Considerations on France
Considerations on France (French: Considérations sur la France) is a 1796 political pamphlet by the Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre concerning the dramatic events that took place in Europe at the time of the French Revolution. It exerted a powerful influence over the French opinion and was widely read all over Europe, contributing in laying the foundations for political conservatism. In terms of literary brilliance and political influence, the pamphlet is often compared to Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) by contemporary political thinker Edmund Burke.
In his work, Maistre claimed that France has a divine mission as the principal instrument of good and evil on Earth. He interpreted the Revolution as a providential event in which the aristocracy and the Ancien Régime in general, instead of directing the influence of French civilization to the benefit of mankind, had promoted the atheistic doctrines of the 18th-century philosophers. He claimed that the crimes of the Reign of Terror were the logical consequence of Enlightenment thought as well as its divinely-decreed punishment.
- We are all attached to the throne of the Supreme Being by a supple chain that restrains us without enslaving us. Nothing is more admirable in the universal order of things than the action of free beings under the divine hand. Freely slaves, they act voluntarily and necessarily at the same time; they really do what they will, but without being able to disturb the general plans. Each of these beings occupies the centre of a sphere of activity whose diameter varies according to the will of the Eternal Geometer, who can extend, restrict, check, or direct the will without altering its nature.
- p. 3
- In divine works, everything, even obstacles, are means.
- p. 3
- Men do not lead the revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. They are right when they say it goes all alone. This phrase means that never has the Divinity shown itself so clearly in any human event. If the vilest instruments are employed, punishment is for the sake of regeneration.
- p. 8
- Every nation, like every individual, has received a mission that it must fulfil. France exercises over Europe a veritable magistracy that it would be useless to contest and that she has most culpably abused. In particular, she was at the head of the religious system, and not without reason was her king called most Christian; Bossuet was never able to say too much on this point. And so, since she has used her influence to contradict her vocation and demoralize Europe, we should not be surprised if she is brought back to her mission by terrible means.
- p. 9
- Too many French scholars were the principal authors of the Revolution, too many approved and gave their support so long as the Revolution, like Tarquinius' sceptre, struck down only the tallest heads. Like so many others, they said, It is impossible to make a great revolution without incurring misfortunes. But when a philosopher justifies evil by the end in view, when he says in his heart, Let there be a hundred thousand murders, provided we are free, and Providence replies, I accept your offer, but you must be included in the number, where is the injustice?
- pp. 9–10
- Our descendants, who will worry very little about our sufferings and will dance on our graves, will laugh at our present ignorance; they will easily console themselves for the excesses that we have seen and that will have preserved the integrity of 'the most beautiful realm after that of heaven'.
- p. 16
- If Providence erases, it is no doubt in order to write.
- p. 20
- Providence has given the French nation precisely two instruments, two arms, so to speak, with which it stirs up the world – the French language and the spirit of proselytism that forms the essence of the nation's character.
- p. 20
- The Gallican church was a cornerstone of the Catholic system, or better, the Christian system, for in truth there is only the one. Although they may perhaps doubt it, churches opposing the universal Church subsist only by virtue of its existence, being similar to those parasitic plants, those sterile mistletoes that live only from the substance of the tree which supports them and which they impoverish.
- p. 21
- This makes me think that the French Revolution is a great epoch and that its consequences, in all kinds of ways, will be felt far beyond the time of its explosion and the limits of its birthplace.
- p. 21
- Unhappily, history proves that war is, in a certain sense, the habitual state of mankind, which is to say that human blood must flow without interruption somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite.
- p. 23
- It is from the shadow of a cloister that there emerges one of mankind's greatest very greatest scourges. Luther appears; Calvin follows him. The Peasants' Revolt; the Thirty Years' War; the civil war in France; the massacre of the Low Countries; the massacre of Ireland; the massacre of the Cévennes; St Bartholomew's Day; the murders of Henry II, Henry IV, Mary Stuart, and Charles I; and finally, in our day, from the same source, the French Revolution.
- p. 27
- When the human soul has lost its strength through laziness, incredulity, and the gangrenous vices that follow an excess of civilization, it can be retempered only in blood. Certainly there is no easy explanation of why war produces different effects in different circumstances. But it can be seen clearly enough that mankind may be considered as a tree which an invisible hand is continually pruning and which often profits from the operation. In truth the tree may perish if the trunk is cut of the tree is overpruned; but who knows the limits of the human tree? What we do know is that excessive carnage is often allied with excessive population, as was seen especially in the ancient Greek republics and in Spain under the Arab domination.
- p. 28
- Now the real fruits of human nature – the arts, sciences, great enterprises, lofty conceptions, manly virtues – are due especially to the state of war. […] In a word, we can say that blood is the manure of the plant we call genius.
- p. 29
- Men gather the clouds, and then they complain of the tempests that follow.
- p. 30
- There is nothing but violence in the universe; but we are spoiled by a modern philosophy that tells us all is good, whereas evil has tainted everything, and in a very real sense, all is evil, since nothing is in its place.
- p. 31
- There is no chastisement that does not purify; there is no disorder that ETERNAL LOVE does not turn against the principle of evil.
- p. 31
- Evil has nothing in common with life; it cannot create, since its power is purely negative. Evil is the schism of being; it is not true.
- Now what distinguishes the French Revolution and makes it an event unique in history is that it is radically bad. No element of good disturbs the eye of the observer; it is the highest degree of corruption ever known; it is pure impurity.
- p. 38
- Either every imaginable institution is founded on a religious concept or it is only a passing phenomenon. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they are, so to speak, deified. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, incapable of supplying these foundations, which with equal ignorance are called superstitious, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially disruptive force.
- p. 41
- [Friends of order] are often heard to say that the Jesuits must be reestablished. Without disputing the merits of this order, one must say that this suggestion for their reestablishment indicates a lack of deep reflection. Do they mean that St Ignatius is at hand ready to serve our purposes? If the order were destroyed, perhaps it could be reestablished by some lay brother with the same inspiration that created it originally, but all the sovereigns in the world would never succeed.
- This is a divine law as certain and as palpable as the laws of motion. Every time a man puts himself, according to his abilities, in harmony with the Creator and produces any institution whatsoever in the name of the Divinity, then no matter what his individual weaknesses, ignorance, poverty, obscurity of birth, in short, his absolute lack of ordinary human resources, he participates in some manner in the power whose instrument he has made himself. He produces works whose strength and permanence astonish reason.
- pp. 43–44
- You, masters of the earth – princes, kings, emperors, powerful majesties, invincible conquerors – simply try to make the people go on such-and-such a day each year to a given place to dance. I ask little of you, but I dare give you a solemn challenge to succeed, whereas the humblest missionary will succeed and be obeyed two thousand years after his death. Every year the people gather around some rustic temple in the name of St John, St Martin, St Benedict, etc.; they come, animated by a feverish and yet innocent eagerness; religion sanctifies their joy and the joy embellishes religion; they forget their troubles; on leaving they think of the pleasure that they will have on the same day the following year, and the date is set in their minds.
- Beside this picture, put that of the masters of France, who have been invested with every power by an unprecedented revolution and who are unable to organize a simple holiday. They pour out money, they call all the arts to their assistance, and the citizens remain at home, taking notice of the call only to laugh at the organizers.
- p. 44
- To compare Christianity to other religions is mere wrangling; several striking characteristics exclude all comparisons. This is not the place to list them; just a word will be enough. Who can show us one other religion founded on miracles and revealing incomprehensible dogmas, yet believed for eighteen centuries by the greater part of mankind and defended down through the ages by the greatest men of each era from Origen to Pascal, despite the utmost efforts of an enemy sect that, from Celsus to Condorcet, has never ceased its bellowing?
- How remarkable that when we reflect on this institution, the most natural hypothesis, the one suggested by every probability, is that of divine origin! If this is a human creation there is no longer any way to explain its success; by excluding the miracle you require more miracles.
- They say that nations have mistaken copper for gold. Very well, but has this copper been thrown into the European crucible and been subject to chemical observation for eighteen centuries? And is the result of this test in its favour? Newton believed in the Incarnation, but Plato, I think, put little stock in the miraculous birth of Bacchus. Christianity has been preached by the ignorant and believed by the scholars, and in this respect it is absolutely unique.
- p. 46
- You feared the force of custom, the ascendancy of authority, the illusions of the imagination. None of these things are left; there are no more customs, there are no more masters, each man's mind is his own. Philosophy having corroded the cement that united men, there are no longer any moral bonds.
- p. 47
- I have spoken of one basic characteristics of true legislators. Another very remarkable feature, on which it would be easy to write a book, is that they are never what are called scholars: they do not write, they act on instinct and impulse more than on reasoning, and they have no other means of acting than a certain moral force that bends men's wills like grain before the wind.
- p. 52
- There is the same difference between political theory and constitutional laws as there is between poetics and poetry. The illustrious Montesquieu is to Lycurgus, in the intellectual hierarchy, what Batteux is to Homer or Racine. Moreover, these two talents positively exclude each other, as can be seen by the example of Locke, who fumbled badly when he presumed to give laws to the Americans.
- p. 52
- The Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.
- […] This constitution might be offered to any human association from China to Geneva. But a constitution that is made for all nations is made for none; it is a pure abstraction, an academic exercise made according to some hypothetical ideal, which should be addressed to man in his imaginary dwelling place.
- What is a constitution? Is it not merely the solution of the following problem? Given the population, the mores, the religion, the geographic situation, the political circumstances, the wealth, the good and the bad qualities of a particular nation, to find the laws that suit it.
- Now the Constitution of 1795, which treats only of man, does not grapple with this problem at all.
- p. 53
- A legislator resembles the Creator by not working all the time; he creates and then he rests. All true legislative action has its Sabbath, and intermittence is its distinctive characteristic.
- p. 54
- Why so many laws? Because there is no legislator. What have these so-called legislators done in six years? Nothing, for to destroy is not to make.
- It is hard to imagine the unbelievable spectacle of a nation giving itself three constitutions in five years. A real legislator does not fumble around; he says fiat and the machine goes.
- p. 55
- Open your eyes and you will see that [the French constitution] does not live. What an enormous machine! What a multiplicity of springs and clockwork! What a fracas of pieces clanging away! What an immense number of men employed to repair the damage! Everything tells us there is nothing natural in these movements, for the primary characteristic of the creations of nature is power accompanied by an economy of means. Everything being in its place, there are no jerks or bumps, friction is low, and there is no noise, only majestic silence. So it is that in the mechanism of nature, perfect balance, equilibrium, and exact symmetry of parts give even rapid movement the satisfying appearance of repose.
- pp. 56–57
- All honour comes from God, said Homer of old; he spoke exactly like St Paul, without having plagiarized him. One thing certain is that man cannot impart that indefinable characteristic that is called dignity. Honour belongs preeminently to the sovereign alone; from him, as from an immense reservoir, it is bestowed in proper number, weight, and measure on various classes and individuals.
- p. 58
- The art of the legislator is not to make a people free, but free enough.
- p. 70
- Do not listen to the reasoners; there has been too much reasoning in France, and reasoning has banished reason. Put aside your fears and reservations, and trust the infallible instinct of your conscience. Do you want to redeem yourselves in your own eyes? Do you want to acquire the right of self-esteem? Do you want to accomplish a sovereign act? . . . Recall your sovereign.
- p. 76
- I am a perfect stranger to France, which I have never seen, and I expect nothing from her king, whom I shall never know.
- p. 76
- What are we, weak and blind human beings! And what is that flickering light we call Reason? When we have calculated all the probabilities, questioned history, satisfied every doubt and special interest, we may still embrace only a deceptive shadow rather than the truth. What decree has He pronounced on the king, on his dynasty, on his family, on France, and on Europe? Where and when will the troubles end, and by how many misfortunes must we purchase our tranquillity? Is it to build that He has overthrown, or are our hardships to last forever? Alas! A dark cloud hides the future and no eye can penetrate its shadows.
- p. 76
- Enthusiasm and fanaticism are not lasting phenomena. Human nature soon tires of this kind of ecstasy. […] The peak of the fever having subsided, great outbursts of enthusiasm are always followed by despondency, apathy, and indifference. This is precisely the situation in France at the moment, where nothing is desired passionately except repose.
- p. 78
- 'Long live the king,' cry the loving and the loyal, beside themselves with joy. 'Long live the king,' responds the republican hypocrite in dire terror. What does it matter? There is only one cry. And the king is crowned.
- p. 79
- Almost all errors spring from the misuse of words.
- p. 83
- In order to bring about the French Revolution, it was necessary to overthrow religion, outrage morality, violate every propriety, and commit every crime. This diabolical work required the employment of such a number of vicious men that perhaps never before had so many vices acted together to accomplish any evil whatsoever.
- […] But when man works to restore order, he associates himself with the author of order; he is favoured by nature, that is to say, by the ensemble of secondary forces that are the agents of the Divinity. His action partakes of the divine; it becomes both gentle and imperious, forcing nothing yet not resisted by anything. His arrangements restore health.
- p. 84
- Frenchmen, it was to the noise of hellish songs, the blasphemy of atheism, the cries of death, and the prolonged moans of slaughtered innocence, it was by the light of flames, on the debris of throne and altar, watered by the blood of the best of kings and an innumerable host of other victims, it was by the contempt of morality and the established faith, it was in the midst of every crime that your seducers and your tyrants founded what they call your liberty.
- p. 84
- The vices are very justly man's executioners.
- p. 85
- Because every plebeian tyranny is by its very nature impetuous, insulting, and ruthless, that which accomplished the French Revolution had to push these characteristics to excess. The world has never seen a baser or more absolute tyranny.
- p. 87
- Monarchy is, without contradiction, the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons. Sovereignty in this kind of government possesses enough brilliance to be able to share a part of it, with the necessary gradations, with a crowd of its more or less distinguished agents. In a republic, sovereignty is not tangible, as it is in a monarchy; it is a purely moral concept, and its greatness is incommunicable. In addition, in republics public offices are nothing outside the capital city, and moreover, they are nothing except insofar as they are occupied by members of government. Then it is the man who honours the office, not the office that honours the man.
- p. 89
- Providence has already begun the punishment of the guilty; more than sixty regicides, the most guilty among them, have already died a violent death.
- p. 97
- The return to order will not be painful, because it will be natural and because it will be favoured by a secret force whose action is wholly creative. We will see precisely the opposite of what we have seen. Instead of these violent commotions, painful divisions, and perpetual and desperate oscillations, a certain stability, and indefinable peace, a universal well-being will announce the presence of sovereignty. There will be no shocks, no violence, no punishment even, except those which the true nation will approve. Even crime and usurpation will be treated with a measured severity, with a calm justice that belongs to legitimate power only. The king will bind up the wounds of the state with a gentle and paternal hand. In conclusion, this is the great truth with which the French cannot be too greatly impressed: the restoration of the monarchy, what they call the counter-revolution, will be not a contrary revolution, but the contrary of revolution.
- p. 105
Quotes about Considerations on FranceEdit
- The Considérations sur la France (1797) uses the ancient technique of deinôsis, a Greek term signifying the religious horror that mortals experience in the presence of a terrifying divinity. The imprecations, vociferations and vituperations of his style are so many codes of his anti-modernity, of his repulsion for what Baudelaire called ‘that famous flowing style, dear to the bourgeois’ – and to the philosophes that Maistre decried. The bracing rage that erupts throughout his writings is a marker of class and political persuasion. More importantly, though, rage lends to pamphleteering a Scriptural dimension. Maistre himself saw his own writing as an ‘act of justice,’ a manifestation of holy wrath that emulated the Logos and set the mind on fire; while his pamphlets were the mouthpieces of an irate God who scandalized ignorance with prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament.
- Carolina Armenteros, in The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (2010), p. 102
- Considérations sur la France is a sublime pamphlet.
- Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l’Empire
- The sparkle of the visionary, a prophetic tone, and in its best pages, an apocalyptic lyricism linking up with the scriptural origins of Judeo-Christian civilization, this is what seemed new, what struck the first readers.
- Jean-Louis Darcel, "Introduction," p. 19
- To honour Maistre for his Considérations sur la France, Napoleon in 1802 made him French against his will.
- Richard A. Lebrun, in The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (2010), p. 1
- Maistre’s Considérations sur la France (1797), which offered a providential interpretation of the French Revolution, quickly established his European reputation as a formidable defendant of throne and altar.
- Richard A. Lebrun, in The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (2010), pp. 2–3
- Published anonymously, Maistre’s Considérations was, at almost 250 pages in length in its first edition, on the long side for a pamphlet, but still much shorter than Burke’s Reflections. Without entering here into a comparison of the ideological positions of the two writers, it is nevertheless worthwhile to note how these two works resembled each other as pamphlets. Like Burke’s much longer work, Maistre’s pamphlet dealt with the topical issue of France’s Revolution, was addressed to a general audience (in Maistre’s case to a French audience), was persuasive in intent, and was both a shrewd tract for the times and a work of enduring significance. As was often the case in the ‘pamphlet wars’ of the period, both works were at least in part responses to earlier pamphlets. As is well known, the immediate stimulus for Burke was a sermon of 4 November 1789 by Dr Richard Price, later published with the title A Discourse on the Love of our Country. For Maistre, it was a pamphlet by Benjamin Constant entitled De la force du gouvernement actuel de la France et de la nécessité de s’y rallier.
- Richard A. Lebrun, in The New enfant du siècle: Joseph de Maistre as a Writer (2010), pp. 31
- The provocative opening statement of the Considérations is clearly a direct reply to Rousseau's dictum that everywhere man is in chains. In an explicit denial of this slogan Maistre stresses the gentle bonds that tie men to legitimate authority: "We are attached to the throne of the Supreme Being by a supple chain which holds us without enslaving us."
- Charles M. Lombard, Joseph de Maistre (1976), p. 21
- The Count was too restless by nature to write a dull political treatise on the state of affairs in Europe. To satisfy his creative instincts he had to express his personal reflections on theology and present a theosophic interpretation of the future of Europe. When he voices his own views on man's relationship to God his affinity to the Romantics at once becomes apparent.
- Despite an obvious connection with religion and politics the Considérations remains primarily a creative work much like the Esprit des lois. With all his erudition Maistre is unable to adhere consistently to a rigorous and disciplined format. The urge to digress and refer to other writers and examples drawn from literature is too strong to resist.
- Charles M. Lombard, Joseph de Maistre (1976), p. 27