Distrusted by his royal Sardinian masters, de Maistre, now a wanderer without revenue, accepted the ambassadorship to St Petersburg. He was to spend 14 years in Imperial Russia and became a Russian subject while retaining his full diplomatic status. He fished deeply in the murky waters of Russian political and educational reform. He strove to Catholicise an aristocratic coterie of Russian friends. He advised the Czar on European affairs. He steeped himself in military theory during the Napoleonic wars. He conspired more or less transparently to secure a toehold in Russia for the Jesuits (it was the Russian turn to nationalist, mystical Orthodoxy after 1815 which was to bring on the grievous termination of de Maistre’s illustrious embassy). But, above all, it was on the banks of the Neva, during the white nights and the auroral hours unique to that haunting city, that Joseph de Maistre, most probably between 1809 and 1813, composed his Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg. These are, together with Galileo’s Dialogo, the most powerful philosophic-dramatic dialogues written in the West after Plato.
Though a full translation into English is at last in progress, the flavour of the original will be difficult to capture. De Maistre’s handling of the pulse and cadence of argument, of exposition, of challenge, of momentary mundane détente, has a Platonic suppleness and variousness. The unique light of St Petersburg, as it plays across the waters, the privileged strangeness of the extraterritorial setting, the Ambassador’s salon, the distant drumming of thunder, both literal and symbolic (Europe is blazing under the march of the Grandes Armées), are incomparably evoked. The successive soirées are nothing less than a conspectus, metaphysical and political anthropological and historical, of the humar condition. Exactly like Milton, whom he admired and read closely, de Maistre sets out to justify the ways of God to man.
The crux is that of Original Sin. Man is fallen from original grace. History is the blood-stained enactment of that Fall. How else can one provide any rational view of the sum of massacres, torture, folly, self-destruction, which make up the works and days of humanity? How else can one even hope to grasp why it should be that scientific and technological progress, economic expansion, intellectual and artistic invention, have not only left mankind unenfranchised from private and public anguish, but have, in plain fact, made human existence more naked to barbarism and the menace of mass-extermination? How shallow are the utopian promises of the Humanists and the Enlightenment, how myopic Rousseauist or Jeffersonian expectations of progress. What lies ahead, in a 20th century yet to come, is world war and the carnival of torture, is censorship and the regimen of the inhuman.
Joseph de Maistre’s ‘night-vision’ in the Soirées may well be the principal feat of precise foresight in the history of modern political thought and theory. It makes the ‘futurology’ of Rousseau, of Hegel and Marx look utterly shallow. The age of the Gulag and of Auschwitz, of famine and of ubiquitous torture, of Idi Amin, of Pol Pot and of Ceaucescu is exactly that which de Maistre announced. The nuclear threat, the ecological laying waste of our planet, the leap of endemic, possibly pandemic, illness out of the very matrix of libertarian progress, are correspondent to the analysis and prevision of the Soirées. The axiom of Original Sin, however we interpret its existential content, offers a key to the facts of our historical condition (there is, of course, in both Marxist and Freudian aetiologies of the human circumstance a scarcely-concealed borrowing of the axiom of the Fall). No secularist-liberal model can match either the logic or the predictive force of de Maistre’s political theology.
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