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.