A Symposium of Sixty Years Ago
WE had occasion, not long since, in speaking of the somewhat affected and ambiguous attitude of Mr. Mallock toward the faith which he has undertaken to defend, to contrast him with those valiant sons of the church’s own body who have carried her banner most gallantly in recent times, and especially with that most memorable and ehivalric of them all, Count Joseph de Maistre. It is only incidentally, of course, that two men, as yet so widely separated in intellectual ranks, can be compared at all. Mr. Mallock has apparently suffered too severely from that wasting malady of the modern mind whose chief symptoms of spiritual unrest, moral bewilderment, and enervating melancholy are unhappily so familiar to us all, to be able wholly to recover from it, though never so willing to take the most heroic treatment. From invalidism of this description, at least, the great writer named above was always and absolutely free, and it is his superb mental health, his endurance and virility, his humor and high spirit, and the soldierly enthusiasm with which he fought out to its calm close the long, hard battle of his life, which especially fascinate us with his memory. It is not, therefore, as a controversialist, and as little as possible as a Catholic, but rather as a profound, courageous, and often most consolatory thinker on the perpetual problems of existence, that we propose to consider him to-day, and to glean a little from the abundant riches of his latest and most popular work, — his own favorite, also, and that into which he himself tells us that he had put his whole soul,— the Soirées de Saint Pétersbourg.
A brief outline of Count de Maistre’s story may serve to explain to those who are not freshly familiar with his life and work the circumstances under which the book was prepared.
Joseph de Maistre was born at Chambéry in the year 1758, of one of the oldest and most honorable families in Savoy. " Voltaire, ” says Sainte-Beuve, “ as he gazed upon Mont Blanc from Ferney, little dreamed that there was growing up under the shadow of the mountain, and would one day issue thence, his own most formidable enemy and keenest satirist.” Both Joseph and his brother Xavier, the future author of the enchanting Tour Round my Chamber, received a careful and severe early training, especially in classical studies; and the story is told, to illustrate the excellence of Joseph’s memory, that he once repeated off-hand and without missing a word an entire book of Virgil, on a challenge from a college classmate. Being reminded of this feat nearly forty years afterward, M. de Maistre said, “ And, if you will believe me, I can repeat that book of Virgil still.”
The first thirty years of his life were prosperous and uneventful. He was elected to the senate of Savoy at the age of twenty-two; he was made a magistrate at twenty-four. He married, and enjoyed for some years a singularly complete domestic happiness. He was an enthusiastic student still, always possessed by some literary predilection, which he followed up with ardor in his leisure hours ; but he wrote little, and published nothing save a few pamphlets and memorial addresses. He accumulated a great body of notes at this time, many of which perished in the revolutionary catastrophe which was at hand ; but their results remained in the constant growth and enrichment of the eager and exuberant mind. It was the outbreak of the great French Revolution which suddenly formed the author and determined his vocation. SainteBeuve, who has devoted to the imperial character of Count de Maistre one of his most elaborate and consummate studies, thinks that he finds traces, among the scant records of those quiet years, of the fact that the great orthodox champion who was to be had once his leanings toward liberal opinions and the philosophism of his youthful day. He indulged in some rather towering rhetoric about the American Revolution: “ Freedom, insulted in Europe, has winged her way to another hemisphere. She floats above the snows of Canada. She is arming the peaceful Pennsylvanian, and from the heart of Philadelphia she cries to the English, ' Why have you outraged me, — you who were wont to boast that to me you owe your greatness ? ’ ” etc. But then it is so easy to enjoy the fire-works of a revolution at a distance of three thousand miles ! By birth, breeding, and divine foreordination M. de Maistre was, in the finest sense of the word, an aristocrat, — loyal, martial, and devout; and 1792, which dazed so many brains, cleared his. It dispelled his dreams, and brought him to the full command of his senses. Even then, before the clang of the first tocsin had died away, and with all the tremendous force of his nature, he revolted from the Revolution. He saw in it the sum of all political and social iniquity. He saw also, as a matter of course, the inevitable result of Protestantism. To him the genius of the whole movement was simply — to use his own strong word — satanic ; and he engaged instantly and single-handed in a warfare against it, which was destined to cease not, day or night, till he was called to his final rest, nearly thirty years afterward.
When the French troops invaded Savoy, — in September, 1792, — M. de Maistre followed the flight of his king. He returned in January, 1793, under an amnesty offered to the émigrés, but could bear the new régime no more than three months. In April of the same year he retired to Lausanne, where the presence of many distinguished refugees made a most brilliant society just then, despite the pecuniary straits of most of its members. It was there that M. de Maistre first met Madame de Staël, whom he saw later at St. Petersburg, and later yet in her own house at Paris, after the Restoration. They were always good friends and warm antagonists. The lady graciously allowed that the gentleman possessed genius, but his judgment of her was expressed in more piquant terms. “ I never knew,” he wrote to a friend at this time, “ a mind more utterly perverted. Such is the infallible effect of modern philosophy on any woman whatever. Yet her heart is by no means bad. As for wit, she is extraordinarily brilliant when she is not trying to be so. Our studies in religion and politics had been utterly unlike, and scenes occurred between us in Switzerland fit to make one die of laughter. Yet we never lost temper.”
These years at Lausanne were the first and by far the most cheerful of an exile which was to last a quarter of a century. Later, when M. de Maistre had followed his dethroned sovereign to Venice, though still accompanied by his beloved family, he was harassed by extreme poverty. He lived in a small suite of rooms on the first floor of the Austrian embassy, but would accept no further assistance from a foreign government. Nevertheless, he bated not one jot of heart or hope concerning the ultimate triumph of those principles of religious and political order to which he was devoted, and which appeared, on all hands, to be sinking or submerged. “All this, " he used to say, “is but the motion of the wave. To-morrow it may bear us only too high, and then, indeed, it will be hard to steer.” And while loathing the excesses of the Revolution, as only one fiery and tender as himself could do, he yet saw in those very excesses the surest hope for the future. “ It is these horrors themselves,” he triumphantly exclaimed, “ which will yet preserve for us the integrity of the first of all kingdoms after the kingdom of heaven ! ” For France was in truth the fatherland of his soul, and he loved her no less passionately than he hated and mourned her crimes. At length, in 1802, he was sent by the restored king of Sardinia, Charles Emanuel IV., as minister plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg. It was a barren honor indeed, in the way of emoluments: for his impoverished sovereign could pay him no salary; he could not have his family with him; and he continued so poor during the greater part of his long stay in the Northern capital that he dined most frequently, when at home, on bread and tea, and received among his friends — as we learn from his spiritual daughter, Madame Swetchine — the affectionate sobriquet, out of Walter Scott, of the Caleb of diplomacy.
His official duties were, however, hardly more than nominal, and he had abundant leisure, during his fourteen years’ residence, for the studies in which he reveled, and for the chief literary labors of his life: his works on the authority of the Pope and on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, his translation of Plutarch’s essay on the Delays of Divine Justice, and the greater part of his Conversations on the Providence of God in the Government of the World, first published in the year after the author’s death under the leading title of the Soirées de Saint Pétcrsbourg.
The interlocutors in these conversations are represented as three: the senator, a Russian statesman and devout Greek Christian; the chevalier, a young French émigré of fair mind and open nature slightly tinged by the philosophism of the time; and the count himself, “ the noblest Roman of the Holy Father’s sons.” But in truth they are all the count, and we hardly think of the speakers as individuals, but rather as voices representing different phases of the one vehement and positive yet versatile mind.
The first of the great and universally interesting questions broached by this trinity of thinkers is that of the distribution of happiness and misery in the world, or, in the words of the senator, that grand scandale de la raison humaine, the prosperity of the bad and the sufferings of the good. The count starts as to a trumpet-call at the reproach implied in this statement of the question, and replies, with the buoyant intrepidity which usually animates him at the point where other men are disheartened, that there is no subject on which he feels himself stronger than this.
“ It is with perfect conviction,” he says, “ nay, with delicious satisfaction, that I shall proceed to expound to two men whom I tenderly love the thoughts on this theme which have been gathering in my mind during what is already a long life.” He questions, in the first place, the good faith of most of the complainants. “ They mistake the sophisms of a rebellious heart for genuine doubts of the understanding. If oftentimes,” he adds, in his epigrammatic way, “ superstition, according to the common reproach, undertakes to believe [croit croire] far oftener, rest assured, pride undertakes to disbelieve.” But even those who are honestly perplexed have needlessly confused the question. “ That crime in general prospers in this world while virtue suffers is palpably false. On the contrary, the proof is overwhelming that the goods and ills of life are a sort of lottery, where any person whatever may draw either a prize or a blank. It is necessary, then, to change the question, and to inquire why, in the temporal order, the just man is not exempt from the ills which afflict the guilty, and why the sinner is not denied the happiness which the good man is able to enjoy. But this question is entirely different from the other, and I shall be much surprised if its very statement does not demonstrate to you its absurdity. If the good man suffered because he was good, and the bad prospered by reason of his badness, this eternal objection against Providence might be unanswerable. It falls to the ground if only we suppose that joy and sorrow are distributed indifferently to all. . . . But false opinions are like bad money : struck in the first instance by great rascals, and then passed by honest men, who perpetuate the crime, not knowing what they do. It was impiety which first bruited abroad this objection. Levity and good nature have repeated it. ... A good man is killed in battle ; is this an injustice ? No, it is a misfortune. If he have the gout or the stone, if his friend betrays him, if he is crushed by a falling building, it is still a misfortune, but no more, because all men, without distinction, are subject to these disgraces. . . . Never lose sight of this great truth : that if a general law be just for all it cannot be unjust for the individual. You did not have a given disease, but you might have had it. You had it, but you might have been exempt. He who fell in the battle might have escaped. He who returned might have remained. All have not died, but all were there to die. The just law is not that which is executed upon all, hut that which is made for all. To find difficulties in such an order of things, one must love them. Alas, they are loved ; they are sought. The human heart, in its perpetual revolt against the authority that galls it, tells tales to the credulous mind. We accuse Providence that we may avoid accusing ourselves; raising difficulties which we should blush to raise against a human sovereign or simple administrator in whose wisdom we confided. Strange that we should find it easier to be just to men than to God! ”
All have not died, but all were there to die, — this is the heroic note which the reader will hear struck again and again by the controlling voice in this comprehensive and searching colloquy, the tonic to which all the solutions lead. We are here in this world to face the worst. For this cause were we born. Shame on us if we do it not bravely ! “ I know not if I am wrong,” says the modest young chevalier in another place, “ but it seems to me as if there could be nothing so unfortunate for a man as never to have experienced misfortune. For how could such a man be sure of himself, or understand his own worth ? Sufferings are to the righteous man what battles are to the soldier. They perfect him and accumulate his deserts. Does the brave man complain to the army because he is chosen for the most perilous expeditions? Nay, rather he covets them, he glories in them ! For him suffering is an occupation and death an adventure.”
This high military spirit finds occasion for yet more explicit utterance when the whole subject of war comes up for discussion, in the seventh conversation. Why, the question is propounded, should war be held so great an evil, so dark a mystery ? “ The business of war does not, as one might expect or fear, if not taught by experience, tend in the least to degrade, to render hard and ferocious, him who exercises it. Rather it tends to perfect the man. The honorable soldier is the most honorable of men; and for my own part [it is the senator who speaks now] I have always set a special value upon military good sense. I prefer it infinitely to the roundabout methods of business men. In the ordinary intercourse of life, military men are more amiable, more facile, nay, even, I think, more conciliatory than others. Amid political storms they are usually the intrepid defenders of antique maxims, and the most dazzling sophisms vanish before their rectitude. . . . Religion with them is often allied to honor in a remarkable manner, and those who have most deeply offended her in matters of conduct will draw the sword for her in case of need. . . . Much has been said of the license of camps. It is great, no doubt; but the soldier seldom finds his vices in camp. He carries them there. A moral and austere people always furnishes an excellent soldiery, — terrible upon the battle-field, if nowhere else. Virtue and even piety are closely linked with military courage. Far from enfeebling the warrior, they ennoble him. The hair shirt of Saint Louis did not gall him under his shirt of mail. . . . Oh, yes, gentlemen, the soldier’s functions are terrible, but it must needs be that they are connected with a great spiritual law; and it is no marvel that all the nations of the earth have united to see in the scourge of war something more especially divine than in all others. It is not without good and deep reason, believe me, that the title God of battles flashes from every page of holy writ.” Seven distinct reasons are then formally adduced for believing in the divine appointment of war: It is divine because it is a law of the world. It is divine in its supernatural consequences, both general and personal (and among these last is unhesitatingly reckoned the privilege of dying in the field, — that “ great prize of death in battle ” of which one of our own poets has sung in the most thrilling of his strains). It is divine in the mysterious glory, the inexplicable attraction, which invests it; divine in the protection so strangely accorded to its great captains; divine in the mode of its declaration; divine in its results, which absolutely escape the calculations of human reason; divine in the indefinable forces which determine its success.
Inconsistent as all this appears with the recited creed of modern philanthropy, it undoubtedly appeals to an instinct deeply implanted in the breast of some of the purest and most peaceable of mankind. And, at all events, it is easy to comprehend how a brave and religious man who had seen the French Revolution, and “twice,” in his own words, “ been stricken by its lightnings,” yet survived to witness the Napoleonic wars, should have arrived at this point of view. We can perfectly understand also the sharp contrast in the mind of such a man between the functions of “ those two slayers by profession,” the soldier and the executioner. “ They occupy the two extremes of the social scale. No man is nobler than the first; none more abject than the second. I employ no mere play upon words when I say that their functions approach one another through their remoteness only, as the first degree of the circle touches the three hundred and sixtieth,—precisely because they are as far apart as possible.” We can even read the count’s own celebrated but positively bloodcurdling picture of the headsman, in the first conversation, with a kind of shuddering acceptance, when we remember what manner of men they must have been who served the guillotine.
But it is not altogether so easy for persons whose “ youth sublime ” has been “ nourished ” on theories of evolution to hearken with submission and edification to our dear philosopher’s eloquent harangues on the supernatural origin of language, the fall of man from a state both of moral innocence and mental illumination such as never can be regained, and the hopeless degradation of the savage nations. M. de Maistre candidly admits that the subject of original sin seems at the outset to present some difficulties, but he assures us that these will vanish before a close and honest scrutiny. Nay, we shall find, in the end, that this dogma explains everything, and that without it nothing can be explained. There are, indeed, two orders of original sin. “ As the sick man differs from the sickly man, so does the guilty differ from the vicious. The acute malady is not transmissible, but that which vitiates the humors becomes an original malady, capable of ruining a whole race. So it is with moral maladies. Some belong to the common state of human imperfection, but there are sins, or consequences of sin, which degrade a man beyond recovery. Hence come savages, concerning whom so much nonsense has been uttered, and who have served especially as an unfailing text to J. J. Rousseau, who persists in mistaking the savage for the primitive man, whereas he is and can be but the descendant of a man detached from the tree of civilization in consequence of some crime. . . . The essence of every intelligence is to know and to love. The bounds of his knowledge are the bounds of his nature. The immortal being learns nothing. He knows of his very essence all which he ought to know. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that an intelligent being should love evil naturally, — that is, by virtue of his essence ; for in that case God must have made him bad, which is impossible. If, then, man is subject to ignorance and to evil, he can be so only by reason of some accidental degradation, which must needs be the consequence of a crime. That need, that greed of knowledge which agitates him, is but the natural tendency of his being toward its primitive state, and shows him what he is. He gravitates, if I may say so, toward the regions of light.” A whole cloud of heathen witnesses, ancient and modern, are called to attest the corruption of man, his degeneracy from a lost ideal, — Hippocrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca. “ Even Greece, mendacious Greece, who has dared all in history, confesses to the age of gold. Even Voltaire is betrayed into saying, ‘ L’age d'or le premier se montra sur la terre.’ ‘ But will you not,’ says the young chevalier, ‘ explain yourself a little more fully about the savages ? ’ ‘That I will,’responds the count, ‘for on that subject I am, like Job, full of matter. If all men come from the three pairs who repeopled the world (after the flood), and if the human race began by knowledge, the savage can only be, as I have said, a bough severed from the social tree. Now it matters not at what period any given bough may have been cut off. It is so. That is enough. . . . The chief of some tribe, having changed the moral principle within himself by one of those transgressions which are apparently no longer possible in our day, since, happily, we no longer know enough to incur the same degree of guilt, — this chief, I say, transmits the anathema to his posterity; and every constant force being by its very nature cumulative, this degradation, weighing incessantly upon his descendants, has finally made of them what we call savages. This is that lowest degree of brutalization which Rousseau and the likes of him [ses pareils] call the state of nature. Two totally different causes have contributed to shed a deceitful glamour over this abominable savage state. The one is old ; the other appertains to our century. The one is the immense charity of the Catholic priesthood, which, in speaking of those men, has often put its own desires in place of the reality ; . . . the other is to be found in the philosophy of our time, which has made use of the savage to support its vain and guilty declamations against the social order. But the slightest attention will suffice to protect us against the errors both of charity and bad faith. One cannot fix his eye upon the savage for one instant without reading the anathema written not merely upon his soul, but upon his outward frame. He is a deformed child, robust and ferocious, in whom the fire of intelligence sheds but a pale and intermittent light. A terrible hand, laid heavily upon these devoted races, has effaced in them the distinctive characteristics of our greatness, — foresight and perfectibility. The savage cuts down the tree to gather its fruit. He unharnesses the ox which the missionaries have bestowed upon him, and cooks it with the wood of the cart. For three centuries the savage has been gazing at ourselves, desiring nothing of us except powder to kill his fellows and brandy to kill himself. He has never dreamed of manufacturing these commodities, He relies on our avarice, which will never fail him. And as the lowest and most revolting substances are still susceptible of a certain deterioration, so the vices of humanity are vitiated in the savage. He is thievish, cruel, and dissolute, but he is so after a fashion different from ours. In order to be criminal, we surmount our nature. The savage follows his. He thirsts for crime and is incapable of remorse.”
How would some of our Poncaphiles have liked listening to this ? It is certain, however, that their presence in Count de Maistre’s circle would have stimulated rather than checked the tide of his sonorous denunciation. He would have called in his reserves of damnatory adjectives with the same resolute voice, yet humorous gleam of the eye, with which, long afterward, when arranging the material for the Soirées, he used to say of some of his more savage thrusts at the iconoclasm of his time, “ Let us leave that in; it will make them so furious over there [meaning in Paris] ! Lalssez leur cet os a ranger ! ”
And however amazing severally, and even repugnant, the fierce ultramontanisms of Count de Maistre may sound to the languid and indifferent esprits forts of the present day, no one who loves logical consistency can fail to admire the intricate beauty of their interdependence, — the manner in which they imply and necessitate one another. Life, thought, language, the direct gifts of God to man ; the forfeit and the redemption; the divine deposit of truth in the church, and its paramount authority to that of the Scripture; hierarchy in the church and in its secular image the state ; reversibility, or the obvious necessity that one should suffer for another, and hence the “ sweet reasonableness ” that one should intercede and atone for another ; purgatory, the doctrine of common sense, —all these dogmas unite to form a flawless and symmetrical structure of faith. They have a unity like that of those consummate Greek temples whose several blocks of marble have become fused by a sort of crystalline accommodation hardly distinguishable from a vital process. As we look up at the rock-founded citadel (supra hanc petram), along whose ramparts we follow the glancing of this bold champion’s armor, we own that to the eye at least the position is impregnable. We fancy that if we were stationed at his side we could “ smile at Satan’s rage ” no less ironically than he, and “ face a frowning world” with equal confidence and cheer.
Of the splendors and terrors of Count de Maistre’s tactics in personal onset we have three notable instances in the Soirées : his attack on Voltaire, his arraignment of Lord Bacon, and his dismemberment of Locke. The first is matchless as a piece of impassioned invective, and very interesting from having been one of the latest additions ever made to the manuscript of the Soirées, but in spite of the importance assigned to it by Sainte-Beuve, it seems to us little more. The second is but a fragment as we have it here, but was subsequently expanded into a weighty critical essay. The third is less towering in tone and tremendous in import than either of the others ; but it is radiant with wit, — one might almost say fun, — and altogether delightful. The reader will easily divine what an offensive savor Locke’s bourgeois doctrine of the sensible origin of all ideas must have had in the quivering nostrils of our haughty Platonist; but it is perhaps a feeling akin to that confessed by the chevalier — the joy of being avenged, though late, for the tedium endured in the attempt to read Locke’s Essay — which gives its keenest edge to our relish of this critique.
“ Tell me on your honor,” says the count to his young friend, “did you ever read Locke ? ”
“ There is no reason why I should lie about it,” replies that debonair person.
“ I never did. I do recollect opening the book one rainy day in the country, but it was only an attitude.”
“ Really,” rejoins the count, “ you are sometimes very felicitous in your expressions. In effect that book of Locke’s is seldom opened except par attitude. It is the least read of all serious books. A great desire of mine, but one which can never be gratified, is to know how many men there are in Paris who have read from beginning to end the Essay on the Human Understanding. [It should be borne in mind that Locke was in high fashion in Paris at that time.] It is often mentioned, often quoted, but always from memory. For my own part, I used to talk of it without having read it as glibly as another. At last, wishing to acquire the right of speaking conscientiously,— that is to say, with full knowledge of cause,—I did read it deliberately, pen in hand, from the first word to the last. But I was fifty years old at the time, and in all my life I never swallowed such ennui. You know, too, my hardihood in this direction.”
“ Indeed, I do,” says the chevalier. “ Did I not see you last year reading a mortal German octavo on the Apocalypse ? I remember that when I saw you close that book in full health and vigor I told you that you were like a cannon which had sustained a double charge.”
“ Nevertheless, I can assure you that, compared to the Essay on the Human Understanding, that German book is a light pamphlet, — a mere literary pastime,” etc.
The linked malice long drawn out of the examination which follows should be read in connection by all those people of taste who take an unselfish pleasure in the artistic dissection of their fellowmen. But we must not be too much captivated by the vivacity of M. de Maistre in his malign and aggressive moods, for with him these were never lasting. More natural to his noble mind, and ever more habitual as his years declined, was the exalted frame which called forth his eulogy on the Psalms of David, in the seventh conversation, — that beautiful mosaic from the grand Vulgate, — an ode in all but measure ; the moving fervor of the various exhortations to prayer; and the magnificent defense, in the tenth, of the doctrine of reversibility on the ground of the unity of the human race in God.
The conversations were to have been twelve. They are only ten and a fragment. The unfinished eleventh is, perhaps, the most keenly interesting of all to readers of the present day. It begins with a discussion of those wide-spread presentiments which M. de Maistre, with his rich and ready learning, shows to have been the forerunners of all the great events of history. He descants con amore upon the Pollio of Virgil, refusing, with characteristic scorn, to admit a doubt of its Messianic meaning. He owns that He is himself possessed even now by such a presentiment, — the vague forecast of a great spiritual crisis, — which sometimes takes the form of a terrific judgment of infidelity, and again of some glorious revival; a “ third Revelation,” which shall arrest and dispel the fastdeepening dusk of faith by an unprecedented illumination. He dwells with sorrowful eloquence on the seeming decline of Christianity (would his loyal heart have been lightened had he lived till now ?) ; he will expound more fully than he has done as yet the responsibility of the so-called Reformation for that decline, showing it to be the inevitable result of that “ insensate yet fundamental ” doctrine of Protestantism first proclaimed during the “ imbroglio of the sixteenth century,” — the “ right of private judgment.” But the pen drops here; the imperious voice is hushed; the rest is never said.
Shall we, with Paul de Saint Victor, lament this particular loss as one of the saddest and most irreparable which could have befallen us, or shall we rejoice that words which might well have been harsh and unfair were never spoken? Count de Maistre had already said in his day things frightful for Protestants to hear, as, for instance, when he loudly defended that “ salutary institution ” the Spanish Inquisition, or cut short Madame de Staël’s voluble enthusiasm over the English church by informing her that the English church was, among Protestant churches, like the orang-outang among apes. But he had likewise said upon the same subject most generous and tender things ; like this : “ We believe in the Word, while our dear enemies believe in the Scripture only. But if the Scripture be not vivified by the eternal life of the Word, it can never become word that is life. Let others, then, invoke the dumb word, if they will. We may smile secure at that false god of theirs, while yet we await with loving impatience the moment when its partisans, undeceived, shall fall into the open arms which for three centuries have been extended toward them.” And it is certain that amid his ardent polemics he was ofttimes haunted by the vision of an all-embracing spiritual unity.
To the unfinished paragraph which closes the eleventh conversation is appended the suggestive note, Cetera desideranter. Like those earlier seers of whose kindred he was and whose tone he unconsciously adopted, M. de Maistre died with vast desires unfulfilled, — straining his fading eyes in vain to discern the daybreak. But his faith in the providential order was so secure, his heart so staunch, his submission so habitual and sincere, that we need no written testimony to his having borne his last disappointment bravely. He had embraced the spirit, if not the letter, of that Talmudic saying from which the prophetic soul of Emanuel Deutsech derived a solemn consolation : It is not incumbent upon thee to complete the work. If sometimes he cried out in a momentary sadness of spirit, “ We were born out of due time. We have endured all the horrors of the storm, but we shall never rejoice in the sunlight which will shine over our graves,” oftener, far oftener, he could have repeated from his heart the beautiful words with which he had sought long before to console the bereaved mother of Eugene Costa : “ There is no pain which does not purify, no violence which the principle of evil does not turn against itself. It is sweet to catch amid universal ruin a presentiment of the divine plan.” 1
We like to dwell upon the bright side of his latest days. He died at home, the exile of so many years, from whom the pang of separation from his nearest and dearest had wrung this heart-rending expression : “At the close of my monotonous days I fall upon my bed, and the sleep which I invoke will not come at my call. I toss and turn, saying like Hezekiah, ‘ From day even unto night wilt thou make an end of me.’ My heart is torn with poignant thoughts of my family. I think I hear them weeping at Turin.” He found the dear circle unbroken by death. His king honored him ; Paris hailed and fêted him, — the daughter whom he had never seen when she was twelve years old, and to whom he had written from St. Petersburg, “ The idea of leaving the world without knowing thee is the most terrible I can conceive,” was his constant companion and minister. But it was a brief reunion. The poverty-plagued ambassador had after all lived lavishly. The brain was worn out with superhuman labor ; the high heart spent with its violent pulsations. Count de Maistre died of old age at sixty-eight; that is to say, he died as good men with whom nature has her gentle way die oftener at eighty-five, — suddenly, painlessly, by the mere failure of the body’s works, but with the eye of the mind undimmed and its force unabated. “ He is like our Ætna,” said a Sicilian who saw him first when the end was very near, — “ snow on his head, and fire upon his lips.”
It is impossible in a cursory sketch, like the present, to do anything like justice to more than one phase of so complex and overshadowing a character as Joseph de Maistre’s. We have desired chiefly to illustrate his valor as a son of the church militant; the chivalrous and manful quality of his Christianity; that superb spirit by virtue of which he informed once more with fire and force the disused and faded titles of Soldier of the Cross and Defender of the Faith. Regarding him thus, and his contrast with the weary and futile apologists for belief by whom he has been succeeded, we forget the sting of the wounds he dealt in action, and salute his great shade with reverential regret.
My spirit loved and loves him yet,
Like some poor girl whose heart is set
On one whose rank exceeds her own.”
Harriet W. Preston.
- “Here,” says Sainte-Beuve, “is a suave mari magno which breathes the true unction of Christianity! ” To attempt writing briefly on a theme on which Sainte-Beuve has written fully is to be distracted by a perpetual desire for quotation. But to quote without acknowledgment would be in this case too obvious and insensate a felony.↩