Considerations on France Chapter I: Of Revolutions

by The Editor

Comte Joseph De Maistre (1753-1821) was the foremost theoretician of the European Counter-Revolution. Born to a Savoyard aristocratic dynasty, De Maistre stood for throne, sword and altar and opposed Enlightenment philosophes and the French Revolution. This chapter is taken from his work 'Considerations on France', published in 1796.

by Comte Joseph De Maistre

We are all attached to the throne of the Supreme Being by a supple chain that restrains us without enslaving us. Nothing is more admirable in the universal order of things than the action of free beings under the divine hand. Freely slaves, they act voluntarily and necessarily at the same time; they really do what they will, but without being able to disturb the general plans. Each of these beings occupies the centre of a sphere of activity whose diameter varies according to the will of the Eternal Geometer, who can extend, restrict, check, or direct the will without altering its nature.

In the works of man, everything is as wretched as their author, views are restricted, means rigid, motives inflexible, movements painful, and results monotonous. In divine works, the riches of infinity are openly displayed in the least part. Its power is exercised effortlessly; everything is supple in its hands, nothing resists it, and for it everything even obstacles, are means; and the irregularities introduced by the operation of free agents fit into the general order.

If we imagine a watch all of whose springs vary continually in strength, weight, dimension, form and position that nevertheless keeps perfect time, we will form some idea of the action of free beings relative to the plans of the Creator.

In the political and moral world, as in the physical world, there is a usual order and there are exceptions to this order. Ordinarily, we see series of effects produced by the same causes; but in certain epochs, we see actions suspended, causes paralysed, and new effects.

A miracle is an effect produced by a divine or superhuman cause that suspends or contradicts an ordinary cause. If in the middle of winter, before a thousand witnesses, a man were to command that a tree be suddenly covered with leaves and fruit, and the tree obeyed, everyone would proclaim it a miracle and bow down before the wonder-worker. But the French Revolution and everything now happening in Europe is just as marvellous in its own way as the instantaneous fructification of a tree in the month of January. However, instead of being astonished, we look the other way or talk nonsense.

In the physical order, in which man does not play a role as a cause, he is quite willing to admire what he does not understand. But in the sphere of his own activity, where he feels that he is a free cause, man’s pride easily leads him to see disorder wherever his action is suspended or disturved. Certain measures that are in man’s power regularly produce certain effects in the ordinary course of events; if he misses his mark, he knows why or believes he does. He knows the obstacles, he appreciates them, and nothing surprises him.

But in revolutionary periods, the chain that binds man is abruptly shorteneed; his action is diminished and his means deceive him. Then carried along by an unknown force, he frets against it, and instead of kissing the hands that clasps him, he disregards or insults it.

‘I do not understand it at all’ is the fashionable phrase. This is a sensible reaction if it leads to the first cause that is presently presenting so great a spectacle to men; it is stupidity if it expresses only vexation or sterile despondency. ‘How then’, they cry on every side, ‘is it the guiltiest men in the universe who are winning? A hideous regicide succeeds as well as those who committed it could have hoped. All over Europe monarchy is benumbed. Its enemies find allies even on thrones! Everything succeeds for the wicked! The most gigantic projects are executed without difficulty on their side, while the good party fails ridiculously in everything it undertakes, Public opinion persecutes fidelity all over Europe! The foremost are invariably mistaken! The greatest generals are humiliated! etc.’

Doubtless, for the first condition of an ordained revolution is that whatever could have prevented it does not exist and that nothing succeeds for those who wish to prevent it. But never is order more visible, never is Providence more palpable, than when superior action is substituted for that of man and it acts all alone. This is what we are seeing at the present moment.

The most striking thing about the French Revolution is this overwhelming force that bends every obstacle. It is a whirlwind carrying along like light straw everything that human force has opposed to it; no one has hindered its course with impunity. Purity of motives has been able to make resistance honourable, but no more, and this jealous force, proceeding straight toward its goal, rejects equally Charette, Dumouriez, and Drouet.

It has been correctly pointed out that the French Revolution leads men more than men lead it. This observation is completely justified, and although it can be applied to all great revolutions more or less, it has never been more striking than it is in the present period.

The very rascals who appear to lead the Revolution are involved only as simple instruments, and as soon as they aspire to dominate it they fall ignobly. Those who established the Republic did it without wanting to and without knowing what they were doing. They were led to it by events; a prior design would not have succeeded.

Robespierre, Collot, or Barere never thought to establish the revolutionary government or the Reign of Terror; they were led to it imperceptibly by circumstances, and the like will never be seen again. These extremely mediocre men exercised over a guilty nation the most frightful despotism in history, and surely they were more surprised at their power than anyone else in the kingdom.

But at the very moment these detestable tyrants completed the measure of crime necessary to that phase of the Revolution, a breath overthrew them. Their gigantic power, which had made France and Europe tremble, could not withstand the first attack and as there could be nothing great, nothing august, in a completely criminal revolution, Providence willed that the first blow be struck by the Septembrists, in order that justice itself would be debased.

We are often astonished that the most mediocre men have been better judges of the French Revolution than men of first-rate talent, that they have believed in it completely while accomplished politicians have not believed in it at all. This is because this belief is one of the characteristics of the Revolution, because the Revolution could succeed only by the scope and power of the revolutionary spirit, or if one may put it another way, by faith in the Revolution. Thus, untalented and ignorant men have very ably driven what they call the revolutionary chariot. They have dared everything without fear of counter-revolution; they have always gone ahead without looking back, and everything has succeeded for them because they were only the instruments of a force that knew more than they did. 

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