1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Maistre, Joseph de

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MAISTRE, JOSEPH DE (1754–1821), French diplomatist and polemical writer, was born at Chambéry on the 1st of April 1754. His family was an ancient and noble one, enjoying the title of count, and is said to have been of Languedocian extraction. The father of Joseph was president of the senate of Savoy, and held other important offices. Joseph himself, after studying at Turin, received various appointments in the civil service of Savoy, finally becoming a member of the senate. In 1786 he married Françoise de Morand. The invasion and annexation of Savoy by the French Republicans made him an exile. He did not take refuge in that part of the king of Sardinia’s domains which was for the time spared, but betook himself to the as yet neutral territory of Lausanne. There, in 1796, he published his first important work (he had previously written certain discourses, pamphlets, letters, &c.), Considérations sur la France. In this he developed his views, which were those of a Legitimist, but a Legitimist entirely from the religious and Roman Catholic point of view. The philosophism of the 18th century was Joseph de Maistre’s lifelong object of assault.

After the still further losses which, in the year of the publication of this book, the French Revolution inflicted on Sardinia, Charles Emmanuel summoned Joseph de Maistre to Turin, and he remained there for the brief space during which the king retained a remnant of territory on the mainland. Then he went to the island of Sardinia, and held office at Cagliari. In 1802 he was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary at St Petersburg, and journeyed thither the next year. Although his post was no sinecure, its duties were naturally less engrossing than the official life, with intervals of uneasy exile and travelling, which he had hitherto known, and his literary activity was great. He only published a single treatise, on the Principe générateur des Constitutions; but he wrote his best and most famous works, Du Pape, De L’église gallicane and the Soirées de St Pétersbourg, the last of which was never finished. Du Pape, which the second-named book completes, is a treatise in regular form, dealing with the relations of the sovereign pontiff to the Church, to temporal sovereigns, to civilization generally, and to schismatics, especially Anglicans and the Greek Church. It is written from the highest possible standpoint of papal absolutism. The Soirées de St Pétersbourg, so far as it is anything (for the arrangement is somewhat desultory), is a kind of théodicée, dealing with the fortunes of virtue and vice in this world. It contains two of De Maistre’s most famous pieces, his panegyric on the executioner as the foundation of social order, and his acrimonious, and in part unfair, but also in part very damaging, attack on Locke. The Du Pape is dated May 1817; on the Soirées the author was still engaged at his death. Besides these works he wrote an examination of the philosophy of Bacon, some letters on the Inquisition (an institution which, as may be guessed from the remarks just noticed about the executioner, was no stumbling-block to him), and, earlier than any of these, a translation of Plutarch’s “Essay on the Delay of Divine Justice,” with somewhat copious notes. After 1815 he returned to Savoy, and was appointed to high office, while his Du Pape made a great sensation. But the world to which he had returned was not altogether in accordance with his desires. He had domestic troubles; and chagrin of one sort and another is said to have had not a little to do with his death by paralysis on the 26th of February 1821 at Turin. Most of the works mentioned were not published till after his death, and it was not till 1851 that a collection of Lettres et opuscules appeared, while even since that time fresh matter has been published.

Joseph de Maistre was one of the most powerful, and by far the ablest, of the leaders of the neo-Catholic and anti-revolutionary movement. The most remarkable thing about his standpoint is that, layman as he was, it was entirely ecclesiastical. Unlike his contemporary Bonald, Joseph de Maistre regarded the temporal monarchy as an institution of altogether inferior importance to the spiritual primacy of the pope. He was by no means a political absolutist, except in so far as he regarded obedience as the first of political virtues, and he seldom loses an opportunity of stipulating for a tempered monarchy. But the pope’s power is not to be tempered at all, either by councils or by the temporal power or by national churches, least of all by private judgment. The peculiarity of Joseph de Maistre is that he supports his conclusions, or if it be preferred his paradoxes, by the hardest and heaviest argument. Although a great master of rhetoric, he never makes rhetoric do duty for logic. Every now and then it is possible to detect fallacies in him, but for the most part he has succeeded in carrying matters back to those fundamental differences of opinion which hardly admit of argument, and on which men take sides in consequence chiefly of natural bent, and of predilection for one state of things rather than for another. The absolute necessity of order may be said to have been the first principle of this thinker, who, in more ways than one, will invite comparison with Hobbes. He could not conceive such order without a single visible authority, reference to which should settle all dispute. He saw that there could be no such temporal head, and in the pope he thought that he saw a spiritual substitute. The anarchic tendencies of the Revolution in politics and religion were what offended him. It ought to be added that he was profoundly and accurately learned in history and philosophy, and that the superficial blunders of the 18th-century philosophes irritated him as much as their doctrines. To Voltaire in particular he shows no mercy.

Of the two works named as his masterpieces, Du Pape and the Soirées de St Pétersbourg, editions are extremely numerous. No complete edition of his works appeared till 1884–1887, when one was published at Lyons in 14 volumes. This had been preceded, and has been followed, by numerous biographies and discussions: C. Barthélemy, L’Esprit de Joseph de Maistre (1859); R. de Sézeval, Joseph de Maistre (1865), and J. C. Glaser, Graf Joseph Maistre (same year); L. I. Moreau, Joseph de Maistre (1879); F. Paulhan, Joseph de Maistre et sa philosophie (1893); L. Cogordan, “Joseph de Maistre” in the Grands écrivains français (1894); F. Descostes, Joseph de Maistre avant la révolution (1896), and other works by the same writer; J. Mandoul, Un Homme d’état italien: Joseph de Maistre et la politique de la maison de Savoie (1900); and E. Grasset, Joseph de Maistre (1901).  (G. Sa.)