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Human Agency

#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.

Joseph de Maistre’s prophecy: Is violence unavoidably human?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
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)

Quote of the week: Stephen Cave

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Futuristic Architecture"Rarely can the future be predicted by simply extending current trajectories."

- Stephen Cave, author of the internationally acclaimed book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. He also writes essays, features and reviews on many philosophical, ethical and scientific subjects, from human nature to robot warriors and animal rights. He is regularly published in the Financial Times and sporadically in The New York Times, the Guardian, Wired and others.
 

Quote of the Week: Janan Ganesh

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"The role of human agency is over-rated in politics. Not every development in public opinion is a reaction to something a politician has said or done.” 

- Janan Ganesh, a political columnist for the Financial Times. Previously, he was a political correspondent for The Economist. He appears weekly on BBC1's Sunday Politics television show and wrote a biography of George Osborne, the UK chancellor.