Greg Brozeit comments here frequently and teaches us as he comments:


Immediately after the election I posted a summary of a review I wrote about an essay by Isaiah Berlin on Joseph de Maistre. Here is the full piece. It ties into the subject of this post and hopefully provides some insight into the fascist mindset that is on the rise again throughout the globe:

Maistre was the intellectual father on modern fascism. I doubt that 20th and 21st century fascist leaders and politicians—even the current American incarnation—ever heard of him, but his ideas form the core of modern day reactionary political systems. Born in the Savoy kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1753, his views were strongly influenced by the experiences of the French Revolution. He served the king of Sardinia, first gaining prominence as a pamphleteer and later as envoy to Russia—the king wanted both to control and keep him as far away as possible—where he lived from 1803 to 1817 before being summoned home until his death in 1821.

Maistre strongly opposed the liberal thinkers of the 18th century with a counter-intuitive empiricism. “In place of the ideals of progress, liberty, perfectibility he preached the sacredness of the past, the virtue, and the necessity, indeed, of complete subjection, because of the incurably bad and corrupt nature of man. In place of science, he preached the primacy of instinct, superstition, prejudice. In place of optimism, pessimism. In place of eternal harmony and eternal peace, the necessity—for him the divine necessity—of conflict, of suffering, of bloodshed, of war.” He saw killing as a virtue, extrapolating the killing of animals for man’s benefits (from food to clothing to luxury) to the primal need for society to live in fear of the “hangman,” which, intellectually, is not far removed from contemporary rhetoric about “law and order.” Moreover, war is a good for society because it acts as an organizing force. The Church, Catholic in his case, does the same. Since, as Berlin articulates Maistre, “Man is by nature vicious, wicked, cowardly and bad…unless clamped with iron rings and held down by means of the most rigid discipline” he “need[s] to be curbed and controlled.”

Moreover, Maistre believed that irrationality—“the only things which last”—not rationality, explained how society behaved. “For example, he says, take the institution of hereditary monarchy: What could be more irrational?…Here is an institution of patently idiotic nature, for which no good reason can be given, yet it lasts…But far more rational, far more logical and reasonable, would be to abolish such a monarchy and see what happens.” Maistre felt the same about marriage, reasoning the irrationality of a couple falling in love and then staying together because of historical tradition. “So he goes on, from institution to institution, paradoxically asserting that whatever is irrational lasts, and that whatever is rational collapses; it collapses because anything which is constructed by reason can be pulverised by reason…The only thing which can ever dominate man is impenetrable mystery.”

Prejudice is, according Maistre, a virtue because it is “merely the beliefs of the centuries, tested by experience.” Scientists “are the people who have the least capacity for understanding life, and for government…[because] science [has a] dry, abstract, unconcrete nature, something about the fact that it is divorced from the crooked, chaotic, the irrational texture of life with all its darkness, which makes scientists incapable of adapting themselves to actual facts, and anyone listening to them is automatically doomed.” He advised the Russian czar to ban German Lutherans from entering his country because “Good men—family men, men who have traditions, faith, religion, respectable morals—do not leave their countries. Only the feckless and the restless and the critical do so. This is,” as Berlin makes clear, “the first real sermon against refugees, against freedom of spirit, against the circulation of humanity…”

Maistre was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of Napoleon. The King of Sardinia explicitly prohibited Maistre from meeting with Napoleon because he feared the consequences of what might come out of such an encounter. And although Maistre’s views were largely confined to elites and he was much forgotten after his death, his ideas predicted the worst of the 20th century and still informs how we should view demagogues and their followers today. According to Berlin, “Maistre earns our gratitude as a prophet of the most violent, the most destructive forces which have threatened and still threaten the liberty and ideals of normal human beings.”

For those who question how the Putinism, Trumpism, fundamentalist religion, and extreme terrorism can flourish today, it might be worth learning more about Maistre. They probably won’t like what they see and read, but they’ll be better able to understand why these movements exist and why the defenders of liberal democracy (writ small) must never become complacent.