A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre

By Owen Bradley | Go to book overview

Preface

Surprising as it may seem, there exists as of yet no comprehensive account of Joseph de Maistre's social and political philosophy, despite his tremendous influence upon the modern European intellectual tradition. There are, of course, a large number of works devoted to Maistre and his place in history. Yet these accounts have been either of an entirely biographical nature, tracing the narrative of Maistre's rather tumultuous life story, or of a primarily ideological bent, treating him as a merely representative mouthpiece of the forces of reaction. Often, these two approaches are combined to present Maistre's thinking as no more than an ideological superstructure built up upon the narrow base of his aristocratic material life interests.1

The chief exceptions to this style of interpretation have been several able studies of Maistre as a religious thinker that, however, leave the modern resonance of his social and political ideas unexamined.2 One significant anomaly to this silence is found in Carl Schmitt's pregnant misreading of Maistre's theory of sovereignty, which I will have cause to examine at some length.3 Finally, a host of valuable essays on specific aspects of his life and ideas has appeared over the last two decades in a journal devoted solely to Maistrean studies.4 Still, there has been no systematic study of his social and political thought, much less an extended consideration of its modern character.

My interpretation avoids the common strategy of starting from Maistre's negative response to the French Revolution and deducing therefrom the reactionary character of his thought as a whole. Instead, I start from a close reading of his ideas, often upheld long before the Revolution, in order to grasp the internal coherence of his philosophical conservatism. Only in light of that philosophy can we make sense of his response to events in France, a response that was in fact much more nuanced than received interpretations would allow.

The organizing factor upon which my own work relies is Maistre's theory of sacrifice, a cultic practice of which he was the first European to offer a comparative cross-cultural analysis. Around this theme gravitate all the major themes of his intellectual production: power and victimization, religious customs and institutions, social norms and trans

-vii-

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A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - French Traditionalism 1
  • Chapter 2 - Sacrifice 32
  • Chapter 3 - Punishment and War 61
  • Chapter 4 - Symbolic Power 87
  • Chapter 5 - Legitimacy and The Origins of Sovereignty 110
  • Chapter 6 - Science and Society 137
  • Chapter 7 - Providence 166
  • Chapter 8 - Revolution and Counterrevolution 199
  • Works Cited 251
  • Index 261
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