Understanding Joseph de Maistre

In this lecture, Isaiah Berlin, a noted 20th century English academic of Russo-Jewish extraction, extemporizes on the great Catholic reationary Joseph de Maistre. Except, Berlin's thesis is that de Maistre was not actually a reactionary in the way we Identitarians think of the word—and his Catholicism is only skin-deep.

Berlin points out that the picture that emerges from a careful reading of de Maistre's oeuvre is that of a man obsessed, not by any Christian ideal of charity or love of one's enemy, but by ideas of power, domination, and subjection (which at nearly the same time were being explored by the Marquis de Sade). Indeed, it appears as though de Maistre shared the Marquis's eponymous inclination toward brutality, and, in many ways, he appears to prefigure the ideas of George Sorel, which would, in turn, influence both the extreme Right and the extreme Left in the 20th century. One can even see elements of Nietzsche shining through de Maistre as Berlin presents him, taken as he is with ideas of sovereignty and power which give little time to the contemplation of the equal rights of all mankind. As de Maistre said in a quote Berlin has failed to make use of, despite emphasizing de Maistre's unique gifts as an aphorist:

In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.

If we have come into contact with de Maistre before today it is most likely through the works of Julius Evola, which draw heavily on him, especially his Saint Petersburg Soirées, and Berlin helps to clear up some of the confusion regarding Evola as well (though he does not mention him) and all thinkers on the so-called Catholic Right. While de Maistre (and the others, taking his lead) purports to draw his criticisms of the Enlightenment, equality, democracy and allied ideals from the dogmas of St. Thomas Aquinas and the system of Aristotle, Berlin is perfectly correct in showing that very little in his written work derives from such influences. Instead, he defends the Catholic Church as the most near-to-hand totalitarian worldview and tries to make it fit his power-worshipping inclinations. Berlin does not mince words: de Maistre is a proto-fascist, and his intellectual heirs are neither the Catholics fawning over the present Pope Crazy Eyes (or gently criticizing him, as the case may be) nor the monarchists longing to be ruled by a jet-setting gang of Econ majors and heroin enthusiasts, but those of a more serious cast of mind—the New Right.