What role can philosophical conservatism play in a post–Cold War world, in a time when old political ideologies are being challenged by new social and political developments and when political scientists speak, with greater confidence than ever before, about the alleged obsolescence of right and left? Owen Bradley’s A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre challenges us to rethink these issues and invites us to join him on an interesting foray into the history of modern political thought. Bradley’s book offers a new and original interpretation of Joseph de Maistre’s political and philosophical writings and contributes to rethinking the historical and modern import of philosophical conservatism.

Commonly repudiated or ignored by political scientists, Maistre (1753–1821) has never had a good press in the English-speaking world, despite the fact that he wrote several first-rate books in political philosophy, including Considerations on France (originally translated into English by Richard Lebrun in 1974 and re-edited by Cambridge University Press in 1994) and Saint Petersburg Dialogues, or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (trans. Richard Lebrun, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).1

In the eyes of contemporary political theorists Maistre appears as a deeply puzzling and disturbing figure. His ideas on society and politics and the critique of the French Revolution put forward in Considerations never got the credit they deserved—the book is rarely, if ever, read in survey courses in modern political thought—while Edmund Burke’s Reflections were always praised for having predicted the violent and tragic episodes of the Revolution. The few political theorists who have ventured into Maistre’s territory have usually interpreted him either as a shrewd apostle of violence or as a precursor of twentieth-century fascism by means of a strange reductio ad Hitleram. The late Isaiah Berlin significantly contributed to advancing this dark and wild image of Maistre, even if he correctly understood that Maistre’s ideas were much bolder, more interesting, and more original than the theories and views of his contemporaries. In his eighty-three-page essay “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism,” written more than four decades ago and published in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990), Berlin discussed Maistre’s ideas on violence and war, concentrated on the metaphor of the executioner in Saint Petersburg Dialogues, and presented Maistre as ‘‘a ferocious critic of every form of constitutionalism . . . an unyielding adversary of all that the lumieres of the eighteenth century had stood for—rationalism, individualism, liberal compromise and secular enlightenment.”2 Berlin’s Maistre was a picturesque but violent figure obsessed with the image of the hangman and sacrificial blood, a thinker who exerted a strong influence on reactionary, obscurantist, and fascist ideas in the twentieth century.3 This dark view of Maistre was reiterated most recently by Stephen Holmes in his book Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993).

Writing in the tradition of the classical French moralists, the Romanian-born French essayist E. M. Cioran also emphasized the unexpected contemporary ring of Maistre’s writings. For him Maistre was an immensely provocative and original writer, a strange combination of a prophet from the Old Testament, a man of the Inquisition, and a spirit of the eighteenth century. Maistre created a profound work, which seduces and exasperates us through its “marvelous audacity and its lack of measure.”4 Far from being a prophet of the past, Cioran concluded, Maistre should be viewed as our companion at the end of a century that witnessed abominable cruelties perpetrated in the name of abstract ideals.

A fine stylist and an exotic figure always ready to shock and charm his partisans and opponents, Maistre proves to be a difficult writer who invites widely different interpretations. The originality and significance of his works can be attributed to his flamboyant personality as well as the unique context in which they were conceived. The French Revolution was the central event of Maistre’s time and most of his political reflections were linked to this event. Maistre lived and wrote in an age when traditional ideas and principles were systematically called into question, old social hierarchies were dislocated, and new theories of society, sovereignty, and power emerged as an expression of and reaction against the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Within the French conservative camp, as Bradley points out, Joseph de Maistre was and remained until his death in 1821 an unusual figure. He began his intellectual journey by advocating the ideas of the Enlightenment and flirting with the Freemasonry to which he was strongly attracted for some time. After a long diplomatic exile in Russia that proved to be the most creative period of his life, Maistre ended his career as a devout Catholic, defending the infallibility of the Pope and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Yet the tradition to which he often referred was in many ways unconventional: it included Plutarch, Plato, and St. Paul, and borrowed heavily from such unusual sources as Patristic writings and Oriental mystical cosmology. Maistre subtly played with his sources while sharing many common elements of the Catholic tradition; thus, he created an original synthesis that represents, in Bradley’s words, nothing less than “a challenge to the legitimacy of the modern age.”

Surprised by the general neglect of Maistre and disenchanted with one-dimensional interpretations, Bradley sets out to describe a new Maistre, a modern thinker whose ideas on sacrifice and society, on the basis of political authority and of ritual, traditionalism, and modernity, make him our contemporary—but in a different sense from that argued by Berlin, Holmes, and Cioran.

First, Bradley emphasizes the originality of Maistre’s political and social teachings and points to his influence on prominent writers (Baudelaire and Balzac) and sociologists (Comte and Durkheim). They admired Maistre and appreciated his ideas on authority, order, and sacrificial violence, and they also paid special attention to his study of symbolic practices.

Second, Bradley seeks to revise our image of Maistre by making him “the ambiguous, equivocal, undecidable figure he ought to be for modern thought rather than a monster plain and simple.” Starting from the view that the often-asked question “Was Maistre good or bad?” is the wrong question, Bradley purports to offer a non-partisan reading of Maistre as “a critical philosopher whose work exceeds the dimensions of mere apology or system building.” Emphasizing the paradoxical nature of his works that lack l’esprit de système displayed by other conservatives such as Louis de Bonald, Bradley argues that Maistre should not be read as a mere reactionary writer or yet another (stubborn) advocate of the Old Regime. On the contrary, he must be viewed as a sophisticated theorist of social order, unreason, and sacrifice who, far from praising violence, only pointed out its ineradicable presence in social and political life.

The originality and strength of this book lie in its pertinent and nuanced discussion of Maistre’s political theology and sacrifice, its relationship with the French constitutionalist tradition, and his strong opposition to absolute government, militarism, and obscurantism—themes that were ignored or superficially treated by previous interpreters of Maistre. Contrary to the conventional image, Bradley demonstrates that Maistre never favored political fanaticism and violence. Instead, he advanced a theory of excess, compensation, and equilibrium; he claimed that political excess always destroys itself and that Providence will always punish us for attempting to transgress our natural limits. Against Berlin, Bradley correctly points out that Maistre elaborated a fairly sophisticated theory of constitution. For Maistre, a constitution is a cohesive cluster of norms of behavior, habits, mores, and unexamined beliefs that exist in real life rather than on paper. He questioned the value of written constitutions because he believed that custom, ritual, and traditions endure over time, unlike written laws that can be done and undone at the will (or whim) of legislators. The upshot of such a view is that power must be taken out of men’s hands and vested in a sphere above the world of making and unmaking. It is this idea that lies at the core of Maistre’s unusual constitutionalism.

A Modern Maistre is therefore useful in debunking the uncritically accepted myth of Maistre as a precursor of fascism, even if it remains true that, secularized and transformed by the scoundrels who claimed to be his heirs, Maistre’s teachings proved dangerous.5 After demonstrating that Maistre was not a decisionist à la Carl Schmitt, Bradley observes that “traditionalism and fascism were in many ways antithetical” and correctly identifies the huge gap between the traditionalist Right and the radical, fascist Right in the twentieth century. Those who defended monarchy and tradition in early nineteenth-century France were not modern in the proper sense of the word because they lacked the brutality of the moderns, their infatuation with innovation, and their passion for remaking the old world according to an entirely rational scheme. “Fascism,” writes Bradley, “affirms the new, the modern (although in a grotesquely distorted form), not traditional custom.” The charisma sought by fascist leaders and their attempt to create a new man were incompatible with grounding legitimacy in tradition and religion. Moreover, fascist leaders were populists and often referred to the alleged will of the people in order to justify their actions, a point that conservative writers would never have endorsed. Fascist discourses lacked an awareness of the limits of human action in politics, while the traditionalist Right expressed a healthy skepticism about the possibility of creating an earthly paradise through human action.6 After all, mandatory happiness, whatever its form might be, was not invented by conservative thinkers such as Maistre, but by twentieth century theoreticians of the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people.

The question remains: Why should we read conservative authors such as Maistre whose anxious remarks about the fate of Europe were falsified by later political and social developments? Bradley claims that “it is their affirmation of a different world and worldview that continues to speak to us and not their resentment.” He argues that traditionalist thought holds a particular significance for us today (only) as a multi-layered, partly justified critique of the new social and political order at its inception. A Modern Maistre thus lays down the foundation for a much-needed reevaluation of traditionalism in the history of political thought. On this view, traditionalism should not be simply read as a reactionary ideology that advocated the return to an old scheme of things, but as a body of literature that also included a number of creative and forward-looking elements. In their eccentricity and complexity, Maistre’s works nicely illuminate this point. He understood that revolutions contain the seeds of their own destruction and provided us with a better understanding of the limits of social and political change or, to use Michael Oakeshott’s words, of the limits of rationalism in politics. Maistre’s dark vision makes the optimism of Condorcet or Marx look shallow and unconvincing.

Furthermore, Bradley’s book offers a number of good reasons why postmodernists should read Maistre’s writings, and Bradley comments at length on Maistre’s significance for the anthropological/ethnographic turn in the humanities and the social sciences.7 Maistre wrote about the basis of political authority, the role of violence and the sacred, the role of sacrifice in society, and the role of social imagination, topics that loom large in the works of postmodernist writers such as Foucault (on the social function of punishment), Derrida (on violence), Girard (on the scapegoat mechanisms), and Castoriadis (on the social imagination). Equally important is Maistre’s thesis that the moorings of order are found in the spheres of language, the imaginary, and the symbolic, a favorite theme for many postmodernists. Furthermore, in spite of their very different Weltanschauungen, there may be certain surprising affinities between postmodernist critiques of modernity and conservative critiques of the theological, philosophical, and anthropological underpinnings of the Enlightenment world picture. Much like postmodernism, conservatism is predicated on the recognition of human finitude, imperfection, and limits; like postmodernists, conservative thinkers point to man’s capacity for excess, chaos, and violence that is restrained only by an ensemble of social norms and customs. Finally, early versions of conservative thought offered valuable criticisms of the then emergent liberal capitalist social order; they insisted on the limitations of any form of social constructivism and stressed the important role played by customs, mores, habits, religion, and informal traditions that cannot be reformed overnight.

Maistre’s account of the ways in which time, possession, and custom legitimize a founding episode based on violence should appeal to all students of liberalism and democratic theory interested in theories of political obligation and social contract. Maistre argues that violence and usurpation lie at the root of our political institutions and invites us to reconsider the irrational forces and impulses that are deeply rooted in human nature. He speaks persuasively about mankind’s capacity for self-destruction and barbarism, the need for myths, and stresses the role that institutions, rituals, beliefs, and myths can play in regulating social behavior. By revealing the contradictions within the discourse of Enlightenment, theorists such as Maistre help us to understand how the proclamation of universal rights can in practice be compatible with tyranny and injustice.

Finally, a few words must be said about Maistre’s influence on the founding fathers of modern sociology. They borrowed concepts such as social order, cohesion, status, norm, symbol, and ritual, along with the idea of the fundamental value of the sacred, from the vocabulary of conservative thought. The conservative thinkers drew parallels between the social and the political order and stressed the influence of the social upon the political. Again and again, they pointed out that society, based upon the existence of corporate groups, collective rights, and duties, is more than a mere aggregate of persons, and that morality is not something that can be reduced to individual choice. By stressing the dangers introduced by an overrationalization of social and political life, they provided a trenchant critique of modern liberal individualism and the emergent capitalist society. They warned that an extreme form of individualism would eventually lead to the destruction of society, a theme that concerns us today when political scientists and journalists bemoan the erosion of social capital and the loss of older forms of communal life. Last but not least, the traditionalist thinkers pointed out the extreme abstractness of human relationships in the new liberal/capitalist world and thus anticipated a theme that is found in Marx’s (and Marxist) writings.

Still, it must be said that conservative thinkers such as Maistre prove to be of little help when it comes to explaining social and political change. As defensive discourses sometimes leaning in the direction of political quietism, conservative tracts tend to idolize tradition, which, by being raised to an absolute status, might itself become a mere abstraction. The insistence on how things were often lapses into idealism while an extreme skepticism toward innovation shrinks political imagination. As Bradley demonstrates in his book, Maistre did not have correct answers to all the issues of his day, nor did he possess the balanced vision of Tocqueville. Some of his insights were, however, utterly original, and the merit of this elegant and erudite book is to show that Maistre’s teachings are refreshingly modern. Thanks to Owen Bradley we are now in a better position to appreciate the originality of the political and social thought of Joseph de Maistre, this unforgettable “explorateur de l’impensable et poète l’indicible.”8

Aurelian Craiutu is a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His doctoral thesis on the political ideas of the French Doctrinaires won the American Political Science Association’s 2000 Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in the field of political philosophy.

  1. For more detail see Richard Lebrun’s Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant (Kingston and Montreal, 1988) and the selection from Maistre’s works translated and edited (with a substantial introduction) by Jack Lively, The Works of Joseph de Maistre (New York, 1965). ↩︎
  2. New York, 1991, 105-106. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 127, 134. ↩︎
  4. E. M. Cioran, Euvres (Paris, 1995), 1520. Cioran’s essay “Joseph de Maistre. Essai sur la pensée réactionnaire” was originally published in 1977 by the Parisian press Fata Morgana; the essay was republished in Cioran’s Exercices d’admiration (Paris, 1986).  ↩︎
  5. On this topic see Michael S. Kochin,“How Joseph de Maistre Read Plato’s Laws,” paper presented at the APSA Annual Meeting, Atlanta, September 1999. ↩︎
  6. On this topic see Stéphane Rials, Révolution et Contrerévolution au XIXéme siécle (Paris, 1987) and Philippe Burrin, “Le Fascisme: la révolution sans révolutionnaires,” Le Débat, nr. 38 (janvier-mars, 1986), 164-176. ↩︎
  7. I fear, though, that Maistre might become, after Carl Schmitt, the next favorite topic of postmodernists in search of targets for their witty deconstructions. ↩︎
  8. I borrow this phrase from Stéphane Rials, “Lecture de Joseph de Maistre,” Mémoire, Vol. I (1984), 48. ↩︎