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  • A Modern Maistre. The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre
  • Abraham Anderson
Owen Bradley . A Modern Maistre. The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Pp. 320. $55.00.

In A Modern Maistre, Owen Bradley has sought to defend both the theoretical penetration and the practical wisdom of Joseph de Maistre, most famous of all "reactionaries" or royalist opponents of the French Revolution. Bradley's own explicit philosophical premises are those of the contemporary academic Left—the blend of Foucault, Adorno, and other authors commonly known as "theory." He defends Maistre's claims on our attention partly by pointing to the kinship between the latter's critique of the Enlightenment and that of Foucault, Adorno, et al. Further, Bradley reminds us of the intimate relation between anti-revolutionary thought and historicism, here understood as the doctrine that new climates of belief and social arrangements always have their roots in what precedes them. In this as in other respects he allows us to see the kinship between the thought of Maistre and that of his younger and more liberal contemporary Tocqueville.

Maistre was, moreover, a seminal thinker for the French tradition of sociology whose best-known representatives are Comte and Durkheim, and which, like him, was concerned above all with the religious conditions of social order. Maistre was himself a disciple not just of Vico's New Science but of Plato's Republic and Laws, works equally preoccupied with this topic. One of the most interesting themes of the book, in fact, is Maistre's concern with political theology.

Maistre was particularly attracted, Bradley shows, to the neo-Platonic and possibly heterodox theology of Origen. The neo-Platonic emphasis on symbols, talismans, and cosmic hierarchy, according to Bradley, helped Maistre formulate his criticism of the "mechanical philosophy" of the Cartesian Enlightenment, the metaphysical premise, according to Maistre, of the Revolution. Maistre, Bradley shows us, argued against the Enlightenment's attempt to replace a politics dependent on faith with one based on modern science partly by showing that modern science itself has its roots in mysticism, magic, and enthusiasm. The Enlightenment, which understood itself as entirely secular in spirit, was ruled by a project of salvation descended from ancient gnosticism. As the gnostics sought salvation through the rejection of the world of creation, the Enlighteners sought political salvation through a rejection of all traditions and institutions, a project which culminated in the Jacobin Terror.

But political violence, in Maistre's view, does not stem from theological error alone. According to Maistre, "sacrifice" in the larger sense is central to all human societies. The problem of political order is in large part how to channel the impulse to collective cruelty, which is necessary to political order but can be restrained or allowed to run [End Page 287] wild. Politics is largely theater and symbol; the wise use of these elements is indispensable for taming the love of violence.

Maistre's famous assertion of the authority of the Pope is not, Bradley insists, a formula for theocracy; rather, the preservation of a spiritual power distinct from and independent of the sovereign serves to check tyranny without subverting sovereignty (132). Such a spiritual power is necessary partly to preserve "unity of fables, which will never happen without unity of doctrine and authority" (195).

Maistre's interest in political theology is continuous with an interest in the political significance of cosmology. Every society, Maistre held, including the Enlightenment, has a view of the cosmos to which its conception of society precisely corresponds. Maistre himself seeks to inflect modern cosmology in various ways. Like Tocqueville and Vico, Maistre uses the doctrine of historical forces to propound a teaching on Providence. The Jacobins themselves, Maistre asserts, were instruments of Providence. Far from emancipating mankind, the Revolution "abruptly shortened" the "chain that binds man" within his proper bounds (215).

Bradley does Maistre a valuable service by criticizing misinterpretations of his thought by later defenders of extra-constitutional authority, like Maurras and Carl Schmitt; Maistre himself, Bradley shows, was deeply concerned to preserve constitutional legitimacy and opposed absolutism. Bradley's most interesting chapter is his last one, on Maistre...


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