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Nobility in Exile

St. Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence, by Joseph de Maistre, edited and translated by Richard A. Lebrun


St. Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence

Joseph de Maistre
 (edited and translated by Richard A. Lebrun)
McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp.464, $39.95

Joseph de Maistre is alas remembered merely as a political philosopher. But he was one of the masters of French prose in the nineteenth century: as with Stendhal (who never read any Maistre, but hated him anyway) there is a charm to his sentences: everything he wrote is instantly attractive. Purely through sentence rhythm and diction, Maistre creates the illusion of an agreeable talker who is by turns grandly solemn, forcefully witty, or gently sad, but always shrewd, observant, and inventive.

Maistre’s literary masterpiece, The St. Petersburg Dialogues, first published in 1821, is one of the major imaginative works of its age, along with Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Byron’s Don Juan, Manzoni’s romance The Betrothed, and Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black. It is a series of philosophical dialogues of unparalleled richness and vividity, far more engrossing than most fiction. How unfortunate for its author that he is classed as a political philosopher, when his work is simply not dismal enough for this category.

A thorough training in Latin at least, if not Greek and Hebrew as well, is essential for approaching the Christian tradition on its own terms. Yet the study of these languages—present on the Holy Cross—is difficult to justify in a culture which is no longer Christian. And so it is no surprise that, after the First World War, when the long, slow collapse of Christianity in the West had begun in earnest, the University of Oxford decided to drop classical Greek as an entry requirement. In place of a traditional classical education they created a degree course in “Modern Greats,” or “P.P.E.”: Politics, Philosophy and Economics. P.P.E. would become standard training, if not for leaders, then for bureaucrats, middle managers, and those administrative staff who often seem impossible to fire.

The particular brand of conservatism that P.P.E. birthed has had an unfortunate reputation since the 1960s, when it decisively overtook more traditional visions of “Toryism” as the dominant political culture in England. P.P.E. Conservatism has no basis in Christian principles or classical culture, which it was meant to replace; its main fruit appears to be tax cuts. The P.P.E.-ist is in general completely unequipped to understand, or even to read, any philosophical text written before the eighteenth century, even if it has been translated into English and frequently appears on undergraduate syllabuses. But the P.P.E.-ist has no time for distractions from important business. Joseph de Maistre has nothing to do with tax cuts; so they ignore him.

For all this we can blame Sir Isaiah Berlin, that esteemed founder of P.P.E. Conservatism, who, unlike his scions, did claim to have read Maistre. Berlin has long been the hero of every lonely, chubby schoolboy who longs to sit in a leather armchair with his eyebrows arched and his fingertips steepled, making serious faces whilst correcting other people’s misunderstandings of Kant.

Berlin was unusually cultured for a P.P.E. man: not only did he translate Russian fiction, he could also read Latin and Greek. But this was a pardonable eccentricity in a figure so important that his writings on liberty remain widely taught in undergraduate political science classes, and not merely because his main ideas are so easily reduced to a single page of text, to be memorized as a series of mantras. Berlin is also renowned for his literary qualities, which may be seen at great length in the many copies of his works that are cheaply available from second-hand booksellers, usually in excellent condition.

Berlin was strangely intimidated by Maistre, for reasons that do not make sense; all the same, he has frightened many readers away from the St. Petersburg Dialogues; even worse, he has attracted the worst sort of curiosity to Maistre, from those seeking the satisfaction of low appetites. They are invariably disappointed to find that Maistre was not a cackling, bloodthirsty tyrant, but an amiable, interesting, generous-minded gentleman of great dignity and courage. 

Joseph de Maistre was born in Chambéry (then the capital of the duchy of Savoy) on April 1, 1753. His father, François-Xavier Maistre, was a senator; one of his brothers, Xavier de Maistre, remains well-known today for his short memoir Voyage Around My Room, a sparkling parody of eighteenth-century travel narratives.

Prior to the French Revolution, Maistre seemed destined for an unremarkable career as a lawyer, jurist, and public servant. He married in 1786; two years later he too became a senator. At this point, Maistre was, like many intellectually curious men of his time, attracted to the work of Enlightenment philosophers. He was also a member of a Masonic lodge for a spell, in part because this was what all the other interesting men were doing. His opinions only gradually began to shift in response to events around him. 

In light of Maistre’s later reputation, it is interesting that he was suspected by the president of the Savoian Senate of supporting the revolution. Maistre’s wide reading in contemporary philosophy seemed incriminating to his superiors, who never quite understood his personality and his unique combination of gifts, and always thought him dangerously, unpredictably clever. 

In September 1792, when revolutionary forces entered Savoy, Maistre was the only senator who fled the territory, out of loyalty to the king. His long years of wandering began, with stints in Geneva, Lausanne, Venice, and Sardinia until, on October 23, 1802, he was named the Sardinian minister plenipotentiary at St. Petersburg. His family was forced to stay behind in Turin. Whilst he managed to find positions in Russia for his brother Xavier and his son Rodolphe, he was not to see his wife and two daughters again until October 1814.

Maistre’s diplomatic correspondence was frequently read by Tsar Alexander I, who appreciated his long, detailed, often brilliantly written dispatches, as the Sardinian court had not. He became far more influential than he had any right to be, as the underpaid envoy of an unimportant king. In St. Petersburg he was a social celebrity, popular among French émigrés and the diplomatic corps as well as the Russian aristocracy. His manuscripts circulated in the highest official circles.

Perhaps he was a little too socially successful for his own good. The Orthodox Church objected to how frequently he convinced his friends to convert to Catholicism; he was forced to leave Russia and arrived back in Turin in August 1817, after a visit to Paris, a warm reception at the Académie française, an audience with King Louis XVIII, and an emotional reunion with his family at Chambéry after an absence of a quarter-century. He died in February 1821. 

As a writer, Maistre first became known for Considerations on France (1797), a penetrating and sometimes sardonic analysis of the French Revolution that was controversial enough to cost him an official post in Turin. His Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (written in 1809 and first printed in 1814) caused some embarrassment for the French king after the Restoration; his studies On the Pope (1819), On the Gallican Church (1820; posthumously published in 1821), and Letters on the Spanish Inquisition (written 1815; published 1822) established his reputation as an uncompromising counter-revolutionary. Most of his work was published posthumously.

In the 1820s, Maistre became notorious in liberal circles in Paris mainly because of On the Pope, which made the Vatican nervous as well. But for all the fame that his name won, his ideas themselves were never properly influential. Those with royalist sympathies, such as Balzac, praised him without knowing his books very well; liberals, radicals, and republicans used his name as a kind of shorthand for everything they opposed about royalists, the Church, and the Ancien Régime. They too rarely read him.

One of Maistre’s only close readers among major nineteenth-century philosophers was the atheist Comte, creator of the “Religion of Humanity,” who did not fully get the point of Maistre’s writings (to say the least). But at least Comte studied them, and took them seriously. Maistre’s literary prestige has often been cynically appropriated by publicity seekers who in truth do not have much in common with the man. The monarchist writer Charles Maurras privately thought that the St. Petersburg Dialogues were silly; his real influences were Nietzsche and Comte. Even so, he thought it expedient to pretend that he admired Maistre, since so many of the Catholics he wanted to attract to his political movement seemed devoted to his work. But Maurras, with his atheism, “cultural Christianity,” gloomy humorousness, fixations, and remorseless repetition of the same dozen or so points again and again in his boring political essays, surely has more in common with the tax-cutting philistines who are today identified as “conservatives.”

Maistre’s real disciples are poets and writers, who understand that he was a visionary, not a philosopher. Sainte-Beuve saw this, even if he did not know what to do with the insight; but Baudelaire did, as did Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. But the great writer most influenced by Maistre was Tolstoy, who read and re-read him during the years that he was writing War and Peace.

Maistre began contemplating the St. Petersburg Dialogues as early as 1806, though the dramatic date of the proceedings is summer 1809. Although most of the writing was complete by April 1813, he continued to revise and polish the work to the end of his life; the twelfth and final installment was never completed. The topics in these dialogues range widely; though ultimately this is a work of theodicy, aimed at justifying the works of God to men. 

The narrative begins on a warm evening in July 1809, at around nine o’clock. Three men, the Count, the Senator, and their younger friend the Chevalier, are travelling by boat to the Count’s villa that is within the city walls of St. Petersburg, but far enough from the center to feel like a country house. The sun is just beginning to set. Maistre describes the lively scene on the river as a riotous wedding party of rich merchants sails by in the other direction. The Chevalier speculates idly as to whether this night would appear as lovely to a miserable man as it does to them.

Soon the men arrive at the Count’s house, already discussing the happiness of the wicked, and the misfortunes endured by the just. Tonight, and for another eleven nights, they will sit up late talking about science, linguistics, epistemology, morality, war, prayer—the sheer range of subjects makes the St. Petersburg Dialogues seem like a better-written modern version of an ancient Roman miscellany. On the ninth evening, the Count explains how he can keep so much information in his head:

You see these immense volumes lying here on my desk. There is where, for more than thirty years, I have written all the most striking things I have encountered in my reading. Sometimes I limit myself to simple references; other times I transcribe essential passages word for word; often I accompany these with notes, and often too I put down my thoughts of the moment—those sudden illuminations that would remain mute if their flash of lightning was not captured in writing. 

Carried by the revolutionary whirlwind to various countries of Europe, I have never abandoned these notebooks; and so you must believe me when I tell you of my great pleasure in paging through this great collection. Every passage awakens in me a multitude of interesting ideas and melancholy memories a thousand times more agreeable than what are usually called pleasures

I see there pages dated Geneva, Rome, Venice, Lausanne. I cannot come across the names of those cities without recalling those of the excellent friends whom I had there and who once consoled my exile. Some of them are no longer alive, but their memory is sacred to me. Often I come across pages written at my dictation by a well-loved child separated from me by the tempest. Alone in my solitary study, I extend my arms to her, and I believe I hear her call to me in her turn. 

A certain date recalls for me a time on the banks of a river suddenly frozen with ice when I ate with a French bishop a dinner that we had prepared ourselves. I was cheerful that day; I had the strength to laugh softly with the excellent man who today awaits me in a better world; but the night before I had passed at anchor in an open boat, in the midst of profound darkness, with neither fire nor light, without being able to go to bed or even to rest a moment, hearing only the sinister cries of some boatmen who never ceased menacing us, and only being able to extend a miserable mat over cherished heads to protect them from heavy snow that kept falling.

Obviously, the Count is Maistre himself. Scholars have argued about the real-life identities of the Senator and the Chevalier, who are so strongly individualized that one wonders why nobody has decisively figured out whom they represent.

The Chevalier is a career soldier from an old French family; he is a generation younger than the other two men, and considerably less well-read. Still, he is not merely a foil: he affectionately teases his elders throughout and demonstrates that he has a mind of his own. There may be elements in him of Maistre’s own son Rodolphe. But of course the illusion of reality proves nothing about who he might be. 

A lesser writer might have used the Senator as a mere mouthpiece for Russian Orthodox Christianity against the firm Catholicism of the Count and the Chevalier. But Maistre’s Senator, a high-ranking Tsarist official, is more complicated and enigmatic, because his Orthodoxy is combined with elements of the sort of mysticism that Maistre dabbled in throughout the 1770s and 1780s, then rejected after the French Revolution. The Senator is profoundly reactionary, with a wild speculative streak that sometimes alarms the Count. Many dark, provocative ideas in the St. Petersburg Dialogues come from his mouth. 

Inevitably Maistre gives his own mouthpiece all the best lines in the Dialogues; but this must be the way he really talked: they fall thoughtlessly from his lips, as if to prove the Count’s point: “When a great language is being made (as it can be made), it is in the hands of great writers who use it without thought of creating new words.” The Count is mercilessly funny, particularly when satirizing Enlightenment philosophers: Bacon, Herder, Rousseau, and Condillac are all mocked, but his attacks on Voltaire are particularly devastating, and it is impossible to take Locke seriously ever again after reading the Count’s extended demolition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Modern readers will find some of his notions outrageous, though he expresses himself with such power and elegance that it takes time to pick apart even the most questionable proposals.

Overall, the tone of the Dialogues is warm and gentle, with an occasional tinge of sadness, and passages of real grandeur, particularly when the men talk of holy subjects. Maistre’s invention never fails him when he seeks to illustrate abstract points, as in this passage from the eighth evening’s discussion:

A perfectly accurate idea of the world can be formed by seeing it under the aspect of a great natural history museum overturned by an earthquake. The door is open and broken; there are no more windows; entire cupboards have fallen over; others are still hanging by their fasteners, ready to let go. Shellfish have rolled into the mineral room, and a bird’s nest rests on the head of a crocodile. Nevertheless, what idiot would doubt the original intention, or think that the building was constructed in this state? All the great parts are together; the entire thing can be seen in the least splinter of glass; the emptiness of a chest fills it; order is as visible as disorder, and the eye, in looking over the vast temple of nature, easily re-establishes everything that some dangerous agent has broken, falsified, soiled or displaced. There is more: look closely and you will recognise a restoring hand. Some beams are propped up; some routes have been laid out amidst the wreckage; and in the general confusion a host of equivalents have already taken their places and are in contact. So there are two intentions visible instead of one, that it is to say, order and its restoration. Limiting ourselves to the first idea, disorder necessarily supposing order, the one who argues disorder against the existence of God, assumes order to combat it.

Richard Lebrun has edited and translated an excellent online collection of Maistre’s work, and produced magisterial English-language versions of the Considerations on France, as well as the Dialogues and other major works. These all remain too little studied, thanks to Maistre’s undeserved reputation as little more than a ranting extremist. Few of his writings were available in English before 1965, when Jack Lively, a professor of politics at Warwick University, published an anthology entitled The Generative Principle of Political Constitutions: Studies on Sovereignty, Religion and Enlightenment. 

In Lively’s introduction, there are multiple factual errors on the first two pages alone; it is so heavily reliant on a Victorian essay on Maistre (see the second volume of Lord Morley’s Critical Miscellanies) as to verge on plagiarism. However, though inadequate and clumsily written, the introductory essay is vastly more readable than the translation itself, which in places seems barely intelligible. As an editor, Lively sought to reduce Maistre to a set of ideas suitable for a classroom handout; there was no way he could succeed in this. Remove the apparent digressions, the flights of fancy, and the Christian elements, and you have no Maistre at all.

Secular humanists struggle to understand this writer, when they try to understand him at all. Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism” was first published in 1990, after Berlin had been wrestling for half a century with the question of whether Maistre was a proto-fascist, or merely a prophet. It never occurred to him to look at a real precursor to fascism—for example, the Marquis de Sade. He extrapolated his entire vision of Maistre’s political views from two short passages in the Dialogues, both of which he misread, and one of which was spoken by the Senator, not the Count. We all skip pages sometimes; but was Berlin simply too lazy to read the whole book even once during his forty-five years of allegedly thinking about it?

Berlin’s essay resists the possibility of point-by-point refutation: footnotes are suspiciously vague; sweeping generalizations abound; Maistre’s work is tendentiously paraphrased, with no indication of what is being summarized, or where it can be found in the original texts. Not only does Berlin fail to demonstrate his vague thesis; he cannot accurately describe his subject. He treats Maistre’s three decades of literary output as a single undifferentiated mass, to be searched for incriminatingly anti-liberal quotations. At a few points Berlin even tries to associate Maistre with various anti-Semitic propagandists; but Maistre, unlike the majority of Enlightenment philosophes, was staunchly philo-Semitic, as is evident throughout the Dialogues, particularly on the seventh evening, during which the Count praises the Psalms, and the superior spiritual wisdom of the Jewish people to the pagans of antiquity.

Berlin worked hard to put words in Maistre’s mouth, and thoughts in his head: he was ill-equipped to grapple with thinkers who did not fit neatly into teachable categories, and he will be forgotten (if he has not been forgotten already) when those categories are abandoned or superseded. Maistre’s works deserve to be recognized among the monuments of French literature, but his reputation remains in limbo. Perhaps this is fitting for a man who spent so much of his life as an exile. Though he was never an angry or lugubrious one; Maistre was more like a figure from a Shakespearean comedy—one of the exiled courtiers in the Forest of Arden, say: sweetly melancholy, but too high-spirited to fall into depression, and too confident in God’s justice ever to sit around lamenting his fate. His achievement will be recognized one day; in the meantime, he teaches his admirers how to laugh in the face of mediocrity.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. 

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