A Brief Biography of Joseph de Maistre

Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) was a major theorist of the Counter-Enlightenment whose writings stimulated such thinkers as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Charles Maurras, and inspired generations of French royalists and ultramontane Catholics. Although he was French in language and culture, and wrote in French, Maistre was never a French citizen. Born in 1753 in Chambéry, the capital of Savoy, then part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, Maistre always remained a subject of the House of Savoy. Educated by the Jesuits and in the local collège, Maistre earned his law degrees from the University of Turin. Like his father, he served in the Senate of Savoy (a high law court equivalent to a French parlement), and was named a Senator in 1788. Following the French invasion of Savoy in 1792, Maistre fled Chambéry, and served as a Piedmontese diplomat in Lausanne (1793-97) and St. Petersburg (1803-17). His subsequent legal career included service as Regent (head of the court system) in Sardinia (1800-1803) and as Regent (justice minister) of Piedmont-Sardinia (1818-21).

Despite his legal career and the inheritance of a substantial legal library from his maternal grandfather, Maistre's notebooks and early correspondence suggest that he was always much more interested in broad humanistic subjects such as philosophy, theology, politics, and history than in narrow legal questions. In addition to his native French and the Greek and Latin he acquired as part of an excellent classical education, Maistre read English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German (with difficulty). His notebooks and works testify that he was very well read in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the Church Fathers, Greek and Latin classical authors, Renaissance and seventeenth-century authors, and all the major figures of the European Enlightenment.

There was, in fact, little in Maistre's life before 1789 to forecast the later publicist of reaction. From 1774 to 1790, he belonged to Masonic lodges in Chambéry and associated with a more esoteric and "illuminist" brand of Scottish Rite Masons in neighbouring Lyon. This link may appear odd for a future Catholic apologist, but at the time these clubs were often frequented by priests and bishops as well as Catholic noblemen. The lodges were opportune places for an ambitious young man to make friends useful for career advancement and to discuss political reforms. In addition, the mystical doctrines popular in the Masonic circles Maistre frequented appeared to him a providential counter-force to the rationalism and the irreligion of the time.

A close and sympathetic observer of developments in France in the years immediately preceding the Revolution, Maistre looked to the magistrates of the French parlements as the natural leaders of moderate reform, and he approved of their efforts to force the king to call the Estates-General. Initially enthusiastic about reform possibilities, he may even have considered seeking election to the Estates-General himself; he owned property across the frontier in France and could probably have met the eligibility requirements. In any case, Maistre was soon disillusioned by the news from Versailles. He opposed the joining together of the three orders of clergy, nobility, and third estate, and by mid-July 1789 was predicting that a "deluge of evils" would follow such "leveling." What appears to have been decisive in turning Maistre against the Revolution was the revolutionary legislation of the night of 4 August 1789. By September, he was thinking of taking up his pen to oppose the current of events.

By the time a French army invaded Savoy in September of 1792, Maistre's intellectual opposition to the Revolution and all its works was firmly fixed. He immediately fled to Piedmont with his wife and children, the only native Savoyard Senator to do so. Maistre returned to Chambéry briefly in January 1793, in part to try to protect his property for confiscation, in part because Turin appeared reluctant to reward his loyalty by offering him a suitable position. However, he soon found that he could not support the new French-sponsored regime, and he departed again, this time to Switzerland, where he began a new career as a counter-revolutionary publicist.

Maistre's first effort in this genre, his four Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien, published in 1793 for clandestine circulation in French-occupied Savoy, revealed the dilemma of a purely political royalism in an age of democratic revolution. While he complained that political loyalty was becoming a matter of calculation rather than an instinct as it had once been, his own appeal was precisely to enlightened self-interest. He asked his readers to judge the rule of the House of Savoy on its record, and exhorted his fellow Savoyards to "Love your sovereign as you love order with all the strength of your intelligence." This was the very rationalism that had repudiated the old order.

Maistre quickly abandoned a purely political analysis in favour of a providential interpretation of events, which he worked out by the summer of 1794. However it was the publication of his Considérations sur la France in early 1797 that announced to the world Maistre's new theological explanation of the French Revolution, and established his reputation as a major defender of throne and altar. Maistre gave cosmic significance of the Revolution by proclaiming that never had the role of Providence in human affairs been more palpable. Of course Joseph de Maistre was not the first to advance a providential interpretation of the Revolution. The Judeo-Christian tradition provided ample precedent for regarding such a catastrophe as the work of Providence, and a number of royalist writers had used the theme. Maistre, however, presented the theory with distinctive sophistication, force, and clarity. Construing what was happening as both a divine punishment and as providentially ordained means for the regeneration of France, Maistre was able to condemn the Revolution and the ideas it embodied, and, at the same time, treat it as a necessary prelude to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The political dilemma of the Savoyard royalist had found its resolution in a religious vision of redemption.

Maistre had read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France soon after that work appeared in 1790, and he shared Burke's emotional reaction against the violence, "immorality," and "atheism" of the Revolution. Maistre's work echoed Burkean themes, including reverence for established institutions, distrust of innovation, and defense of prejudice, aristocracy, and an established church. Maistre differed from Burke primarily in his providentialism, and in his adamant defense of traditional Roman Catholicism and papal authority.

Maistre's later works reveal a gradual shift in emphasis from politics to fundamental philosophical and theological issues. His Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (written in 1807 and published in 1814) generalized the political principles on which he had based his Considérations sur la France. Du Pape (1817) argued forcefully for infallible papal authority as a prerequisite for political stability in Europe. Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (published shortly after Maistre's death in 1821), explored a host of philosophical and theological issues in witty dialogue form, while an appendix, called an "Enlightement on Sacrifices," developed Maistre's ideas about suffering and violence. Finally, an Examen de la philosophie de Bacon (not published until 1836) located the origins of the scientism and atheism of the Enlightenment in the works of the English writer.

Maistre has been sharply criticized for the extremism of his views, and in particular for his reflections on the social role of the executioner, on war, and on bloodshed. His speculations were certainly original; rejecting what he castigated as naive Enlightenment forms of rationality, Maistre sought to comprehend the irrational and violent dimensions of social and political life. Though his theorizing shocked many, he should probably be regarded as an innovative theorist of violence, rather than its advocate.

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