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.