The French Idea of History: Joseph De Maistre and His Heirs

By Worcester, Thomas | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The French Idea of History: Joseph De Maistre and His Heirs


Worcester, Thomas, Canadian Journal of History


The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and His Heirs, 1794-1854, by Carolina Armenteros. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 2011. xiii, 361 pp. $59.95 US (cloth).

Native of Savoy, and prolific writer, Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) has often been depicted as the epitome of a reactionary in the age of the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France. In exile most of the time from 1792 on, Maistre held a diplomatic post in St. Petersburg for a long period, and it was while in Russia that he wrote many of his better-known works. Carolina Armenteros attempts to demonstrate in this book that Maistre was more of moderate than has been alleged, that he drew on some of the leading Enlightenment thinkers, and that his influence on a variety of approaches to the philosophy of history was enormous, at least until the mid-nineteenth century. The book is in two parts: Maistre in his time and place, and his influence on, and legacy for, historical thought in France.

Armenteros is successful in clearly showing some of the complexity of Maistre, including how he drew on works of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, but was vehement in his opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Maistre fled as French troops invaded Savoy and Piedmont; and, though he was relentless in his critique of the Revolution, he was not without criticism of various monarchies as well, especially those that sought to bring church under the firm control of state. He most certainly did not seek a restoration of the Gallican Church as it had existed pre-1789, and in Russia he had few kind words for the national character of Orthodox Churches and of their subjection to the monarchy. Moreover, Maistre argued that monarchs have "no right to condemn to death, or even to any corporal punishment" (p. 70). Armenteros makes no comment on these last two points, and this is a disappointment as the limitations Maistre advocates for a monarch's power in the area of justice seem quite unusual for that time. Though Armenteros explains that Maistre was affected by the "summary executions and lifelong imprisonments of the innocent poor that he witnessed" (p. 136), she offers no information on how Maistre's readers reacted to his position on the death penalty and corporal punishment.

Armenteros devotes a good part of her book to Maistre's Ultramontanism. In place of Gallican minimization of any papal role outside the Papal States, Maistre enthusiastically promoted the pope as moderator, mediator, and arbitrator between monarchs, and between individual monarchs and their people. Maistre asserted that "Europe was born on the day a pope crowned an emperor" (p. 142), a coronation that contrasted strongly with subjugation of the church to kings and emperors. The author also does a good job of showing at least two motivations for Maistre's pro-Jesuit sentiments: on the one hand, he saw the Jesuits as articulate international spokesmen for an Ultramontanist maximization of papal roles; on the other hand, he viewed the Jesuits as Pelagian in their theological anthropology, an anthropology with which he agreed. …

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