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#7 from 2016: Joseph de Maistre’s prophecy: Is violence unavoidably human?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2016. This post was originally published on August 4, 2016.  

These days, every day brings news of a fresh outrage somewhere in the world. As the body count grows, empathy fatigue has set in. And the perpetrators of violence must have come to the same conclusion because they are finding ever more imaginative ways to kill innocents and stupefy the rest of us. The question is: is the ubiquity of violence a passing phase in a world that is allegedly getting more civilized? Or is violence simply a part of fundamental human nature? Each day, as the news alerts on my iPhone bring fresh news of horrific killings somewhere in the world, as I get really, really fed up with it all, someone has been coming to my mind. His name is Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a conservative political philosopher that I studied in graduate school several seasons ago now, and one whose ideas have stayed with me. Last weekend, I went to re-read one of his classic texts: Considerations on France (1796).

The work was a reaction, a fierce and uncompromising one at that, to the French Revolution, much like Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But, as often happens with the leading figures in the history of political thought, a particular historical event prompted reflections on the nature of man and the judicious organization of political communities.

My copy of the work is part of the series that I consider the best in the field: The Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. This particular one contains a magisterial introduction by the great Isaiah Berlin. Here is how Berlin sums him up:

What made Maistre so fascinating to his own generation was that he forced them to look at the seamy side of things. He forced them out of bland optimism…Maistre’s contribution is a violent antidote to the over-blown, over-optimistic and altogether too superficial social doctrines of the eighteenth century. Maistre earns our gratitude as a prophet of the most violent, the most destructive forces which have threatened and still threaten the liberty and the ideals of normal human beings. (p. xxxiii)

As you can sense already, very much like other conservative political philosophers, Maistre does not focus on what human beings might be or become in some wonderful world of the future. He focuses on the brute facts of human life, of revealed human nature as it truly is and has been through history. And he says: that is who we are, not some fantasy. In what follows, I draw from Chapter 3 of Considerations on France: ‘On the Violent Destruction of the Human Species’. The chapter is a survey of the history of conflict since Antiquity, of the wars that were known to educated Europeans in the 18th century. From that thoroughly depressing survey he draws the following conclusions:
  • “Unhappily, history proves that war is, in a certain sense, the habitual state of mankind, which is to say that human blood must flow without interruption somewhere or other on the globe, and that for every nation, peace is only a respite” p. 23
  • “…it is not enough to consider one period of time and one spot on the globe; one must look at the long series of massacres that has soiled every page of history. One sees war raging without interruption, like a continuing fever marked by terrifying paroxysms.” p. 24
  • “If you go back to the birth of nations, if you come down to our own day, if you examine peoples in all possible conditions from the state of barbarism to the most advanced civilization, you always find war.” P. 27
Why is this the case? Part of the reason, he argues, is that we are driven by the same wild, instinctual urges that drive the quotidian violence in the natural world, in the jungles of the earth. He does not believe that we are creatures overly actuated by reason but by passion.

When I studied Maistre in graduate school, what stunned me was that he was writing in the late 18th century. Think about that for a minute. He wrote long before the great wars of the 19th century. He wrote long before the two World Wars of the 20th century which consumed almost 100 million human lives. And he wrote long before the paroxysms of violence in our own day: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Eastern Ukraine and countless other civil wars and conflicts. Not to mention the rampages of nihilistic terrorists.  Recall his line above: at any point in time, somewhere on our globe, human blood is being shed wantonly.

Whatever one’s beliefs, a sunny optimism about human nature must confront the prophecy of Joseph de Maistre. And wrestle with it.

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