Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory
14 June 2013
It was the Romanian expatriate writer E. M. Cioran writing in French (and translated into English by the indefatigable Richard Howard) who first made me aware of Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations has a chapter on de Maistre, the latter himself an intemperate expatriate gifted with a literary style so powerful that it wins the reader’s attention for doctrines so marginal as to be laughable — if only they had not been taken so deadly seriously by men who have died for them. But not everything in de Maistre is as trivial or marginal as his monarchism and his defense of the Ancien Régime.
Along with Edmund Burke, de Maistre (when he is remembered today) is remembered as a proto-conservative, staking out positions that would later become doctrinaire among conservative thinkers. Both were great stylists, but Burke was really a poet — did he not write one of the eighteenth-century tracts on the sublime that gentlemen of good taste wrote in those times? — while de Maistre was an original, ruthless, and brutal thinker, i.e., he was everything that a philosopher ought to be. But today de Maistre is held in low opinion because of his at times virulent racism (as though this were worse than virulent monarchism, or virulent sexism, etc.).
There are two sides of the coin of ad hominem arguments: either love or hatred of a man can lead us to embrace or reject his ideas. We need to try to see beyond both de Maistre’s fearsome if not untouchable reputation and the beauty of this style, if we are to engage with de Maistre the thinker — and this is a task worth the effort, because de Maistre has some interesting ideas that deserve exposition. His low reputation today might lead us to ignore these ideas, or his literary style might lead us to assent to ideas that, while interesting, certainly do not deserve our assent.
The intransigence of de Maistre invites the reader to shout back at him, even to shout him down, with a long and detailed catalog of the absurdities that have been perpetrated upon the world by men who believed in the doctrines that de Maistre defends. I doubt any of this would have made the slightest impression on de Maistre, whose own obvious contempt for such an approach comes across in every dismissive formulation that is presented as though no counter-veiling principle were even possible, even thinkable. With such a mind it would be utterly irrelevant to debate details; I have no doubt that de Maistre would have dismissed every challenge to his examples and instances with a contemptuous wave of the hand and a disapproving expression. In reading de Maistre, therefore, it behooves us to think only in terms of principles.
What are de Maistre’s principles? What is the essence of de Maistre’s thought? It is easy to take the wrong lesson from such a vigorous and expressive writer. The least imaginative and least creative among us read the likes of Burke and de Maistre and believe that they have found the whole meaning in a blueprint for contemporary society. But this is a mere detail, an accident of historical circumstances that might be construed in dramatically different ways in different periods of human history. What is of the essence of de Maistre’s thought is something not at all obvious, and it is his finitistic perspective.
I have previously quoted from de Maistre’s An Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions — a short, incisive, and suggestive work, i.e., everything that a philosophical work should be — in Fairness and the Social Contract and Why Revolutions Happen. Comte de Maistre begins his Essay by recounting the counter-intuitive nature of political science, citing several examples of putative political “common sense” and how experience has shown these to be “disastrous.” This points to an unexpected empiricism in de Maistre’s thought. Echoing but altering Thucydides’ famous aphorism, history is philosophy teaching by example, de Maistre wrote that history is experimental politics.
1. No government results from a deliberation; popular rights are never written, or at least constitutive acts or written fundamental laws are always only declaratory statements of anterior rights, of which nothing can be said other than that they exist because they exist.
2. God, not having judged it proper to employ supernatural means in this field, has limited himself to human means of action, so that in the formation of constitutions circumstances are all and men are only part of the circumstances. Fairly often, even, in pursuing one object they achieve another, as we have seen in the English constitution.
And this is how they appear, in a slightly revised form, in de Maistre’s Essay:
1. No constitution arises from deliberation. The rights of the people are never written, except as simple restatements of previous, unwritten rights.
2. [In the formation of constitutions] human action is so far circumscribed that the men who act become only circumstances. [It is even very common that in pursuing a certain end they attain another.] 3. The rights of the PEOPLE, properly so called, proceed almost always from the concessions of sovereigns and thus may be definitely fixed in history, but no one can ascertain the date or the authors of the rights of the monarch and the aristocracy.
This in itself, in its most tightly circumscribed formulation, I cannot reject — human action is most certainly circumscribed, and unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Indeed, de Maistre’s thought here closely echoes my own formulations in terms of the permutations of human agency, and in so doing de Maistre reveals his eschatological conception of history, affirming non-human agency as the source of political constitutions.
Further to this eschatological conception, Comte de Maistre quotes the theologian Bergier:
Law is only truly sanctioned, and properly law, when assumed to emanate from a higher will, so that its essential quality is to be not the will of all [la volonte de tous]. Otherwise, laws would be mere ordinances. As the author just quoted states, “those who were free to make these conventions have not deprived themselves of the power of revocation, and their descendants, with no share in making these regulations, are bound even less to observe them.”
Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions, M. the Count de Maistre, the citation is from Bergier, Traite historique et dogmatique de la Religion, III, ch. 4 (after Tertullian, Apologeticus, 45)
Bergier has here put his finger on something important, though of course the lesson I take from it is rather different than the lesson that de Maistre takes from it. The same idea finds a very different expression in Gibbon, and I have quoted this several times:
“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”
Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.
I have called this Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle. Bergier and de Maistre invoke a distinction between laws and ordinances, with ordinances being mere human things subject to change, while laws are laid up in heaven. This is de Maistre’s realism.
The political theologizing of de Maistre is what is most predictable and least interesting in his thought; it only becomes interesting as a consequence of his finitism. The implications of de Maistre’s finitism, once extrapolated to its logical conclusion throughout his political thought, converges upon a radical finitism in political science, and this I cannot accept or endorse. More interesting than his theologizing is de Maistre’s political realism — and by “realism” I do not mean that “political realism” used in discussions of policy, that prides itself on its rejection of humanitarianism and of moral and political ideals, but de Maistre’s Platonic realism in politics that, on the contrary, raises up moral and political ideals as the only true reality.
The strong position de Maistre takes on ineffability is related to his Platonic realism: constitutions are real in a Platonic sense, but our knowledge of them is imperfect, and if we try to write them down we will only get it wrong, much as a mathematician using a compass to draw a circle inscribes only an imperfect image of a circle that represents, for pedagogical reasons, the “real” and “true” circle to which the imperfect drawing refers. The harder we try to inscribe a perfect circle, the more we are going to depart from the Platonic form of a circle, and the more we try to write down the perfect constitution, the more it departs from the Platonic form of a constitution. In de Maistre, written law is not only derivative of unwritten law, i.e., the mere appearance or a more fundamental reality, but it is, moreover, always wrong because the unwritten fundamental reality is essentially ineffable.
This is how de Maistre himself formulates it in his Essay:
1. The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.
2. Constititional law is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law.
3. What is most essential, most inherently constitutional and truly fundamental law is never written, and could not be, without endangering the State.
4. The weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the number of written constitutional articles.
This is really quite close to Brouwer’s intuitionism; indeed, we might call de Maistre’s thought intuitionistic political science. Both Brouwer and de Maistre place a strong emphasis on the ineffability of experience, and the ways in which language misleads and falsifies, but de Maistre’s ineffability is predicated upon realism while Brouwer was what we might call a proto-anti-realist. Intuitionism after Brouwer went on to inspire a generation of philosophers to formulate anti-realist positions that owe much to Brouwer’s inspiration.
Thus de Maistre’s realism coupled with finitism and an eschatological conception of history stake out a unique (or nearly unique) position in the history of thought. It would be entirely possible to formulate this Platonic realism in politics in an infinitistic context (just as de Maistre could have justified his finitism according to other conceptions but in fact chose to justify it in theological terms, invoking an eschatological conception of history), but de Maistre is thoroughly finitistic in his orientation.
Comte de Maistre uses an eschatological conception of history to provide the ideological superstructure of justify his theological exposition of finite human agency, but he could make the same point invoking a cataclysmic conception of history or a naturalistic conception of history. Even a modified and qualified formulation of the political conception of history, which makes human agency fundamental and central to history, would be consistent with de Maistre’s finitism, so that the theological justification, however much weight de Maistre himself might have attached to it, is of little intrinsic interest. The point I am making is that de Maistre’s theology is dispensable in defining his theory, while de Maistre’s finitism is indispensable.
Joseph de Maistre’s finitistic political theory represents something of an antithesis to an infinitistic conception of political society such as I outlined in what I called Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (and something I touched upon again in Addendum on Technological Unemployment).
I hope to return to this idea in future posts, and to be able to show why this is important, because I know that this sounds rather recondite and marginal, but it is neither. One of the most persistent themes of Western historiography in the modern period is the idea of progress, which is attacked at least as often as it is put forward as an interpretation of history (not long ago in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression I mentioned my surprise that Kevin Kelly offered an explicit defense of historical progress in his book What Technology Wants). A finitistic conception of history knows nothing of progress; we must have an infinitistic conception of history before the idea of progress can even have meaning for us. This, however, is a complex idea that requires many qualifications and therefore independent exposition. I will leave that for another day.
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