Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Joseph De Maistre and the Metaphysics of the French Revolution

Evil has nothing in common with life; it cannot create, since its power is purely negative.  Evil is the schism of being; it is not true.  Now what distinguishes the French Revolution and makes it an event unique in history is that it is radically bad.”  Those are the words of Franco-Savoyard lawyer and diplomat Joseph De Maistre in his Considerations on France (1796).  Asking the question of whether the French republic will survive, and what the characteristics of this republic are, Maistre pens those blunt words concerning the French Revolution.  Why is the French Revolution radically bad, that is, evil?

De Maistre holds to the classical and Christian view of evil as a privation of being; a privation of the good that is the natural being and created order of the world.  This is why he says evil has nothing in common with life.  Evil can only destroy because it cannot create; evil only destroys life which is why it has nothing common with life.  Looking upon the French Revolution Maistre sees the revolution as achieving precisely that—the destruction of life wholesale.  It is, in his more poetic words, a schism of being.

Discussing the revolution Maistre notes that the coming of the French Terror was not a break with the character of the revolution but its fruition, the very culmination of its seed.  Accordingly, Maistre argues, the French Revolution was born in evil schism, it was born in destruction and culminated—with the Terror—in ever greater destruction and bloodshed.  This is because evil is purely negative, the only thing evil knows is the corruption of life and the good—it is necessarily destructive.  The reason why the French Revolution is unique and uniquely evil is because it is the first event in human history, according to Maistre, that is premised and motivated purely on the sentiment of destruction and hatred.

The leaders of the French Revolution are the most vile, base, and immoral of people ever assembled in the history of man he tells us, “On what page of history will you find such a great quantity of vices assembled at one time on the same stage?  What a horrible assemblage of baseness and cruelty!  What profound immorality!  What absence of all decency!”  What was born in hatred and violence must end in hatred and violence.  There is only one road to which the French Republic will follow: the path of death.

The republic is unable to provide for the welfare of its people despite promising to do so.  The republic has thrown France into chaos and war, despite promises of peace.  The republic has also thrown the rest of Europe in chaos and war, thus causing schism and violence to unfold across its own borders.  The republic has not only sought the destruction of the old aristocracy, it is actively seeking the destruction of the Christian religion.  Calendars have been altogether changed on this anti-religious sentiment.

In its dream to remake the world, and the French nation, the revolution had to necessarily destroy.  The promise of the republic’s utopia is only possible through an acceptance of evil—the destruction of life.  But life cannot be built from death.

With the Terror behind France Maistre also notes how the contemporary defenders of the French Republic—a word he doesn’t really believe can describe the French nation, rather he sees the revolutionary government as a corrupt government founded upon crimes—do not even praise the worthiness of the French Republic at present.  As Maistre says, these apologists of the revolution can’t point to moral purity or high idealism because the crimes of the revolutionaries are fully visible for all to see.  Rather, the apologists of the revolution only argue that the republic can be saved.  They are invested in the project of revolution; they no longer can claim the worthiness or goodness of the cause itself.

The reason why the apologists don’t allow the citizens of France to speak is because not only has their liberty been silenced in the name of the revolution, but because if they did so the revolution would be turned on by those whom the revolutionaries are claiming to help.  The reason why the revolutionaries can’t go back to the old system of government is because it would expose how evil they really are and how unnecessary all of the bloodshed has been.  For all the ills of the monarchy, life was acceptable and tolerable under the king and the French Estates.  Now life is harsh, rough, and filled with terror and torment.  The promises of the revolution have gone unfulfilled and plunged Europe, not simply France, into the fires of catastrophe.

In a manner more straightforward but also deeper than Burke, Maistre doesn’t refrain from using choice language to describe the revolution.  It is evil.  It is evil because it is motivated to destroy the entirety of the old order: monarchy, aristocracy, and church.  In its motivation to destroy the ancien régime the revolutionaries show that they do not care about life.  Since they do not care about life the actions of the revolutionaries will only led to a pool of bloodshed which the French will be unable to get themselves out of.  The fire that consumes France will threaten to spread outward to the rest of Europe, which is why the European nations have to respond and stop evil before it spreads further.

The French government is criminal.  It has reneged on all of its promises.  Can the French government (re)establish the common good?  No.  The French government, criminal and debased as it is, has already shown itself incapable of doing that.  But since the criminals have gained the power of government authority they wield it to their own gratification and benefit at the expense of those whom they claim to be helping and serving.

The reason why the French Revolution is radically evil in every sense of the classical understanding of evil is because the revolution destroys rather than builds.  It kills rather than bestow life.  It is motivated by hatred, hatred of the old order, rather than love of that which is (whatever faults the existing order has).  The men who run the revolution are also the most wicked of possessed spirits.  They seek only the death of their enemies and lust for ever greater power that the troika of throne, aristocracy, and church in the ancien régime held in check.  The progress promised by the French Revolution is no progress at all except for those so blinded by the dream of perfect utopia they cannot see the horror, terror, immorality, and bloodshed that it has unleashed, a bloodshed greater than at any time before known to man.

When the French leftist philosopher Alain Badiou, writing in defense of revolutionary zeal, said, “if you say A – equality, human rights and freedoms – you should not shirk from its consequences and gather the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert the A,” Maistre would have just responded “I told you so.”  The revolutionary zeal has only one end, and that end is destruction.  All revolutions that promise utopia will end in terror.  All revolutions based on the promise of utopia, motivated by their hatred of existing orders, and needing to destroy the existing order so as to reach that utopia, engage in the active privation of being, the destruction of things that are good in the world—thus, they are, by the classical definition which Maistre subscribes to, “evil.”


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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