Joseph de Maistre



The following critique of the philosophes, the French Revolution, and manufactured constitutions is taken from Joseph de Maistre’s Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1808—1809).


One of the greatest errors of a century which all was to believe that a political constitution could be created and written a priori, whereas reason and experience unite in proving that a constitution is a divine work that precisely the most fundamental and essentially constitutional of a nation’s laws could not possibly be written ....


… Was it not a common belief everywhere that a constitution was the work of the intellect, like an ode or a tragedy? Had not Thomas Paine declared, with a profundity that charmed the universities, that a constitution does not exist as long as one cannot put it in his pocket? The unsuspecting, overweening self-confidence of the eighteenth century balked at nothing, and I do not believe that it produced a single stripling of any talent who did not make three things when he left school: an educational system, a constitution, and a world….


I do not believe that the slightest doubt remains as to the unquestionable truth of the following propositions:


The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.


Constitutional law (loi) is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law (droit)….


• . . [H]e who believes himself able by writing alone to establish a clear and lasting doctrine IS A GREAT FOOL. If he really possessed the seeds of truth, he could never believe that a little black liquid and a pen could germinate them in the world, protect them from harsh weather, and make them sufficiently effective. As for whoever undertakes writing laws or civil constitutions in the belief that he can give them adequate conviction and stability because he has written them, he disgraces himself, whether or no other people say so. He shows an equal ignorance of the nature of inspiration and delirium, right and wrong, good and evil. This ignorance is shameful, even when approved by the whole body of the common people.


• . . [N]o real and great institution can be based on written law, since men themselves, instruments, in turn, of the established institution, do not know what it is to become and since imperceptible growth is the true promise of durability in all things….


Everything brings us back to the general rule. Man cannot create a constitution, and no legitimate constitution can be written. The collection of fundamental laws which necessarily constitute a civil or religious society never has been or will be written a priori.


De Maistre assails the philosophes for attacking religion. Without Christianity, he says, people become brutalized, and civilization degenerates into anarchy.


Religion alone civilizes nations. No other known force can influence the savage. . . . [W]hat shall we think of a generation which has thrown everything to the winds, including the very foundations of the structure of society, by making education exclusively scientific? It was impossible to err more frightfully. For every educational system which does not have religion as its basis will collapse in an instant, or else diffuse only poisons throughout the State. . . if the guidance of education is not returned to the priests, and if science is not uniformly relegated to a subordinate rank, incalculable evils await us. We shall become brutalized by science, and that is the worst sort of brutality….


Not until the first half of the eighteenth century did impiety really become a force. We see it at first spreading in every direction with amazing energy. From palaces to hovels, it insinuates itself everywhere, infesting everything….