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Mixing it up over Maistre

An old libertarian friend, Todd Seavey, posted an entry in his blog regarding The Works of Joseph de Maistre that complained about Maistre and mentioned me, so in response I posted a couple of comments that I think make sense even apart from the original setting. The point at issue, as you will see, was Maistre’s sometimes startling emphasis on the role of violence in human life.

Here’s the first:

Sade is the libertarian to compare Maistre with. Maistre liked the Church and Sade liked freedom, but they had a lot in common. They were (culturally) French aristocrats, so they were clear-headed and cold-blooded, and they were willing to follow the line of thought that appealed to them wherever it went and didn’t care what other people thought.

They were also men of the Enlightenment (Maistre was a Mason) who realized that all the stuff about reason and utility left out the actual human condition. So they broke with the Enlightenment in some ways. In particular, they noticed that people aren’t satisfied with the patient accumulation of small material advantages, they want something grander. And they saw the human need–almost a logical necessity–for something that transcends the quotidian and puts it in its place, so that people can know who, what, and where they are.

For premodern man that transcendent was of course God. Unfortunately, men of the Enlightenment can only go with what can be demonstrated through science etc., and that doesn’t include anything transcendent. The natural response is to turn to strong medicine that overwhelms other sensations and concerns–sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, whatever. The strongest medicine, of course, is extreme violence. That provides a point of reference absolute enough for a lucid and unsentimental French aristocrat to recognize as something capable without pretense of organizing human experience in a suitably authoritative way. Hence Sade’s endless scenes of torture, and hence Maistre’s ode to the executioner.

That’s OK for Sade, he’s into ultraviolence and freedom, so freedom to be ultraviolent is good enough for him. For Maistre though it raises the question of what it has to do with Catholicism.

My answer is that the torture etc. has to do with Maistre’s views as a political scientist. He noted that man from the standpoint of empirical science can’t do without violence. Nothing seems weighty enough otherwise. That’s why heads of state admire each others’ soldiers when they go on visits.

That’s not satisfactory, but what do you do about it? Maistre’s answer is that to establish order you need a state that is based on violence–they all are, that’s unavoidable–but to limit state violence and organize it toward something other than still greater violence, and to bring the inevitable violence of the world into an order that reconciles us to the world, you need to put something at the apex of the system that can deal with violence but transcends it. He notes that Christ (the crucified victim who is also the divine cause of the universe) fits the bill. Hence the throne and altar thing.

A response might be that America proves that the peaceable secular libertarian commercial republic works, so all this drama about man’s bloodthirstiness and the need for a principle of sanctified authority to tame it is just another case of a (cultural) Frenchman striking a pose in some salon.

I’m doubtful. American government wasn’t all that secular until the ’60s, and the change didn’t make us more libertarian. We’ve still got the executioner and lots of jails, the national anthem is still about bombs bursting in air, and we’re becoming progressively more militarized and imperial. Also, Europeans from Tocqueville on have noted that the price of our freedom and comfort is conformity. So far as I can tell, post-60s liberation has made us more conformist and less capable of thinking about anything than ever. (The Europeans have joined us in that regard and in some ways even seem to be outdoing us. They don’t want to think anything through.)

All this of course is not to say that everything Maistre says is sensible. His comment on faith for example sounds fideist, which is actually a Catholic heresy. But if someone identifies issues and shows their relationships we can say “on the other hand” for ourselves.

And here’s the second:

Neither I nor Maistre wants violence. (The same is not true of the nonjudgmental liberty-minded Sade. I don’t know about other possibly less serious people.)

The point is that actual violence has a trump card: it’s undeniably real and has to be taken seriously. People are drawn to that. We all belong to the reality-based community, so we want to tie into whatever is most real, and violence is plenty real. That’s why it’s the ultima ratio and final persuader. It resolves problems, if only by getting rid of the people who think there’s a problem or whose absence would get rid of the problem.

So it’s a constant presence in human life, at least in concept, and a constant temptation. The issue is how to deal with that situation. The usual answer today is various distractions, diversions, bribes, etc. combined with education and cultural changes that make people less able to function effectively apart from institutions like business corporations or government bureaucracies that can be supervised and controlled in a reasonably straightforward way.

The result in the first half of the 20th c. was less low-level informal violence but more gigantic official violence. People would be law-abiding in daily life but would do horrendous things when ordered to do so. Or they’d stand in line patiently waiting to be murdered.

Today it seems more a mixture. After mid-century violent lowlifes became more of a problem, while middle and upper class people became terminally mild-mannered. More recently international violence has become more diffuse, widespread, and unpredictable although the scale’s smaller than it used to be.

So violence is still with us and it’s not going away. The objection to your approach, at least as a sole approach, is that it tries to handle a basic problem with non-basic means. Instead of murdering each other we’ll play World of Warcraft and participate in political discussion groups. One problem with the approach is that people don’t always substitute. Breivik played video games, engaged in political discussions, AND murdered people.

Another problem is that the ultima ratio in the current system always turns out to be a bribe, and you can’t keep bribing people forever. Eventually you run out of bribes to give, as in Europe today. When that happens things get very nasty unless there’s some other strong influence in the picture.

So Maistre’s point is that in addition to non-basic palliatives like football and guaranteed consumer goodies you need a basic solution–an ens realissimum (most real being, a.k.a. God) that’s even more real than violence is. That has to be part of the way people think about things, and it has to be part of public reality. That’s where his alliance of throne and altar comes in. Without that alliance or something like it (e.g., the informally established Protestantism we still had in living memory in America) you just have bribes and diversions to fall back on, and those give out eventually and under moderate pressure.



Mr. Kalb,

Thank you for the hard work you have done in presenting de Maistre to the rest of us. I have a book entitled, The French Right, from de Maistre to Maurras (edited by George Steiner). That book includes “Two Extracts from [de Maistre’s] The Study of Sovereignty” and “Extract from the Seventh of The St. Petersburg Dialogues.” After having read your comments to Todd Seavey, I finally had the interpretive keys necessary for me to understand de Maistre’s argument concerning the therapeutic functions of violence. I have been thinking about this stuff all morning.

De Maistre is basically saying that blood-letting is not necessarily redemptive, but is really self punitive (in such a meta-physical way that the flagellants don’t even know what they are doing!). Paradoxically, the self flagellation ends up being redemptive, because it cleans up a whole bunch of un-expiated sins and wickedness that the culture has been accruing for years. Wow!

I have read the Lew website for years, and I can’t imagine anything that would be more hated by the anarcho-libertarians over there.
Mr. Seavey’s response seems pretty typical. I have ordered the complete Works of Joseph de Maistre so that I can follow up on what I’ve been reading. The reason I am writing these comments is not to tell you anything you didn’t already know, but to say Thanks for turning me on to a new line of thought that helps to clear up a number of problems in my own thinking.

Finn McCool (mythical Irish giant)

You never know when you’re going to say something that turns out to be the missing piece someone needs. In all fairness though I think Todd was very tolerant when I basically said Sade was a typical libertarian …

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Hi Jim,

Have you read Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind? He dedicates a chapter to discussing conservatives and violence touches on de Maistre.

He also wrote a blog post on the subject here. You may be interested:…

I looked at an account or two and it appeared that he takes the usual leftist approach of interpreting politics as basically a matter of who whom: who has power and who doesn’t. The blog post looks rather long but will read it.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

We can learn when and what to fight by referring to history instead of relying too much on abstract philosophy. The Founders tried to make the will of all the people count rather than the will of a single individual, whether a monarch or a distant nation with no interest in the travails of others. They succeeded. They also tried to protect individual liberty and religious freedom by writing down such rights in a constitution. But they did not dream that just twelve years later a Supreme Court justice (in Marbury v. Madison) would tear their writing and their beneficiaries would not succeed in stopping the tear from expanding ever so gradually until it became incomprehensibly shredded.

The inability of most brilliant legal scholars to predict what the Supreme Court will decide proves the Constitution is incomprehensible.

Traditionalists are trying to repair the tears but are losing because of an invasion by Mexicans. Electing Rubio as V.P. is the equivalent of electing a Mexican intent on the Reconquista. The Alamo and Colonel William Travis’ heart wrenching letter (still on the Alamo’s wall) will become meaningless: “I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily.” I don’t know whether Rubio harbors a love of Mexicans, but his inclusion is, at a minimum, a signal that Romney wants some kind of amnesty and does not have the desire to stop a non-white takeover of America.

How did the tearing continue? Stare decisis. The justices have used the phrase stare decisis to mollify their consciences. The phrase means precedent, but it also has become incomprehensible. It has worthwhile merit as a principle meant to build public trust and predictability in the Court’s future decisions. Instead of having to reflect on the real import of their abominating decisions, the justices pretend to use stare decisis. That is, they distract themselves by using their big brains to agonize mightily over their past decisions (many of which were wrong) in order to scrap together something that seems like stare decisis. But in the end, they do what they want. Roe v. Wade and every decision supporting it are the best examples of the Court doing what it wants.

The recent Arizona immigration decision is a prime example. Kennedy’s judicial activism is exhibited by his paragraph:

Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime. The equities of an individual case may turn on many factors, including whether the alien has children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service. Some discretionary decisions involve policy choices that bear on this Nation’s international relations. Returning an alien to his own country may be deemed inappropriate even where he has committed a removable offense or fails to meet the criteria for admission. The foreign state may be mired in civil war, complicit in political persecution, or enduring conditions that create a real risk that the alien or his family will be harmed upon return. The dynamic nature of relations with other countries requires the Executive Branch to ensure that enforcement policies are consistent with this Nation’s foreign policy with respect to these and other realities.

Kennedy pretends to talk about whether Arizona has attempted to legislate where the sovereign has legislated but actually concludes states lack the capacity to embrace “immediate human concerns.” In other words, if a state law affects immediate human concerns, only the federal government has the authority and the human ability to embrace those concerns. This is obnoxious precedent. Oh but some will argue the Court tied its decision to federal immigration laws.

Oh but all federal laws affect human concerns. For example, using Kennedy’s reasoning, because the federal government has empowered states to garnish a veteran’s benefits for child support but only to the extent the veteran has waived any military retired pay (a rare situation), states therefore no longer have the power to garnish anyone for child support because only the federal government has the human capacity to embrace immediate human concerns?

History teaches us that we need to scrap stare decisis. Congress and the President have the power to limit the jurisdiction of the Judiciary without amending the Constitution. Deprive the Court of its power to rely on its prior decisions. This would require the Court to start over without actually abrogating the Court’s prior decisions. The Court could follow the decisions, but it could no longer pretend it is bound by the decisions. The Court would need to come up with rational, fact-based arguments. If the Court disagrees, it has no power to enforce its will.

It is amazing to read that “the Court defies constitutional scholars.” There is no such thing as a scholar that can predict what the Court will do. No doubt these scholars are scholars, but are they practicing attorneys? I expect many are not based on the headlines. A practicing attorney knows that his arguments are just that, arguments, not necessarily truth. The practitioner knows he is rolling the dice.

Of course there is some predictability in the Court’s decisions, not because the Court has principles, but because the lower courts issue a massive number of stupid decisions that the Court finds expedient to control through precedent. Instead of sanctioning irresponsible courts such as the Ninth Circuit, the Court chastises them. Heck, just automatically overturn their decisions with no analysis (as is done in a number of cases). Just say, “Reversed.” Or transfer the stupid decisions to another circuit for reconsideration. But that would call into question the whole system of life-tenured oligarchs.

I don’t mean to imply snobbishness on the part of practitioners. It is the headlines that are stupid, not the professors. Every year an employment discrimination group I belong to is graced (not just monthly by smart practitioners) but by a brilliant law professor from a university in my state that usually has the highest success rate on the bar exam when compared to four universities. He drives 80 miles each way for free. He tries to sum up all the Court’s decisions in the past year in an hour, since everyone is very busy. (We always let him go over.) He gives a flawless nonstop dissertation. No “Uhs.” (I don’t practice in this field any longer, but I still go to it to keep up–you never know when you will need it–and because it is the best around.) He always says (a little tongue in cheek I expect) that he is infallible when predicting Court decisions: he is always wrong. I need to research whether Las Vegas has a line on Court decisions. I could call the professor and place a bet for us both.