Les Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (by Joseph de Maistre).
Hardly any book written in recent times contains so large a quantity of material suggesting interesting discussion as De Maistre's Soirées. It is a magazine of arguments, on a variety of those broad topics which underlie all moral and theological speculation, and which are not likely to lose their hold upon the human mind, as long as men regard themselves in any other light than that of machines or beasts. It is impossible for any one who believes in lasting and real forms of morals or religion to read these dialogues without extreme interest and very considerable sympathy.
But it is also impossible, at least in our judgment, for any one who also sincerely believes that modern science is true, both in its methods and in its most characteristic results, and that it is adapted to the discussion of the questions which really interest mankind — questions relating to religion and morality, as well as those which refer to inanimate matter—without feeling that no book produces in so brilliant a shape, or in so effective a manner, that peculiar kind of sophistry, by which the plain results of the application of such methods to such subjects is commonly evaded. It is because no book handles the commonplaces of this sort of sophistry in a more vigorous and popular manner, and because the popularity of such sophistry is, for obvious reasons, increasing, that we propose to try to show, in some capital instances chosen out of a much larger number, how misleading and sophistical it is.
We may, in the first place, say a few words by way of preface as to the nature of the book itself. It consists of eleven dialogues between the Count (De Maistre himself), a Russian statesman, and a young French soldier called 'Le Chevalier,' who is supposed to have been drifted by the fortune of war to St. Petersburg. Their conversations are supposed to take place during the early part of the present century, both the Frenchman and the Count being exiled, by the course of events, from their native countries. The work ends abruptly in the middle of a paragraph on the prospects of Protestantism in general and of the Bible Society in particular: 'Think then,' says the Count to the Senator, 'whether I embrace with transport the ravishing and entirely new point of view under which you show me, in a prophetic distance, the effect of an enterprise which, separated from this consolatory hope, terrifies religion instead of pleasing it---'
The author's death (25th of February 1821, at Turin) prevented the completion of the Count's views on this subject. No form of composition is either so seductive or so difficult to manage as that of dialogues or conversations, for DeMaistre draws a just distinction between them. The amusing and dramatic elements which are inseparable from such a form of composition make them equally pleasant to write and to read, but, on the other hand, they have a strong tendency to divert the author from following out systematically the course of his thoughts, and to lead him into fighting with men of straw, gaining sham victories over unreal antagonists, paying compliments to himself, under one or other of the aliases which are from time to time assumed, and putting forward opinions which are not, and are not intended to be, affirmed otherwise than dramatically.
De Maistre escapes some of these dangers, and in particular the danger of combating men of straw, by not setting his characters to argue, but allowing them to talk. He frequently, however, falls with amusing naïveté into the pitfall of complimenting himself. For instance, when the Chevalier makes a joke, and not a very good one, the Count observes, 'Vous me glacez quelquefois avec vos gallicismes, quel talent prodigieux pour la plaisanterie!' and he observes, upon another of his young friend's phrases, that Seneca could not have put it better. The interlocutors indeed keep continually telling each other that what they say is perfect in point of argument, original, profound, or something else equally satisfactory. The dramatic fallacy has not very much influence on the book.
Substantially all that is said may be taken as an exposition of De Maistre's own views, though the Russian nobleman, as a member of the Greek Church, is occasionally made to put forward views which are faintly reproved, or rather qualified, by the Count, not as being false, but as being wise beyond what has been decided by the Church. The Senator's sallies are, principally, in the direction of a singular mysticism about the wonders which are on the point of happening in the world, the new interpretation which is to be given to old oracles, and so forth. It is easy, in reading them, to recognise the links which connected De Maistre with new schools of thought as well as old ones, and which, if he had been born fifty years later than he actually was, might have made him an active and dangerous antagonist of the system which he defended so vigorously.
We do not propose, on the present occasion, to attempt to give any analysis of the Soirées. Those who wish to see such an analysis will find one in a number of the Saturday Review published several years ago. We will limit ourselves on the present occasion to an attempt to point out, first, the fundamental vice of De Maistre's method of inquiry; secondly, the influence which this fundamental vice has exercised, not only over his own speculations, but also over those of other writers of the school to which he belonged; and, thirdly, the connection between De Maistre's personal views and those of the modern school to which he was most bitterly opposed.
The fallacy which vitiates, not only his arguments, but those of all the disciples of his school, is no other than the fallacy of petitio principii. His method is to lay down general principles of enormous importance, as self-evident first truths, and then to make these supposed first truths the foundation of all his subordinate speculations. The consequence of this is that he inverts all his opinions in the strangest manner, draws from his premisses the most unexpected conclusions, and, in a word, makes all his doctrines one after the other stand on their heads.
We will first try to set in a clear light the fundamental error to which we have referred, and as an illustration we will take the manner in which he treats the fundamental proposition of his whole book. Its object is to vindicate the providential government of the world. The view of De Maistre on this great subject may be reduced to the following propositions:
Physical evil could enter the world only by the fault of free creatures. It can enter only as a remedy or an expiation, and therefore it cannot have God for its direct author.
It is necessary to show that the facts of the world are reconcilable with these 'fundamental dogmas.'
In point of fact, much physical evil is the direct consequence of vice. Virtue and vice do, on the whole, tend to produce happiness and misery respectively to those who practise them. To this extent, therefore, external good and evil can be regarded in the light of rewards and punishments.
Moreover, all men, except saints properly so called, are bad. Their sufferings, therefore, even if not the immediate and usual consequences of their faults, may still be regarded as the punishment of their faults. To this further extent good and evil may properly be regarded in the light of rewards and punishments.
The rest of the physical evil which exists in the world is distributed impartially amongst all men, good and bad alike. The comparatively good are no worse off than the bad. This part of the evil which exists in the world, is the punishment of the original guilt of the human race in general. There is an eternal law which connects sin and suffering. A certain quantity of the one is represented by, and equivalent to, a certain quantity of the other, and thus, if any one gets more sufferings than his share, and accepts them, and if 'the divine justice accepts his acceptance of them,' this will operate as an expiation of a certain degree of guilt and punishment elsewhere.
Hence, in one way or another, all the suffering in the world may be exhibited in the form of a punishment due to some sin or other.
Stripped of a great deal of illustration and development, this is the gist of a great part, and the most important part, of De Maistre's book. It does not need much consideration to see that to lay down such principles as are propounded in the first of these propositions, and to proceed to criticise all the facts which the world presents upon the assumption of their truth, is simply a petitio principii, and cannot tend in the remotest degree to any legitimate removal of the doubts which may be entertained on the subject by those who think differently from De Maistre.
Set out with a perfectly unhesitating conviction that the great fundamental propositions of religion are all true, that this world was created and is governed by an infinitely just, wise, and good Being, and that all the sin and suffering which we see around us is in fact penal, and capable of being avoided or expiated, and the adjustment of matters of detail becomes unimportant.
Those who are in possession of such a faith have only to congratulate themselves upon it. But a man must either be very blind, or wonderfully presumptuous, who allows himself for one moment to suppose that the detailed application of such doctrines is so clear as to confirm the doctrines themselves, that they can be used as keys which are shown to belong to particular locks by the fact that they will open them. It is obvious, to any one who will take the trouble to look, that the detailed explanations are harder of belief than the doctrines which they are meant to support. It is much easier to persuade oneself in general that suffering is penal, than to persuade oneself that a twinge of toothache is a part of the punishment of original sin, whatever that may be. My conviction of the second proposition will never rise above my conviction of the first; and if I believe the first, the second is a matter of indifference.
The truth is that, if the questions of the existence of God, the providential government of the world, and the origin of evil, or, if it is so called, the place of evil in the general scheme of things, are to be made the objects of human reason at all, there is only one rational way of conducting the inquiry. That way is to consider whether the facts which we see around us do furnish evidence from which it is reasonable to infer that the world was created by a conscious and intelligent agent, and, if so, then to consider further, to what conclusions the evidence points as to the moral attributes of that agent; and lastly, to consider whether, and in what degree, the general course of human affairs can properly be compared to a government, and if so, upon what principles, and by what agents, so far as they can be discovered, that government is carried on.
This is clearly the sort of process by which we may expect to attain to such truth on this subject as is attainable by people situated as we are, or at all events by which we may attain to the conclusion that, be the truth what and where it may, it is inscrutable to our faculties. Any other process than this is mere beating the air, or marking time, and will be found on examination to resolve itself into the process of repeating the same assertion over and over again, in different forms of words more or less specific, according to the matter immediately under discussion.
This is, in point of fact, the vice of the high Ultramontane school, the modern representatives of the scholastic principle. The speculations of Dr. Newman, for instance, are full of it. A single observation on the subject may perhaps be added. There is no assertion of which writers of this school are fonder, than the assertion that the Church is the special friend of human reason, and its great patron and ally; and it is said that this alliance is nowhere more conspicuous than in theology, and the subjects which are connected with it.
Strange as this appears, a study of De Maistre makes it readily intelligible. Given any principles whatever to start with, a man may display any conceivable amount of ingenuity in applying them to the facts which he sees about him. The resources of an ingenious advocate, for instance, are called forth by the difficulties of his case, and his instructions form the foundation of his arguments, instead of acting as shackles on his powers. In a word, if it is assumed either that reason does not tend to truth, or that there is a whole sphere of truth altogether superior to reason, and recognised by other organs, then a man can use his talents as much as he pleases, and that upon the most sacred subjects.
You must not go abroad, but if you travel for the sake of exercise, there is an admirable treadmill at home, indeed there is a whole gymnasium thoroughly well furnished. Only take your principles for granted, and you may pass a lifetime, if you please, in the most subtle disputes as to their application.
If such rumours as have reached the present generation as to the speculations of the schoolmen have any truth in them, this is an exact reproduction of the old scholastic method, but it is well in these days to be aware of the proper method of exposing it. That method is to trace the speculations presented by such reasoners to their first principles, and then to show that those first principles rest on little or no evidence, and that at all events they never explain anything. They never remove a single difficulty, but only exhibit the old difficulties under new forms, and dignify them by some title equally magniloquent and gratuitous.
De Maistre, for instance, starts with the question, why do good men suffer, if suffering is penal? and he arrives at the conclusion that their sufferings are, in part at least, expiatory; that sin and suffering are equivalents; that a certain quantity of the one implies, and may be neutralised by, the other. Here the explanation is obviously more difficult, both to prove and to believe, than the thing explained, to say nothing of its inconsistency with the most obvious facts—such, for instance, as the fact that, in numberless cases, evil produces no suffering that we know of, and that it happens at least as frequently, that the suffering which it otherwise would produce is prevented by remedies which cause no pain to any one at all. Here the petitio principii lies in the assumption that all suffering is penal, and in the second assumption, made to back up the first, that it is also endowed with an expiatory virtue.
Passing from this, we will endeavour to show how this inverted method of speculation turned De Maistre's opinions upon almost all the subjects which he handled upside down, and left them, as we have said, standing on their heads. Almost any number of illustrations of this might be given, but we must content ourselves with one or two. Nothing, for instance, can be more forced or unnatural than the view which De Maistre takes up as to the functions of the intellect in regard to public affairs, and indeed generally. He is unable, consistently with his general principles, to deny that truth is the object of reason, and he is accordingly reduced to carping at those forms of reason which lead to conclusions opposed to his own.
Can anything, for instance, be more characteristic of the turn of mind which we have been trying to describe than the following outbreak against speculation as applied to practical life: 'Do you know whence comes this flood of insolent doctrines which judge God without ceremony and call him to account for his decrees? They come to us from the numerous body of what are called savants, whom in this century we have not known how to keep in their proper place, which is the second. Formerly there were very few of them, and of those few, very few were impious. At the present day we see nothing but savants; it is a trade, a crowd, a people, and amongst them that which was the sad exception has become the rule. On every side they have usurped boundless influence, yet if there is anything certain in the world it is, in my opinion, that it does not appertain to science to lead mankind. Nothing which is necessary is entrusted to it; a man must have lost his senses to believe that God has commissioned academies to tell us what he is, and what is our duty to him. It belongs to prelates, nobles, great officers of State to be the depositories and guardians of conservative truths; to teach nations what is good and what is bad; what is true and what false in the moral and spiritual order. Others have no right to argue on matters of this sort. They have the natural sciences to play with (pour s'amuser); what can they complain of? As to those who speak or write to take a national dogma from the people, they ought to be hung like burglars.'
It is odd that it should not have occurred to De Maistre that the high priests and Pontius Pilate could not have wished for a more trenchant justification of their proceedings, but this is a trifle. The characteristic and important point in this extract is that it affords an illustration of the peculiar method which we have tried to describe. You start with the assumption that the opinions of the savants are false and pernicious errors, whilst those of the statesmen, prelates, and nobles are eternal truths. But those who teach and vindicate eternal truths must be preferred to those who teach pernicious errors. Hence the priests and nobles, and not the savants, ought to be the teachers of mankind in moral and political wisdom.
When a man has got his path clearly marked out for him in this manner, the rest is plain. All that he has got to do is to think of all the topics which can be urged in favour of men of action as against men of speculation, and of course they are to be found in abundance, and may be developed with any amount of learning and ingenuity. The effect of this is to disguise, pervert, and distort the real truth on a matter of the highest importance, which is easily recognised when the true mode of treating the subject is once grasped.
The truth is, that the right persons to teach nations what is good and what bad are those who themselves know what is good and what bad; and inasmuch as the persons to be taught are many, and the topics with reference to which they are to be taught various, it is obvious that the teachers must also be numerous, and of different characters. The student has much to teach the soldier, and the soldier has much to teach the student, and so of the rest; but if the province of human life and human affairs is made over to the soldier and the priest, and the province of physical science to the student, you will never be able to take a fair view of the gifts of either, or to see their respective powers and deficiencies otherwise than through an unnatural medium and in a distorted shape. You will be able to say plenty of clever things about both, but you will never thoroughly understand the functions of either.
A similar instance is to be found in De Maistre's whole theory of mysteries. Nothing delights him so much as to oppose instinct and reason, or practice and theory. Assuming the truth of certain doctrines to which he is attached, and observing that they are opposed by unanswerable objections, he infers, not that they are false, but that it is the nature of true propositions to be exposed to unanswerable objections. This has the further advantage of enabling him to add that it is a sort of credit and distinction to a truth to be in this position, and that indeed truths so circumstanced are in the nature of divine mysteries, and are entitled as such to the highest reverence.
We will take two instances of this fallacy, because none can be more characteristic, none is a more prolific source of distorted and misplaced ingenuity, and none is more popular with later writers who are better known in our own time and country. The Senator observes in the course of a discussion on prayer, 'As often as reason is in opposition to common sense we must repel it like a poisoner. . . . There is no more infallible means of falling into the grossest and most fatal of errors than to reject this or that dogma, simply because it lies open to an objection which we cannot answer.'
After various illustrations of this general theory he proceeds to enunciate 'a sort of formula to serve for the resolution of all particular cases, as thus: Whenever a proposition is proved by the sort of proof which belongs to it, no objection, even if it be insoluble, ought to be listened to. The impossibility of answering, proves only that the two propositions regarded as true are not really contradictory, which may always happen unless there is a contradiction in terms.'
The best and strongest of his illustrations is taken from astronomy. When Copernicus, he says, put forward his system, he was met by the objection that, if it was true, Venus ought to display phases like those of the moon. Copernicus replied, 'I own I have no answer to give, but God will graciously find an answer.' This answer was, in effect, given by the invention of telescopes, which made the phases of Venus visible to Galileo and to subsequent observers.
Hence, it appears, De Maistre would have concluded that till the invention of telescopes it was the part of wise men to believe both that Copernicus's system was true, and also that Venus had no phases, although the truth of the system of Copernicus implied the phases which were afterwards discovered. This singular state of mind was to be justified on the ground that the truth of the system of Copernicus, and the absence of the phases of Venus, were each proved by 'le genre de preuve qui lui appartient.'
The first observation upon this is that, if any one had acted upon De Maistre's principle, it would have led him into the error of believing that Venus had no phases, whereas in fact she has. The next observation is that, until the discovery of telescopes, the Copernican system could not be said to be proved, because the evidence, as it stood till telescopes were discovered, was in one material particular opposed to its truth. If the most powerful telescopes had been applied to Venus, and had discovered no phases, it would surely have followed that the view of Copernicus as to the position of the planet was incorrect.
More generally the fallacy of De Maistre's rule lies in the assumption that a proposition can be proved to be true by the kind of proof appropriate to it,' so long as there are insoluble objections to it. The objections are part of the evidence, from a comparison of which we must ascertain whether a given proposition is proved or not.
Carrying the matter still further, it is obvious that De Maistre, like some other writers who are fond of opposing facts to theories, had no clear conception of the distinction between the two. The proposition that the sun and the planets move in a certain way is the statement of a theory, and so, if you look at it narrowly, is the statement that Venus has or has not phases like the moon. The evidence that she has not, is the impression made on the naked eye by looking at her. The evidence that she has, is the impression made on the eye by looking through a telescope. What are really opposed are not two facts, each proved by appropriate evidence, but two conflicting theories, each supported by certain items of evidence and encountered by others. De Maistre's rule, properly stated, comes to no more than that, in weighing evidence, you ought to weigh evidence on both sides of the question.
The true inference from the fact that in most cases there is evidence both ways, and that even highly probable opinions are frequently open to insoluble objections, is that, in such cases, the proper and honest mental attitude is one of doubt. Where we meet with insoluble objections to popular opinions, it is certainly not true that we ought at once to regard the opinions as false. The fact of their existence and popularity is some evidence of their truth, and strong evidence of their containing at 'all events some amount of truth; but it is equally clear that we ought to attach a proper degree of weight to the objection, and to remain in doubt till the matter is cleared up, though we may act on the balance of probabilities.
These illustrations are enough to indicate the character and the source of that unnatural and distorted ingenuity which shows itself in every part of all De Maistre's works. We will try, in conclusion, to point out a few of the points of sympathy which existed between him and the more modern schools of thought, of which he was such a bitter opponent. Perhaps the most remarkable of these in a philosophical point of view, is his conception of the nature of physical science, which, on very different grounds, no doubt closely resembles that of Comte, and has a close affinity with Berkeley.
The object of De Maistre's life was the exaltation of the spiritual side of things, of the doctrine of innate ideas, of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, of the direct recognition of God by man, and the like. In his zeal for these doctrines, he always asserted that physical science was only the veil of spiritual science, that it was concerned with appearances only, and that it could not rise to the contemplation of causes, which was the exclusive prerogative of spiritual science.
The following sentence, which is the culminating point of a long discussion, gives us his view on this subject: 'II n'y a done aucune loi sensible qui n'ait derrière elle (passez-moi cette expression ridicule) une loi spirituelle dont la premiere n'est que 1'expression visible; et voilà pourquoi toute explication de cause par la matiere ne contentera jamais un bon esprit.' A little before he says, 'ces mots de cause et de matiere s'excluent mutuellement comme ceux de cercle et de triangle.' Take away the spiritual law which lies behind the material law, and the material laws themselves are conceived of, just as Comte and his school conceive of them. Physical science in this view becomes at once a plan for the investigation and classification of facts, from which the consideration of causes is altogether excluded.
It is, however, perhaps rather by his temper than by his intellect that De Maistre belonged emphatically to the nineteenth century. With all his scrupulous orthodoxy, a vein of what he describes as illuminism ran through the whole of his character. Notwithstanding his tendency to regard the world and human history as a vast exemplification of criminal justice here and hereafter, he was continually feeling after a wider and happier view of human destinies and of human nature.
In the last conversation the Senator delivers a long oration on the coming times, and on the prophecies which are to be fulfilled. He asks whether the Bible can be received in its literal sense? Whether we must not believe that it pleased God to allow the writers of it 'to speak sometimes each as he pleased, according to the ideas which prevailed at this epoch or that, and sometimes to hide under simple or even rude appearances, mysteries not made for all ages?' May not the ancient oracles and the Biblical prophecies be on the point of being fulfilled? Is not this to be inferred from the state of science and the course of events? May we not suppose that the general decay of religion, in all sects and churches, is the prelude of a new revelation, by which existing creeds will be at once confirmed, attested, and transfigured? 'Tout annonce, et nos propres observations mêmes le demontrent, je ne sais quelle grande unité vers laquelle nous marchons à grands pas.' And a little before he says: 'Then all science will change its aspect, the spirit long dethroned and forgotten will resume its place. It will be demonstrated that the ancient traditions are all true; that Paganism was only a system of truths corrupted and displaced; that it is enough to clean them, so to speak, and arrange them, to see them shine with all their radiance. In a word, all ideas will change; and since a crowd of the elect will cry in concert on every side, "Come, Lord, come!" why should you blame men who rush towards this glorious future and boast of discerning it?'
Saturday Review, July 27, 1867.