Between conservatism and reaction.Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum with a Foreword by Philippe Beneton, Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2004. 357 pp.
DEMOCRACY IS THE uncontested value at the heart of contemporary political life. Throughout the twentieth century, even totalitarians genuflected before the altar of the "rights of man," claiming to embody democratic emancipation more completely and effectively than their liberal bourgeois antagonists. This surreal identification of totalitarianism with liberty was of course utterly mendacious, but it confirmed the fundamentally democratic character of all modern politics. To be undemocratic is to be, ipso facto, illegitimate, and we can now scarcely imagine a world not shaped by the dual imperatives of human rights and democratic self-rule.
As a result, political philosophy has largely abandoned its traditional responsibility for reflecting critically upon the full range of political forms and social arrangements. Instead, contemporary political theory takes its bearings entirely from those libertarian and egalitarian intuitions that are said to be the only just foundation for moral and political life. Older Americans can still remember a time when conservatives proudly spoke the language of constitutional formalism and austere civic republicanism and were suspicious of anything that smacked of demagogic appeals to the popular will. But even many conservatives now limit themselves to defending "authentic" democracy against what they perceive as the usurpations of relativistic and egalitarian elites. More than ever, democracy has become the alpha and the omega of our moral world.
It is no accident, then, that the French counter-revolutionary tradition has been consigned to the outer recesses of scholarly interest. This diverse group of early nineteenth-century "reactionaries" defended the wisdom inherent in tradition--in longstanding institutions and social practices--against the twin solvents of Enlightenment reason and revolutionary activism. Indebted to Burke's incomparable indictment of revolutionary fanaticism, they nonetheless lacked his Whiggish appreciation of parliamentary institutions and political reform. Burke managed to combine liberal and counter-revolutionary sympathies, but his continental disciples adopted a more intransigent stance. The first counter-revolutionaries were fierce partisans of the European Old Regime who denounced any reliance upon individual reason or appeals to consent within the political realm. Ironically, while they attached themselves to a social order that was dying, to a tradition that would soon cease to be vital, much less truly authoritative, their writings nonetheless contain deep insights into the spiritual and intellectual limits of modernity.
The counter-revolutionaries' political thought has been subject to caricature and disdain more often than serious interpretation and analysis. Their writings are generally hard to find, and as a result readers are usually at the mercy of tendentious interpreters. Liberals such as Isaiah Berlin and Stephen Holmes have "discovered" the roots of fascism in the fiery polemics of Joseph de Maistre, for example. But for the most part, Anglo-American scholars have simply ignored an eccentric school of thought that affirmed throne and altar as indispensable pillars of civilization.
There are, however, notable exceptions. The late Robert Nisbet highlighted striking affinities between traditionalist thought and the nineteenth-century sociological tradition. And a small group of indefatigable scholars has done its best to bring to light the insights of otherwise forgotten or misunderstood figures such as Maistre and Louis de Bonald. Still, few today regard counter-revolutionary thought as any sort of option in our "post-modern" world. Scholarly interest in these critics of enlightenment is almost wholly antiquarian or historical--an attempt to understand a juncture in European thought when the great conflict between the Old Regime and the Revolution was still a living one and its outcome did not yet appear wholly predetermined.
It is fortuitous, then, that we now have a new anthology offering a rich sampling of hard-to-find pieces by thinkers within the French counter-revolutionary tradition. In allowing these writers to speak for themselves, Critics of the Enlightenment reveals the surprising heterogeneity of an intellectual tradition still worthy of our critical attention. This handsome and ably translated volume demonstrates that the classic "retrogrades" such as Maistre and Bonald in no way exhaust a current of though more seriously engaged with the problems of an emerging modernity than either its partisans or its detractors usually appreciate.
The volume's editor, Christopher Olaf Blum, judiciously selected and translated texts by six broadly "traditionalist" French thinkers and writers. These range from a true literary master such as Francois-Rene Chateaubriand to conservative-minded social thinkers Frederic Le Play, Emile Keller, and Rene de la Tour du Pin (the latter's reflections on "the social question" helped inspire the first and greatest of modern papal social encyclicals, Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum). These texts thus span a full century of intellectual controversy and social criticism, from Maistre's deeply intemperate but provocative "Reflections on Protestantism in its Relations to Sovereignty" (1798) to de la Tour du Pin's instructive 1883 reflection "On the Corporate Regime."
The usual terms "reactionary" and "counter-revolutionary" do not adequately convey the intellectual character and quality of nineteenth-century French traditionalist thought. To be sure, Maistre freely denounced the "satanic essence" of a Revolution that overturned the traditional moral constitution of Europe. He believed that the French Revolution was so cataclysmic, so destructive of the foundations of civilized order, that it could only be explained as a divine chastisement for France and Europe's willful apostasy from the true faith. But not all the thinkers included in this volume subscribed to so apocalyptic a perspective.
Chateaubriand, for example, was a liberal as well as a legitimist who refused to condemn "the principles of 1789" tout court. In his penetrating and stirring 1814 dissection of Napoleonic despotism ("On Buonaparte and the Bourbons") Chateaubriand did not blame the terror and tyranny that accompanied the French Revolution on what he called the "noble" principles of 1789, those of political and civil liberty. Instead, he took aim at the vulgar and "poisonous doctrines spread by the false wise men" who confused freedom with a frontal assault on civilization, Christianity, and the rule of law. Chateaubriand conveyed his deep and abiding filial, moral, and aesthetic attachment to the ancient lineage of French kings. He believed that a reconstituted monarchy could provide the moral and affective framework for a balanced and responsible form of representative government.
For his part, Le Play, a conservative-minded sociologist, had no desire to restore the privileges of the Old Regime. Rather, he wished to preserve the moral and social framework (e.g., family, property, religion) of a free and civilized society. Catholic traditionalists such as Emile Keller and Rene de la Tour du Pin emphatically denounced the principles of 1789--but not in the name of a simple return to the past. Instead, they were self-described partisans of "true liberty," of a liberty that deferred to the sovereignty of God and the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly they were too contemptuous of bourgeois liberalism and prone to an ahistorical and romanticized conception of the Middle Ages. Yet their impressive efforts to rekindle the associative art, their recognition of the ultimate dependence of liberty upon truth, and their prescient insight into the logic connecting individualism and collectivism were not wasted and helped shape a distinctively Christian response to the ills of modernity.
This anthology thus reveals important affinities between French traditionalist thought and more sober currents of conservative liberalism, as well as what would eventually become Christian democratic thought. Once it became clear that there would be no simple reversal of the democratic, industrial, and French revolutions, traditionalists worked to shed light on the spiritual limits of the new civilization and to heal the class and social divisions opened up by modern individualism and the industrial economy. They increasingly turned to cultural criticism and to sociological reflection on the limits of a social order that had no official place for the rich array of social and spiritual authorities between the individual and the state. In laying out the trajectory of traditionalist thought, this anthology allows us to better discern what is living and dead in a current of thought that bestrides the usual distinction between conservatism and reaction.
Still, one cannot avoid confronting the hard reactionary core of counter-revolutionary thought. To be sure, the brilliant and urbane Maistre was no precursor of fascism as Berlin and others have egregiously suggested. As Blum observes in his helpful and well-written introductory essay, Maistre always insisted that the counter-revolution be "the contrary of revolution." Yet Maistre's traditionalism undeniably involved a radicalization of the tradition he wished both to sustain and to restore. His perfervid critique of revolutionary "abstractions" led him to deny the existence of a universal human nature as opposed to the particular cultural or national expressions of humanity. He indiscriminately used the full force of his considerable rhetorical powers to oppose all the "solvents" that ate away at traditional moral and political authority, from Protestantism and Enlightenment rationalism to Jacobinism. On the other hand, he did not deny the abuses and injustices that marred his beloved ancien regime. But he confessed to being "much happier" when he was bringing "to light the inconsistencies of the philosophes." He saw in "private judgment" and unlimited human sovereignty the true enemy of human dignity and liberty. To combat them, he admitted to being willing to tolerate a fair share of "superstition, fanaticism [and] intolerance" in order to sustain the grandeur of France and Europe.
In his 1819 work "On the Pope," a work richly represented in this volume, Maistre celebrated the Roman Catholic Church in general and the Papacy in particular for its defense of the unity of Christendom, for opposing slavery and servitude in the Christian world, and for elevating the spiritual and civic dignity of women and ordinary human souls. But all this was yoked to a polemical purpose. Maistre believed that "man in general, left to himself, is too evil to be free." Without the sovereign authority of a traditional state or the supernatural governance of men's souls by the Church, men can experience neither morality nor "general liberty." As a result of this reasoning, this incisive critic of human self-sovereignty became an advocate for political authoritarianism. With Maistre, the state was reconceived as a punitive instrument to keep the emancipated human will at bay. This was not the traditional view of the state or monarchy, however. Paradoxically, Maistre radicalized sovereignty in the course of attempting a salutary recovery of the "regulated will," the traditional formula for political authority. His "traditionalism" thereby departs significantly from the moderation that defines Aristotelian and Thomistic political reflection.
For his part, Bonald more emphatically stressed the dangers of religious fanaticism and intolerance. He persuasively defended the neo-classical French seventeenth century, the century of Bossuet and Fenelon, against the rationalism and scientism of the French Enlightenment. Moreover, he anticipated the deleterious social and moral consequences of legal divorce and defended sturdy agrarian mores against the corrosive effects of both commercialism and industrialism. Like Maistre, however, he could not finally strike a middle chord between reactionary nostalgia and revolutionary fanaticism. By dismissing the French Revolution as a satanic eruption, these two brilliant reactionaries refused to concede that the new democratic society could give rise to anything humane or viable. They did not appreciate the inexorability of the "democratic revolution," as Tocqueville famously called it--a revolution that might lead to the decencies of constitutional democracy, as well as to unprecedented forms of "democratic despotism." Despite their insightful criticisms of revolutionary hubris, they could not find a principled point of equilibrium that would allow them to weather the democratic storm. As I have already suggested, the sociological conservatism of later traditionalists such as LePlay, Keller, and de la Tour du Pin holds significantly more promise on this score.
In the end, how are we to evaluate the legacy and contemporary relevance of French counter-revolutionary thought? In his thoughtful and elegant Foreword to this book, the French political theorist Philippe Beneton suggests that it is possible to draw from the insights of the counter-revolutionary tradition without accepting its principal error: "the complete rejection of the modern world." A responsible conservatism must "make distinctions" that allow us to "sort out what is good in modernity and what is good in counter-revolutionary thought." Beneton remarks that the central insight of the counter-revolutionaries, the hubris of conceiving the social order as a tabula rasa that can be constructed at will, can be found in a significantly more balanced form in the "conservative liberalism" of Burke and Tocqueville. In his Introduction to the book, Christopher Blum makes more positive claims on behalf of the contemporary relevance of French traditionalism. He argues that these thinkers are indispensable for repairing a European tradition that has been weakened to its core, and he asserts, somewhat against the evidence, that "the French counter-revolutionaries spoke of general principles and not merely of the French political situation in the nineteenth century." In the end, readers can judge for themselves the contemporary significance of these truly counter-cultural figures. While respecting Blum's spirited defense of a lost cause, I am inclined to endorse Beneton's more measured evaluation.
But perhaps the admirable prudence of conservative liberals needs to be coupled from time to time with the reactionary intransigence of the counter-revolutionaries. In his Thoughts on Various Subjects (1798) Bonald wrote:
The cry "Liberty, equality, fraternity or death!" was much in vogue during the Revolution. Liberty ended up by covering France with prisons, equality by multiplying titles and decorations, and fraternity by dividing us. Death alone prevailed.
That great French retrograde's fiercely polemical judgment about the French Revolution still serves to remind us about a certain totalitarian potentiality within modern principles. In my view, there is nothing merely historical about that most necessary of insights.
DANIEL J. MAHONEY is Professor of Politics at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author, most recently, of Bertrand de Jouvenel (2005).