tiistai 18. huhtikuuta 2017

Joseph de Maistre: Essay for the generating principle of political constitutions and other human institutions (1809)


A Savoyard philosopher and diplomat, Joseph de Maistre, is a perfect example of a counterrevolutionary thinker. In his Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines, De Maistre outright states that one really cannot create constitutions out of thin air and that anyone attempting to do so will ultimately fail. The primary reason for this supposed fact lies, according to de Maistre, in the general truth that no great things have had great beginnings – this truth is apparently confirmed by experience. Thus, great empires, like Rome, have had humble beginnings, and while there has been no legitimate vote for the first king of a monarchic family, such dynasties have shown their legitimacy by their endurance.

De Maistre links the generation of constitutions with the generation of names. All constitutions involve names of, for instance, government officials with certain duties and powers. In a constitution created by a conscious choice, such names tend to be pompous and ultimately sound quite ridiculous, de Maistre suggests. In a naturally created constitution, on the other hand, the etymology of the names belies the humble origin of these offices – name has grown to its purpose. Then again, de Maistre warns us of confusing names with writing. True constitutions always have important practices that have not been written anywhere – a monarch cannot willy-nilly sentence people to death, but this has not been inscribed in any written document. Written constitutions can at best describe the living practices of a nation, although even such solidification of habits is often detrimental to the welfare of state.

One might object that endurance by itself is no criterion for the goodness of constitution – a state that has the power to maintain its authority might not be a happy one for its subjects. Yet, de Maistre is saying precisely that no popular vote could decide whether a state or indeed any social institution is good. The endurance of an institution, on the other hand, is for him a sign that it has developed through a divine plan, which works sometimes against particular human wishes. Human beings have no right to make constitutions for themselves, since God knows the requirements of human beings better, and especially in case of large countries, monarchies fare better than republics. Humans lack even the right to name the important offices of a state – Adam had the right to give names to things, but this right was forfeited after the Fall.

It is then no wonder that de Maistre sees religion as an essential element of a good state – the most religious states have endured longest, de Maistre suggests. Indeed, religion is for de Maistre the true source of civilization. He is eager to point out that while secular states have merely subjugated American natives, missionaries have been instrumental in turning them into productive citizens. And just like constitutions should be based on tradition, similarly de Maistre thinks that a true religion is always founded of tradition, instead of basing it on some arbitrary declaration of principles – the only such declaration that has lasted is Ten Commandments, which was of divine origin. And it goes without saying that such catholic religion must be ruled by a single person, because it has even more subjects than any secular state.

One must wonder why then France as such a state based on catholic Christianity could have fallen. Here de Maistre makes some speculations concerning philosophy of history. He assumes that great evil can only appear amidst great goodness – and great evil apparently means, in addition to general immorality, especially anti-clerical philosophy. While Greek polytheism was not a great religion, its Epicurean criticism was also of no consequence. Then again, the greatest catholic country ever also had the bitterest rivals of the true source of civilization, namely, the Enlightenment philosophers. Together with the general depravity of manners, de Maistre concludes, Enlightenment was enough to plunge France into chaos.

De Maistre’s conclusions are truly quite in line with his principles, but it is just his principles that we might question. Even if we admitted that God controls the human history and the development of constitutions, we might well ask why these sudden revolutions were not also part of the divine plan. De Maistre does rely on certain general truths, which he supposedly can justify empirically, such as the meager beginning of all great things. One can contest such justification and ask whether de Maistre’s generalization really works, but one can also assume that divinity is not restricted by such empirical generalisations – surely God can bend the rules he himself has set out for history.

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