The French Idea of History

The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and His Heirs, 1794–1854

Carolina Armenteros
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 376
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7zbrz
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  • Book Info
    The French Idea of History
    Book Description:

    "A fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat . . . the champion of the hardest, narrowest, and most inflexible dogmatism . . . part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner." Thus did Émile Faguet describe Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753-1821) in his 1899 history of nineteenth-century thought. This view of the influential thinker as a reactionary has, with little variation, held sway ever since. In The French Idea of History, Carolina Armenteros recovers a very different figure, one with a far more subtle understanding of, and response to, the events of his day.

    Maistre emerges from this deeply learned book as the crucial bridge between the Enlightenment and the historicized thought of the nineteenth century. Armenteros demonstrates that Maistre inaugurated a specifically French way of thinking about past, present, and future that held sway not only among conservative political theorists but also among intellectuals generally considered to belong to the left, particularly the Utopian Socialists.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6259-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Editions, Translations, and References
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction: Conservatism and History
    (pp. 1-19)

    This is a book about the beginnings of historical thinking as a philosophical enterprise. The historical rupture represented by the French Revolution compelled contemporaries to reflect on the nature and meaning of history. For the generation educated in the downfall of a whole world, history was no longer dead and distant, as it had often been for the detached writers of the Enlightenment. It was alive in blood and fire.¹ Some who remained religious during those years felt history with particular intensity, awakening suddenly to the fear that God might have abandoned humankind altogether, and that his ways through time...

  7. A Brief Intellectual Biography
    (pp. 20-32)

    One of Maistre’s greatest contradictions was that, for the prolific writer that he was, he condemned writing as the corrupt communicator of a feeble and deadened truth, deeming the spoken word to be most alive and closest to God’s infallible pronouncements.¹ Maistre was hence a conversationalist before he was an author; and in fact several of his texts were initially intended only as primers for conversation among friends. Conversely, if he transmitted his idea of history orally, the idea reached him also in unwritten ways. These ways were those of history itself, as well as his upbringing and education, social...

  8. Part One Joseph de Maistre and the Idea of History, 1794–1820

    • Chapter 1 The Statistical Beginnings of Historical Thought: Joseph de Maistre against Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1794–96
      (pp. 35-81)

      At the height of the Terror, with the Jacobins clamoring in Paris that they ruled on behalf of the people, Maistre became intensely preoccupied with the problem of popular sovereignty. Composing, from his exile in Lausanne, the Lettres d’un royaliste savoisien à ses compatriotes, he devoted the fifth letter to contending that popular sovereignty is inviable, especially among nations that are not city-states; and that, generally speaking, monarchy is the form of government best suited to the happiness of peoples. This letter was never published. The bishop of Sisteron, reviewing it, was of the opinion that Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78)...

    • Chapter 2 Maistrian Epistemology and Pedagogy in Historical Perspective
      (pp. 82-114)

      The Examen de la philosophie de Bacon, begun in 1809 and completed in 1816, is Maistre’s lengthiest, most erudite, most satirical, and most exhaustive work. Maistre enjoyed writing it. With the boyish enthusiasm that he often brought to his intellectual labors, he proudly described his intellectual engagement with Francis Bacon (1561–1626) as a duel: “We boxed like two Fleet Street toughs, and if he tore out some of my hair, I’m also sure his wig is no longer in place.”¹ The altercation “forced,” Maistre said dramatically, “this sphinx to speak clearly.”² He is not alone in adducing so much...

    • Chapter 3 A Europeanist Theory of History: Du pape
      (pp. 115-155)

      Of all Maistre’s works, Du pape (1819) is probably the one he published with the highest expectations. He hoped that it would become a classic, make the church dear even to atheists, and help launch a new era of world history by demonstrating pragmatically that if the Sermon on the Mount is a “passable moral code,” it is in the general interest to maintain the religion that diffuses it; and that if dogmas are only fables, a unity of fables, feasible only under pontifical supremacy, is at least necessary to ensure public peace.¹ On the polemical level, the book aimed,...

    • Chapter 4 Redemption by Suffering: Social Violence and Historical Development in the Éclaircissement sur les sacrifices
      (pp. 156-182)

      The Éclaircissement sur les sacrifices, possibly the first contribution to the sociology of violence, revolutionized the European understanding of the relationship between society and violence. It also introduced key themes of Maistrian historical thought. This chapter describes the little text’s historical theoretical innovations in intellectual context. It emphasizes the role that Maistre ascribed to sacrifice as a historical motor and as a vehicle of the eschaton. And it situates the little text in various eclectic intellectual contexts ranging from illuminism to baroque devotionalism to the reflections on violence spawned by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

      Maistre began writing the...

    • Chapter 5 Returning the Universe to God: Time, Will, and Reason in Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg
      (pp. 183-214)

      Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg was Maistre’s “cherished work,” the one that he felt told everything he knew.¹ Labored on for twelve years, and still incomplete at his death in 1821, it is his masterpiece, a diffuse mystique that melds literary genres ancient and modern. It is a theodicy in the manner of Leibniz. It is a dialogue in the Platonic mold. And in combining literature with religious science as “so many ‘addresses open toward heaven,’ ”² it is perhaps the last great work in the French tradition of humanisme dévot. Its three characters, especially the count, resurrect major theological controversies...

  9. Part Two Historical Thought in France, 1798–1854

    • Chapter 6 The New Truth of Historical Knowledge: Liberty, Order, and the Rise of the Social Fact, 1797–1848
      (pp. 217-254)

      Straddling epistemology, sociology, historical thinking, and bureaucratic practice, the concept of the social fact evolved inchoately during the first half of the nineteenth century, as moral statisticians gathered facts en masse to govern France, and social theorists and Catholic traditionalists lent them new meanings when assessing the character of polities. In this chapter I argue that the endeavors of these groups were not the disparate exercises they seem. All three depended on seeing facts not only as epistemological but also as moral entities that were socially and historically regenerative, or at the very least predictive of the future. All three...

    • Chapter 7 Historical Progress and the Logic of Sacrifice, 1822–54
      (pp. 255-282)

      Postrevolutionary French social thought was unprecedentedly preoccupied with the perpetuity of violence. Victimal theodicies flourished throughout the nineteenth century, with Catholic spirituality as the major medium of transmission. Political conditions facilitated this development. Between Brumaire and 1830, and especially during 1814–25, the government favored the spiritual Counter-Revolution, which became increasingly dolorist as it expressed the mourning of a defeated class.¹ Concomitantly, the aesthetics of suffering infused the arts of a shattered church that encouraged the sanctification of pain as it summoned and reassembled its forces. Victimal spirituality had always been integral to Catholicism; but it was only in the...

    • Chapter 8 The Metapolitics of History: Socialism, Positivism, and Tradition, 1820–48
      (pp. 283-314)

      Maistre’s nineteenth-century readers—liberals and conservatives, socialists and traditionalists, Catholics and atheists, social programmers and littérateurs—all agreed, despite their differences, on one thing: that he was a great specialist of the past and, for that reason, a man who knew much about the future. This was what Ballanche had in mind when, with “impertinent melancholy”¹ or “sweetish perfidy,”² depending on the expression that one prefers, he dubbed Maistre a “prophet of the past.” The Hegelian Eugène Lerminier perhaps expressed the common opinion best when he wrote that Maistre “had perhaps no equal in that power to inundate the past...

  10. Conclusion: History and Paradox
    (pp. 315-324)

    That Maistre reigned for nearly sixty years over French historical thought can be partly attributed to his mastery of paradoxes. As Emil Cioran observed, paradoxes are indispensable in religion; and in his zeal to save Christianity, Maistre practiced them enthusiastically.¹ To this might be added that paradoxes are the lifelines of the philosophy of history, since history, when modeled systematically, arises from contradictions, within individuals and between social groups. What follows is an attempt to describe the paradoxes at the core of Maistrian historical thought, with a view to gathering together its various strands and tracing its prosperity and wane...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-340)
  12. Index
    (pp. 341-362)