Thursday, June 7, 2012

BOOK NOTE: The Works of Joseph de Maistre

I'll take Joe the Plumber over Joseph de Maistre any day.  Mon Dieu.

American conservatism, on its good days, is about preserving markets, individual liberty, the Constitution, and such traditions as shore up those things.  European conservatives, especially since the collapse of Communism, sometimes hit similar notes, but there is a creepier current in the European right, more concerned with venerating state-supported traditions – and even state-supported churches – and defending monarchy, aristocracy, or the homeland’s ethnic composition, squelching individualism in the process with an almost sadistic gusto. 

These aren’t so much attitudes the American right rejects (or defends less ardently) as things that most Americans, even before the Revolution, have simply forgotten were considered paramount back in the Old World.  We came here to forget these things, and it worked!  That, and the relative weakness of the hardcore left in the U.S., leaves us free to have arguments that, however fierce they may appear from the inside, look mostly like narrow liberal-vs.-libertarian fights from a broader European perspective.

Joseph de Maistre, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, is the founding Continental-conservative “throne and altar” defender in much the same way that Edmund Burke is the founding Anglo/American conservative defender of traditionalism and governmental humility.  Maistre is much more frightening (I’m indebted for my copy of The Works of Joseph de Maistre, which sat in the New York offices of National Review for a time, to one Helen Rittelmeyer, who gave away many old books before going back to North Carolina to regroup, stabilize, strategize, and no doubt emerge a better and even more clever individual).

Maistre has his own brand of humility, of course, and like Burke recognizes that the Revolution was an outburst of dangerous arrogance, attempting to remake society from scratch without realizing how delicate and complicated a piecemeal process had created it over the course of centuries.  He even sounds at times far more relativistic – quicker to concede that local customs may suit local conditions in a way that cannot be transplanted to other regimes – than, say, the fellow libertarians I saw gathered last night to honor the Atlas Foundation and its efforts to spread ideas like individual rights in sometimes-hostile places like China (though an Atlas spokesman rightly noted they ask the locals what their needs are rather than telling them how best to promote liberty, and I hope their collaboration spreads). 

But if Maistre sounds humble at times, it is not at all because he respects your right to do as you please.  On the contrary, his writings are a protracted paean to complete obedience – to both church and state, as he repeatedly makes explicit – and the crushing of all thought of rebellion or second-guessing of the monarch.  His central thesis, really, is that submission must be total or else there can be no authority at all.

I, of course, want a world with neither thrones nor altars. 

Libertarian as it can be at times, American conservatism has undeniably been infected to some small degree by thinking like Maistre’s, and it often seems to appeal to Maistre’s fellow Catholics.  The recently-deceased philosopher Thomas Molnar from Brooklyn College, for instance, was an admirer of the horrific, very overtly pro-Vichy thinker Charles Maurras, a promoter of Catholic nationalism and denouncer of Jews.  Whether or not Maurras’ imprisonment after WWII was appropriate, he was a monster.  Be very suspicious any time you hear a conservative praising Molnar. 

(But then, perhaps you should be suspicious of me attending traditionalist discussion groups, lo these two decades ago, at which Jim Kalb would display a copy of a de Maistre book to let newcomers know which part of the bar to sit in.)

One of the tragic things about politics is that rather than declaring proposals wholly good or wholly evil, one should always be mature and pragmatic enough to weigh likely alternatives and ask of any proposal: “Compared to what?”  But the downside of this necessary approach is that almost any terrible faction can be made to look good by comparison to at least some of its enemies.  This is how the two major political parties in the U.S. continue to get away with what they do.  It’s also why Maistre can rant like a tyrant and still seem preferable to the mass-murder and fanaticism of the Revolution he detested.

Furthermore, it’s largely through comparisons to Communism (with its mind-boggling death toll of about 100 million) that the Catholic Church manages still to have a reputation in some circles as a bulwark of freedom and markets.  Yet this passage from a Drudge-linked Reuters article from June 3 about the current Pope is a good reminder that he’s no real use to American-style, free-market conservatives:

The pope made no mention of the leaks scandal but spoke of the damage to family life that modern society can inflict.

“The one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a more just society,” he said.

“[This] brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions,” he said.

You don’t have to be ex-Hitler Youth to voice such sentiments, but being a typical Continental statist helps.  (Maybe we can discuss that at our Catholic-friendly June 21 iteration of the Dionysium at Muchmore’s Bar, though, when I talk to Catholic author Dawn Eden onstage – join us.)

Maistre himself had a way with words, and even when he’s completely wrong (as he was in belittling the prospects for the fledgling United States), you have to enjoy his gusto and admit he was still saner than some of his Revolutionary, Enlightenment-era contemporaries (whose tone he echoes more often than you might expect, as when he writes “The best government for each nation is that which, in the territory occupied by that nation, is capable of producing the greatest amount of happiness and strength, for the greatest possible number of men, during the longest possible time”): 

Now the true fruits of human nature – the arts, sciences, great enterprises, noble ideas, manly virtues – spring above all from the state of war...

[Almost reveling in the disastrous consequences of the French Revolution, feeling that Divinity itself may be using the mass murders as warnings against attempting other such revolts against the natural order:] But when a thinker justifies such means by the end in view; when he says in his heart, A hundred thousand murders are as nothing, provided we are free; then, if Providence replies, I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims, where is the injustice?... 

The horrible effusion of human blood caused by this great upheaval is a terrible means, yet it is a means as much as a punishment, and can give rise to some interesting reflections...

[T]here cannot exist a great free nation under a republican form of government...

America is often cited to us: I know nothing so provoking as the praise showered on this babe-in-arms.  Let it grow...  [That’s two-centuries-ago French for “Yeah, good luck with that.”]

There is nothing moral or worthy of respect in these festivals [religious and traditional ones] in themselves, but it makes no difference, for they derive, however tenuously, from religious ideas, and this is enough to perpetuate them.  Three centuries cannot bury their memory.  But just let the masters of the world – princes, kings, emperors, powerful majesties, invincible conquerors – let them only try to make the people dance on a certain day each year in a set place... 

Not only do I doubt the stability of American government, but the particular institutions of English America inspire no confidence in me...

Faith and patriotism are the two great thaumaturges of the world.  Both are divine.  All their actions are miracles.  Do not talk to them of scrutiny, choice, discussion, for they will say that you blasphemeThey know only two words, submission and belief...

One will find in the first place that every sovereign is despotic and that, with regard to them, only two courses can be taken, obedience or insurrection...It can be said in general that all men are born for monarchy... 

Curiously, though beneficially, Maistre follows that passage with an unusual, almost American-sounding enumeration of rules a monarch should follow, most bolstering his power but a few limiting his ability to punish or banish arbitrarily, and one forbidding the king to be a judge in civil cases.  He sounds more like himself when condemning Tom Paine, the Protestant spirit of rebellion, and the eighteenth century’s “grave error” of believing that constitutions can be whipped up a priori rather than growing organically from the will of the people.  He’s about one quarter correct, of course. 

For sheer villainous portent, perhaps my favorite, noted by Robert Nisbet in his introduction to this edition, is this passage that climaxes a Maistre warning about the folly of trying to create a peaceful and harmonious world:

The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar, on which every living thing must be sacrificed, without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.

Jesus Christ!  He sounds like the deathgod Thanos, the Marvel supervillain.  (Perhaps they would both enjoy that helicopter built from the taxidermied body of a cat named Orville that’s been getting press attention.  By contrast, though, I have to admit the French are showing nice, animal-friendly ads for a comic book called Beasts of Burden written by a funny American I’ve met, Milk and Cheese creator Evan Dorkin.) 

Combining psychological and nerdy themes for a moment, I’m not a big anime fan, really, but one of my young anarcho-capitalist pals, Colin Porter, pointed out this neat, very self-contained seven-minute autobiographical flashback by a prosecutor character in Death Note – about various wielders of a demonic book that can kill anyone whose name you write in it.  It may be the coolest depiction of a basically-good but increasingly-fanatical character I’ve seen since Rorschach, and it is perhaps as good a reminder as any that fanaticism has its own internal logic that can lead to the same grotesque results whether it springs from left or right, licentiousness or prudery, subversion or authoritarianism. 

There is something, obviously, to be said for moderation, in any century, flagrant injustices notwithstanding.  And Maistre is a reminder of the extent to which the right and left have been each other’s tragic enablers.

But tomorrow, speaking of turning whole planets into blood-soaked rituals: Prometheus!


James Kalb said...

Sade is the libertarian to compare Maistre with. Maistre liked the Church and Sade liked freedom, but they had a lot in common. They were (culturally) French aristocrats, so they were clear-headed and cold-blooded, and they were willing to follow the line of thought that appealed to them wherever it went and didn't care what other people thought.

They were also men of the Enlightenment (Maistre was a Mason) who realized that all the stuff about reason and utility left out the actual human condition. So they broke with the Enlightenment in some ways. In particular, they noticed that people aren't satisfied with the patient accumulation of small material advantages, they want something grander. And they saw the human need--almost a logical necessity--for something that transcends the quotidian and puts it in its place, so that people can know who, what, and where they are.

For premodern man that transcendent was of course God. Unfortunately, men of the Enlightenment can only go with what can be demonstrated through science etc., and that doesn't include anything transcendent. The natural response is to turn to strong medicine that overwhelms other sensations and concerns--sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, whatever. The strongest medicine, of course, is extreme violence. That provides a point of reference absolute enough for a lucid and unsentimental French aristocrat to recognize as something capable without pretense of organizing human experience in a suitably authoritative way. Hence Sade's endless scenes of torture, and hence Maistre's ode to the executioner.

That's OK for Sade, he's into ultraviolence and freedom, so freedom to be ultraviolent is good enough for him. For Maistre though it raises the question of what it has to do with Catholicism.

My answer is that the torture etc. has to do with Maistre's views as a political scientist. He noted that man from the standpoint of empirical science can't do without violence. Nothing seems weighty enough otherwise. That's why heads of state admire each others' soldiers when they go on visits.

That's not satisfactory, but what do you do about it? Maistre's answer is that to establish order you need a state that is based on violence--they all are, that's unavoidable--but to limit state violence and organize it toward something other than still greater violence, and to bring the inevitable violence of the world into an order that reconciles us to the world, you need to put something at the apex of the system that can deal with violence but transcends it. He notes that Christ (the crucified victim who is also the divine cause of the universe) fits the bill. Hence the throne and altar thing.

A response might be that America proves that the peaceable secular libertarian commercial republic works, so all this drama about man's bloodthirstiness and the need for a principle of sanctified authority to tame it is just another case of a (cultural) Frenchman striking a pose in some salon.

I'm doubtful. American government wasn't all that secular until the '60s, and the change didn't make us more libertarian. We've still got the executioner and lots of jails, the national anthem is still about bombs bursting in air, and we're becoming progressively more militarized and imperial. Also, Europeans from Tocqueville on have noted that the price of our freedom and comfort is conformity. So far as I can tell, post-60s liberation has made us more conformist and less capable of thinking about anything than ever. (The Europeans have joined us in that regard and in some ways even seem to be outdoing us. They don't want to think anything through.)

All this of course is not to say that everything Maistre says is sensible. His comment on faith for example sounds fideist, which is actually a Catholic heresy. But if someone identifies issues and shows their relationships we can say "on the other hand" for ourselves.

Todd Seavey said...

Could we try football?

James Kalb said...

What good are war metaphors without actual wars to refer to? And can you buy people off forever?

Todd Seavey said...

What I mean is, if we're talking about sublimating an impulse people have, presumably we want the least-literal possible thing that will still sublimate that horrible impulse, right? So must we have actual wars? Might not a love of other forms of combat foot the bill, whether it's football, grand space opera like _Prometheus_ (about which I'll blog in a moment), Ultimate Fighting championships, or intense political debates like my Dionysium events (next up: Catholic author Dawn Eden, 8pm June 21 at Muchmore's Bar, 2 Havemeyer St. -- not that this one'll really be a debate, more of an interview by me)?

I mean, you don't _want_ the actual warfare and bloodsoaking of the world, right? Right? (In which case, we _all_ -- from secular Todd to Maistre himself to the combative woman who gave me the Maistra -- have a common interest in finding the _least awful_ substitute...and surely humanity could expend _most_ its energy in other, more productive ways, such as art and friendship and exploration and construction, etc.)

Todd Seavey said...

And the "how long" in your question seems to imply that there's a _cumulative_ unspent war-fury stretching across generations, but that seems hard to believe. On the contrary, people seem to get less violent (certainly within societies, unless the crime stats are totally wrong) the more they get habituated to commerce and peace, etc. There's no evidence that if they're peaceful for too long they must "bounce" back toward psycho-genocidal apocalypticism or anything.

At least, it would be strange to simply assume the existence of such a complex and horrible mechanism, though it'd make a neat horror or sci-fi story.

James Kalb said...

I understood your point. And neither I nor Maistre wants violence. (The same is not true of the nonjudgmental liberty-minded Sade. I don't know about other possibly less serious people.)

The point is that actual violence has a trump card: it's undeniably real and has to be taken seriously. People are drawn to that. We all belong to the reality-based community, so we want to tie into whatever is most real, and violence is plenty real. That's why it's the ultima ratio and final persuader. It resolves problems, if only by getting rid of the people who think there's a problem or whose absence would get rid of the problem.

So it's a constant presence in human life, at least in concept, and a constant temptation. The issue is how to deal with that situation. The usual answer today is various distractions, diversions, bribes, etc. combined with education and cultural changes that make people less able to function effectively apart from institutions like business corporations or government bureaucracies that can be supervised and controlled in a reasonably straightforward way.

The result in the first half of the 20th c. was less low-level informal violence but more gigantic official violence. People would be law-abiding in daily life but would do horrendous things when ordered to do so. Or they'd stand in line patiently waiting to be murdered.

Today it seems more a mixture. After mid-century violent lowlifes became more of a problem, while middle and upper class people became terminally mild-mannered. More recently international violence has become more diffuse, widespread, and unpredictable although the scale's smaller than it used to be.

So violence is still with us and it's not going away. The objection to your approach, at least as a sole approach, is that it tries to handle a basic problem with non-basic means. Instead of murdering each other we'll play World of Warcraft and participate in political discussion groups. One problem with the approach is that people don't always substitute. Breivik played video games, engaged in political discussions, AND murdered people.

Another problem is that the ultima ratio always turns out to be a bribe, and you can't keep bribing people forever. Eventually you run out of bribes to give, as in Europe today. When that happens things get very nasty unless there's some other strong influence in the picture.

So Maistre's point is that in addition to non-basic palliatives like football and guaranteed consumer goodies you need a basic solution--an ens realissimum (most real being, a.k.a. God) that's even more real than violence is. That has to be part of the way people think about things, and it has to be part of public reality. That's where his alliance of throne and altar comes in. Without that alliance or something like it (e.g., the informally established Protestantism we still had in living memory in America) you just have bribes and diversions to fall back on, and those give out eventually and under moderate pressure.

Todd Seavey said...

Well, constantly reminding people they can be shot if they attack their neighbors' property seems like a pretty pervasive yet wholesome threat of violence, if one insists on having one. I'm just not convinced this is all such an inexorable algebraic equation that it needs to be solved in the ways Maistre would find compelling -- sort of along the lines of bogus iron laws of history such as "When the economy worsens, China must invade Vietnam." Well, you know, sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Libertarians often suffer from the misconception that freedom and a healthy civil society produce peace. This is not true. These produce material and social improvements, which benefit almost all members of society, but in a manner which is necessarily stratified by ability. At some level it becomes more beneficial to buck the system and take by force rather than accept the civilized reality that one cannot compete successfully in a free market. From a purely rational, secular viewpoint, the greater the increase in liberty and the corresponding increase in material wealth, the greater the benefit of simply taking that wealth by force.

The only known solution is the imposition of rules. These rules must be adhered to largely voluntarily, as otherwise violent force becomes increasingly necessary to impose order. Rules which are voluntarily adhered to because the adherents individually believe that collective adherence produces a more stable, just, peaceful society are called a religion. Note that supreme beings need not be involved.

The American founders, like Adam Smith and Aristotle, understood that a society which promotes and protects individual freedom is only viable if those individuals voluntarily subscribe to a shared set of moral principles which inform their everyday action - a religion.

de Maistre was the French equivalent of Burke and comparable in every way; his political philosophy is entirely Burkean (which is the same as the American founders.) de Maistre, Burke, and Madison et. al. understood that the foundation of a free society rests on 1) religion, 2) order, 3) individual freedom. European French society had no foundation of individual freedom. Thus, the French Revolution, unlike the American, overthrew the existing aristocratic regime and replaced it not with a Republic, but with a new socialist dictatorship. (Like all socialist dictatorship it was called a "republic of the people".) Thus de Maistre rejected the Revolution and Tom Paine's part in it. (Paine also eventually saw the error of his ways.) De Maistre understood that individual freedom is inseparable from religion and order.

I question the assertion that de Maistre was "wrong" in his predictions about the United States. The #1 requirement for all human liberty is stability: a carefully balanced stability which is just flexible enough that it can adjust without breaking but remain flexible enough to preserve the common traditions and mores which are the foundation of civilized society. The French monarchy from the Merovingians to the Bourbons lasted well over a millenia; the United States has barely lasted (in name) for as long as just the Bourbon dynasty and, unlike the France of 1700, the political structure of the United States is today unrecognizable in comparison with that of merely 150 years ago.

I also see no indication that de Maistre was incorrect in claiming that humans naturally crave monarchy. The history of the American Presidency has been one of increasingly monarchical reconstruction: an election is merely a messy and costly means of succession. Yet the French monarchy preserved titles to private property going back centuries (in fact, some French churches predated "France" yet the church's property right was preserved for over a millenium); a modern American homeowner's title can be invalidated or made valueless overnight. The French monarchy afforded some citizens more rights than others, but for the most part the monarchs adhered to and protected those rights to the limit of their material power - because they subscribed to a religion which caused them to believe they were morally compelled to do so. In the secular modern U.S. of A., nobody has any rights, and a President Obama can nonchalantly deprive citizens of far more individual liberty than any French monarch would ever have dreamed.