The Philosophy of Joseph De Maistre

Joseph de Maistre is a relatively unknown name to us now, especially in the English-speaking world, but he was widely influential in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.  A diplomat, writer, and philosopher, his influence extended to the utopian socialists of France to the “Counter Enlightenment” critics of the revolutionary spirit of Hobbesian liberalism and Jacobin radicalism.  He was also lauded by the French poet Charles Baudelaire as “the man who taught me how to think” and also influenced the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

Like many of the romantics and Counter Enlightenment figures, Maistre was initially a soft supporter of the early French Revolution, a moderate reformer before its Jacobin turn and the Reign of Terror.  After the Jacobin turn of the Revolution, Maistre (like many of the German Romantics) became a fierce critic of Jacobinism, liberalism, and general revolutionary trends in political economy (early capitalism), social politics (liberalism), and utopian dreaming (the Jacobins and Rousseauians).  As the great historian of philosophy, Isaiah Berlin noted, “Maistre was certainly the most brilliant and polemical of the critics of the philosophy that lay behind the French revolution.”

And this was Maistre’s great polemical rhetoric and general brilliance, he took on the materialistic, mechanistic, Baconian and “Enlightenment” view in its own terms – that is, as Berlin stated, Maistre criticized the direct philosophy behind Enlightenment liberalism and Jacobinism on its own terms.  Most explicitly, Maistre argues that the mathematical optimism of materialism was pseudo-intellectual.  What he meant was that numbers and math could not explain nature, and reliance on numbers and mathematics certainly didn’t tell you anything about history.  In fact, the mathematical optimism of Baconian science, which in turn was augmented into liberal politics by Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, was directly at odds with the basic insights one could derive from empirical observation about nature.

De Maistre charged, naturally, that man was not peaceful, and that there was no harmonious relationship man has with nature, and that nature itself has no harmonious relationship with itself.  In doing so Maistre hoped to expose the shallowness and pseudo-intellectuality of the French philosophes who cheered the Revolution – even during the Reign of Terror – as well as the hedonistic nihilism of the Baconian-Hobbesian philosophical tradition that came out of England.  De Maistre charges that the liberals study nature by imposing mathematics upon nature and deduce from nature ideas that confirm their own preconceived a priori beliefs even though many of these same liberals denied a priori knowledge.  That is, Maistre charges that the people claiming to study nature “rationally and objectively” to be really studying nature with their own extreme prejudice masked in the smile and rhetoric of mathematical objectively.  In this sense, Maistre’s “anti-rationalism” is a strong empiricism with a mystical bent to it (observing the disharmony and violence of the world reveals certain mystical truths about darkness, sin, and God, etc.).  There is an irony in the “empiricists” really being a priori rationalists who attempt to make fit experience to their preconceived idealism while Maistre, seeing through their facade, sees himself as the true promoter of the empirical sciences.

As Maistre explains, these people look at mathematics to confirm what is already in their own minds, but would be more useful if they “actually looked at history or zoology.”  What Maistre meant by charging that the scientists and Enlightenment philosophes should look at history or zoology instead of mathematics to confirm their a priori assumptions about nature which they, through a rhetorical and intellectual sleight of hand, claim to be studying from the presumption of an a posteriori blank slate, was that the student of history or zoology gets a radically different picture of nature and humankind than what was being offered by the progressive and “enlightened” philosophes who supported the French Revolution, and later, the Industrial Revolution and capitalism.  De Maistre writes:

In the whole vast domain of living nature there reigns an open violence, a kind of prescriptive fury which arms all the creatures to their common doom. As soon as you leave the inanimate kingdom, you find the decree of violent death inscribed on the very frontiers of life. You feel it already in the vegetable kingdom: from the great catalpa to the humblest herb, how many plants die, and how many are killed. But from the moment you enter the animal kingdom, this law is suddenly in the most dreadful evidence. A power of violence at once hidden and palpable … has in each species appointed a certain number of animals to devour the others. Thus there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fishes of prey, quadrupeds of prey. There is no instant of time when one creature is not being devoured by another. Over all these numerous races of animals man is placed, and his destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to obtain food and he kills to clothe himself. He kills to adorn himself, he kills in order to attack, and he kills in order to defend himself. He kills to instruct himself and he kills to amuse himself. He kills to kill. Proud and terrible king, he wants everything and nothing resists him.

More poetically, and in the French, the sentences beginning “He kills…” comes out as, “il tue pour se nourrir, il tue pour se vêtir, il tue pour se parer, il tue pour attaquer, il tue pour se défendre, il tue pour s’instruire, il tue pour s’amuser, il tue pour tuer: roi superbe et terrible, il a besoin de tout, et rien ne lui résiste.”  De Maistre argues, contrary the optimistic mathematicians and Jacobins (who are really ignoramuses in Maistre’s eyes at best, or devilish deceivers at worst), that a simple, and actual, study of nature would lead one to the exact opposite conclusion of Rousseau, as well as the opposite conclusions of the Encyclopaedist philosophers of the 18th century.

Against Rousseau, Maistre argues that there was never any harmonious “state of nature” to begin with because nature itself is not harmonious with itself.  It is a culling field of blood and violence where animals plunder and wage war with one another.  Ants terrorize and invade other insect colonies, tearing their insect rivals limb to limb.  Fish eat one another, “there’s always a bigger fish.”  Even plants, like weeds, invade and destroy the roots of beautiful flowers and brushes, killing them off so that they may thrive – but weeds, like man, thrives only by killing off what is next to him.

Against Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and the more mathematical and materialist liberalism of the English Enlightenment, Maistre argues that their worship of mathematics blinds them to history.  Humans are not robotic masses of “matter in motion,” and neither is history this progressive push forward into “enlightenment,” “progress,” and “liberty,” instead humans are complex, irrational, unreasonable, and often fanatic beings.  Here, Maistre would undoubtedly enjoy what modern science has uncovered with the brutal nature of chimpanzees, and how chimpanzees wage war and tear one another limb from limb just as much as ants and plants do.  He would also cheer the discoveries of the crushed skulls of Homo Erectus whose skulls were battered in by other primal humans for God only knows what reasons.  Contrary to the new pseudo-intellectuals (the scientists, especially of the decidedly “New Atheist” stripe), humans are not benign and compassionate beings who have been corrupted from “poisons” like nationality or religion, chimpanzees have no nationality or religion, yet they are just as brutal to each other as humans are to other humans.  For Maistre, liberalism fails as much as the restorative revolutionary ideals of Rousseau and the Jacobins (and revolution means “to turn”) precisely because it adopts the faulty blank slate (tabula rasa) and mechanistic view of humans which simply isn’t borne out by the facts of history and the simple observation of human societies.  Likewise, to render humans as numbers, as mathematical economics does, permits the further alienation and estrangement of man from himself, others, and with his already alienated and estranged relationship with nature.

Likewise, for the pretensions of progress, the tens of millions of dead, displaced, and starving from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars proved the shallowness of the “compassion” and “humanitarian” arguments from the Jacobins and other radical revolutionaries.  No amount of blood was never not justified to reach the utopia.  The “compassion” and “kindness” of the Jacobins was a sadistic, vengeful, and hateful violence that was sacralized in the illusions of “compassion,” “kindness,” and “liberty.”  It represented a brutal paternalism that was worse than the paternalism of the ancien régime itself.

De Maistre does not merely deal with the bloodshed of the French Revolution, which he described as unique in the history of mankind because it was “radically bad” because it was the complete absence of the good, it could not build, but only destroy, he also criticizes Locke’s epistemology.  In his Sixth Dialogue (in the Saint Petersburg Dialogues), Maistre retorts through the Count:

Liberty is the power to do. How is this? Has not the man who is in prison and laden with chains the power to make himself guilty of all crimes without acting? He has only to will them…If then liberty is not the power to do, it can be only the power to will, but the power to will is the will itself, and to ask if the will can will is like asking if perception has the power to perceive, if reason has the power of reasoning, if a circle is a circle, a triangle a triangle, in a word if a thing in itself is a thing in itself.

As he goes on, Maistre’s Count argues that Locke has invalidated himself in his own arguments wherein – like with Hobbes – all knowledge comes from the senses has nothing to teach us.  For even the Catholic and Greek traditions of philosophy had long maintained that we learned from the senses.

But in Maistre’s eyes, sense-perception is nothing compared to the power of ideas.  As Maistre’s dialogue character states:

Locke is perhaps the only author known who has taken the trouble to refute his whole book or to declare it useless, from the beginning, by telling us that all our ideas come from the senses or from reflection. But who has ever denied that certain ideas come to us from the senses? What is it Locke wants to teach us? The number of simple perceptions being nothing compared to the innumerable combinations of thought, it remains clear, from the first chapter of the second book, that the immense majority of our ideas do not come from the senses.

De Maistre sees Locke’s blank slate as a regression in the history of epistemology, not progress in the history of epistemology.  It erodes nature and simple common sense truths known to mankind from the beginning of time.

History was not a story of progress, but the story of violence becoming more universal, more destructive, and ever more violent. (The horrors of the twentieth century would undoubtedly cause Maistre to say “I told you so.”)  The great façade pulled over the eyes of humans began with the Enlightenment.  The great illusion of the Enlightenment, in Maistre’s eyes, was that it sacralized violence under the name of progress and liberty and thus perpetuated what he already knew: violence, not liberty, not equality, was the spirit of life.  This was undoubtedly the case with the French Revolution where bloodshed, murder, and violence was ecstatically embraced as almost divine!  Anything was acceptable to usher in the utopia that Rousseau had outlined in his works that had been taken up by the French Revolutionaries.  It wrapped destruction and nihilism under the tent of construction.  For Maistre, “Progress” was really the tearing down of all the barriers erected by humans to try and prevent each other from tearing one another limb from limb.  The end result of this was the mass washing of human blood of the last 300 years.  De Maistre would fundamentally agree with Nietzsche’s statement that the collapse of morality into nihilism, always in the name of “Progress,” would soak the earth with so much blood that humans wouldn’t be able to recover when they awoke to horrors of what they had done: “Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?”  Thus, with no guide, divine or temporal, with no order, divine or temporal, man is forever lost in the tragic abyss once he recognizes his depravity and destructive pride and desires.

De Maistre sought to remind people that those promoting the view of human egalitarianism, compassion, and kindness as the “original state” of human existence before some moment of “corruption,” that those promoting the view that History was one of unfolding Progress toward a Utopia that is just over the horizon, and those promoting the view that mathematics and numbers is what will lead to the constructive building are the people whom you should not listen to.  They are the pseudo-intellectuals who don’t understand history or nature.  They are the people claiming, without explicitly stating it, that violence is permissible in the name of progress or utopianism.  They are the new barbarians cheering the destruction of culture and civilization as the price to pay for progress and equality.  The sad, and almost haunting part, in Maistre’s view was whether those proponents were truly too blind to see their own sacralized form of libido dominandi, or whether they were sadists masking their sadism under the guise of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.”

History was the tragic decline into the Abyss.  Humans are digging themselves an ever deeper hole to contain the pools of blood necessary for the dream of Utopia, singing the hymns of revolution, progress, and perfection as they descend ever closer to Hell.  As Maistre hauntingly, and almost prophetically, reminds us in his treatise on sovereignty, “Man is insatiable for power; he is infantile in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only what he has not. People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man.  We are all born despots.”  The road to hell is often paved with “good intentions.”

De Maistre argues something rather simple: it is not structures that are despotic and violent, it is the men who populate them that are despotic and violent.  And thus with the most utopian visions are often the most violent men in the modern age.  Within that vast domain of living nature who is tasked with the killing of men?  Other men, “It is man who is charged with the slaughter of men.”  History and zoology confirm the bleak reality that man is not a rational and compassionate animal, he is, instead, a blood thirsty, violent, and “sinful” animal who lusts after domination and power.  Had Maistre lived to learn that humans evolved to be six times more violent than other mammals, he would have likely given colorful commentary over this empirical fact.[1] Lastly, as Isaiah Berlin also notes, Maistre prefigures Nietzsche and nihilistic existentialism by half a century.

[1] Cf. José María Gómez, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías & Marcos Méndez, “The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence,” Nature 538: 233–237 (13 October 2016).


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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