Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joseph De Maistre

There is in all modern speculation, and especially in those parts of it which deal with the principles of politics and natural theology, a sort of eddy or backwater, which runs in the opposite direction to the main stream of thought. There are always a considerable number of persons who want to have a philosophy and a theology of their own, which, whilst it shall be as profound and as important as that which is usually accepted, shall convict the conclusions commonly received upon these subjects of shallowness and feebleness. Dr. Newman's career is as strong an illustration of this state of feeling as could be referred to in our own time and country; but De Maistre's eminence and influence fairly entitle him to be looked upon as the typical representative of that way of thinking or of feeling. His writings illustrate in all respects the weakness and the strength which pervades all speculations of the class to which they belong. Their strength arises from the fact that they usually succeed in setting in a strong light half-truths which their opponents have neglected; and they are thus invested with an air of originality, of richness, and, above all, of positive, as opposed to merely negative, instruction, which is very seductive to the young and sensitive. Their weakness lies in the circumstance that the positive parts of their teaching are emphatically half-truths, which crumble under the honest application of the ordinary tests of truth, and are frequently destroyed by the arguments to which they appeal. The influence which De Maistre exercised over many of the most distinguished Frenchmen of the existing generation, and especially over persons so different as Comte, M. Lamartine, and the Saint Simonians, is exactly like the influence which Dr. Newman has exercised over some of the finest minds of our own generation in England —over Mr. Froude, for example, and by way of reaction, and what may be described by the contradictory phrase of a sympathetic antipathy, over Dr. Arnold. Like Dr. Newman, he handled great truths in a blundering and fundamentally illogical manner, for each of them invariably omits to prove the minor of his syllogisms, and the strictness with which minors are proved is the great test by which real and sham logic may be distinguished. By the help of realist metaphysics to furnish him with premisses which he could assert to be innate ideas, and strong feeling to indicate the conclusions which these premisses were to support, De Maistre readily constructed arguments which proved whatever he wanted to establish. The evidence necessary to apply his theory to facts was supplied by half-truths neglected by his antagonists. There is hardly a single opinion advocated by De Maistre which would not, upon analysis, appear to have been reached in this manner.

The Soiries de St. Petersbourg contains the most complete enunciation of his views upon the great fundamental questions of science, morals, and theology. It is one of the liveliest and most interesting of books. The vivacity of the style, and the originality, ingenuity, and fervour of the thought give it a charm very like that which belongs to Pascal's letters. As for the opinions which it maintains, it is by no means easy to give a general notion of them to a person who has not read the book; but they might perhaps be faintly indicated by saying that if Bishop Butler had had a taste for paradox, had been a violent partisan of the Stuarts, and had written in a style equidistant between Voltaire and Dr. Newman, he would have produced something not unlike the Soiries. To deprive Bishop Butler of his caution and discretion is no doubt like depriving Hamlet of the Prince of Denmark. The Analogy is throughout an argumentum ad homines,intended to show Deists that the objections which they made to Christianity applied equally to the positive parts of their own system; and it is to this circumstance that its great weight and reputation are to be ascribed. If the arguments of the Analogy were thrown into a positive form, and were urged, not as answers to silence objectors to Christianity, but as direct proofs of its truth, they would represent very fairly the general character of the Soiries de St. Petersbourg. Such arguments are so frequently abused in the present day, and their weight and tendency are so constantly misunderstood, that it is well worth while to consider the manner in which they are applied in a book which certainly invests them with all the adventitious force which style can supply.

The general subject of the Soirees de St. Petersburg is the moral government of the world, and its purpose is to vindicate what the highest of the high Tories of the last century—the pupil of the Jesuits, and the most prominent antagonist of the French Revolution and its principles—regarded as the orthodox view of human life and Divine Providence. The book at first falls into the shape of an argument with an objector to the belief that the affairs of life are the subject of a providential government. He is supposed to reiterate the ancient objection that the wicked flourish and the righteous are troubled. To this it is replied, that there is a considerable part of the troubles of life which virtue has a direct tendency to prevent, and vice to aggravate, and that that part of them of which this cannot be affirmed "rains upon men like the balls in a battle," striking the good and the bad indifferently. De Maistre does not, however, content himself with answering objections. He developes at full length a complete scheme of the providential government of the world, and of the principal laws by which it is conducted. The outline of this scheme is somewhat as follows. All suffering is penal, but it is not in all cases proportional to actual guilt, because there are several eternal principles which prevent such an arrangement. In the first place, all men are in a degraded and fallen state, and as like always produces like, they come into the world with a vitiated constitution. Moreover, men are so connected together, that they can both expiate each other's faults by vicarious suffering, and increase each other's happiness by vicarious merits. It is thus impossible to refer particular suffering to particular guilt, although it is possible to affirm in general that suffering arises from guilt. The general arrangements of society illustrate these principles on a large scale. The principle that men are connected together is illustrated by the power which a king possesses of pledging the nation of which he, is the head to a crime which brings upon it all sorts of punishment, though its individual members may have had no share in the guilt. The nature of the punishments which nations incur is illustrated by war, which, says De Maistre, is supernatural and divine in its character; and this is shown, not only by the strange and unforeseen events by which its course is characterized, but also by the eagerness and vehemence with which men engage in what might have been expected to be so hateful a task.

Such is a sample of the moral side of De Maistre's theory. It rests upon a corresponding view of science and of history. In direct opposition to the theory of the progress of knowledge, which, since his time, has become even more extended than it was in the last century, he maintained that we live in a state of intellectual as well as moral degradation. The notion that the state of nature is a state of barbarism appeared to him the "erreur mere" of modern times. This theory was essential to his views, because the positive evidence to which he appealed in support of them was tradition; and in order to give importance to the traditions to which he appealed, it was necessary for him to maintain that they were vestiges of a time infinitely superior to our own in every kind of intellectual activity. From the relics of Egyptian and Etruscan art, from the Cyclopean remains, and, above all, from the evidence supplied by etymology of a careful and exquisitely skilful adaptation of sounds to thoughts in some very ancient time, as well as from the common tradition of a golden age at the beginning of things, he argued that a time must have existed in which knowledge of all kinds was not only more abundant, but more scientific than it is now. But when did this primitive civilization exist? Geology, according to the views of it which obtained at the beginning of the present century, was supposed by De Maistre not only to demonstrate the universality, but to fix the date of the Noachic deluge at the period usually assigned to it, and history seemed to show that since the deluge such a state of things had been unknown. De Maistre was, therefore, reduced to the assertion (which he made with characteristic audacity and eloquence) that before the deluge men were able to take the a priori road to knowledge; that they contemplated things in their quiddity, and, instead of ascending from effects to causes, were able to descend from causes to effects. These were the giants and mighty men of renown spoken of in Genesis, and their superhuman knowledge brought upon its owners a superhuman punishment. This knowledge survived the flood for a short time, and the fact appeared to De Maistre to be proved, amongst other things, by the rapidity with which Noah and his family reconstituted human society after that event. This wonderful science was, however, confined to a few persons, and gradually died out amongst the priesthoods of ancient Egypt and some other primaeval nations. The great traditions of expiation, corporate responsibility, the efficacy of prayer, and others of the same kind, are the vestiges of these forgotten marvels. Savages, so far from being in a state of nature, are in a state of miserable degradation—" weighed down apparently by some fearful anathema " — which De Maistre conjectures to have been entailed upon them by the wickedness of their primitive rulers, whose supernatural powers enabled them to involve people in a proportional depth of wickedness. Even the most civilized nations are only toiling painfully, and step by step, towards the height on which their ancestors stood without an effort.

These doctrines rested on the realist theory of metaphysics. The wisdom of the primitive sages arose from the fact that they were able to descend at will from universals to particulars, because they had a clear mental perception of universal truths. In our days, though ideas are still innate, we no longer apprehend them clearly, but are compelled to work backwards to them by laborious processes of detail. Our true wisdom, therefore, lies in attaching, the utmost importance to the traditions which are our guides towards that different and higher order of things of which they are at once the evidence and the remnant, and in remembering that our modern processes of thought stop far short of the limits to which human wisdom once attained. Our guide towards these limits is the tradition embodied in that common quasi-instinctive sentiment which De Maistre describes as "bon sens," in opposition to the conclusions of what is commonly called philosophy. This "common sense" (as Reid understood the words) predisposes us to accept as true the traditions from which it was derived. It assures us, for example, of the efficacy of prayer; it tells us that national calamities are judgments for sins; and, in fact, it supports all through the theory which De Maistre advocates. Thus the belief in primitive science works itself round to a practical appeal to such parts of modern popular sentiment as cannot be referred to any process of reasoning; and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in his hatred of modern philosophy, De Maistre contrived a scheme for attaching a magical value to superstition.

His theory of expiation supplies a good illustration. His conclusion is, that the misfortunes of the King, the priesthood, and the aristocracy in the French Revolution were somehow creditable to them—if not in their individual, at least in their corporate capacity. There can be little doubt as to the source which furnished this part of the argument. The minor is, that their sufferings were in the nature of expiatory sacrifices for the sins of their predecessors, and the major consists of the doctrine of vicarious suffering. This doctrine rests partly on the innate idea that all suffering is penal—partly on the traditionary belief that one person can suffer in the place of another. Thus, in so far as the argument is an argument at all, and not a mere assertion, it rests partly on an innate idea, and partly on a half-truth embodied with a most pernicious error. As to the innate idea that all suffering is penal, it is enough to say, that if De Maistre was right in appealing to it, it is hard to see why he went any further. If the proposition is a first truth, antecedent not only to experience but to logic, what is the good of bringing experience and logic to bear upon it? The assertion has the inconvenience of all arguments which are too good—it supersedes the necessity for anything more.

The doctrine propounded as an innate idea is not, however, by any means so characteristic as the doctrine of vicarious suffering, and the tradition alleged in favour of it. There can be no doubt that this doctrine embraces a most important truth, though it embodies with it another element equally necessary to De Maistre's argument, and which is of a very different character. It would not be proper to take up in this place (as was done by Bishop Butler) the theological side of the subject; but it is important to point out that Butler carefully confined himself to that side of the question, and that De Maistre fell into grievous mistakes when he tried to make considerations which may be well adapted to parry objections against the truth of revealed religion, the groundwork of the every-day business of life. Butler says, "If you admit the providential government of ordinary life, you have no right to impugn the justice of the doctrine of the Atonement, because there are things in ordinary life which more or less resemble, and, so to speak, lead up to it." De Maistre said, " The doctrine in question, as I understand it, supplies the key to all the sufferings of every-day life, which have no visible connection with criminality. It justifies much of the legislation, and many of the sentiments, which the writers of the eighteenth century looked upon as obsolete and barbarous." No one can deny that Butler's argument is weighty, but De Maistre pushes his assertion to an extent which is perfectly monstrous, and demonstrably false. He does not support his view of life on the ground of its revealed truth. He advances it as a philosophical theory resting on evidence of its own. He maintains, with perfect truth, that it is part of the constitution of the world that the guilty father should transmit diseases to the innocent son; but he also maintains that the son's suffering is in some way an expiation of the father's sin. Without the second proposition, the first would be useless to him; and in proof of the second he has nothing to appeal to but what he calls a general tradition. Nothing can be more characteristic than the whole argument. It is a great truth, a most important truth, and one which several eminent writers in the eighteenth century had neglected, that human beings are bound together in a sort of partnership, so that men's actions have a wide effect for good or for evil; and De Maistre was perfectly right to appeal to universal experience in support of the assertion. But experience would never have taught him that this consequential suffering was also vicarious. The consequences of a debauchee's debaucheries to himself and his neighbours are not affected in any way whatever by their transmission to his children, nor is there the smallest historical or experimental ground for the assertion that the crimes of Louis XV". and the nobles of the eighteenth century were in any degree expiated by the sufferings of Louis XVI. and the other sufferers under the Reign of Terror.

The means by which De Maistre attempted to manipulate truth into falsehood are as remarkable as the manipulation itself. The tradition to which he appeals is in no sense of the word a tradition — it was merely a common practice, which is quite a different thing. The sacrifices of heathen nations had no doubt many features in common, but it is far more likely that they owed their odious resemblance to the depravity and superstition of human nature, than that they embodied a tradition of which those who practised them never acknowledged the force on other occasions. The Mexicans and the Hindoos immolated their fellow-creatures because they thought that the beings whom they worshipped liked it; not because they wished to transfer to others the penalty of their own crimes. There is something singularly odious in justifying Christianity on the ground of its analogy to the worship of Juggernaut and Moloch. If De Maistre had attended to the denunciations of the Hebrew prophets against those bloodthirsty enormities ("which I commanded them not,"says Jeremiah, speaking in the name of God, "neither came it into my mind"), he would have been better employed than in insisting, with a sort of satisfaction, on the most abominable practices that ever disgraced humanity, in order to squeeze out of them an argument against Rousseau and Voltaire.

This is only one of a thousand cases in which De Maistre stands forward as the great representative of the system so popular at present—of defending what is obviously wrong upon grounds of which the original wrongdoers had no conception whatever, and which are, in fact, mere after-thoughts. When Mr. Froude taught or implied that the early Kings and Parliaments of England deliberately rejected economical in favour of social advantages, and that the importance attached to classical learning in English education arose from a wish to give the young a knowledge of human nature as it was before Christianity entered as a disturbing force into our system of life—when Dr. Newman justified the whole cycle of Roman Catholic theology on the ground of the doctrine of development — when Dr. Arnold put forward the exclusion of the Jews from Parliament as the proof and embodiment of his theory about the relations between the Church and the State—each of them fell into precisely the same sort of mistake as Do Maistre when he tried to justify the judicial and legislative anomalies of ancient France on recondite principles justified by universal tradition, and depending on the ideal character of antediluvian science.

A few short but highly characteristic illustrations may be given in conclusion of the way in which the whole of De Maistre's mind was coloured by these habits of thought. lie maintained that the plan of making judicial appointments hereditary and saleable was better suited than any other conceivable arrangement for the French nation—the truth being, that its inherent absurdity was slightly modified by the comparative independence of the central Government which it accidentally conferred upon the judges. The major premiss in this case is, that all sciences have their mysteries, that what is false in theory is true in practice, and that the measures prescribed by these mysteries are beneficial. The minor premiss is that the practice of making judgeships hereditary and saleable was a mystery in the science of French legislation, and was opposed to theory (it is not stated to what theory). The conclusion is that the system of hereditary and saleable judgeships was beneficial and true in practice. The minor is demonstrably false, and it is hardly possible to suppose that any one would seriously try to prove it. It is, however, an amplification of the half-truth that some of the abuses of the old state of society in France had incidental advantages which were sometimes lost by the revolutionary changes, and it owed its attractiveness to this circumstance.

The whole theory of the ancient traditions is another instance of the same thing. It is true that ancient beliefs and ancient mythologies are important subjects of investigation, but it is absurd to make them the tests of truth. The fact that De Maistre looked upon geology and etymology as the firmest allies of what he considered to be orthodoxy, is enough to give a measure of the extraordinary blindness which afflicted a man whose talent almost amounted to genius when he committed himself to the hopeless task of defending falsehood by the help of truth. When the orthodox horse is butted by the heretical stag, he can get the victory only by taking a bit between his teeth, which may lead him into roads where he had probably little expectation of travelling when he commenced his resistance.

Saturday Review, November 27, 1858.

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