Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre
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Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre
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French philosophical writer, b. at Chambéry, in Savoy, in 1753, when Savoy did not belong to France; d. at Turin, 26 Feb., 1821. His family, which was of French origin, had settled in Savoy a century earlier, and had attained a high position, his father being president of the Senate. Joseph, the eldest of ten children, was a pupil of the Jesuits, who, like his parents, inspired him with an intense love of religion and detestation of the eighteenth-century philosophical rationalism, which he always resolutely opposed. In 1774 he entered the magistracy; in 1780 he was assistant fiscal advocate general; in 1788 he was appointed senator, being then thirt-five years old. Four years later, he was forced to fly before the invading French, and discharged for four years at Lausanne a confidential mission for his sovereign, the King of Sardinia. That monarch having lost the capital of his kingdom, de Maistre lived in poverty at Venice, but on the restoration of the king, went to Sardinia as keeper of the great seal (1799) and, three years later, to St. Petersburg, as plenipotentiary. This mission lasted fourteen years, till 1817. Though weakly supported by his Government, which was at times displeased with his frankness, poor amidst a lavish aristocracy, he nevertheless successfully defended the interests of his country with the Czar Alexander, who, like most of the leading personages at St. Petersburg, highly appreciated his character and his ability. He afterwards returned to Turin, to fill the post of minister of State and keeper of the great seal until his death.
The writings of Joseph de Maistre (as well as those of his younger brother - Xavier de Maistre) were all in French, then the literary language of Piedmont. Joseph's first important work was written during his sojourn in Switzerland. He was then forty years of age. He had previously composed some speeches and a few comparatively unimportant essays. We may mention "L'éloge de Victor Amédée III", attacking the intolerance which had lighted the fires of the stake, and glorifying the war of the Americans against their oppressors. After the outbreak of the French Revolution, he published some writings on current events, e.g. "Discours à M. le Marquis Costa de Beauregard sur la vie et la mort de ton fils" and "Cinq paradoxes a la Marquise de Nav . . ." (1795). In the following year appeared his "Considerations sur la France" (London and Lausanne, in folio); although its dissemination was rigorously forbidden by the French authorities, several editions were exhausted within a year. The author maintains the thesis that France has a mission from God: she is the principal instrument of good and of evil on earth. De Maistre looks on the Revolution as a providential occurrence: the monarchy, the aristocracy, the whole of the old French society, instead of turning the powerful influence of French civilization to benefit mankind, had used it to foster the doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers: the crimes of the Reign of Terror were the punishment thus merited. The author added that the foreign nations were dupes of a foolish dream, in undertaking the dismemberment of France, "the most beautiful kingdom after that of heaven". Finally, he predicted a speedy restoration, and disappearance of the abuses of the past.
In connection with this work must be mentioned a little book composed in 1809, under the title "Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines". Its main idea is, that constitutions are not the artificial products of the study but come in due time and under suitable circumstances from God, who slowly brings them to maturity. After the appearance in 1816 of the treatise "Sur les délais de la justice divine dans la punition des coupables", translated from Plutarch, with additions and notes, Joseph de Maistre published at Lyons in 1819 his masterpiece "Du Pape". The work (2 vols. in 8vo.) is divided into four parts. In the first the author proves that in the Church the pope is sovereign, and that it is an essential characteristic of all sovereign power that that its decisions should be subject to no appeal. The doctrinal declarations of the pope are binding on man without right of appeal. Consequently, the pope is infallible in his teaching, since it is by his teaching that he exercises his sovereignty. And in point of fact "no sovereign pontiff, speaking freely to the Church, has ever made a mistake in the matter of faith". In the remaining divisions of his work the author examines the relations of the pope and the temporal powers: civilization and the welfare of nations; the schismatical Churches. He establishes that nations require to be guaranteed against abuses of the power to which they are subject by a sovereignty superior to all others; now, this sovereignty can be none but the papacy, which, even in the Middle Ages, had, in fact, already saved European civilization from the barbarians. As to the schismatical Churches, the writer thinks that they will inevitably fall into Protestantism, and from Protestantism through Socinianism into philosophic indifference. For "no religion can resist science, except one."
The treatise, "L'Eglise Gallicane dans ses rapports avec les souverains pontifes" (Paris, 1821, in 8vo), formed, in the original plan of the author, the fifth part of the preceding work. De Maistre at the last moment resolved on the advice of his friends, to make it a separate work. He discusses vigorously, and at times, from the Gallican standpoint, harshly, the celebrated Declaration of the Assemblée of 1682. Besides a voluminous correspondence, Joseph de Maistre left two posthumous works. One of these, "L'examen de la Philosophie de Bacon", (Paris, 1836; 2 vols in 8vo), is an attack on Locke and Condillac, and in general on the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, in the person whom the author considers as the father of their system. This work is not among the most highly esteemed of De Maistre's writings. The "Soirées de St. Pétersbourg" (Paris, 1821, 2 vols, 8vo) is a reply in the form of a dialogue to the objection against Providence drawn from the existence of evil in the world. For Joseph de Maistre, the existence of evil, far from obscuring the designs of God, throws a new light on them; for the moral world and the physical world are inter-related. Physical evil exists only because there has been, and there is, moral evil. All wrong must he expiated. So humanity which has always believed in the necessity of this expiation, has had recourse, to accomplish it, not only to prayer, but to sacrifice, that is, the shedding of blood, the merits of the innocent being applied to the guilty - a law as mysterious as it is indubitable, and which, in the opinion of the author, explains the existence and the perpetuity of war. The fame of Joseph de Maistre has been enhanced too, by his "Correspondance". Almost six hundred of his letters have been preserved. In them one finds the tender father, the loving, devoted friend, and at the same time a keen, ingenious, unaffected, joyous writer. His complete works were published in fourteen volumes, 8vo, at Lyons, 1884-87.
To appreciate de Maistre in his writings as a whole, one may remark that his ideas are bold and penetrating, and his views so clear and accurate that at times they seem prophetic. An enthusiastic believer in the principle of authority, which the Revolution tried to destroy, he defends it everywhere: in the State by extolling the monarchy, in the Church by exalting the privileges of the papacy; in the world by glorifying the rights and the conduct of God. His style is strong, lively, picturesque; animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone, and he might even be deemed eloquent. It is true he does not disdain paradox in his thinking or violence in his language: he has neither the moderation nor the serenity of Bossuet. But he possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power. He influenced the age that followed him: he dealt Gallicanism such decisive blows that it never rose again. In a word, he was a great and virtuous man, a profound thinker, and one of the finest writers of that French language of which his works are a distinguished ornament.
RAYMOND, Eloge du Comte Joseph de Maistre (Chambery, 1827); DE MARGERIE, Le Comte Joseph de Maistre (Paris, 1882); DESCOTTES, Joseph de Maistre avant la Revolution (Paris, 1893); COGORDAN, Joseph de Maistre (Paris, 1894).