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Thread: Joseph De Maistre on the Divinity of War

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    Joseph De Maistre on the Divinity of War

    Excerpt from the St. Petersburg Dialogues, Dialogue 7

    The Senator: In short, gentlemen, the functions of the soldier are terrible, but they must result from a great law of the spiritual world, and no one should be astonished that every nation in the world is united in seeing in this scourge something still more peculiarly divine than in others. You can well believe that there is a good and profound reason for the title LORD OF HOSTS being found on every page of the Holy Scriptures. Guilty, and unhappy because we are guilty, we ourselves make necessary all physical evils, but above all war. Usually and very naturally, men lay the blame on their rulers: Horace wrote playfully, "By the madness of kings nations are punished." But J.B. Rousseau said more seriously and philosophically:
    "The wrath of kings brings the earth to arms,
    The wrath of Heaven brings kings to arms."


    Notice, moreover, that this law of war, terrible in itself, is yet only a clause in the general law that hangs over the world.

    In the immense sphere of living things, the obvious rule is violence, a kind of inevitable frenzy which arms all things in mutua funera. Once you leave the world of insensible substances, you find the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life. Even in the vegetable kingdom, this law can be perceived: from the huge catalpa to the smallest grasses, how many plants die and how many are killed! But once you enter the animal kingdom, the law suddenly becomes frighteningly obvious. A power at once hidden and palpable appears constantly occupied in bringing to light the principle of life by violent means. In each great division of the animal world, it has chosen a certain number of animals charged with devouring the others; so there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fish of prey, and quadrupeds of prey. There is not an instant of time when some living creature is not devoured by another


    Above all these numerous animal species is placed man, whose destructive hand spares no living thing; he kills to eat, he kills for clothing, he kills for adornment, he kills to attack, he kills to defend himself, he kills for instruction, he kills for amusement, he kills for killing's sake: a proud and terrible king, he needs everything, and nothing can withstand him. He knows how many barrels of oil he can get from the shark or a whale; in his museums, he mounts with his sharp pins elegant butterflies he has caught in flight on the top of Mount Blanc or Chimborazo; he stuffs the crocodile and embalms the hummingbird; on his command, the rattlesnake dies in preserving fluids to keep it intact for a long line of observers. The horse carrying its master to the tiger hunt struts about covered by the skins of this same animal. At one and the same time, man takes from the lamb its entrails for harp strings, from the whale its bones to stiffen the corsets of the young girl, from the wolf its most murderous tooth to polish frivolous manufactures, from the elephant its tusks to make a child's toy: his dining table is covered with corpses. The philosopher can even discern how this permanent carnage is provided for and ordained in the whole scheme of things. But without doubt this law will not stop at man. Yet what being is to destroy him who destroys all else? Man! It is man himself who is charged with butchering man.


    But how is he to accomplish this law who is a moral and merciful being, who is born to love, who cries for others as for himself, who finds pleasure in weeping to the extent of creating fictions to make himself weep, to whom finally it has been said that whoever sheds blood unjustly will redeem it with the last drop of his own? It is war that accomplishes this decree. Do you not hear the earth itself demanding and crying out for blood? The blood of animals does not satisfy it, nor even that of criminals spilled by the sword of the law. If human justice struck them all, there would be no war; but it can catch up with only a small number of them, and often it even spares them without suspecting that this cruel humanity contributes to the necessity for war, especially if at the same time another no less stupid and dangerous blindness works to diminish atonement among men. The earth did not cry in vain: war breaks out. Man, seized suddenly by a divine fury foreign to both hatred and anger, goes to the battlefield without knowing what he intends or even what he is doing. How can this dreadful enigma be explained? Nothing could be more contrary to his nature, yet nothing is less repugnant to him: he undertakes with enthusiasm what he holds in horror. Have you ever noticed that no one ever disobeys on the field of death? They might well slaughter a Nerva or a Henry IV, but they will never say, even to the most abominable tyrant or the most flagrant butcher of human flesh, We no longer want to follow you. A revolt on the battlefield, an agreement to unite to repudiate a tyrant is something I cannot remember. Nothing resists, nothing can resist the force that drags man into conflict; an innocent murderer, a passive instrument in a formidable hand, he plunges unseeing into the abyss he himself has dug; he dies without suspecting that it is is he himself who has brought about his death.


    Thus is worked out, form maggots up to man, the universal law of the violent destruction of living beings. The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.


    But the curse must be aimed most directly and obviously at man: the avenging angle circles like the sun around this unhappy globe and lets one nation breathe only to strike at others. But when crimes, especially those of a particular kind, accumulate to a certain point, the angel relentlessly quickens his tireless flight. Like a rapidly turned torch, his immense speed allows him to be present at all points on his huge orbit at the same time. He strikes every nation on earth at the same moment. At other times, minister of an unerring and infallible vengeance, he turns against particular nations and bathes them in blood. Do not expect them to make any effort to escape or abridge their sentence. It is as if these sinful nations, enlightened by conscience, were asking for punishment and accepting it in order to find expiation in it. So long as they have blood left, they will come forward to offer it, and soon golden youth will grow used to telling of devastating wars caused by their fathers' crimes.


    War is thus divine in itself, since it is a law of the world.


    War is divine through its consequences of a supernatural nature which are as much general as particular, consequences little known because they are little sought but which are nonetheless indisputable. Who could doubt the benefits that death in war brings? And who could believe that the victims of this dreadful judgment have shed their blood in vain? But this is not the time to insist on this kind of question; our age is not yet ready to concern itself with it. Let us leave it to its physics and for our own part keep our eyes fixed firmly to that invisible world which will explain everything.


    War is divine in the mysterious glory that surrounds it and in the no less inexplicable attraction that draws us to it.


    War is divine in the protection granted to the great leaders, even the most daring, who are rarely struck down in battle, and only when their renown can no longer be increased and when their mission is completed.


    War is divine by the manner in which it breaks out. I do not want to excuse anyone inopportunely, but how many of those who are regarded as the immediate authors of wars are themselves carried along by circumstances! At the exact moment brought about by men and prescribed by justice, God comes forward to exact vengeance for the iniquity committed by the inhabitants of this world against him...


    War is divine in its results which cannot be predicted by human reason, for they can be quite different for two different nations, although the war seems to have affected both equally. There are wars that degrade nations, and degrade them for centuries; others exalt them, improve them in all kinds of ways and, what is more extraordinary, very quickly replace momentary losses by a rapid increase in population. History often shows us the sight of a population growing in wealth and numbers during the most murderous conflicts; but there are vicious wars, accursed wars, more easily recognized by conscience than by reason: nations are mortally wounded by them, both in their power and in their character; then you can see the victor himself degraded, impoverished, and miserable among his victory laurels, whereas you will find that in the vanquished land, in a very short time, there is not an unused workshop or plow.


    War is divine through the indefinable power that determines success in it...


    ...When an overdominant power frightens the world, men are angry that no means have been found of checking it, and bitter reproaches are leveled against the selfishness and immorality of the rulers who are preventing an alliance to ward off the common danger. This was the cry heard at the height of Louis XIV's power. But at bottom these complaints are not valid. A coalition between several powers, based on a pure and disinterested morality, would be a miracle. God, who is not obliged to do miracles and never does one needlessly, uses two very simple means to restore the balance: sometimes the giant kills itself; sometimes a much weaker power throws in its path some small obstacle, which yet then grows in some unaccountable way and becomes insurmountable, just as a small branch, stuck in the current of a river, can in the end cause a blockage which diverts its course.


    Starting, then, from this hypothesis of a balance, ever present at least in a rough form either because the belligerent powers are equal or because the weakest have allies, how many unforeseen circumstances can disrupt the balance and bring frustration or success to the greatest plans in spite of every prudential calculation!...Moreover, if you take a more general look at the role played by moral power in war, you will agree that nowhere does the divine hand make itself felt more acutely to man. It might be said that this is a department, if you will allow me the phrase, whose direction providence has reserved to itself and in which it has left to man the ability to act only in a well-nigh mechanical manner, since success here depends almost entirely on something he can least control. At no time other than in war is he warned more often and more sharply of his own feebleness and of the inexorable power ruling all things. It is opinion that loses and wins battles. The fearless Spartan used to sacrifice from fear (Rousseau somewhere expresses astonishment at this, I don't know why); Alexander also sacrificed from fear before the Battle of Arbela. Certainly these people were quite right and, to correct this sensible devotion, it is enough to pray to God that he deigns not to send fear to us...Let us then pray, Knight, for it is to you that I should like to address this discourse, since you have called up these reflections; let us pray to God that he keeps us and our friends from fear, which is within his power and which can ruin in an instant the most splendid military ventures...


    ...But there is another much more terrible fear that descends on the most masculine heart, freezes it, and persuades it that it is beaten. This is the appalling scourge constantly hanging over armies. I put this question one day to a soldier of the highest rank whom you both know. Tell me, General, what is a lost battle? I have never been able to understand this. After a moment's silence, he answered, I do not know. After another pause he added, It is a battle one thinks one has lost.


    I can very well imagine one of these frightful scenes. On a vast field covered with all the apparatus of carnage and seeming to shudder beneath the feet of men and horses, amid the fire and whirling smoke, dazed and befuddled by the din of firearms and cannons, by voices that command, howl, or die away, surrounded by dead, dying, and mutilated corpses, possessed in turn by fear, hope, anger, by five or six different passions, what happens to a man? What does he see? What does he know after a few hours? What can he know about himself and others? Among this host of fighting men who have battled the whole day, there is often not a single one, not even the general, who knows who the victor is. I need only cite modern battles to you, famous battles whose memory will never fade, battles which have changed the face of Europe, and which have been lost only because such and such a man has believed they were lost; whereas, in the same circumstances and with the same losses, another general would have had the Te Deum sung in his country and forced history to say quite the opposite of what it will say. But, I ask you, what age has seen moral power play a more astonishing role in war than our own? Is not what we have seen for the last twenty years truly magical? Without doubt it behooves men of this epoch to cry out: “And what age has ever been more fertile in miracles?”...

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    It should be noted that thinkers such as Berlin have dubbed Maistre a proto-fascist due to the sorts of sentiments such as those he expresses in the OP.

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    A number of interesting points were brought up here. I think that empirically we might say that the origin of war spawns from one organism wanting to consume another organism for food and space. This probably originated 2 billion some odd years ago and is entirely universal. This may have spawned out of the very physical structure of the universe as molecules and atoms behave in a similar fashion.

    It was mentioned that humans kill almost indiscriminately and this is fairly true. Usually humans just kill and take depending on what their needs or current physical condition is. Our radical opposite of a liberal view which has no basis in reality. Both can be destructive so logically one needs to have the wisdom or will to draw the line and moderate death and killing for survival.

    I did enjoy this quote, "War is thus divine in itself, since it is a law of the world."

    Once again religion serves a evolutionary function. War however destructive and necessary is very much a part of the world and a fact of life. One can therefore draw the conclusion that, "war being a fact of life," is very much a part of the fascist aspect that war is a fact of life, necessary, important, and even a celebratory thing. Generally I hold this to be true but it greatly depends on individual scenarios.

    It is going to be difficult to say whether or not Maistre influenced fascism it is more likely since this sort of essay is definitely a retort of earlier enlightenment feelings which were less realistic about war (and modern ones we still have). This may have contributed to the development of fascist ideologies. Nonetheless the article does contain some rather depressing pictorial images that in my opinion I could definitely see influencing people like Schopenhauer. Oddly enough since Maistre was coming for a traditionalist Christian point of view we might even argue that the Christian view of the world is proto-fascist (war, sin, death are parts of life) but this might be stretching it a bit.

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    Quotes from the Wiki on Maistre:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_de_Maistre

    Maistre, one of the key intellectual figures of the Counter-Enlightenment, argued for the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded both as a divinely sanctioned institution and as the only stable form of government, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters. According to Maistre, only governments founded upon a Christian constitution, implicit in the customs and institutions of all European societies but especially in Catholic European monarchies, could avoid the disorder and bloodshed that followed the implementation of rationalist political programs, such as the 1789 revolution. Maistre was an enthusiastic proponent of the principle of hierarchical authority, which the Revolution sought to destroy; he extolled the monarchy, he exalted the privileges of the papacy, and he glorified God's providence.
    Maistre can be counted, with the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, as one of the fathers of European conservatism. Since the 19th century, however, his providential, authoritarian, "throne and altar" conception of conservatism has declined in comparison with the more pragmatic conservatism of Burke. His stylistic and rhetorical brilliance, on the other hand, have made him enduringly popular as a writer and controversialist. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 describes Maistre's style as "strong, lively, picturesque," and adds, "animation and good humour temper his dogmatic tone. He possesses a wonderful facility in exposition, precision of doctrine, breadth of learning, and dialectical power."[5] Alphonse de Lamartine, though a political enemy, could not but admire the splendour of Maistre's prose:

    That brief, nervous, lucid style, stripped of phrases, robust of limb, did not at all recall the softness of the eighteenth century, nor the declamations of the latest French books: it was born and steeped in the breath of the Alps; it was virgin, it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once… That man was new among the enfants du siècle.
    —Alphonse de Lamartine, Souvenirs et portraits[9]

    Portrait by Swiss painter Félix Vallotton, from La Revue blanche, 1er semestre, 1895.Émile Faguet described Maistre as "a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of Pope, King and Hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner".[10]

    Maistre's critique of the Enlightenment, especially its rationalism, made him an attractive countercultural figure. For example, the Decadent poet Charles Baudelaire declared himself a disciple of the Savoyard counter-revolutionary, and claimed that Maistre had taught him "how to think."[11] More recently, Pat Buchanan has described Maistre as a "great conservative." [12]

    Isaiah Berlin in his Freedom and Its Betrayal views his writings as "the last despairing effort of feudalism...to resist the march of progress." According to Berlin, Maistre's emphasis on the need for a social order based on unquestioned authority and founded on an emotional allegiance, rather than on any of the claims of reason, makes him one of the earliest precursors of the fascist "vision of the universe." In fact, Maistre was one of the major influences on 20th century French right-wing politicians, such as the monarchist Charles Maurras and the members of his Action Française, whose prestige and influence were greatly damaged by their collaboration with the Nazi-controlled regime of Vichy (1940–44), during the Second World War.

    [edit] See also

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