Joseph De Maistre

Joseph-Marie de Maistre

Portrait of de Maistre by von Vogelstein, c. 1810.
Born (1753-04-01)1 April 1753
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
Notable ideas

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (French pronunciation: ​[də mɛstʁ][1] 1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821) was a Savoyard philosopher, writer, lawyer, and diplomat. He defended hierarchical societies and a monarchical State in the period immediately following the French Revolution. 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),[2] and minister of state to the court in Turin (1817–1821).[3]

Maistre, a key figure of the Counter-Enlightenment, saw monarchy both as a divinely sanctioned institution and as the only stable form of government. He called for the restoration of the House of Bourbon to the throne of France and argued that the Pope should have ultimate authority in temporal matters. Maistre also claimed that it was the rationalist rejection of Christianity which was directly responsible for the disorder and bloodshed which followed the French Revolution of 1789.[4]


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.[5] 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.[6] Joseph’s younger brother, Xavier, who became an army officer, was a popular writer of fiction.[7][8]

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.[7] 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 convene the Estates General. As a landowner in France, Maistre was eligible to join that body, and there is some evidence that he contemplated that possibility.[9] 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. After the passing of the August Decrees on 4 August 1789 he decisively turned against the course of political events in France.[10]

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 again, this time for Lausanne, in Switzerland. There 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).[5]

From Lausanne, Maistre went to Venice, and then to Cagliari, where the King of Piedmont-Sardinia held the court and the government of the kingdom after French armies took Turin in 1798. Maistre’s relations with the court at Cagliari were not always easy[5] and in 1803 he was sent to Saint Petersburg in Russia,[11] 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, were among Tolstoy‘s sources for his novel War and Peace.[5] After the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the House of Savoy’s dominion over Piedmont and Savoy (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 and is buried in the Jesuit Church of the Holy Martyrs (Chiesa dei Santi Martiri).

Political and moral philosophy[edit]

In Considérations sur la France (“Considerations on France,” 1796), Maistre claimed that France has a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and evil on Earth. He interpreted the Revolution of 1789 as a Providential event: the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Ancien Régime in general, instead of directing the influence of French civilization to the benefit of mankind, had promoted the atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers. He claimed that the crimes of the Reign of Terror were the logical consequence of Enlightened thought, as well as its divinely-decreed punishment.[12]

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.

According to Maistre, any attempt to justify government on rational grounds will only lead to unresolvable arguments about the legitimacy and expediency of any existing government, and that this, in turn, will lead to violence and chaos.[13] Maistre therefore argued that the legitimacy of government must be based on compelling but non-rational grounds, which its subjects must not be allowed to question.[14] Maistre went on to argue that authority in politics should therefore derive from religion, and that in Europe this religious authority must ultimately lie with the Pope.

What was novel in Maistre’s writings was not his enthusiastic defense of monarchical and religious authority per se, but rather his arguments concerning the practical need for ultimate authority to lie with an individual capable of decisive action, as well as his analysis of the social foundations of that authority’s legitimacy. In his own words, which he addressed to a group of aristocratic French émigrés, “you ought to know how to be royalists. Before, this was an instinct, but today it is a science. You must love the sovereign as you love order, with all the forces of intelligence.”[15] Maistre’s analysis of the problem of authority and its legitimacy foreshadows some of the concerns of early sociologists such as Comte and Saint-Simon.[16][17]

In addition to his voluminous correspondence, Maistre left two books that were published posthumously. Soirées de St. Pétersbourg (“The Saint Petersburg Dialogues”, 1821) is a theodicy in the form of a Platonic dialogue,[18] in which Maistre argues that evil exists because of its place in the divine plan, according to which the blood sacrifice of innocents returns men to God, via the expiation of the sins of the guilty; Maistre saw this is a law of human history, as indubitable as it is mysterious. Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, (“An Examination of the Philosophy of Bacon,” 1836), is a critique of the thought of Francis Bacon, whom Maistre considers to be the fountainhead of the destructive Enlightened thought.

Repute and influence[edit]

Maistre, together with the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, is commonly regarded as one of the founders of European conservatism, but since the 19th century, Maistre’s authoritarian, “throne-and-altar” conception of conservatism has declined in influence in comparison with the more liberal conservatism of Burke. Maistre’s skills as a writer and polemicist however ensure that he continues to be read. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 describes his writing style as “strong, lively, picturesque,” and that 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.”[7] 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[19]

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.”[20]

Isaiah Berlin in his Freedom and Its Betrayal notes that many view his writings as “the last despairing effort of feudalism…to resist the march of progress.”[21] but he claims that Maistre imposes “an official legitimist Catholic framework upon what is really a deeply violent, deeply revolutionary, ultimately Fascist[22] inner passion” which rejects what it sees as the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment.[23] His fundamental doctrine according to Berlin is that nature is red in tooth and claw[24] and what really fascinates him is power.[25]

Amongst those who admired him was the poet Charles Baudelaire,[26] who described himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary, claiming that he had taught him “how to think.”[27] Maistre also exerted a powerful influence on the Spanish political thinker Juan Donoso Cortés[28][29] and, later, on the French monarchist Charles Maurras and his counter-revolutionary political movement Action Française.

According to Carolina Armenteros, Maistre’s writings influenced not only conservative political thinkers, but also the Utopian socialists.[30] Early sociologists such as Saint-Simon and Comte explicitly acknowledged the influence of Maistre on their own thinking about the sources of social cohesion and political authority.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ “Maistre” is traditionally pronounced [mɛstʁ] (i.e. sounding the “s” and rhyming 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. ^ “Joseph de Maistre,” The Dublin Review, Vol. XXXIII, 1852.
  3. ^ The issue of Maistre’s national identity has long been contentious. In 1802, after the invasion of Savoy and Piedmont by the armies of the French First Republic, Maistre had fled in Cagliari, the ancient capital of Kingdom of Sardinia that resisted to the French invasion, 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.
  4. ^ Garrard, Graeme. “Joseph de Maistre’s Civilization and its Discontents,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 57, Number 3, July 1996.
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Triomphe, Robert (1968). Joseph de Maistre. Genève: Droz. pp. 39–41.  Preview available here
  7. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  8. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Xavier de Maistre“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  9. ^ Lebrun, Richard. “A Brief Biography of Joseph de Maistre”. University of Manitoba. Retrieved 1 June 2011. 
  10. ^ Greifer, Elisha. “Joseph de Maistre and the Reaction Against the Eighteenth Century,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, 1961.
  11. ^ Teeling, T. T. “Joseph de Maistre,” American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XX, 1895.
  12. ^ Lebrun, Richard A. “Joseph de Maistre, how Catholic a Reaction?,” CCHA Study Sessions, 34, 1967.
  13. ^ Murray, John C. “The Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre,” The Review of Politics, Volume 11(1), January 1949.
  14. ^ Lebrun, Richard A. “Joseph de Maistre, Cassandra of Science,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, Autumn, 1969.
  15. ^ Quoted by Philippe Sénart in “Maistre et Tocqueville”, Joseph de Maistre. Les Dossiers H, (Lausanne: Editions L’Age d’Homme, 2005), p. 646. ISBN 2825118710
  16. ^ a b Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, The Philosophy of Auguste Comte, (New York: Putnam and Sons, 1903), pp. 297-8.
  17. ^ a b Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, vol. 1, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 261-8. ISBN 052143405X
  18. ^ Kochin, Michael S. “How Joseph De Maistre Read Plato’s Laws,” Polis, Vol. 19, Issues 1 and 2, 2002.
  19. ^ de Lamartine, Alphonse (1874). “I”. Souvenirs et portraits 2 (3rd ed.). Paris. pp. 188–9. 
  20. ^ Émile Faguet, Politiques et moralistes du dix-neuvieme siecle, 1st series, Paris 1899. Cited in: Maistre, Joseph de; Isaiah Berlin (1994). “Introduction”. Considerations on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-521-46628-8. 
  21. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.132.
  22. ^ Berlin, Isaiah. “Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism,” The New York Review of Books, September 1990.
  23. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.154
  24. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.137
  25. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002, p.151
  26. ^ Alphonsus, Mère Mary. The Influence of Joseph de Maistre on Baudelaire. “De Maistre et Edgar Poe m’ont appris à raisonner” (journaux intimes). Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College doctoral thesis, 1942.
  27. ^ Baudelaire, Charles. Intimate Papers from the Unpublished Works of Baudelaire, Baudelaire – His Prose and Poetry, The Modern Library. New York, 1919.
  28. ^ Tarrago, Rafael E. “Two Catholic Conservatives: The Ideas of Joseph de Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortes,” Catholic Social Science Review, 4 (1999).
  29. ^ Spektorowski, Alberto. “Maistre, Donoso Cortes, and the Legacy of Catholic Authoritarianism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 63, Number 2, April 2002.
  30. ^ Carolina Armenteros, The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and his Heirs, 1794-1854 (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2011). ISBN 0-8014-4943-X


Work in English translation[edit]


  • 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.
  • Austern, Donald M. The Political Theories of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre as Representative of the Schools of Conservative Libertarianism and Conservative Authoritarianism. Amherst: Boston College Doctoral Thesis, 1974
  • Barthelet, Philippe, Joseph de Maistre: Les Dossiers H (Geneva: L’Age d’homme, 2005).
  • Blamires, Cyprian P. Three Critiques of the French Revolution: Maistre, Bonald and Saint-Simon. Oxford: Oxford University Doctoral Thesis, 1985.
  • Bradley, Owen, A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre| (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
  • Buchanan, Patrick (2007). State of Emergency. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. ISBN 0-312-37436-4. 
  • Camcastle, Cara, The More Moderate Side of Joseph de Maistre, Ottawa, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
  • Caponigri, A. R. Some Aspects of the Philosophy of Joseph de Maistre, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1942.
  • Croce, Benedetto, Il duca di Serra-Capriola e Giuseppe de Maistre (in Archivio storico per le province napoletane, XLVII, pp. 313–335), 1922.
  • Eichrodt, Joan B. Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, and Joseph de Maistre. New York: Columbia University Master’s Thesis, 1968.
  • Faust, A. J. “Count Joseph de Maistre,” The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. VII, 1882.
  • 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.
  • Garrard, Graeme. Maistre, Judge of Jean-Jacques. An Examination of the Relationship between Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph de Maistre, and the French Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Doctoral Thesis, 1995.
  • Ghervas, Stella (2008). Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance. Paris: Honoré Champion. ISBN 2-7453-1669-9. 
  • 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.
  • Glaudes, Pierre, Joseph de Maistre et Les figures de l’Histoire: Trois Essais sur un Précurseur du Romantisme Français, in Cahiers romantiques (1997).
  • Godechot, Jacques. The Counter-Revolution, Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Lebrun, Richard A. (1988). Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. ISBN 0-7735-0645-4. 
  • Lebrun, Richard A. ed. Maistre Studies, University Press of America, 1988.
  • Lebrun, Richard A. Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence: Selected Studies, Ottawa, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.
  • Lombard, Charles (1976). Joseph de Maistre. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-6247-7. 
  • Legittimo, Gianfranco, Sociologi Cattolici Italiani: De Maistre, Taparelli, Toniolo, Il Quadrato, Roma, 1963.
  • Mandoul, Jean, Un homme d’État italien: Joseph de Maistre et la politique de la Maison de Savoie, Alcan, Paris, 1900.
  • Mazlish, Bruce. Burke, Bonald and de Maistre. A Study in Conservatism. New York: Columbia University Doctoral Thesis, 1955.
  • McMahon, Darrin M. Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Menczer, Béla. “Joseph de Maistre,” Catholic Political Thought, 1789–1848, Chap. I, University of Notre Dame Press, 1962.
  • 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.
  • Morley, John. “Joseph de Maistre,” Critical Miscellanies, Vol. II, Macmillan & Co., 1909.
  • 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).
  • Sacré-Cœur Mercier, Lucille du. The Historical Thought of the Comte Joseph de Maistre. Washington: Catholic University of America Thesis, 1953.
  • Siedentop, Larry Alan. The Limits of Enlightenment. A Study of Conservative Political Thought in Early Nineteenth-Century France with Special Reference to Maine de Biran and Joseph de Maistre. Oxford: Oxford University Doctoral Thesis, 1966.
  • Thorup, Mikkel. “‘A World Without Substance’: Carl Schmitt and the Counter-Enlightenment,” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2005.
  • Thurston, Benjamin. Joseph de Maistre. Logos and Logomachy. Oxford: Brasenose College-Oxford University Doctoral Thesis, 2001.
  • Vermale, François, Notes sur Joseph de Maistre Inconnu, (Chambéry: Perrin, M. Dardel Successeur, 1921).
  •  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. 

External links[edit]

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