Maistre and Hobbes on Providential History and the English Civil War

By Kow, Simon | CLIO, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Maistre and Hobbes on Providential History and the English Civil War


Kow, Simon, CLIO


According to Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Catholic thinker Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821)was a "terrifying" prophet of fascism and totalitarianism. (1) In a similar vein, Stephen Holmes has characterized Maistre as a proponent of "antiliberalism," that is, a dangerous and misguided reaction against the Enlightenment and the rise of modern liberalism. (2) At present, observes Berlin, most of his biographers and commentators have depicted Maistre as a reactionary figure in the nineteenth century: despite the Enlightenment and the Romantic response to it, these authors contend, the exiled Savoyard thinker clung fanatically to medieval conceptions of divine providence, monarchy, and papal authority. (3) In contrast, Berlin argues that Maistre is "in certain respects ultra-modern, presaging the future" (96). Maistre, like the fascists, stresses dark, violent, and unconscious forces at work in the world, especially the power of the supernatural at work in human history and institutions (127 and 172). The triumph of history is one in which the individual is absorbed into the state through worship of the state religion (126). Thus religion, in Berlin's interpretation of Maistre, is revealed in history as an effective totalizing instrument of the state.

It is worth asking, however, if, in their attempts to revise our conceptions of Maistre to make his thought relevant to contemporary concerns, Berlin and Holmes have not distorted Maistre's views, particularly as pertaining to the relation between religion, history, and politics. Is there an alternative way of seeing Maistre such that he is not, on the one hand, a mere Catholic reactionary, nor on the other hand, a sinister progenitor of fascism or illiberalism? Does Maistre's thought offer insights that can neither be dismissed as medieval nor vilified as a deluded historicism and an irrational attack on liberal politics?

We can explore this possibility by comparing Maistre with the seventeenth-century English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), on issues surrounding the English Civil War of the 1640s and '50s. Both thinkers considered this war to be of pivotal importance, but for very different reasons. The most striking reference Maistre makes to it is in his Considerations on France (1797). The last chapter is a collage of quotations from David Hume's History of England (1754-62), cited in Maistre's work as being "from a History of the French Revolution by David Hume" (CF, 106). (4) How could Hume, acknowledged elsewhere by Maistre to be an atheist (SP, 251), be used to show the ways of divine providence in the French Revolution? Moreover, what is the relation between the English Civil War and the French Revolution? Besides the overthrow of two monarchies, the earlier event was arguably on behalf of religion, whereas the latter event was in part an attack on it.

The two questions are connected. If the overall theme of Considerations on France is to show the ways of providence in what was, to many observers, the downfall of the Gallican Church and the French monarchy, then what more forceful argument than demonstrating that even the atheist Hume inadvertently shows us that the same miraculous restoration will occur in France as in England two centuries before? Hume is summoned as the unsuspecting witness of the hand of God in human history. In other words, according to Maistre, the English Civil War presages the French Revolution.

Hobbes provides an intriguing alternative account of the English Civil War in the Behemoth (1679). Unlike Hume's History, all of Behemoth is focused on this one event. Moreover, just as the French Revolution became the central historical event in Maistre's life and thought, the English Civil War can be said to have shaped or even motivated Hobbes's political thought. Hobbes characterizes his "Discourse of Civill and Ecclesiasticall Government," Leviathan (1651), as "occasioned by the disorders of the present time" (L, 728).

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