De Maistre, Considerations on France

Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) defended the absolutist legacy and the close alliance of throne and altar. He thought the Revolution and the republic it created in the name of reason and individual rights had failed. De Maistre and other staunch Catholic royalists believed that tradition and faith had to fill the void opened by the failure of the Revolution.


Every nation, like every individual, has a mission which it must fulfill. It would be futile to deny that France exercises a dominant influence over Europe, an influence she has abused most culpably. Above all, she was at the head of the religious system, and it was not without reason that her king was called most Christian: Bossuet has not overstressed this point. However, as she has used her influence to pervert her vocation and to demoralize Europe, it is not surprising that terrible means must be used to set her on her true course again.

It is long since such an appalling punishment has been seen, visited on so many sinners. No doubt there are innocent people among the unfortunates, but they are far fewer than is commonly imagined. . . .

It is frightening to see distinguished intellectuals fall under Robespierre's ax. From a humane standpoint they can never be too much mourned, but divine justice is no respecter of mathematicians or scientists. Too many French intellectuals were instrumental in bringing about the Revolution; too many approved and encouraged it so long as, like Tarquin's wand, it cut off only the ruling heads. Like so many others, they said, A great revolution cannot come about without some distress. But when a thinker justifies such means by the end in view; when he says in his heart, A hundred thousand murders are as nothing, provided we are free; then, if Providence replies, I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims, where is the injustice? Would we judge otherwise in our own courts?. . . .

One of the greatest possible crimes is undoubtedly an attack upon sovereignty, no other having such terrible consequences. If sovereignty resides in one man and this man falls victim to an outrage, the crime of lese-majesty augments the atrocity. But if this sovereign has not deserved his fate through any fault of his own, if his very virtues have strengthened the guilty against him, the crime is beyond description. This is the case in the death of Louis XVI; but what is important to note is that never has such a great crime had more accomplices. The death of Charles I had far fewer, even though it was possible to bring charges against him that Louis XVI did not merit. Yet many proofs were given of the most tender and courageous concern for him; even the executioner, who was obliged to obey, did not dare to make himself known. But in France, Louis XVI marched to his death in the middle of 60,000 armed men who did not have a single shot for their king, not a voice was raised for the unfortunate monarch, and the provinces were as silent as the capital. We would expose ourselves, it was said. Frenchmen—if you find this a good reason, talk no more of your courage or admit that you misuse it!. . . .

Each drop of Louis XVI's blood will cost France torrents; perhaps four million Frenchmen will pay with their lives for the great national crime of an antireligious and antisocial insurrection, crowned by a regicide. . . .

Yet it is here that we can appreciate order in disorder; because it is evident, however little one reflects on it, that the great criminals of the Revolution can fall only under the blows of their accomplices. If force alone were to bring about what is called the counterrevolution and replace the king on the throne, there would be no means of doing justice.

Source: Jack Lively, ed. and trans., The Works of Joseph de Maistre, (NY: Shocken Books, 1971 [1965]), pp. 50–53.