Enlightenment & Sacrifice – Remarks on Joseph de Maistre

Maistre (1753 - 1821) Unknown Portraitist

Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre (1753 – 1821)

Joseph de Maistre’s Elucidation on Sacrifices, a late work of his authorship, appeared as an appendix in the posthumously published St. Petersburg Dialogues, one of the towering literary-philosophical monuments of early Nineteenth Century French letters.  Maistre (1753 – 1821) wrote the massive set of Dialogues and its brief sequel during the final decade of his fourteen-year appointment (1803 – 1817) as ambassador plenipotentiary of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia to the court of His Imperial Majesty Alexander II of Russia.  The Dialogues, which saw print in 1821, subsume and amplify the recurrent themes and theses of Maistre’s previous essayistic forays into theology, anthropology, and political theory in the form of a colossal Platonic seminar concerning, as the subtitle would have it, “The Temporal Government of Providence.”  Like his earlier Study on Sovereignty (1794), Considerations on France (1796), and Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809), the Dialogues and the Elucidation spring from their author’s direct experience of the French Revolution, which, for him and his family, proved dire.  Maistre sees in the Revolution an unprecedented civilizational upheaval – an episode, in fact, of anti-civilizational destructiveness that the observer can really only understand in mythopoeic or theological terms.  Maistre compares the Revolution to the depredations of the chaos-monster Typhon in Hesiod’s Theogony, whose violent disruption of the newly established cosmic order it fell to Zeus to put down by an application of overwhelming counter-violence.  Thus for Maistre the Revolution ferociously spites a continuum of wisdom, supplying the ground of any and all social stability, that roots itself ultimately in what he calls supernatural enlightenment.  In the Second Dialogue Maistre gives it to his spokesman, “The Count,” to assert how, in a much quoted phrase, “wherever you find an altar, there civilization is to be found” (Lebrun’s translation throughout)  Maistre’s altar signifies that the supernatural enlightenment locally still takes effect.  Men may profane the altar, but that reflects on them, not on the symbol.

I. Given Maistre’s deeply convicted Catholicism, readers will find themselves tempted to qualify Maistre’s altar with the exclusive qualifier of Christian, but the context of the remark says nay to the temptation. What is the context? Maistre’s Count is discussing with his interlocutors, “the Chevalier” and “the Senator,” the phenomenon of savagery – particularly as the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have understood, or rather have misunderstood, it.  The Eighteenth Century has espoused the notion of progress, he says, which, driven by a supposed reason, will gradually lift humanity out of superstition and irrational prejudice toward an entirely secular order.  The Eighteenth Century has also produced a penchant for resentment against anything in the existing arrangement that bruises the rationalist’s ego, which thus furnishes him with cause for complaint.  The complainant or critic assumes that the social dispensation, while an improvement over its precursor stages, is subject to reform in the direction of this-worldly perfection.  Rousseau adds the nuances that perhaps the social dispensation is not, in fact, an absolute improvement over its precursor stages; and that reformation must restore alleged elements of previous eras that the present era has displaced – such as the communism of property.  Of course these Eighteenth Century philosophes have repudiated not only the Christian Tradition but also the shared general Tradition of the civilized nations going back to remote antiquity – beyond remote antiquity, indeed, into undiscovered ages.  The philosophe cannot see that humanity is a fallen species whose perfection under temporality its own “deadly inclination towards evil” permanently annuls.  Nor can the philosophe grasp the action of Providence, which, as under the Karma of the Hindus and the Nemesis of the Greeks, guarantees that the punishment shall in due course fit the crime.

Pierre-Paul (1759 - 1823) Prudhon Nemesis (1808)

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758 – 1823): Nemesis (1808)

Take the Noachic Deluge, one of the topics in the Second Dialogue.  Whereas, Maistre gives it to the Count to say, “We know very little about the time before the Flood,” yet “only one consideration is of interest to us.”  The Count has in mind that “punishments are always proportional [to crimes] and crimes are always proportional to the knowledge of the guilty – so that the Flood presupposes unheard of crimes and these crimes assume knowledge infinitely higher than we possess today.”  This theory of lost knowledge links itself to the concept of supernatural enlightenment.  Noah and his family, Maistre through the Count argues, must have honored a knowledge that they possessed while everyone else must have flouted the same knowledge so as to bring on themselves a cosmic enormity.  In respect of the theory of knowledge, Maistre believes that modern epistemology suffers from a defect.  The ancients, Maistre asserts, could see effects in causes.  The modern epistemologist, by virtue so to speak of his egoistic limitation, can only “rise painfully from effects to causes”; or, what is even worse, he concerns himself “only with effects.”  He therefore misjudges the ancients to the degree that he cannot imagine the spontaneity and fullness of original knowledge.  The Count says that, “Plato, speaking of what is most important for man to know, suddenly adds with the penetrating simplicity natural to him: These things are learned easily and perfectly IF SOMEONE TEACHES THEM TO US.”  How did the generations after Noah and his family rebuild their world?  Was it by a painful beginning from the degree zero?  Noah, possessing knowledge, taught it to them; and on that basis they rebuilt their world.  Whence gleaned Noah that knowledge?  Noah was privy to a primordial revelation.  Maistre cites the Greco-Roman myth of the Golden Age, during which men governed themselves morally, and the legend of Manu, the lawgiver of the Hindus, as parallelisms.  “Wise antiquity,” Maistre writes, “will tell you that the first men… were marvellous men, and that beings of a superior order deigned to favour them with the most precious communications.”

Maistre affirms alongside the moral revelation a practical revelation, enjoyed by the earliest men.  The Count: “Not only did men begin with science, but with a science different from our own, and superior to our own because it had a higher origin, which is what made it more dangerous.”  Maistre cites the technical, especially the architectural, accomplishments of the ancients.  He refers to “certain Cyclopean constructions” and to the Pythagorean teachings as remnants of a vanished lore.  Even the pious descendants of Noah, however, dwelt in a fallen world and inherited the fallen condition of Adam.  In the fallen world, things degenerate; mortality governs everything.  This explains savagery.  Savages are not peoples stuck in the earliest stage of social development, unable to pass beyond it.  Rather – savages have, through the commission of sins, and by the response of Providence to those sins, bereaved themselves of the civilized status that formerly graced their existence.  Maistre, in rejecting Rousseau’s theory of the natural state of humanity, argues that the actual natural state of humanity is nothing other than “civilization.”  Maistre proposes a type of cyclicism, remarking that “some tribes that have been degraded [have] then painfully returned to the state of nature, that is to say, to civilization”; but the trend drags itself generally in the downward direction.  The Count adds that the false notion of savagery as corresponding to a lack of progress influences the response of modern people to the brutality of tribalism.  Maistre remarks that a deformation of charity led the Spanish clerisy in the New World to defend the indigenes too forcefully, while downplaying or ignoring the extravagant wickedness of the local customs.  Maistre writes pithily that, “To become criminals we must overcome our nature; the savage follows his.”  The Count claims that it is possible to see in the body of the savage the physical signs of a morally distorted condition.  He proleptically flouts the full code of political correctness – the seeds of which were already present in his day.

Maistre proposes a type of reverse Lamarckism.  Wickedness passes itself along from father to son and so forth down the generations.  Consider any great sinner.  The Count argues that, “If such a being is degraded, its offspring will never resemble that being’s primitive condition, but the state to which it has declined through some cause.”  The Count acknowledges original sin, but he also acknowledges “original sins of a secondary order.”  Some “moral illnesses,” says the Count, “belong to the ordinary state of human imperfection”; on the other hand, “there are certain transgressions or certain consequences of transgression that can degrade man absolutely.” These transgressions, which evoke original sin, constitute Maistre’s secondary category.  Maistre extends his argument to language.  The Count argues that whereas “the languages of… savages have been taken for primitive languages,” they can in fact “only be the debris of ancient languages, ruined, if I may put it that way, and degraded, like the men who speak them.”  The dissolution of language points in turn to a dissolution of intelligence.  According to the Count, “The essence of intelligence is to know and to love.”  Since no one can love evil, it follows that “if therefore man is subject to ignorance or evil, this can only be by virtue of an accidental degradation, which can only be the consequence of a crime.”  The concept of original sin, Maistre argues, never restricts itself to Holy Scripture, but informs pagan philosophy.  He cites Timon of Locris on his teacher, Pythagoras; he cites Plato and Cicero.  Timon quoted Pythagoras, for example, as having affirmed the principle, “That our vices come less from ourselves than from our fathers.”  In sum, Maistre contends that moral causality belongs to the order of being and the structure of reality, when viewed as God’s intelligent Creation.  He who achieves the beatific vision will, as did the earliest men, see effects in causes once again.  He will understand the workings of Providence.


Raphael (1483 – 1520) Pythagoras (From The School of Athens, 1520)

The initiated will discover in Maistre’s theory of a primordial endowment, divine in origin, a prefiguration of the Traditionalism of the first half of the last century.  René Guénon asserts in his Crisis of the Modern World (1927) that Western civilization lives out its existence in a dark age that began six thousand years ago.  “Since that time,” Guénon writes, “the truths which were formerly within reach of all have become more and more hidden and inaccessible,” such that “those who possess them grow fewer and fewer, and although the treasure of ‘nonhuman’ (that is, super-human) wisdom that was prior to all the ages can never be lost, it nevertheless becomes enveloped in more and more impenetrable veils.”  Julius Evola’s Revolt against the Modern World (1969) takes seriously the idea, globally ubiquitous in myth, which struck Maistre and later on Guénon as plausible: Namely that the present condition of self-congratulating modernity consists in fact in a paltry bricolage in the aftermath of catastrophe.  “In the beginning,” Evola writes, “there were no animal-like cavemen, but rather ‘more-than-human’ beings,” such as Plato’s “inhabitants of Atlantis, conceived as the descendants and disciples of the gods, who lost the divine element and… allowed their human nature to become prominent” until, increasingly arrogant and wicked in their behavior, their island-continent experienced seismic convulsions and sank beneath the waves.  In the Twenty-First Century, one might link Graham Hancock to Maistre, if only because Hancock, like Maistre, refuses to consult the Encyclopedia on history, and finds in the chronology of practical human endeavor a greater depth than do the members of the history faculty.  Where modernity runs shallow, Maistre runs deep.  His successors in the School of Reaction have inherited his depth.

In his Introduction to The St. Petersburg Dialogues, translator Lebrun remarks that a number of presumably contemporary commentators on Maistre’s masterpiece have questioned his “mental health.”  Such a reaction tells much more about the contemporary left-liberal or modern mentality than it tells about Maistre’s state of mind.  If Maistre supported capital punishment – then he must be insane.  If he argued that many things exceed war in immorality – then again he must be insane.  If he opposed the Jacobins – well then he must really have been insane.  As Lebrun points out, the Dialogues comprise a literary work whose astonishing rhetoric serves the goal, as Maistre himself wrote, “to force the reader to know what he believes.”  The Second Dialogue is especially the prequel to Maistre’s Elucidation, where he seeks to explain the origin of that evil institution, human sacrifice, and where he argues that modernity reveals its essence as sacrificial and therefore also as savage.

II. The Elucidation on Sacrifices comes from late in Maistre’s life. On the basis of it the scholar of language Eric L. Gans, in his Scenic Imagination (2007), has called Maistre “the first anthropologist.” Gans means that Maistre interested himself in the origins of institutions.  So, too, did Rousseau, as an objector might say; but Rousseau’s investigations explicitly put aside all facts, as he announces programmatically in his Essay on Inequality (1754).  Maistre, on the other hand avails himself of a thorough knowledge of ancient literature and myth, and to the extent that it existed in his day, archaeology.  Maistre looks for evidence from which to draw plausible conclusions.  Rousseau simply makes things up.  One of Maistre’s presumptions in the Elucidation (one which invites, for various reasons, the interest of Gans) holds that the notions of God and Man must have emerged simultaneously.  In the first of three chapters, Maistre expresses this thought in a negative formulation: “Far be it from me to believe that for humanity the idea of God could have had a beginning, or, in other words, that it could be younger than man himself.”  (Gans, in his theory of language-origin, argues that the first word functioned both as the name of God and the self-denomination of the newly emergent community.)  Maistre observes, however, that a certain ambiguity attaches itself to the concept of divinity.  One the one hand, “man has always been convinced of this terrible truth, that he lives under the hand of an angry power.”  On the other hand, as Maistre remarks, “by giving God names expressing greatness, power, and goodness” and by celebrating him with “music, poetry, [and] dance,” men demonstrate their intuition of joyous communion with him.  Maistre thus rejects Petronius’ declaration, derived from that author’s Epicurean orientation, that “it was human fear that first engendered the gods.”  While these two representations of deity resist reconciliation, Maistre nevertheless believes that they enjoy a relation as phases in a temporal sequence.  Maistre will accomplish this reconciliation through recourse to the supernatural enlightenment that he invoked in the Dialogues.

Gabriel Metsu (1588 - 1629) Crucifixion (1660s)

Gabriel Metsu (1588 – 1627): Crucifixion (1660s)

Maistre calls up his image of “primitive men,” a phrase that he uses with an opposite meaning from that which it acquires in Rousseau.  One recalls that, for Maistre, the primitive humanity corresponded not to the comic-book model of isolated troglodytes, but to an original, fully formed humanity in a remote pre-diluvian age.  Such men believed that “the gods are good” and that men “owe them praise and thanksgiving.”  They also believed that whereas “the gods are good… we are guilty.”  It follows that men must atone for their transgressions, “and the best way of accomplishing this is sacrifice.”  These tenets of the ancient dispensation anticipating those of Biblical religion, Maistre adds that “there is no Christian dogma that does not have its root in man’s inner nature in a tradition as old as humanity.”  The argument at this point complicates itself in a long divagation on two topics, the distinction between soul and spirit, and the identification of blood with a vital principle.  Maistre implicitly defines soul as the animating principle in living entities.  Thus even animals possess a soul.  In addition to soul, men possess spirit, which corresponds to intelligence and moral conscience.  The soul pulls men in the direction of their appetites; the spirit pulls them in the direction of “duty.”  When appetite prevails over conscience, it remains possible for conscience to reassert its dignity through atonement.  Conscience must then pay its debt to morality.  As it is the blood that has sinned, the penitent must offer blood or the equivalent in assuagement of divine offense.  The sacrifices of the aboriginal humanity differed, presumably, from the sacrifices of the later, fallen humanity.  The one might have been purely representational, the other gross – animal blood at first but then, through the action of Adam’s culpa, human blood.

Maistre turns his attention to the deformation of the original atonement-by-sacrifice as this appears both in the ritual excesses of the decadent ancients and in the bloody ceremonies of the existing savages.  As Maistre explains, “the entire theory [of human sacrifice] rests on the dogma of substitution,” but only as misunderstood.  A slight ambiguity enters Maistre’s argument when he writes how “it is believed (as it has been believed and always will be believed) that the innocent can pay for the guilty, a less valuable life can be offered and accepted for another.”  Who, exactly, has endorsed this deformation?  Maistre refers to animal offerings, so the custom that he defines must have belonged to the mythic and historic eras – where it appeared, for example, as the Homeric hecatomb.  Human sacrifice therefore corresponds to an even further degeneration of a revealed concept and to a concomitant lapse from the original morality.  Maistre detects in animal sacrifice a halfway stage between the original gesture of purely spiritual atonement and the savage custom of a human offering.  “It must be noticed,” Maistre writes, “that in sacrifices properly speaking, animals that are foreign to man, like wild beasts, snakes, fish, birds of prey, etc., were never immolated.”  Rather, the sacrificers invariably chose the animals “nearest to man because of their instincts and habits.”  Maistre continuously emphasizes the substitutive function of sacrifice.  In the Mithraic rite, for example, the initiate experiences a symbolic death-and-rebirth – the purported equivalent of his spiritual regeneration – by letting himself be baptized in a deluge of fresh hot bull’s blood. The bull dies, its throat slit, as the substitute for the initiate.  Maistre’s employment of the word baptism deliberately links the Mithraic rite to the Eucharist, but only ironically as a privative and gross parody of the Eucharist.

The second chapter of Elucidation devotes itself entirely to “Human Sacrifices.”  Maistre’s opening sentence makes clear his thesis: “The doctrine of substitution being universally received, there could be no doubt about the efficacy of sacrifices being proportional to the importance of victims; and this double belief, right in its roots but corrupted by the force that corrupts everything, gave birth to the horrible superstition of human sacrifices, a practice found everywhere.”  Maistre alludes to Lucretius, who in The Nature of Things instances Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, as one of the debasements to which religion leads: “What! – The blood of an innocent girl was necessary for the departure of a fleet or the success of war!”  Whereas in the Fourth Dialogue Maistre took issue with Lucretius’ physics (“nonsense,” he calls it); in respect of the Epicurean attitude towards an “abominable custom,” Maistre finds himself in generic agreement.  Consistent with the Gospel, Maistre rejects the utilitarian principle implicit in the question, “to save an army, a city, even a great sovereign, what is one man?”  The temptation attracts men especially when, in a time of crisis, the one man is “a criminal or an enemy.”  But who then, as the question poses itself, is “a criminal or an enemy”?  It required the re-articulation of the supernatural enlightenment, in the form of the Gospel, to remind men that the gods delectated not in the blood of criminals and enemies; that they regarded punishment as contingent on crime, and therefore as justified, but crime itself as unnecessary.  Thus in Maistre’s analysis, Christianity constitutes itself as the overcoming and rejection of the sacred.  Christian morality resolves the confusion of innocence and guilt implicit in the debased and debasing phenomenon of the sacred.

Anton Schneiderfranken aka Bo Yin Ra (1876 - 1943) Weltenkeime

Anton Schneiderfranken (1876 – 1943): Supernatural Enlightenment (1930) [AKA Weltkeime]

Maistre puts forward his analysis of the sacred in a thorny paragraph that, by its philological complexity, challenges interpretation.  In swatch of prose, Maistre thinks his way, by means of etymology, into the subjectivity of the sacred – into the error from which the Passion will have rescued man, at least in potentia.  Both the Latin sacer and the Greek hosios, as Maistre argues, participate in a blended dualism, which corresponds precisely to the just mentioned confusion of innocence and culpability.  A murderer through his fell deed makes of himself an enormity in the eyes of the community.  As Maistre writes: “The ancients believed that every capital crime committed in the state bound the nation, and that the criminal was sacred and bound to the gods until, by the shedding of his blood, he was un-bound, both himself and the nation.”  Under this type of magical thinking, the sacred hardly distinguishes itself from the miasma of the homicidal transgression.  Maistre points out that the Latin expiare and its Greek equivalent aposioun might best translate themselves as “de-sacralization.”  Sacrifice, from the point of view of the sacrificers, un-binds the community from the divine mandate of vengeance.  If the people failed to make a sanguine example of the accused, or of a substitute for him, they would become complicit in the crime; or rather, they remain complicit in the crime until they have closed the circle.  But who then is a criminal?  Maistre, who served as a magistrate, grants that without a system of laws and punishments, no social order could sustain itself.  Under the reign of the sacred, however, “it was only one step from the criminal to the enemy.”  In all known cases of the sacred it swiftly developed that “every enemy was a criminal, and equally unfortunately, every foreigner was an enemy when they needed victims.”

In addition, archaic communities interpret natural and social crises – such as plague or famine or mere social unease – as signs of crime.  They then go looking for perpetrators – i.e., victims – whose blood will placate divine displeasure and avert collective punishment.  This tendency joins itself to the expansion of the victimary categories.  “Up to twenty thousand human victims per year,” Maistre reminds his readers, “had to be brought to the Mexican priests, and to acquire them war had to be declared on some people; but in case of need the Mexicans sacrificed their own children.”  In their Classical Age, the Athenians still practiced the pharmakos rite.  Modernity cannot excuse itself from the perennial and atrocious tendency.  If one recoils in horror from human sacrifice – one owes the sentiment “only to the law of love,” that is, to the Gospel.  Repudiate the Gospel and cultural atavism becomes inevitable.  Maistre furnishes his readers with an example: “A famous nation, which had attained the highest degree of civilization and refinement, dared not long, in a fit of delirium, formally to suspend this law.  What did we see?  In a blink of the eye, the customs of the Iroquois and the Algonquin; the holy laws of humanity trod under foot; innocent blood covering the scaffolds that covered France; men curling and powdering their bloody heads, and the very mouths of women stained with human blood.”  Religion can abase itself, as Lucretius claimed; but no society can dispense with religion, Maistre argues, and survive.  Lucretius, Maistre urges, “saw only the abuses, just like all his successors, who are infinitely less excusable than he.”

III. The force of Maistre’s analysis leads him to the following conclusion: “We know by an experiment of forty centuries, which is long enough, that wherever the true God is not known and served by virtue of an express revelation, man will always sacrifice men, and often eat them.”  (Maistre, incidentally, referred to history as experimental politics.)  From the Revolution in particular Maistre draws another, complementary thesis, namely that the horror of sacrificial religion would diminish itself by comparison with the atrocities “produced by absolute impiety.”  Maistre’s anthropology gains credibility as it passes through the impious violence of the Socialist Century and the strengthening witch-frenzy of its sequel, the Twenty-First Century.  While Maistre’s argument rejects sacrifice as an abomination, it never includes a blanket-rejection of Paganism.  In a subtle rhetorical move Maistre entitles his third and final chapter “The Christian Theory of Sacrifices.”  In this chapter, he returns in a manner of speaking to his claim from the St. Petersburg Dialogues that “wherever you find an altar, there civilization is to be found.”  Maistre’s altar is once again not exclusively Christian.  Indeed, “The Christian Theory of Sacrifices” begins with a vindication of the higher reaches of Paganism.  Maistre proposes the pregnant question: “What truth cannot be found in paganism?”  The ensuing long sequence of paragraphs, some long, some short, constitute among themselves a veritable catalogue of the truths that can be found in the Olympian Cult and its philosophical development – all of which, as it must, it shares with Christianity.  Paganism never anticipates Christianity, but it reflects the supernatural enlightenment at the origin of humanity which is identical with Christianity.

Jan Brueghel de Oude (1568 - 1625) en Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640) - Fall of Man (1617)

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568 – 1625): The Fall of Man (1617)

Whereas “there are several gods and several lords” in the pantheon in respect of whom “we must aspire to friendship and… favour,” as Maistre writes; nevertheless “there is one single Jupiter, who is the supreme god[,] the god not only God, but WHOLLY GOD [and] the all-powerful father.”  Beyond that, as Maistre reminds his readers, while citing as his source the Divine Institutions of Lactantius, “Jupiter was only properly adored with Pallas and Juno, the cult of the three powers being by its nature indivisible.”  In the Dialogues, Maistre extends his Lactantius-like apology for Paganism to Pythagoras, whom he much admires, and in whose visionary pronouncements he finds, as he does also in the worship of Jove, the signs of a Trinitarian orientation.  In the Elucidation, Maistre discovers additional traces of a Trinitarian orientation in Plato’s Second Letter; he bases his interpretation of it on a generous commentary that he borrows from Origen’s treatise On First Principles.  Maistre, who praises Ovid’s Metamorphoses, borrows the Ovidian device.  Whereas “it is quite true that Venus originally came forth from the water,” as Maistre writes, “she returned there at the time of the flood”; nevertheless “she subsequently came forth again in the form of a dove.”  The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, which appears in suchlike avian guise at the Baptism of Christ.  Jesus preaches the Good News of Love.  Venus was a goddess of physical love.  Her return to the waters that bare her signifies her baptism – her re-assimilation to the supernatural enlightenment hence also her liberation from the reign of what Maistre calls “materialization.”

Grace acts constantly to redeem error even when error stubbornly digs in its heels.  In a footnote (No. 25) to Chapter Three of the Elucidation, Maistre compares “the deification of a sovereign” in the Pagan world with “the canonization of a hero of Christianity in the Church.”  These instances differ, he writes, “only as negative and positive actions.”  In the first instance, according to Maistre, error puts itself on display; in the second – truth.  “Everything,” he adds, “stems from the same principles, for error, again, can only be corrupted truth.”  How does the moral view of sacrifice differ from the degraded view?  The moral view connects sacrifice with fallenness and with the prospect of redemption.  If civilized people agreed that holocausts of arbitrary victims could never please a just deity, then those people would also have formed the notion of “the marvellous efficacy of the voluntary sacrifice of innocence dedicating itself to God as a propitiatory victim.”  So, too, “men have always attached a boundless value to this submission of the just who accept sufferings.”  In Considerations of France (1797), Maistre had likened the executions of the royals to a savage sacrificial spectacle.  He returns to the topic in the Elucidation.  He remarks how King Louis insisted that, “I MUST NOT SEEK TO AROUSE INTEREST IN MY FATE.”  Maistre sees in the king’s determination the tokens of an Imitatio Christi.  He sees anticipation of the Passion, in which innocence suffers, in chapters of Paganism – such that, for example, “the blood of Lucretia chased out the Tarquins” and redeemed the Roman state.

Maistre’s admiration for Origen (184 – 253) leads the Elucidation, as it winds to its conclusion, in surprising and exciting directions.  If Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists could claim the spiritual and artistic inheritance of Maistre (Baudelaire regarded himself as Maistre’s successor) then so perhaps also could the planetary astronomers Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835 – 1910) Camille Flammarion (1842 – 1925), and, although it will likely impress one as unbelievable, genre writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) and Philip Jose Farmer (1918 – 2009).  It is worth noting that one of Maistre’s unpublished works, dating from 1799, bears the title Les Planètes.  In its pages Maistre addresses the topic of the plurality of worlds.  This topic concerns the theological concept of plenitude, which holds that God wishes to fill Creation with his creatures, and with the associated idea that other worlds must therefore support the existence of other humanities.  Maistre regarded the plurality theory enthusiastically.  In the Elucidation, Maistre returns to his earlier enthusiasm.  He quotes Origen to the effect that when Christ offered Himself on Calvary, the shedding of his blood “was not only useful to men, but to the angels, the stars, and all other created beings.”  He notes that St. John Chrysostom echoed Origen, arguing for the Crucifixion as an event effective, in Maistre’s paraphrase, “for the whole universe”; and he quotes Origen directly that “the lamb alone could take upon himself the sins of the whole world,” where world implies, not merely the earth, but the other celestial bodies. 

Farmer Jesus on Mars

Philip Jose Farmer (1918 -2009): Jesus on Mars (1979)

Maistre asserts his conviction that “a planetary system can be [nothing] else than system of intelligences, and each planet in particular… a home for one these families.”  He objects to theologians “who deny themselves the hypothesis of a plurality of worlds for fear that it would overturn the dogma of redemption” and who insist that “we must believe that man, travelling in space on his sad planet, miserably cramped between Mars and Venus, is the sole intelligent being in the system.”  The latter notion, Maistre judges a vanity, which would saddle “the Infinite Being” with “ridiculous boundaries on his power and love.”  Maistre would certainly have enjoyed Schiaparelli’s Vita sul pianeta Marte (1893) or Flammarion’s Planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité (1909) had he lived beyond his time to read them.  He would also have appreciated Burroughs’ Princess of Mars (1912), whose protagonist’s initials are J.C., and Farmer’s Jesus on Mars (1979).  Burroughs’ John Carter becomes the virtual savior of Mars – a most fallen planet on which he has been resurrected after his death on earth.  Farmer’s Jesus, having already redeemed Mars, undertakes to redeem earth a second time.  “If the inhabitants of other planets,” Maistre writes in response to the anti-pluralists, “are not guilty like us, they have no need of the same remedy.”  On the other hand, “If on the contrary, the same remedy is necessary for them, those theologians that I have just mentioned, do they therefore fear that the power of the sacrifice that saved us cannot reach the moon?”

In Maistre’s observation that sacrifice, whether of the degraded or pure type, creates “religious unity” stem those noteworthy intellectual labors, Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss’ Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions (1898), and René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred (1966), not to mention its sequels.  Girard stands closest to Maistre although peculiarly no reference to the latter occurs in the indices of the former’s many books.  Girard’s theory that sacrifice, in the form of his mimetic crisis, generated the human community, which then ritually reproduced the formative homicide whenever it felt the threat of internal fractiousness, corresponds with numerous statements by Maistre.  Girard also understands the Passion in Maistrian terms – as a singular and complete repudiation of the gross type of sacrifice and the inauguration of an entirely new social organizational principle.  Perhaps Girard found in Maistre’s emphasis on blood, including the blood of the lamb, too much of a reminiscence of the gross or degenerate sacrifice.  Girard occasionally wrote of “the sacrificial interpretation” of Christianity, which he opposed.  It must be said in defense of Maistre, however, that he emphasizes love in the Elucidation quite as much as he emphasizes blood.  Moreover, the bloodletting of degenerate sacrifice proved itself ineffective – that is why it had to be repeated frequently and everywhere.  The voluntary self-offering of Christ needed but a single iteration.

8 thoughts on “Enlightenment & Sacrifice – Remarks on Joseph de Maistre

  1. Pingback: Enlightenment & Sacrifice – Remarks on Joseph de Maistre | Reaction Times

  2. It’s curious that you will hear from moderns that because you hear, say, flood stories from different cultures, that therefore the flood story cannot be true. I recall at one time being convinced of this, but now I cannot remember why.

    I saw that McGill-Queen’s University Press is coming out in October with a new edition of the dialogues.

    Thanks very much for this essay.

    • Thank you for your comment. Because every aspect of modernity is anti-metaphysical, I tend to experience skepticism concerning just about every modern claim. Descent from a remotely ancient civilization seems as likely to me as the Darwinian ascent from the primitive to the civilized. Also: I really cannot regard the prevailing Western dispensation as civilized. It makes use of items that it has inherited from actual civilization — but it is savage in many ways, not to say completely Bedlam-wise insane.

      Imperium Press (Western Australia) will bring out a new edition of the essay on The Generative Principle of Political Constitutions later this year, for which I have supplied an introduction.

      Any new translation of Maistre is, of course, welcome, but it is hard for me to believe that anyone will ever outdo Richard Lebrun, who also translated Maistre’s immense tome on Francis bacon.

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