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Who Was Joseph de Maistre (And Why He Matters) Part II

“Maistre is a fascinating thinker not so much due to the quality of his arguments themselves but instead what they represent and anticipate.”


My earlier article on Joseph de Maistre concluded with the observation that he conflates a nation not with the actual people who comprise it, but rather with figures of authority who are responsible for upholding stability and tradition. A mutually constitutive relationship is established where political authority constitutes the identity of the people who, in turn, empower their leaders through obedience and reverence. For Maistre, this relationship lies at the basis of all political systems and cannot be explicated by reason. Indeed, it is a fundamentally irrational relationship predicated on the human reverence for authoritative order and a fear of violent reprisal or chaos if the dynamic breaks down under the pressures of criticism.

Like all reactionaries pining for an idealized past that never was, Maistre’s thinking was very much a product of the epoch he sought to overcome.

From a purely philosophical standpoint Maistre’s position is highly implausible. Claiming that the basis of political legitimacy is actually an irrational reverence for authority and a fear of violence is unlikely to convince anyone who believes that the first duty of the state is in some manner to look after the welfare of its people. Maistre had little interest in such conceits, readily condemning 4 million Frenchmen to violent death for the crime of executing Louis XVI. But Maistre is a fascinating thinker not so much due to the quality of his arguments themselves but instead what they represent and anticipate. Like all reactionaries pining for an idealized past that never was, Maistre’s thinking was very much a product of the epoch he sought to overcome.

The Destabilization of the World

All grandeur, all power, all subordination to authority rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple and society disappear”

Joseph de Maistre, the St. Petersburg Dialogues

A reactionary like Maistre is not driven by the more edifying sentiments characteristic of conservatism at its best. As Roger Scruton observes in his book How to Be a Conservative, the thoughtful conservative recognizes that the social order and traditions he cherishes will change and evolve as all things must. His duty is to be adaptable through changing what he must to conserve what he can. Such a conservative outlook is primarily based on social affection and love of a given people’s history and particularity. This is not the position of the reactionary. Instead, his outlook is predicated on a resentment and fear.

As Nietzsche observed in the Genealogy of Morals, resentment is fundamentally a parasitic emotion. A person conceives of himself or herself as a victim being oppressed by an external persecutor and comes to define their sense of identity through this relationship. Oftentimes, this takes the form of the resentful person regarding themselves a morally superior due to their persecution. Nietzsche’s salient observation was to deflate this conceit. The resentful person is someone who seeks to blame an oppressor for everything that goes wrong in his or her life, in political situations, and in the world in general. But the dilemma is they become so dependent on seeing themselves as a victim that, paradoxically, they cannot discover a way ever to stop conceiving of themselves along these lines. This is true even if the actual oppression which generated their resentment ceases. In effect, it becomes pathologized. The resentful person hates the figures they associate with their oppression but cannot truly conceive of themselves without them.  

The belief that we inhabit a decadent and vulgar world full of wicked men determined to destroy what little order has been accomplished is typical of most reactionaries. This also tends to lead reactionaries to be highly suspicious of new ideas and criticism.

This is very much the case with Maistre’s work. One finds very few discussions about why the Ancien régime was an aesthetically or morally admirable society worth preserving. Instead, one sees Maistre constantly fixated on the forces and figures who he blames for destabilizing society. His political outlook is not primarily focused on stipulating what one should seek to conserve—or even defending the merits of monarchial rule. It is an agonistic reaction towards figures and movements he despises for destabilizing the world around him through undermining the reverence most felt for authority. As he put it in the conclusion to The Generative Principle of Political Constitutions:

“Besides, the world still contains a countless horde of men so perverse, so profoundly corrupt, that if they should bring themselves to suspect the truth of certain things, their wickedness might redouble in consequence, making them, so to speak, as guilty as the rebel angels. Oh! May their brutishness become instead even greater, if possible, in order that they cannot become even as guilty as men can be. Surely blindness is a dreadful punishment.”

The belief that we inhabit a decadent and vulgar world full of wicked men determined to destroy what little order has been accomplished is typical of most reactionaries. This also tends to lead reactionaries to be highly suspicious of new ideas and criticism. Maistre regarded the educated philosophes of his time as responsible for undermining reverence for political authority. But there is a tension in his approach to their work characteristic of this resentful disposition. At the same time as he castigates them for idiocy, wickedness, and a host of other crimes, he remains fascinated by their intellects and accomplishments. For Maistre, such individuals will always appear and become a threat to the established order through their wit, education and sophistical intelligence. In other words, the reactionary will always see himself or herself as under threat. This resentful agonism operates in tandem with the other political emotion at the basis of Maistre’s outlook: fear.  

Maistre regards human existence as fundamentally characterized by violence. Without venerated authority figures providing the people with direction and a stable sense of identity, society will give way to chaos as individuals give into their prideful impulses. The only way to prevent this terrifying prospect is to back up reverence for authority with the fear of violent death and persecution. To some extent this role can be fulfilled by God, who threatens the prideful with the possibility of damnation for disobeying rightful sovereigns. But because human beings are wicked and can defy God’s will, a more immediate source of fear is also necessary: the executioner. The executioner is the figure who binds society together by ensuring the people’s fear of authority is sufficiently great that they will not give into the even more terrifying prospect of agitating for revolutionary change. He betrays the secret that if irrational reverence for authority breaks down, fear of a violent death will always be on hand to re-entrench authority.

Conclusion: Maistre and Post-Modern Conservatism

Maistre’s thinking anticipates many of the tropes characteristic of post-modern conservatism. He was among the first to draw a tight connection between irrational reverence for authority and the generation of a stable sense of identity and belonging. Moreover, Maistre makes clear that the reactionary impulse is always first and foremost an irrational one. This remains true to this day. Despite the pretenses of some post-modern conservatives to care only about “facts” rather than feelings, it is their resentment and fear, which actually underpin the entire political outlook. At its base, it is a frightened reaction towards the destabilization of identity and the erosion of traditional social hierarchies produced by the technological, social, and economic transformations of neoliberal society and the sense of anomie characteristic of post-modern culture. Rather than interrogating these complex processes and attempting to formulate systematic solutions, post-modern conservatives become defined by their resentment of the figures they see as responsible for destabilizing their identity and eroding the proper social hierarchy. They blame both marginalized figures like immigrants and refugees and intellectual and cultural elites for this sense of destabilization. This makes the figure of a singular leader who promises to provide that sense of stability through defeating or marginalizing the enemies of post-modern conservatism very attractive. Once in power, he or she promises to re-entrench the privileges and status post-modern conservatives feel have been taken from them by these enemies.

This is, of course, a misguided project. Much as Maistre’s reactionary allies could not turn back the clock to a pre-Revolutionary era, the sense of destabilization produced by neoliberal society and reflected in post-modern culture cannot be overcome through a resentment driven politics of fear. It is generated by a complex sequence of historical processes dating back centuries, which are continuously becoming more pervasive through the spread of new technologies and forms of organization. This, in part, explains the bravado characteristic of post-modern conservative leaders; it is ultimately what Hannah Arendt would call a kind of impotent bigness in the face of the immense historical forces. Nowhere is this better reflected than in its self-defeating agonistic outlook. Post-modern conservatism depends on continuously conceiving of ubiquitous antagonists—whether these be illegal immigrants, leftists, feminists, academics, the mainstream media—who must always exist to be combatted and overcome. Like Sisyphus condemned forever to roll his stone upwards only to see it fall back again, each perceived victory over their enemies can only convince the post-modern conservative of how widespread their antagonists are and how thoroughly they’ve corrupted the world around them. The only way out of this mire would be to cease being a post-modern conservative.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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