Joseph de Maistre on the bicentenary of his death (1821-2021)


On February 26th two hundred years ago, Count Joseph de Maistre, one of the great masters of 19th century counter-revolutionary thought, (1753-1821) died.

Joseph-Marie de Maistre was born at Chambéry in Savoy on April 1, 1753, the first-born of ten in a family of loyal servants to the Savoyard Dynasty, and successor to his father, Francois-Xavier, as Magistrate and Senator of the Kingdom of Sardinia.  After studying Jurisprudence in Turin and concluding his studies in 1772, he  commenced his work as Magistrate in his birth-place.  Consequent to the Napoleonic invasion of 1796, he followed the misfortunes and exile of the Savoyard Dynasty until 1802, when King Vittorio Emanuele I sent him as Plenipotentiary to Czar Alexander I, in St. Petersburg.

Alphonse de Lamartine points out that “it would have been impossible to meet Count Joseph de Maistre without imagining your were in the presence of something great” , referring to the reading of the dispatches, Maistre, as representative of the King of Sardinia to the Court of the Czar, sent to his Sovereign. (cf. Joseph de Maistre, Napoleone, la Russia, l’Europa, Donzelli, Roma 1994).  From the Petersburg dispatches we follow Napoleon’s advance step by step, in a contest where “the world is at stake”. More than dispatches, they are full reports, rich in erudite observations and insightful aphorisms, but not understood by Vittorio Emanuele I, an  honest man but of mediocre intelligence and through his Prime Equerry he sent this message to his Minister in St. Petersburg: “For the love of God, tell Count de Maistre to write dispatches not dissertations.” 

In the fourteen long years of his stay in Russia, this great thinker composed capital works like The Evenings of St. Petersburg and the Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, a polemical political essay directed at the revolutionary ideologues who, spurning the lessons of history and experience, had demanded the development of  a purely abstract model for social and political institutions. In this book, recently re-published by Edizioni Fiducia, Maistre reiterates that sovereignty is a natural and necessary mark of human society. Sovereignty constitutes society because a society without authority, without power, without laws could not survive.  A society devoid of sovereignty is doomed to decomposition and death like a body without a soul.

After the fall of Napoleon, Vittorio Emmanuele I didn’t choose Maistre as his representative at the Congress of Vienna which opened in 1814. The outcome of the historical congress, furthermore, disappointed Maistre, who believed that a purely exterior restoration would not have been able resist the revolutionary influence. “The Counter-Revolution – he stated succinctly – will not be a revolution of contrary signs, but the contrary of the Revolution.

On March 27 1817, Maistre definitively left Russia, which by then had become his second-home, and returned to Turin where he was showered with belated honors, like that of being appointed Regent to the Kingdom of Sardinia’s Chancellery. Until his death he was a zealous member of Padre Pio Brunone Lanteri’s * anti-Enlightenment Catholic association, diffused in France, Austria and Piedmont.  “Our objective – he wrote in December 1817 to Count Fredrich Stolberg, who had repudiated Protestantism, – is precisely the counterpart to the ruinous propaganda of last century and we are perfectly sure that we are not mistaken, doing for the good what it has done for evil with so much deplorable success.”

One of the shadows hovering round the figure of Maistre is his youthful involvement in Freemasonry. In 1774 he joined the English Rite Lodge Trois Mortiers and in 1778 he switched to the Scottish Rite amended by the Parfaite Sincérité.  After the French Revolution, and notably commencing with his arrival in Russia in 1803, he abandoned Freemasonry, but seemed to make a distinction between the Illuminati, who were conspiring against the throne and the altar, and a spiritualist Freemasonry, favoring religion and the monarchy. This distinction must however be clearly rejected.  Papal condemnations include all expressions of Freemasonry and not just one part of it, as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterates in a document of November 1883, wherein it stipulates that “the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church.”

The most serious scholars of the Savoyard thinker, like Marc Frioidefont (Théologie de Joseph de Maistre, Garnier, Paris 2010) nonetheless, dismantled the attempt of certain esoteric environments to appropriate  for themselves an authentically Catholic writer, as was Joseph de Maistre. He belongs, along with Louis Gabriel de Bonald  (1754-1840), Juan Donos Cortés (1809-1853), Ludwig von Haller  (1768-1854) and many others,  to those authors who entered the fray to denounce with courage and clarity the ruinous consequences of the French Revolution. Monsignor Henri Delassus (1836-1921) whose work sums up the thought of the Catholic Counter-Revolution of the 19th century, defines Maistre “the visionary” (La Conjuration antichrétienne, Lille 1910, vol. 3, p. 938) or “the prophet of the present times” (L’américanisme et la conjuration antichrétienne, Lille 1899, p. 235, indicating him as one of his main points of reference.

Joseph de Maistre was always thoroughly “Savoyard” , as was his compatriot St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop of Annecy. On the spiritual level he belonged to a school that had its roots in St. Francis de Sales, after the “Ignatian” grafting of the Amicizie Cattoliche , culminated in St. John Bosco (1815-1888), founder of the Salesians. In his History of Italy, Don Bosco dedicates an entire chapter to Joseph de Maistre and was very attached to his family. Count Rodolfo de Maistre, Joseph’s son hosted Don Bosco in his home at the Quirinale, during the saint’s first sojourn in Rome, from February 21 to April 16 1858.  Rodolfo’s sons – Francesco, Carol and Eugenio – treated Don Bosco with likewise devotion and friendship.

When Don Bosco died, Count Carlo de Maistre, wrote to Don Michele Rua (1837-1910), his successor as Head of the Salesians: “In our life, there was no joy, worry or sadness that we didn’t share with him. We shall do the same with you.  The attachment we had  for Don Bosco will be the same for all his sons, for the entire Salesian Congregation, with whom we are affiliated.”  Also his brother Francesco, while writing to Don Rua from France, recalled with heartache the close bonds Don Bosco and the Maistre family had: “The friendship of that saintly man was an incomparable treasure, which everyone at home enjoyed immensely.  In the trials that Divine Providence is pleased to send us, a line, a word from Don Bosco was always a great comfort to our grieving hearts.”

Count Joseph de Maistre died in Turin on February 26, 1821, and was buried in the Church of the Martyrs, run by the Jesuit Fathers he had always passionately defended, especially in Russia. In turn, St. John Bosco rests in the Church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, some hundred meters straight down the road from where the Savoyard Count awaits the eternal resurrection. On the walls of the first chapel to the left of this church, you can see the headstone of Joseph de Maistre’s sepulcher, today still visited by those who cultivate his memory.