Joseph de Maistre

Joseph de Maistre
Joseph-Marie de Maistre

Portrait of de Maistre by von Vogelstein, c. 1810
Full name Joseph-Marie de Maistre
Born 1 April 1753(1753-04-01)
Chambéry, Kingdom of Sardinia, Duchy of Savoy
Died 26 February 1821(1821-02-26) (aged 67)
Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Conservatism, counter-Enlightenment, ultramontanism, royalism, mysticism
Notable ideas Providentialism, sacrifice, precursor of sociology

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (French pronunciation: [də mɛstʁ][1] 1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821) was a French-speaking Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer, and diplomat. He defended hierarchical societies and a monarchical State in the period immediately following the French Revolution. Despite his close ties with France, Maistre was a subject of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, whom he served as member of the Savoy Senate (1787–1792), ambassador to Russia (1803–1817), and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).[2]

Maistre, a key figure of the Counter-Enlightenment, saw monarchy as a divinely sanctioned institution. He not only called for the restoration of the House of Bourbon to the throne of France, he argued that the Pope should have ultimate temporal authority. He claimed that it was the rationalist rejection of Christianity which was directly responsible for the the disorder and bloodshed which followed the French Revolution of 1789. As well as defending Christian monarchies and the Papacy, he also asserted that history is directed by Divine Providence.



Maistre was born in 1753 at Chambéry, in the Duchy of Savoy, which at that time was part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy.[3] His family was of French origin. His grandfather André Maistre, who came from Provence, had been a draper and councilman in Nice (then under the rule of the House of Savoy), and his father François-Xavier, who moved to Chambéry in 1740, became a magistrate and senator, eventually receiving the title of count from the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. His mother's family, whose surname was Desmotz, were from Rumilly.[4] Joseph's younger brother, Xavier, who became an army officer, was a popular writer of fiction.[5][6]

Lithograph of Maistre, from a painting by Pierre Bouillon. He is shown wearing the insignia of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.

Joseph was probably educated by the Jesuits.[5] After the Revolution, he became an ardent defender of their Order, increasingly associating the spirit of the Revolution with the Jesuits' traditional enemies, the Jansenists. After completing his training in the law at the University of Turin in 1774, he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a Senator in 1787.

A member of the progressive Scottish Rite Masonic lodge at Chambéry from 1774 to 1790, Maistre originally favoured political reform in France, supporting the efforts of the magistrates in the Parlements to force King Louis XVI to call a States-General. As a landowner in France, Maistre was eligible to join that body, and there is some evidence that he contemplated that possibility.[7] He was alarmed however by the decision of the States-General to combine clergy, aristocracy, and commoners into a single legislative body, which became the National Constituent Assembly, and after the passing of the August Decrees on 4 August 1789 he decisively rejected those who were seeking radical political reform in France.

Maistre fled Chambéry when it was taken by a French revolutionary army in 1792, but unable to find a position in the royal court in Turin, he returned the following year. Deciding that he could not support the French-controlled regime, he departed for Lausanne, in Switzerland. He discussed politics and theology at the salon of Madame de Staël, and began his career as a counter-revolutionary writer, with works such as Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien ("Letters from a Savoyard Royalist", 1793), Discours à Mme. la marquise Costa de Beauregard, sur la vie et la mort de son fils ("Discourse to the Marchioness Costa de Beauregard, on the Life and Death of her Son", 1794) and Cinq paradoxes à la Marquise de Nav... ("Five Paradoxes for the Marchioness of Nav...", 1795).[3]

From Lausanne, Maistre emigrated to Venice, and then Cagliari, which is where the King of Piedmont-Sardinia was exiled after French armies took control of Turin in 1798. Maistre's relations with the court at Cagliari were not always easy[3] and in 1803 he was sent to Saint Petersburg in Russia, as ambassador to Tsar Alexander I. His diplomatic responsibilities were few, and he became a well-loved fixture in aristocratic circles, converting some of his friends to Roman Catholicism, and writing his most influential works on political philosophy.

Maistre's observations on Russian life, contained in his diplomatic memoirs and in his personal correspondence, was one of Tolstoy's sources for his novel War and Peace.[3] After the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the House of Savoy's dominion over Piedmont (under the terms of the Congress of Vienna), Maistre returned in 1817 to Turin, and served there as magistrate and minister of state until his death. He died on 26 February 1821 is buried in the Jesuit Church of the Holy Martyrs (Chiesa dei Santi Martiri).

Political and moral philosophy

In Considérations sur la France ("Considerations on France," 1796), Maistre claimed that France has a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and of evil on Earth. He perceived the Revolution of 1789 to be a Providential event: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Ancien Régime, instead of using the influence of French civilization to benefit mankind, had promoted the atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers. The crimes of the Reign of Terror were the logical consequence of Enlightenment thought, and therefore its divinely-decreed punishment.

In his short book Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines ("Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions," 1809), Maistre argued that constitutions are not the product of human reason, but come from God, who slowly brings them to maturity. After the appearance in 1816 of his French translation of Plutarch's treatise On the Delay of Divine Justice in the Punishment of the Guilty, in 1819 Maistre published Du Pape ("On the Pope"), the most complete exposition of his authoritarian conception of politics.

Maistre argued that any attempt to justify government on rational grounds will lead to unresolvable arguments about the legitimacy of any existing government. This, in turn, leads to violence and chaos. Defending the divine right of kings Maistre declared that the legitimacy of government is based on non-rational grounds, which must not be questioned. Maistre claimed that ultimate authority in politics derives from religion, and in Europe this is supplied by the Pope. His analysis of the legitimacy of political authority foreshadows some of the views of sociologists such as Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte.[7] Armenteros claims that his writings influenced Utopian Socialists as well as conservative political thinkers.[8]

In addition to his voluminous correspondence, Maistre left two posthumous works. Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, ("An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon," 1836), is a critique of Francis Bacon, whom Maistre considers to be the fountainhead of the Enlightenment. Soirées de St. Pétersbourg ("The Saint Petersburg Dialogues", 1821) is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which he argues that evil exists because of a divine plan. He claims that the blood sacrifice of innocents returns men back to God, via the expiation of the sins of the guilty. According to Maistre this is a law of human history, as indubitable as it is mysterious.

Repute and influence

Maistre, together with the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, is viewed as one of the fathers of European conservatism. Since the 19th century however, his authoritarian conception of conservatism has declined in influence in comparision with the more liberal conservatism of Burke. His skills as a writer however ensure that he continues to be read. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 describes his writing style as "strong, lively, picturesque," and his "animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone. He possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power."[5] Alphonse de Lamartine, though a political opponent, admired the splendour of his prose:

That brief, nervous, lucid style, stripped of phrases, robust of limb, did not at all recall the softness of the eighteenth century, nor the declamations of the latest French books: it was born and steeped in the breath of the Alps; it was virgin, it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once… That man was new among the enfants du siècle [children of the century].
—Alphonse de Lamartine, Souvenirs et portraits[9]
Portrait by Swiss painter Félix Vallotton, from La Revue blanche, 1er semestre, 1895.

Émile Faguet described Maistre as "a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of pope, king and hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner."[10]

Isaiah Berlin in his Freedom and Its Betrayal notes that many view his writings as "the last despairing effort of resist the march of progress."[11] but he claims that Maistre imposes "an official legitimist Catholic framework upon what is really a deeply violent, deeply revolutionary, ultimately Fascist inner passion" which rejects what it sees as the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment.[12] According to Berlin his fundamental doctrine is that nature is red in tooth and claw[13] and what really fascinates him is power.[14]

Amongst those who admired him was the poet Charles Baudelaire, who described himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary, claiming that he had taught him "how to think."[15] Maistre also influenced the 20th century monarchist Charles Maurras and the counter-revolutionary political movement Action Française.

See also


  1. ^ Maistre is traditionally pronounced [mɛstʁ] (sounding the S, rhymes with bourgmestre); that's how it is usually heard at university and in historical movies (e.g. in Sacha Guitry's 1948 film Le Diable boiteux). The pronunciation [mɛtʁ] (rhymes with maître) is sometimes heard, under the influence of the modernized pronunciation adopted by some descendants (such as Patrice de Maistre(fr)).
  2. ^ The issue of Maistre's national identity has long been contentious. In 1802, after the conquest of Savoy and Piedmont by the armies of the French First Republic, Maistre, who was exiled in Cagliari, wrote to the French ambassador in Naples, objecting to having been classified as a French émigré and thus subject to confiscation of his properties and punishment should he attempt to return to Savoy. According to the biographical notice written by his son Rodolphe and included in the Complete Works, on that occasion Maistre wrote that
    He had not been born French, and did not desire to become French, and that, never having set foot in the lands conquered by France, he could not have become French.
    Œuvres complètes de Joseph de Maistre, Lyon, 1884, vol. I, p. XVIII.
    Sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia identify Maistre as French, by culture if not by law. In 1860 Albert Blanc, professor of law at the University of Turin, in his preface to a collection of Maistre's diplomatic correspondence wrote that:
    ... this philosopher [Maistre] was a politician; this Catholic was an Italian; he foretold the destiny of the House of Savoy, he supported the end of the Austrian rule [of northern Italy], he has been, during this century, one of the first defenders of [Italian] independence.
    Correspondance diplomatique de Joseph de Maistre, Paris, 1860, vol. I, pp. III-IV.
  3. ^ a b c d Berlin, Isaiah (25–8 October 1965). "The Second Onslaught: Joseph de Maistre and Open Obscurantism" (PDF). Two Enemies of the Enlightenment. Wolfson College, Oxford. Retrieved 11 December 2008. 
  4. ^ Triomphe, Robert (1968). Joseph de Maistre. Genève: Droz. pp. 39–41.  Preview available here
  5. ^ a b c  "Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  6. ^  "Xavier de Maistre". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  7. ^ a b Lebrun, Richard. "A Brief Biography of Joseph de Maistre". University of Manitoba. Retrieved 1 June 2011. 
  8. ^ Carolina Armenteros, The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and his Heirs, 1794-1854 (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2011). ISBN 080144943X
  9. ^ de Lamartine, Alphonse (1874). "I". Souvenirs et portraits (3rd ed.). Paris. pp. 188–9. 
  10. ^ Émile Faguet, Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvieme siecle, 1st series, Paris 1899. Cited in: de Maistre, Joseph (1994). "Introduction". Considerations on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0521466288. 
  11. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.132.
  12. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.154
  13. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.137
  14. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.151
  15. ^ Lombard 1976, p. 123


  • Nobilis Ioseph Maistre Camberiensis ad i.u. lauream anno 1772. die 29. Aprilis hora 5. pomeridiana (Turin, 1772) – Joseph de Maistre's decree thesis, kept in the National Library of the University of Turin (link).
  • Éloge de Victor-Amédée III (Chambéry, 1775)
  • Lettres d'un royaliste savoisien à ses compatriotes (1793)
  • Étude sur la souveraineté (1794)
  • De l'État de nature, ou Examen d'un écrit de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1795)
  • Considérations sur la France (London [Basel], 1796)
  • Intorno allo stato del Piemonte rispetto alla carta moneta (Turn, Aosta, Venice, 1797–1799)
  • Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques (St Petersborg, 1809)
  • Du Pape (Lyon, 1819)
  • De l'Église gallicane, édit. Rodolphe de Maistre (Lyon, 1821)
  • Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg ou Entretiens sur le gouvernement temporel de la Providence, édit. Rodolphe de Maistre (Paris, 1821)
  • Lettres à un gentilhomme russe sur l'Inquisition espagnole, édit. Rodolphe de Maistre (Paris, 1822)
  • Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, édit. Rodolphe de Maistre (Paris, 1836)
  • Lettres et opuscules inédits du comte Joseph de Maistre, édit. Rodolphe de Maistre (Paris, 1853)
  • Mémoires politiques et correspondance diplomatique, édit. Albert Blanc (Paris, 1858)

Work in English translation

  • Memoir on the Union of Savoy and Switzerland (1795).
  • Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809, English translation 1847).
  • The Pope: Considered in His Relations with the Church, Temporal Sovereignties, Separated Churches and the Cause of Civilization (1817, English translation 1850).
  • Letters to a Russian Gentleman on the Spanish Inquisition (1822, English translation 1851)
  • Blum, Christopher Olaf (editor and translator), 2004. Critics of the Enlightenment. Wilmington, Delaware : ISI Books.
    • 1798, "Reflections on Protestantism in its Relations to Sovereignty". 133-56.
    • 1819, "On the Pope". 157-96.
  • Lively, Jack, 1965. The Works of Joseph de Maistre. Macmillan.


  • Armenteros, Carolina, The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and his Heirs, 1794-1854 (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2011).
  • Armenteros, Carolina and Richard Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre and his European Readers: From Friedrich von Gentz to Isaiah Berlin (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011).
  • Armenteros, Carolina and Richard Lebrun, Joseph de Maistre and the Legacy of Enlightenment, SVEC (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 2011).
  • Armenteros, Carolina and Richard Lebrun, The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer, in St Andrews Studies in French History and Culture 1 (2010).
  • Armenteros, Carolina, "From Human Nature to Normal Humanity: Joseph de Maistre, Rousseau, and the Origins of Moral Statistics," Journal of the History of Ideas, 68, 1 (2007): 107–30.
  • Armenteros, Carolina, "Parabolas and the Fate of Nations: Early Conservative Historicism in Joseph de Maistre's De la souveraineté du peuple," History of Political Thought, 28, 2 (2007): 230–52.
  • Barthelet, Philippe, Joseph de Maistre: Les Dossiers H (Geneva: L'Age d'homme, 2005).
  • Bradley, Owen, A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre| (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
  • Camcastle, Cara, The more moderate side of Joseph de Maistre, Ottawa, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
  • Croce, Benedetto, Il duca di Serra-Capriola e Giuseppe de Maistre (in Archivio storico per le province napoletane, XLVII, pp. 313–335), 1922.
  • Buchanan, Patrick (2007). State of Emergency. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312374364. 
  • Ghervas, Stella (2008). Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l'Europe de la Sainte-Alliance. Paris: Honoré Champion. ISBN 2745316699. 
  • Glaudes, Pierre, Joseph de Maistre et les figures de l'histoire: trois essais sur un précurseur du romantisme français, in Cahiers romantiques (1997).
  • Lebrun, Richard A. (1988). Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773506454. 
  • Lombard, Charles (1976). Joseph de Maistre. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0805762477. 
  • Fisichella, Domenico, Giusnaturalismo e teoria della sovranità in Joseph de Maistre. Messina-Firenze, 1963. (now in Id. Politica e mutamento sociale. Costantino Marco Editore, Lungro di Cosenza, 2002, pp. 191–243. ISBN 88-85350-97-6.)
  • Fisichella, Domenico, Il pensiero politico di Joseph de Maistre. Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1993. ISBN 88-420-4157-2.
  • Fisichella, Domenico, Joseph de Maistre, pensatore europeo. Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2005. ISBN 88-420-7598-1.
  • Gianturco, Elio, Joseph de Maistre and Giambattista Vico (Italian roots of the Maistre's political culture), New York, Columbia University, 1937.
  • Gianturco, Elio, Juridical culture and politico-historical judgement in Joseph de Maistre (in Roman revue n. 27), 1936.
  • Lebrun, Richard, Joseph de Maistre's life, thought and influence: selected studies, Ottawa, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.
  • Legittimo, Gianfranco, Sociologi cattolici italiani: De Maistre, Taparelli, Toniolo, Il Quadrato, Roma, 1963.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). "Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 
  • Mandoul, Jean, Un homme d'État italien: Joseph de Maistre et la politique de la Maison de Savoie, Alcan, Paris, 1900.
  • Monteton, Charles Philippe Dijon de, Die Entzauberung des Gesellschaftsvertrags. Ein Vergleich der Anti-Sozial-Kontrakts-Theorien von Carl Ludwig von Haller und Joseph Graf de Maistre im Kontext der politischen Ideengeschichte, Frankfurt am Main et al., 2007, 164 S., 2 Abb. ISBN 978-3-631-55538-5.
  • Pranchère, Jean-Yves, L'Autorité contre les Lumières: la philosophie de Joseph de Maistre (Geneva: Droz, 2005).
  • Pranchère, Jean-Yves, Qu'est-ce que la royauté? Joseph de Maistre (Paris: Vrin, 1992).
  • Vermale, François, Notes sur Joseph de Maistre inconnu (Chambéry: Perrin, M. Dardel successeur, 1921).

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