb. 26,1821.

Among the principal works of De Maistre, our special consideration is claimed also by his Du Pape (Lyons, 1819, 2 vols. 8vo; second and improved edition, 1821, 2 vols. 8vo), in which he treats of the papacy, 1, in its relation to the Romish Church; 2, to the temporal powers; 3, to civilization;, and, 4, to the dissenting churches. It is a daring apology of the spiritual and temporal power of the pope. He starts from the principle that modern nations need a guarantee against the abuses of sovereign power. Such guarantee, he claims, is not to be found either in written charters, which are always useless, nor in assemblies, which are powerless when they are not anarchic. He can find it only in a sovereignty superior to all others, at once independent and disinterested, and interfering to promote the cause of justice, which has been entrusted to it by God himself. The Savoyard publicist's beau ideal of government is the constitution of the Middle Ages.

He describes it in exulting language, and crowds his margins with quotations from Bellarmine, Baronius, and the Tridentine fathers, never suspecting that, after all, he has only been painting a tableau de fantaisie, a piece of historical inaccuracy which will match the dreamy theories of Boulainvilliers and Dubos. We are invited, seriously, to return to those happy times when royalty, while it retained its full volition, and was endowed with an independent patrimony, was restrained in the exercise of legislative power by the clergy, the nobility, and the commons, each resting on its own foundation, and acting within its allotted sphere, while above was the papacy, which, by its sublime umpirage, maintained, in cases of collision, the harmonious cooperation of the members of all the body politic. We are told to admire the noble, temperate monarchy which had grown up under the shelter of the Christian Church, and which, though never brought to perfection (this is, at least, a candid acknowledgment), had yet secured to the mediaeval nations so long a career of happiness and freedom, prosperity and glory. It would be a task both useless and unprofitable to point out all the misstatements which occur in the description just given. The futility of his scheme was demonstrated by the conduct of De Maistre himself. In 1804 pope Pius VII crowned Napoleon emperor. This, according to the theory of the work Du Pope, was one of those judgments by which the papal infallibility settled political difficulties. Yet De Maistre speaks of this decision in the following disrespectful terms: "The pope's journey and the coronation are for the present the great subject of conversation... All in the French Revolution is wonderfully bad, but this is the ne plus ultra. The crimes of an Alexander VI are less frightful than this hideous apostasy of his weak-minded successor... I wish with all my heart that the unfortunate pontiff would go to St. Domingo to crown Dessalines.

When once a man of his rank and character so far forgets both, all that is to be hoped for is that he may completely degrade himself until he becomes but an insignificant puppet" (Corresp. diplom. p. 138, 139). It was thus the great ultramontane writer respected papal infallibility when not in accordance with his own views or his passions. De l'Eglise Gallicane dans ses rapports avec le souverainponfide (Paris, 1821, 8vo; Lyons, 1822) is a sort of continuation of the preceding work. It attacks the privileges of semi-independence claimed by the Church of France. This book, in which Bossuet and Fleury are somewhat roughly handled, was not well received at first by the French clergy. Abbe Baston published an answer to it under the title Reclamations pour l'Eglise de France, et pour la verite, contre M. de Maistre (1821, 1824, 2 vols. 8vo); still, in the course of time, it was greatly instrumental in causing the triumph of the ultramontane doctrine. Les soires de St. Petersbourg, ou Entretiens, etc. (Paris, 1821, 2 vols. 8vo), "the best known and certainly the most readable work of the author," treats of retribution, both here and hereafter. We cannot give here the details of De Maistre's theory, but its most important features may be summed up thus: the thorough badness of human nature, the necessity of atonement, the reversion of the merits of the innocent paying for the guilty, and salvation through blood. These views, in which excellent Christians have found a daring perversion of the most holy Christian principles, led De Maistre to justify the Inquisition. His apology, entitled Lettres a uns gentilhomme Russe sur I'Inquisition Espagnole (Paris, 1822, 8vo), is, however, but a very lame defense of that atrocious institution. His violent attack against Bacon, Examen de la Philosophie de Bacon (Paris, 1836, 2 vols. 8vo) is not much better. His works are very original, but more in the form than in the ideas. Carrying often a true principle to its fullest extent, he arrives at a paradox which he then proclaims as evident. "As a pamphlet writer," says Dr. M'Clintock (in the Meth. Quart. Rev. 1856, p. 218), "De Maistre may be compared, in some respects, to Paul Louis Courier; he had the same point, the same finesse, the same elegance of style, and an apparent simplicity, which only set off with greater effect the home-truths he addressed to his readers; but finished as these minor works decidedly were, true both as to sentiment and language, they were merely suggested by the events of the times, and, as such, were likely to lose most of their point as the course of things moved in a new direction. The Considerations, on the contrary, will ever retain their interest, for they discuss principles; they belong to the philosophy of history. Whatever view we may take of the conclusions adopted by De Maistre, we cannot but admire both the extent of his learning and the depth of his thoughts; the work fully deserves to be placed by the student on the same shelf as Bossuet's Discourse on Universal History."

Here we would notice also one or two peculiarities in the method of count De Maistre. which mark out his originality amid all the writers of his age. The first is that continual reference to God and to the providential superintendence of man's life here below, of which we have before spoken. From this point of view he is admirably placed to discuss the most serious questions and he does so with a power and an eloquence to which everything must yield (compare Foulkes, Christendom's Divisions, 1:200). Another remarkable point is the soundness of his judgment and the sagacity with which he assigns, both to events and to men, their proper influence over the whole course of contemporary history. Many views, many principles now generally admitted, may be traced back to the Considerations, and have been borrowed from that extraordinary book, often without any acknowledgment. See Raymond, Eloge du. comte Jos. de Maistre (Chambery, 1827, 8vo); Rodolphe de Maistre, Notice biog. sur le comte Joseph de Maistre (in the preface to J. de M.'s Correspondence et Opuscules (Par. 1851, 2 vols. 8vo; 1853, 2 vols. 12mo); Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lanzdi, vol. iv, and his Portraits Contemporains, vol. 2; Villeneuve-Arifat, Eloge du comte Jos. de Maistre (1853); Damiron, Essai sur l'Histoire de la Philosophie en France au 19e siecle; Taine, Les Philosophes Franfais du xixe siecle; Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1852; Albert Blanc, Introduction i la a Correspondance diplomatique de Joseph de Maistre; Migne, Nouv. Encyclopedie Theologique, 2:1326; Edinb. Review, April, 1849; Lond. Quart. Rev. 1857, art. 7; and especially the article by Dr. M'Clintock in the Meth. Quart. Rev. April, 1856, art. 3:(J. H. W.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Maistre, Joseph'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/maistre-joseph.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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