Letter from Lhasa, number 341. Joseph Marie de Maistre between misunderstanding and fear

Letter from Lhasa, number 341. Joseph Marie de Maistre between misunderstanding and fear

by Roberto Abraham Scaruffi

de Maistre, J. M.,Quatre chapitres inédits sur la Russie, Libraire D’Aug. Vaton Editeur, Paris, France, 1859.

(de Maistre 1859).

Joseph Marie de Maistre

Joseph de Maistre, a Savoyard philosopher, politician, writer, historian, lawyer, magistrate and diplomat, reflects all the sordidness and backwardness of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. While the British looked at novelties as chances to be exploited, the De Maistre approach is fearful because he does not understand the nature of State/government, of power. The advices he provides are defensive and odd because he is apprehensive of what he cannot understand and so he does not know how to use. Finally he provides advices for perpetuating backwardness and instability instead of modernization and of a real Conservative program [Conservativein its British meaning, not in its etymological one] based on it.

At the same time, he is intellectually honest and sincere. He tell what everybody, in the power networks, thinks. While usually rulers and their intellectuals mystify, he talks freely and honestly. Power usually uses double speech. There is what it thinks and there is what it tells for mystifying what it actually does. De Maiste who, evidently, does not know the real art of power, which is the art of deceiving people for better exploiting and dominating them, tells what power thinks but it avoid to openly tell.

According to the author, before Christianity, slavery was considered a necessary part of the political order because that is a consequence of human nature and psychology. For him, if everybody has real civil rights, there is no way to govern a nation.

All this is incontestable. In fact, nowadays events show, everyday more, that freedoms, rights, democracy, absence of slavery, are only nominal while, by subtler and stronger other ways, the slavery and inequality have been formally denied be everyday reaffirmed and even in the harshest and more barbarian ways. People are persecuted and assassinated, from State/government, even without any formal and apparently fair judgment. States/Governments claim and want you to believe that you have rights while, in front of State/government, you have not.

There are partially secret laws giving unlimited and unaccountable power to governments, and to their Secret Police officers and corps. The nowadays monstrous development of State Terrorisms and militarism in all its forms, and the correlated unaccountability of State/government relatively to people and to formal/current law, provides a wide range of examples about that.   

The author asserts that, in antiquity, the large majority of people was in slavery. For him, no nation can be governed only by law. So religion is used if it can control people. In Russia, that would be improbable, for him, so, more than removing serfdom, what would have explosive consequence, it would be essential to reinforce nobility and other free social strata.

If you cannot sufficiently deceive people, you need to use pure force, so to preserve  formal hierarchies. That is a form of weakness for power. A strong power convince its people to be free and a real protagonist, as the British Crown did with its British subjects. It went on doing what it wanted while people was grateful to such a ‘liberal’ Crown claiming to be subjected to people and law while it was actually not.

In de Maistre, there is here a hierarchical vision of reality, which is absolutely realist. Is nowadays world less hierarchical that in antiquity? It does not seem. Nothing never changed and changes, from this point of view.

At the same time, one should underline that deceiving people making them believe that they are free, and manipulating them in other and more substantive way, is more effective and efficient than open discrimination. Nowadays world is more hierarchical and dominated by centralized aristocracies, but they are hidden ones. People must inevitably obey without any different possible choice, although usually thinking to live in a new era of democracy and freedoms.

De Maistre remains more attentive to forms than substance. Soviet Russia [we know he lived well before...], largely democratic at the lowest levels, created by its oppressive and super-terrorist means, a more aristocratic regime than the Czarist one and, finally, a stronger Russian power. ‘Communism’ was more DeMaistrian than Czarism although he would have disavowed it if he would have lived at that times. The same might be told about China, Korea, Vietnam etc. US and British ‘capitalism’ have been even more aristocratic and, since that, more successful, and world real Empires.

The key element is finally development and developmentalism,aliasstrong oligarchies capable of real achievements. This determines the success or the failure of social and political orders. The British monarchy could continuously restructure its social base, while the Russian one could not and finally perished. It was not capable to created different, more updated, forms of serfdom.   

His excessive attention to forms leads the author to his distrust for natural sciences. He is absolutely fearful of them. Actually the art or science of government can and must fruitfully use natural sciences.

For the author, religion is necessary or useful for submitting people. Science opposes religion. For submitting science, one needs Catholicism. This seems his vision. He does not understand that sciences can become new religions and that, anyway, also sciences are usable and actually used for submitting people. 

Enlightenment, Protestants, Jews, also a lot of other things, make him afraid because, for him, they weaken power. He has a fundamentalist vision of power instead than a functionalist or a pragmatic one. Power seems from him an achievement by itself. It come from God and so it is right and useful just for that. It is the natural order. Whatever power really be, science makes it stronger, not weaker. It is on the contrary its incapability to use science which makes it weaker and destructible.

His advice for Russia is all defensive. Limit the emancipation of peasants, their emancipation from serfdom. Do not consider emancipation as moral. Accord nobility both for landowning and merit at the same time. Limit the function of science and it propagation. Favour Orthodox and Roman Christianity, overall the latter. Watch over Protestant teaching because it is a universal dissolvent. Watch over foreigners, because 99% of them are dangerous, overall Germans and Protestants.     

For him, Calvinism is subversive while Jesuits are the best conservative force. Sovereignty comes from God and the sovereign personifies this sovereignty coming directly from God. That makes the sovereign holy and all revolt against him unjustifiable.    

The inconsistency of his political thought is not that he insists on the divine origins of political authority but that, finally, for him, only the power he likes, an immobilist one, has divine origins. Differently, to claim the divine origins of whatever political power would be a tautology. While to claim the divine origins of the power[s] we like is just a propagandist attitude. If power were really divine, that did not need to be claimed, apart from that this assertion were a metaphor or an allegory.  

De Maistre adores forms while abhorring the substance of reality he does not really understand.

de Maistre, J. M.,Quatre chapitres inédits sur la Russie, Libraire D’Aug. Vaton Editeur, Paris, France, 1859. 

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