“An Essay On Reactionary Thought”: De Maistre’s divine providentialism vs. Cioran’s atheodicy

Justification by Providence is the quixotism of theology.

The adjective satanic, which [De Maistre] applied to the French Revolution he might just as well have extended to all events […] especially the most important one: the Creation.


“Nothing is where it belongs”: the refrain of all emigrations, and also the point of departure for all philosophical reflection. The mind wakens upon contact with disorder and injustice: whatever is “where it belongs,” whatever is normal, leaves the mind indifferent, benumbed, while frustration and dispossession enhance and animate it. A thinker is enriched by all that escapes him, all that is taken from him; if he should happen to lose his country, what a windfall! Thus the exile is a thinker in miniature or a circumstantial visionary, tossed between hope and fear, on the lookout for events he longs for or dreads. If he has genius, he rises above them, like de Maistre, and interprets them: “The first condition of a decreed revolution is that everything that might have forestalled it does not exist, and that those who seek to prevent it must fail entirely. But order is never more apparent. Providence is never more palpable, than when a higher action takes man’s place and operates in and of itself: this is what we are seeing at this moment.”

In periods when we become aware of the nullity of our initiatives, we identify destiny either with Providence — a reassuring disguise for fatality, a camouflage of failure, an admission of our impotence to organize the future, yet a desire to discern its essential contours and determine their meaning — or with a mechanical, impersonal play of forces, the automatism of which controls our actions and even our beliefs. Yet we invest this play of forces, however impersonal and mechanical, with a glamour that its very definition forbids, and we relate it — a conversion of concepts into universal agents — to a moral power responsible for events and the turn they must take. At the height of positivism, did we not invoke, in mystical terms, a Future to which we attributed an energy scarcely less effective than that of Providence? Inveterately there slips into our explanations a wisp of theology, inherent in, even indispensable to, our thought insofar as it undertakes to provide a coherent image of the world.

To attribute a meaning to the historical process, even one derived from a logic immanent to the future, is to subscribe, more or less explicitly, to a form of Providence. Bossuet, Hegel, and Marx, by the very fact that they assign a meaning to events, belong to the same family or at least do not essentially differ from each other, the important thing being not to define or determine this meaning but to resort to it, to postulate it; and they resort to it, they postulate it. To turn from a theological or metaphysical conception to historical materialism is simply to change providentialisms. Were we in the habit of looking beyond the specific content of ideologies and doctrines, we should see that to claim kinship with one of them rather than some other does not at all imply much expenditure of sagacity. Those following one party imagine they differ from those following another, whereas all, once they choose, join each other underneath, participate in one and the same nature, and vary only in appearance, by the mask they assume. It is folly to imagine that truth resides in choice, when any adoption of a position is equivalent to a contempt for truth. To our misfortune, choice, position-taking, is a fatality no one escapes; each of us must opt for a nonreality, an error, obligatory fanatics that we are, sick men, fever victims: our assents, our adherences, are so many alarming symptoms. Whoever identifies himself with anything gives evidence of morbid dispositions: no salvation and no health outside of pure being — as pure as the Void. But let us return to Providence, a subject scarcely less vague. To discover how seriously a historical period was stricken, the dimensions of the disaster it was obliged to suffer, simply measure the desperation with which believers justified the designs, the program, and the behavior of the divinity. Not at all surprising that de Maistre’s crucial work, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, should be a variation on the theme of the temporal government of Providence: did he not live in a time when making his contemporaries discern the effects of divine goodness required the combined resources of sophistry, faith, and illusion? In the fifth century, in a Gaul ravaged by barbarian invasions, Salvianus, writing De Gubernatione Dei, had faced a similar task: desperate combat against the evidence, mission without an object intellectual effort based on hallucination. . . . Justification by Providence is the quixotism of theology. […]

Divine: there is no adjective de Maistre uses more readily. Constitution sovereignty, hereditary monarchy, and papacy are all, according to him, “divine” institutions, as is any authority consolidated by tradition, any order whose origins data back to a remote period; the rest is all “wretched usurpation,” hence “human” work. In short, divine relates to the body of institutions and phenomena execrated by liberal thought. Applied to war, the adjective seems, at first glance, unfortunate; replace it with irrational and it is no longer so. This kind of substitution, if made in many of de Maistre’s observations, would attenuate their scandalous character; but by resorting to it, do we not ultimately dilute a thought whose virulence constitutes its charm? The fact remains that to name and invoke God at every moment, to associate Him with the horrible, has something about it that sends chills down the spine of any balanced, reticent, and reasonable believer, contrary to the fanatic — the real believer — who relishes the divinity’s bloodthirsty escapades.

Divine or not, war, as it is treated in the Soirées, does not fail to exert a certain fascination upon us. This ceases to be true when it obsesses a second-order mind such as de Maistre’s Spanish disciple, Donoso Cortès: “War, God’s work, is good, as all His works are good; but a war can be disastrous and unjust, because it is the work of man’s free will.” “I have never been able to understand those who anathematize war. Such anathema is contrary to philosophy and to religion; those who pronounce it are neither philosophers nor Christians.” […]

In de Maistre, aggression is inspiration; hyperbole, innate knowledge. Carried to extremes, he dreams of nothing better than taking us with him. And so he manages to reconcile us to war, as he reconciles us to the executioner’s solitude, if not to the executioner himself. Christian by persuasion rather than by sentiment, quite alien to the figures of the New Testament, he secretly loves the pomp of intolerance, and it suits him to be intractable: is is for nothing that he grasped so thoroughly the spirit of the Revolution? And would he have managed to describe its vices had he not recognized them in himself? As an enemy of the Terror — and one never opposes with impunity an events an epoch, or an idea — he would have to combat it by steeping himself in it, assimilating it. His religious experience would be marked thereby: the obsession with blood prevails. Hence he is more attracted by the old God (“the God of hosts”) than by Christ, whom he always mentions in conventional, “sublime” phrases, and usually to justify the theory — interesting, though no more than that — of the reversibility of the sufferings of the innocent to the advantage of the guilty. Moreover, the only Christ who might have suited him is the figure of Spanish sculpture, sanguinolent, disfigured, convulsive, and pleased to the point of delirium by His crucifixion. […]

The problem of Evil actually troubles only a few sensitive souls, a few skeptics, repelled by the way in which the believer comes to terms with it or spirits it away. Hence it is to these that theodicies are primarily addressed, attempts to humanize God, frantic acrobatics that collapse and compromise themselves on this ground, constantly belied as they are by experience. Try as they will to be persuasive, they fail; they are declared suspect, incriminated, and asked for accountings, in the name of one piece of evidence — Evil — evidence that a de Maistre will attempt to deny. “Everything is Evil,” he instructs us; yet Evil, he hastens to add, comes down to a “purely negative” force that has nothing “in common with existence,” comes down to a “schism in being,” to an accident. Others will assert on the contrary that quite as constitutive of being as Good, and quite as real. Evil is nature, an essential ingredient of existence and anything but an accessory phenomenon, and that the problems Evil raises become insoluble as soon as we refuse to introduce it into the composition of the divine substance. Just as sickness is not an absence of health but a reality as positive and as lasting as health, in the same way Evil is worth as much as Good, even exceeds it in indestructibility and plenitude. Good and Evil principles coexist and mingle in God, as they coexist and mingle in the world. The notion of God’s culpability is not a gratuitous one, but necessary and perfectly compatible with the notion of His omnipotence: only such an idea confers some intelligibility on the historical process, on all it contains that is monstrous, mad, and absurd. To attribute goodness and purity to the creator of becoming is to abandon all comprehension of the majority of events, especially the most important one: the Creation. God could not avoid the influence of Evil, mainspring of actions, an agent indispensable to Whoever, exasperated by self-containment, aspires to emerge, to spread Himself and corrupt Himself in time. If Evil, the secret of our dynamism, were to withdraw from our lives, we should vegetate in that monotonous perfection of the Good which, according to Genesis, vexed Being itself. The combat between the two principles. Good and Evil, is waged on every level of existence, including eternity. We are plunged into the adventure of the Creation, one of the most dreadful of exploits, without “moral purposes” and perhaps without meaning; and though the idea and the initiative for it are God’s, we cannot reproach him for it, so great in our eyes is His prestige as the first guilty party. By making us His accomplices, He associated us with that vast movement of solidarity in Evil which sustains and affirms the universal confusion. […]

An unhoped-for avowal that would have delighted a Voltaire. Providence is unmasked, denounced, rendered suspect, by the very man who had put himself forward to celebrate its goodness, its honorable character. Admirable sincerity, the dangers of which de Maistre must have understood. Subsequently he will forget himself less and less and, as usual, returning the focus to man, will abandon the inculpation of God by rebellion, jeers, or despair. The better to reproach human nature for the evils it endures, he will forget that eminently untenable theory of the moral origin of diseases. “If there were no moral evil upon earth, there would be no physical evil”; “. . . all suffering is a torment imposed for some crime, present or original”; “if I have made no distinction among diseases, it is because they are all punishments.”

This doctrine he derives from that of Original Sin, without which, he tells us, “one explains nothing.” But he is mistaken when he reduces Sin to a primitive transgression, to a concerted and immemorial fault, instead of seeing in it a flaw, a vice of nature; he is also mistaken when, after speaking correctly of an “original disease,” he attributes it to our iniquities, whereas it is, like Sin, inscribed in our very essence: primordial disorder, calamity affecting good and wicked, virtuous and vicious alike.

As long as he confines himself to describing the ills that overwhelm us, de Maistre is veracious; he strays from truth when he tries to explain and justify their distribution on earth. His observations seem to us exact; his theories and his value judgments, inhuman and erroneous. If, as he likes to think, diseases are punishments, then the hospitals are crammed with monsters and the incurable are by far the greatest criminals in existence. Let us not take apologetics to its ultimate position; let us show some indulgence with regard to those who, eager to disinculpate God, to put Him above suspicion, reserve to man alone the honor of having conceived Evil. ‘. . . Like all great ideas, that of the Fall accounts for everything and for nothings and it is quite as difficult to utilize as it is to do without. But finally, whether the Fall can be imputed to a fault or a fatality, to an action of moral order or to a metaphysical principle, the fact remains that it explains, at least in part, our erring ways, our inconclusiveness, our fruitless quests, the terrible singularity of beings, the role of disturber, of broken-down and inventive animal, that was assigned to each of us. And if it involves a number of points subject to caution, there is one, however, whose importance is incontestable: the one that traces our failure to our separation from the All. It could not escape de Maistre: “The more one examines the universe, the more one is inclined to believe that Evil proceeds from a certain division that cannot be explained, and that the return to Good depends on a contrary force that ceaselessly impels us toward a unity just as inconceivable.”

How to explain such division? Attribute it to the insinuation of Becoming within Being? To the infiltration of movement into the primordial unity? To a fatal shock given to the happy indistinction before there was time? Who knows? What seems certain is that “history” proceeds from a broken identity, from an initial laceration, source of the multiple, source of Evil.

The notion of Sin, associated with that of division, satisfies the mind only if used with caution, instead of in de Maistre’s fashion, for he quite arbitrarily proceeds to imagine a second-order Original Sin, responsible, he says, for the existence of the savage, that “descendant of a man detached from the great tree of civilization by an ordinary prevarication,” a fallen being who cannot be regarded “without reading the anathema written, I am not saying merely in his soul, but even upon the external form of his body,” “stricken in the last depths of his moral essence,” not at all like primitive man, for “with our intelligence, our morality, our sciences, and our arts, we are precisely to primitive man what the savage is to us.” […]

Often the reactionary is merely a cunning, an interested sage who, politically exploiting the great metaphysical truths, examines without weakness or pity the underside of the human phenomenon in order to broadcast its horror — a profiteer of the terrible whose thought, paralyzed by calculation or by an excess of lucidity, minimizes or calumniates time. More generous (being more naive), revolutionary thought, on the other hand, associating the erosion of Becoming with the notion of substantiality, discerns in succession a principle of enrichment a fruitful dislocation of identity and monotony, and a sort of continuous perfectibility. A challenge hurled at the notion of Original Sin: such is the ultimate meaning of revolutions. Before liquidating the established order, they seek to release man from the worship of origins to which religion condemns him; they do so only by undermining the gods, by weakening their power over men’s minds. For it is the gods who, by binding us to a world before history, make us scorn Becoming, that fetish of all innovator from the simple grumbler to the anarchist.

Our political conceptions are dictated to us by our sentiment, or our vision, of time. If eternity haunts us, what do we care about the changes taking place in the life of institutions or of peoples? To be interested in them, we must believe, with the revolutionary spirit, that time contains the potential answer to all questions and the remedy to all evils, that its unfolding involves the elucidation of mystery and the reduction of our perplexities, that time is the agent of a total metamorphosis. But here is the most curious thing of all: the revolutionary idolizes Becoming only up to the instauration of the order for which he fought; subsequently, for him, appears the ideal conclusion of time, the Forever of Utopias, an extratemporal, unique, and infinite moment, provoked by the advent of a new age, entirely different from the others, an eternity here on earth that closes and crowns the historical process. The notion of a golden age, the notion of paradise pursues believers and unbelievers alike. However, between the primordial paradise of religions and the ultimate one of utopias, there is the interval separating regret from hope, remorse from illusion, perfection achieved from perfection unrealized. On which side effectiveness and dynamism may be found, we realize readily enough: the more specifically a moment is marked by the Utopian spirit (which can very well assume a “scientific” disguise), the more chances it has of triumphing and of lasting. As the fortune of Marxism testifies, one always wins, on the level of action by placing the absolute within the possible, not at the beginning but at the end of time. Like all reactionaries, de Maistre situated it in the past. The adjective satanic, which he applied to the French Revolution he might just as well have extended to all events: his hatred of any innovation is equivalent to a hatred of movement as such. What he wants is to nail men to tradition, to deflect them from their need to question the value and the legitimacy of dogmas and institutions. “If He has placed certain objects beyond the limits of our vision, it is doubtless because it would be dangerous for us to perceive them clearly”; “I daresay what we should not know is more important than what we should know.”

Positing that without the inviolability of mystery, order collapses, de Maistre counters the indiscretions of the critical spirit with the bans of orthodoxy, the multiplication of heresies, the rigor of a unique truth. But he goes too far, he begins raving, when he seeks to convince us that “any metaphysical proposition that does notself-evidently emerge from a Christian dogma is and can only be a culpable extravagance.” A fanatic of obedience, he accuses the Revolution of having laid bare the basis of authority and of having revealed its secret to the uninitiated, to the mob. “If you give a child one of those toys which perform movements, inexplicable to him, by means of an internal mechanism, after having played with it for a moment, he will break it to see what’s inside. It is thus that the French have treated their government. They have wanted to see inside; they have laid bare the political principles, they have opened the mob’s eyes to objects that it had never occurred to them to examine, without realizing that there are things that are destroyed by being shown.” […]

Because the author of the Soirées constantly invokes “mystery,” because he reverts to it every time his reason comes up against some impassable frontier, readers have insisted, despite the evidence, on his mysticism, whereas the true mystic, far from questioning himself upon mystery, or diminishing it to a problem, or making use of it as a means of explanation, on the contrary settles himself within it from the start, is inseparable from it, and lives inside it as one lives inside a reality, his God not being, like that of the prophets, absorbed by time, traitor to eternity, entirely external and superficial, but indeed that God of our soliloquies and our lacerations, the deep God in Whom our outcries gather.

De Maistre, evidently, has opted for the God of the prophets — a “sovereign” God it is vain to rail against or be offended by, a churchwarden God uninterested in souls — just as he had opted for an abstract mystery, annex of theology or dialectics, a concept rather than an experience. Indifferent to the encounter of human solitude and divine solitude, much more accessible to the problems of religion than to the dramas of faith, inclined to establish between God and ourselves relations that are juridical rather than confidential, he increasingly emphasizes the laws (does he not speak as a magistrate of the mystery?) and reduces religion to a simple “cement of the political edifice,” to the social function it fulfills — a hybrid synthesis of utilitarian preoccupations and theocratic inflexibility, a baroque mélange of fictions and dogmas. If he preferred the Father to the Son, he will prefer the Pope to either — by which I mean that, practical-minded in spite of everything, he will reserve for their delegate the most brilliant of his flatteries. “He has suffered a Catholic stroke”: this witticism to which he was inspired by Werner’s conversion suits de Maistre as well, for it is not God who has stricken him but a certain form of religion, an institutional expression of the absolute. A similar stroke had also affected Bonald, a thinker chiefly concerned with constructing a system of political theology. In a letter of July 18, 1818, de Maistre wrote to him, “Is it possible, Monsieur, that nature has entertained herself by putting two strings as perfectly in tune as your mind and mine! It is the most rigorous unison, a unique phenomenon!” One regrets this conformity of views with a lusterless and deliberately limited writer — of whom Joubert once remarked, “He’s a squireen of great wit and great knowledge, erecting his first prejudices into doctrines” — but ultimately it sheds a certain light on the direction de Maistre’s thought was taking, as on the discipline he had imposed upon himself in order to avoid risk and subjectivism in matters of faith. Yet from time to time the visionary in him triumphs over the theologian’s scruples and, wresting him from the Pope and the rest, raises him to the perception of eternity: “Occasionally I should like to hurl myself beyond the narrow limits of this world; I would like to anticipate the day of revelations and plunge into the infinite. When the double law of man will be erased and these two centers united, he will be ONE: no longer having a war within, how would he have any idea of duality? But if we consider men, comparing them with each other, what will become of them when, Evil being annihilated, there will be no more passion or personal commitment? What will the Self become when all thoughts will be common, like all desires, when all minds will see each other as they are seen? Who can understand, who can represent to himself, that heavenly Jerusalem, where all the inhabitants, penetrated by the same spirit, will penetrate one another, and each reflect the other’s happiness?”

CIORAN, E. M. “Joseph de Maistre: an essay on reactionary thought”, Anathemas & Admirations. Transl. by Richard Howard. Foreword by Eugene Thacker. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012.