"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 8, 2012

Joseph de Maistre Then and Now

I have been spending many happy weeks this spring immersed in the fascinating thought of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) (as well as some of his contemporaries, especially Louis de Bonald and Felicité de Lamenais). I came across Maistre in the early part of the last decade thanks to Richard Lebrun, whose grandson, Brian Butcher, was in the doctoral program with me at the Sheptytsky Institute at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. Lebrun, the doyen of anglophone scholars of Maistre, hearing of my work on the papacy, sent me a number of essays on Maistre. I did not have time to dive into him then with any seriousness, so I set him aside knowing that he was a substantial and influential figure to whom I would return at some point.

What makes Maistre so fascinating is not only how misunderstood he has been, not only how "outrageous" some of his ideas may appear to some people today (which always attaches a frisson to someone), but how often he is cited as a major influence on the First Vatican Council and the development of modern conceptions and practices of the papacy in its exercise of universal jurisdiction and infallibility. Maistre's notion of "sovereignty" is said to be hugely influential here. One figure who has been arguing for the centrality of Maistre in the modern papacy is the German Jesuit historian Hermann Pottmeyer in such books as Towards a Papacy in Communion: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I & II. Others have made similar arguments on the Orthodox side: the Russian Orthodox Nicholas Lossky has suggested that the aftermath of the French Revolution shapes modern Orthodox nation-states and their churches' desire for "autocephaly." And the Greek political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides has also argued for the influence of post-revolutionary French thought on modern Orthodox ecclesiology in Greece and southeastern Europe

What makes all of these lines of influence even more fascinating is that Maistre spent fourteen years in Russia at the imperial court in St. Petersburg where he was ambassador of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia (whose subject Maistre was: he was never a French citizen though he wrote in beautiful, elegant French and was a noted stylist). Maistre was also, for a time, close to and influential upon Tsar Alexander I and the tsar's minister of education and "national enlightenment" Sergei Uvarov, and Maistre one of the most celebrated figures in the stylish salons of St. Petersburg, then one of the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe and in some ways a place of refuge for many fleeing revolutions in France and elsewhere. 

It seems clear now, thanks to modern scholarship, that many of the ideas and perceptions of Maistre are demonstrably false, and that he was a much richer, and perhaps ironically more modern, thinker than some have thought--himself a revolutionary in some ways though he despised the French Revolution and all its pomps and works. One of the newest works to continue the project of examining Maistre in depth and context comes in an edited collection by Richard Lebrun and Carolina Armenteros, Joseph de Maistre and his European Readers (Brill, 2011, 308pp.). I asked the editors for an interview about this book, and their other works on Maistre, and here are their thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your backgrounds

Richard: born 1 October 1931, on a farm near Milton, ND, grew up on another farm near Langdon, ND. Early education was mostly in the parochial school in Langdon with the Presentation Sisters. I received a B.A. in 1953 from St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. The second semester of my third year was spent in Vienna as a participant in the Institute of European Studies – this also involved extensive travel in Italy, North Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, and England. It was this experience that ignited my interest in European history. Following graduation from St. John’s, there followed three years of active duty in the U.S. Navy (an alternative to two years in the infantry during the Korean War). While in the Navy, I married in 1954. We subsequently had six children, and now have a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Following the Navy, thanks to the G.I. Bill and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, I entered graduate school at the University of Minnesota in September 1956, earned an M.A. by the spring of 1957, and then a Ph.D. (in history) in 1963. 

I was very interested on French history, but by the time I came to undertake a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota, we had small children, so the prospects of doing archival research in France were small; in these circumstances, my faculty advisor suggested a topic in intellectual history where I could rely on printed sources, and also suggested that very little had been done in English on Joseph de Maistre, someone he felt was of considerable importance. 

In September 1960, I accepted a teaching position at the University of Ottawa, where I taught until 1966, when I was invited to accept at teaching position at the University of Manitoba, where I taught until my retirement in 1998.

Carolina: Of Spanish, French, and Dominican parents, I was born on 13 October 1974 in Geneva, Switzerland. I grew up in Spain until I was twelve, when my family emigrated to the United States, the Mojave Desert of Southern California to be exact. I did my undergraduate work at Stanford, where I double-majored in history and biology and where I completed a Master’s in modern history before moving to Cambridge to do a second Master’s in ancient history.

After my second Master’s, I decided to stay at Cambridge for a Ph.D. in political thought and intellectual history, a subject for which Cambridge is world-renowned. During the first few months of my doctoral research, I discovered Maistre’s Considerations on France (1797) in the library. I thought then that they would be useful as no more than a passing reference for my Ph.D. project, which at the time was on a subject completely unrelated to Maistre. Within ten minutes of opening the Considerations, though, I knew that I would change my dissertation subject, and that I would henceforth work on either Maistre’s philosophy of history, or – if that had been done – some other aspect of Maistre’s thought. That was twelve years ago, and I have been reading and writing on Maistre ever since.

AD: What led you both to work on this book?

RichardJoseph de Maistre and his European Readers is the third of three volumes of essays first presented at Reappraisals/Reconsidérations, the Fifth International Colloquium on Joseph de Maistre, held at Jesus College, Cambridge on 4 and 5 December 2008. This colloquium was organized by Carolina Armenteros, who subsequently asked me to work with her on editing and publishing the proceedings of this colloquium. I had first met Carolina at the fourth international colloquium on Maistre, which met in Chambéry in 2001; I was later invited to serve as the external examiner on her Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation in history in June 2004. From the time we first met, we explored our mutual interest in Maistre together through email; I also wrote many letters of reference for her for various fellowships and teaching positions.

Carolina: At Richard’s suggestion, I made the theme of the conference – Reappraisals – broad enough to accommodate a wide variety of interests. When the sessions were over, it became clear that Maistre’s posterity had been one of the major topics. It therefore made sense to gather the relevant papers into a themed volume, which we rounded off by commissioning some extra chapters.

Reappraisals yielded two additional collections of essays, which Richard and I also co-edited: Joseph De Maistre and the Legacy of Enlightenment (Oxford, 2011) and The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (St Andrews, 2010).

AD: Your book, Joseph de Maistre and his European Readerspublished in 2011, focuses on a man who died nearly 200 years ago. How is he still relevant today?

Richard: There are many figures in intellectual history, from Aristotle on, who, because of the brilliance of their thought and their influence on European culture and civilization, remain of perennial interest. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, from the generation before Joseph de Maistre, continues to be the subject of new and important studies, despite the huge bibliography on him. Evidence of Maistre’s continuing relevance may be found in the fact that new editions of his works and new studies of his thought and influence continue to appear in French and other languages. The subjects that he explored, including the nature of politics, the nature of language, the role of religion in society and politics, theodicy, and similar topics, continue to be of importance in our contemporary world. Fundamentally, his thought still provokes serious reflections on problems and issues that are still with us. Our 2011 volume focuses on Maistre’s European readers, but omits Spain and Portugal; there remains to be explored his influence in the Hispanic worlds of both Europe and Latin America, as well as his influence in the Muslim world and in Asia. We know that our website on Maistre has attracted interest from scholars in both Japan and China.

Carolina: As a Catholic political thinker who witnessed the de-Christianization campaigns of the French Revolution, Maistre was particularly interested in the relationship between religion and politics, and between tradition and modernity. I think these are subjects that make him especially relevant today, when traditional immigrant populations are growing in Europe and North America and when Judaeo-Christian traditions are reasserting themselves as legitimate sources of public reason. The repercussions of these trends abound in modern democracies: they range from Obamacare’s implications for religious freedom of conscience, to Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France and Belgium’s controversial policies on the wearing of the burqa and niqab, to the dialogue between Christian churches and various Western governments over abortion, euthanasia, and world poverty. Our inheritance from the radical Enlightenment has led us to view these issues as confrontations between backwardness and progress, and it has encouraged us to see religion and tradition as mentalities to be discarded. Yet Maistre offers us alternative and much more stimulating ways of approaching the problem.

AD: Maistre has often been portrayed as perhaps the arch-reactionary, the figure resisting the revolutionary tide of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. What does this portrait (caricature?) miss of him and his thinking?

Richard: The caricature of Joseph de Maistre as the arch-reactionary is largely the product of politics in nineteenth-century France, and the long struggle in that country (a struggle that spread elsewhere in Europe and to England and the U.S. as well) between those who saw themselves as loyal to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and those who came to see the Revolution as a tragedy for France and for Christianity. In the circumstances of that period, Maistre became a symbol of the fundamental cleavage between those who admired the Revolution and those who approved it. (See my Throne and Altar: the Political and Religious Thought of Joseph de Maistre, pp. 1-3.) It is only in the past few decades that it has become possible to read Maistre anew with fresh eyes and from a broader perspective.

Carolina: The idea that Maistre was an arch-reactionary suggests that he was committed to the past. There is some truth in this: he thought, overall, that the French people had been better off under the Old Regime than they were during the French Revolution. This opinion, however, should not obscure the fact that Maistre was open to social and political changes that he saw as initiated by Providence, executed by human wisdom, and tending irresistibly toward the good. Even revolutionary calamities were productive within his scheme, because they contributed to purging society of the evils that prevented it from perfecting itself. Not only that, but despite providential intervention, humans were in charge of their own destiny, and as time went on they took increasing responsibility for producing their own social and political environments. This way of thinking is incompatible with reaction. But it dovetails very well with what I believe Maistre to have really been – a revolutionary conservative.

AD: Maistre spent fourteen years in Russia. Is there evidence of Russian culture generally--and Russian Orthodoxy in particular--shaping his thought, particularly his religious or theological thought?

Richard: It’s clear that Maistre was fascinated by his observations of Russian politics, culture, and religion. However, it must be recalled that he never learned the language, and lived only in the rarefied “French language” milieu of the court and diplomatic circles in the Russian capital. My impression is that his interactions with Russian culture only deepened and intensified his fundamental beliefs, strengthening his adherence to positions that he had reached long before his sojourn in Russia.

Carolina: I agree with Richard that the core of Maistre’s thought was already formed before he arrived in Russia. In fact, living in Saint Petersburg seems to have strengthened his identity as a Latin Catholic. I would add only that intellectual debates at the Russian court were the major stimuli that drove him to compose his mature works. Thus the Platonic illuminism that was in vogue among the Saint Petersburg aristocracy in 1809 inspired Maistre to read Origen and to write his esoteric works, the St Petersburg Dialogues and the 

Clarification Regarding Sacrifices (the first treatise on the sociology of violence), which were published in 1821. Mikhail Speransky’s initiatives to establish a national system of education also led Maistre to write his Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon (published 1836), along with various pedagogical memoirs for the Russian government. As for Du Pape (1819), his magnum opus and the text that founded political ultramontanism, it was shaped by his participation in Russian religious debates and in particular by his desire to save the Orthodox Church from subservience to the state.

AD: In turn, is there evidence of his having shaped Russian culture and Russian Orthodoxy?

Richard: On Maistre’s influence in Russia, the essay by Vera Miltchyna, published first in French as “Oeuvres de Joseph de Maistre en Russie: Aperçu de la réception,” in the Revue des études maistriennes, No. 13 (2001), and in English translation as “Joseph de Maistre’s Works in Russia: A Look at their Reception,” in the volume I edited entitled Joseph De Maistre's Life, Thought, and Influence: Selected Studies (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), remains a good starting place. But Carolina’s essay “Preparing the Russian Revolution: Maistre and Uvarov on the History of Knowledge,” in our 2011 Brill volume, goes far beyond the influence of Maistre’s published works to explore his direct influence on Sergei Uvarov, a figure who was very important in nineteenth-century Russian state policy.

Carolina: Maistre may have influenced Russian Orthodoxy by antithesis: I have always thought that Aleksandr Sturdza’s Considerations on the Doctrine and Spirit of the Orthodox Church (1816) were a response to Maistre’s ecclesiology. I discuss this in Chapter 3 of my book, The French Idea of History: Joseph De Maistre and His Heirs, 1794-1854 (Cornell, 2011). Yet Maistre exercised an influence on Russian educational policy that was far more important. He helped Razumovsky, Alexander I’s minister of education, to elaborate a curriculum for the imperial lycée at Tsarskoye Selo – a curriculum that was later adopted throughout the country. He also exercised a formative influence on Uvarov that, thanks to Uvarov’s long career as an educational policy maker, had an impact on Russian education until the end of the reign of Nicholas II. In our Brill volume I argue that, although they were designed to prevent Revolution, the educational policies that Uvarov implemented and derived from Maistre actually helped, quite ironically, to prepare the Russian Revolution.

AD: Isaiah Berlin perhaps infamously held Maistre to be a precursor of fascism, which seems rather de trop to me. What would you say in answer to Berlin

Richard: It seems to me that Cyprian Blamires’ essay, “Berlin, Maistre, and Fascism” in our 2011 Brill volume provides a devastating and convincing response to Berlin’s misguided efforts to portray Maistre as a precursor to fascism.

Carolina: Certainly. Blamires wrote his doctoral thesis on Maistre under Berlin’s supervision and understands both thinkers deeply. I would add too that the rest of our volume in itself constitutes further proof of Blamires’ thesis, since most of the Maistrian interpreters it discusses were thinkers on the left. This tendency to engage the left is a general facet of Maistre’s posterity: among his hundreds of interpreters across the centuries, I can think of only two who had strong fascist sympathies: Carl Schmitt and Charles Maurras.

AD: Maistre was extensively involved with Freemasonry, and at one point seems to have thought that the Freemasons would be instrumental in uniting a divided Christianity. And yet many Catholics today regard Freemasonry with horror, seeing membership in it as totally incompatible with membership in the Catholic Church. How did Maistre negotiate these difficult waters?

Richard: On Maistre’s relationship to Freemasonry, see my Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant, where my treatment of this issue is based on the excellent studies by Jean Rebotton and Jean-Louis Darcel. Fundamentally, eighteenth-century Freemasonry, and in particular the strand of Masonry with which Maistre was involved, was not particularly anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. In France, many priests and bishops were involved. It was only in the clerical versus anti-clerical wars in nineteenth-century France that Freemasonry became resolutely anti-clerical. For more detailed studies of Maistre and Masonry, see the Revue des études maistriennes, No. 5-6 (1980) which includes a number of important studies on “Illuminisme et Franc-Maçonnerie,” which were presented at a colloquium held in Chambéry in May 1979.

Carolina: Maistre’s youthful social life seems to have revolved mainly around Freemasonry. He was very enthusiastic about it. In the eighteenth century, as Richard notes, Freemasonry, although formally forbidden by the Church, was not as feared and despised in Catholic circles as it would be in the nineteenth century. The message of Pope Clement XII’s In Iminenti (1738) hadn’t sunk in so to speak. The young Maistre even believed Freemasonry and Catholicism to be compatible, to the point that he proposed, in his Memoir to the Duke of Brunswick (1782), that Catholics and Protestants should use Freemasonic institutions as forums of ecumenical reconciliation.

The French Revolution changed all that. When it came, Freemasons acquired a European-wide reputation for subversion as conspiracy theories flourished speculating on the role they had supposedly played during the Revolution. It was at this point that Maistre began to be accused of having developed revolutionary sympathies among the Freemasons. He defended himself against the charge, and abandoned his Masonic activities with regret. Years later, when he was in Russia, he would console himself for this loss by befriending Freemasons (the Swedish Baron de Stedingk) and cultivating esotericism.

AD: Maistre's Du Pape seems to have had, at least initially, a rather cool reception in Catholic circles--especially in Rome itself. And yet contemporary scholars of our time (e.g., the Jesuit Hermann Pottmeyer) have said he is the figure influencing Catholic ecclesiology from Vatican I onward. How would you assess his influence on Catholic theology? How (if at all) has that influence changed in different ages from his own to ours?

Richard: Actually, the influence of Maistre’s Du Pape precedes Vatican I. Numerous editions of Maistre’s works, including Du Pape, were published in France during the Second Empire. Beginning with Lamennais in the 1820s, and then with Louis Veuillot in the 1850s and the 1860s, Maistre’s Ultramontane ideas were widely publicized in France well before 1870. He was probably important in weaning much of the French episcopacy from Gallicanism and converting them to Ultramontanism. In addition to the influence of his ecclesiological ideas, his aggressive defense of Catholicism generally seems to have heartened many nineteenth-century conservative Catholics, not only in France, but elsewhere. It’s significant, for example, that his little essay defending the Spanish Inquisition was translated into English three times in the nineteenth-century (1838, 1843, and 1851). See my “Joseph de Maistre et l’apologie de l’Inquisition espagnole,” in Joseph de Maistre (ed. by Phillippe Barthelet; Les Dossiers H; L’Âge d’Homme, 2005).

Carolina: I would add to that the influence that Maistre had on the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870. Since the 1790s, Maistre had followed Jean Bodin in ascribing absoluteness to temporal sovereignty. By the 1810s, in Book 1 of Du Pape, he observed that because temporal sovereignty is by nature absolute, and because the Church possessed both temporal and spiritual sovereignty, papal sovereignty was doubly absolute and could be termed infallible. I believe this statement to be at the origin of the dogma of papal infallibility. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Maistre does not seem to have been as great an inspiration to Catholic theology as he was in the nineteenth.

AD: Maistre seems clearly to have been an enemy of Gallicanism at least insofar as that was a movement for the "independence" of the French church from papal control. On a related matter, did he have much to say about Eastern Orthodox notions of "autocephaly" whereby each national church is held to be free from any external authority outside the nation-state?

Richard: Book Four of Du Pape, which is entirely devoted to “The Pope in his relations with the Chuches called schismatical,” argues strongly that both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church, have been and are fatally weakened by the way they have been subjected to the state. And, of course, much of the argument against Gallicanism as developed in De l’Église gallicane, blames the weaknesses of the pre-revolutionary French Church on the Gallicanism of the French crown and the parlements.

Carolina: Yes, I’m afraid Maistre was no fan of the autocephalous churches. Any and all ideas of ecclesiastical independence from Rome were anathema to him!

AD: Your book's title speaks of Maistre's "European readers." Do you know of any evidence that Maistre's theories about sovereignty influenced not just Western European readers but also those in the emerging independent nation-states such as Greece, Romania, or Bulgaria?

Carolina: This is an exciting question, which beckons to new research. Unfortunately, I am not at all aware of Maistre’s reception in any of these countries. But I can say that although he wrote on Maistre in French, and lived most of his life in France, one of Maistre’s most famous interpreters, Emil Cioran, was Romanian.

AD: The German Catholic Carl Schmitt famously said in the 1920s and 1930s, "Sovereign is he who decides the exception." What would Maistre have said in response to such a statement? Tell us, in other words, a bit about his theory of sovereignty, and whether you think his theory has influenced Catholic ideas about the "sovereign Pontiff."

Richard: As for a dialogue between Maistre and Schmitt, see the essay by Graeme Garrard, “Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt” in my Joseph De Maistre's Life, Thought, and Influence: Selected Studies mentioned above. In Du Pape, of course, Maistre based a good part of his argument for papal authority over the Church on his theory of sovereignty. See especially, Book Two of this work, which deals with “The Pope in his relations with temporal sovereignties.”

Carolina: I’ve answered a bit of this question above. Here I would say as well that Maistre would have agreed with Schmitt’s idea of sovereignty by exception (which is not surprising, since Maistre influenced Schmitt). Maistre had a very pessimistic idea of sovereignty. In On the Sovereignty of the People (1794-6), he defined it as “an absolute power that can do evil with impunity.” Like Schmitt, he believed that it always originated in an act of violence. However this was only his view of temporal sovereignty. In The French Idea of History, I have argued that for him ecclesiastical sovereignty distinguishes itself from temporal varieties precisely by its peaceful birth and rational capacity to govern non-violently. All temporal governments in his view follow over time the trajectory of a parabola: they rise with violence, and they decline when what he calls human ‘force’ is spent. But the Church is unique among all other governments in that it was born inconspicuously, and that rather than rise and fall, it has never ceased to grow steadily and in a straight line.

AD: At least as I read him--and I've not read everything--Maistre seems to have had what I would characterize as a deeply Augustinian pessimism about the human condition in general, and about the condition of sovereigns and monarchs in particular, viewing them all as (potentially) deeply corrupt. Is that a fair and accurate reading? 

Carolina: Maistre’s pessimism has been greatly emphasized, and with good reason. However I don’t think that he believed monarchs and sovereigns to be more corrupt than other people. And I also believe that Pelagianism plays a much greater role in his thought than does Augustinian pessimism. After all, this was an avowed enemy of modern Augustinians, a man with a nearly unbounded faith in the power of human beings to craft their own destiny, a Catholic who bordered on heterodoxy by maintaining that sometimes, the human will can annul God’s.

AD: Some have argued today that we live in a "globalized" world where national sovereignty has become significantly downgraded. What do you think Maistre would say in response to such ideas? 

Carolina: I think he would be very open to them. Maistre was a Europeanist, in fact a universalist, by virtue of his Christian faith. He believed that someday, the Church would extend over the whole earth, embracing and mingling with all cultures. In Europe, the political result would be a European confraternity similar to the Amphictyons of ancient Greece. Beyond Europe, a global order would model itself on the European Christian community. Maistre never addressed directly what would happen to nations in the future, but his later thought suggests that he would not have regretted their demise, at least not greatly. In the end, religious identity took undisputed precedence over political or national identity for him.

AD: Was Maistre in the end a hopeless romantic? In other words, his theory about the papacy--if I understand it correctly--was that it was supposed to function as something of a bulwark against the potential for tyranny in other sovereigns. But the "Sovereign Pontiff" is a sinful man like other leaders. Did Maistre expect too much of the popes? 

Richard: I think Maistre was fully aware that popes are as human as the rest of us. His argument was not so much about expecting the pope to be especially virtuous as about trying to identify a structural bulwark against tyranny. For various reasons he had no faith in the “Concert of Europe” that Tsar Alexander was promoting after the downfall of Napoleon, but I think he would have been sympathetic to the fundamental ideas about the League of Nations and the United Nations. We are, of course, still wrestling with the problem of what the world should do about lawless and tyrannical regimes, be they in Rwanda, Libya, or Syria.

Carolina: I agree. Maistre did not expect exceptional virtue from the popes. In fact, he defended monarchy precisely because it was the regime that required the least virtue, because even mediocre men could make it work. In this sense at least, he was no romantic, but an eighteenth-century rationalist and especially an heir of Montesquieu. 

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