Furthest Right

On Revolutions (Joseph de Maistre)

Chapter I of Considerations on France by Joseph de Maistre

We are all bound to the throne of the Supreme Being by a flexible chain which restrains without enslaving us. The most wonderful aspect of the universal scheme of things is the action of free beings under divine guidance. Freely slaves, they act at once of their own will and under necessity: they actually do what they wish without being able to disrupt general plans. Each of them stands at the center of a sphere of activity whose diameter varies according to the decision of the eternal geometry, which can extend, restrict, check, or direct the will without altering its nature.

In the works of man, everything is as poor as its author; vision is confined, means are limited, scope is restricted, movements are labored, and results are humdrum. In divine works, boundless riches reveal themselves even in the smallest component; its power operates effortlessly: in its hands everything is pliant, nothing can resist it; everything is a means, nothing an obstacle: and the irregularities produced by the work of free agents come to fall into place in the general order.

If one imagines a watch all of whose springs continually vary in power, weight, dimension, form, and position, and which nevertheless invariably shows the right time, one can get some idea of the action of free beings in relation to the plans of the Creator.

In the political and moral world, as in the physical, there is a usual order and there are exceptions to this order. Normally, we see a series of effects following the same causes; but in certain ages we see usual effects suspended, causes paralyzed and new consequences emerging.

A miracle is an effect produced by a divine or superhuman cause which suspends or is inconsistent with an ordinary cause. If in the middle of winter a man, before a thousand witnesses, orders a tree to cover itself suddenly with leaves and fruit, and if the tree obeys, everyone will proclaim a miracle and prostrate themselves before the thaumaturge. But the French Revolution, as well as everything that is happening in Europe at this time, is just as miraculous in its way as the instant fructification of a tree in January; yet men ignore it or talk nonsense about it, instead of admiring. In the physical order, into which man does not intrude as a cause, he is quite ready to admire what he does not understand; but in the sphere of his own activity, where he feels he acts freely as a cause, his pride easily leads him to see disorder wherever his own power is suspended or upset. Certain actions within the power of man regularly produce certain effects in the ordinary course of events; if he misses his mark, he knows, or thinks he knows, why; he recognizes the difficulties, he appreciates them, and nothing astonishes him. But in revolutionary times, the chain that binds man is shortened abruptly, his field of action is cut down, and his means deceive him. Carried along by an unknown force, he rails against it, and instead of kissing the hand that clasps him, he ignores or insults it.

I don’t understand anything is the popular catchphrase. The phrase is very sensible if it leads us to the root cause of the great sight now presented to men; it is stupid if it expresses only spleen or sterile despondency. The cry is raised on all sides, “How then can the guiltiest men in the world triumph over the world? A hideous regicide has all the success for which its perpetrators could have hoped. Monarchy is dormant all over Europe. Its enemies find allies even on thrones themselves. The wicked are successful in everything. They carry through the most immense projects without difficulty, while the righteous are unfortunate and ridiculous in everything they undertake. Opinion runs against faith throughout Europe. The foremost statesmen continually fall into error. The greatest generals are humiliated. And so on.”

Doubtless, because its primary condition lays it down, there are no means of preventing a revolution, and no success can attend those who wish to impede it. But never is purpose more apparent, never is Providence more palpable, than when divine replaces human action and works alone. That is what we see at this moment.

The most striking aspect of the French Revolution is this overwhelming force which turns aside all obstacles. Its current carries away like a straw everything human power has opposed to it. No one has run counter to it unpunished. Purity of motive has been able to make resistance honorable, but that is all; and this jealous force, moving inexorably to its objective, rejects equally Charette, Dumouriez, and Drouet.

It has been said with good reason that the French Revolution leads men more than men lead it. This observation is completely justified; and, although it can be applied more or less to all great revolutions, yet it has never been more strikingly illustrated than at the present time. The very villains who appear to guide the Revolution take part in it only as simple instruments; and as soon as they aspire to dominate it, they fall ingloriously. Those who established the Republic did so without wishing it and without realizing what they were creating; they have been led by events: no plan has achieved its intended end.

Never did Robespierre, Collot, or Barere think of establishing the revolutionary government or the Reign of Terror; they were led imperceptibly by circumstances, and such a sight will never be seen again. Extremely mediocre men are exercising over a culpable nation the most heavy despotism history has seen, and, of everyone in the kingdom, they are certainly the most astonished at their power.

But at the very moment when these tyrants have committed every crime necessary to this phase of the Revolution, a breath of wind topples them. This gigantic power, before which France and Europe trembled, could not stand before the first gust; and because there could be no possible trace of greatness or dignity in such an entirely criminal revolution, Providence decreed that the first blow should be struck by the Septembrists, so that justice itself might be degraded.

It is often astonishing that the most mediocre men have judged the French Revolution better than the most talented, that they have believed in it strongly while skilled men of affairs were still unbelievers. This conviction was one of the foremost elements of the Revolution, which could succeed only because of the extent and vigor of the revolutionary spirit or, if one can so express it, because of the revolutionary faith. So untalented and ignorant men have ably driven what they call the revolutionary chariot; they have all ventured without fear of counter-revolution; they have always driven on without looking behind them; and everything has fallen into their lap because they were only the instruments of a force more farsighted than themselves. They have taken no false steps in their revolutionary career, for the same reason that the flutist of Vaucanson never played a false note.

The revolutionary current has taken successively different courses; and the most prominent revolutionary leaders have acquired the kind of power and renown appropriate to them only by following the demands of the moment. Once they attempted to oppose it or even to turn it from its predestined course, by isolating themselves and following their own bent, they disappeared from the scene….

In short, the more one examines the apparently more active personalities of the Revolution, the more one finds something passive and mechanical about them. It cannot be too often repeated that men do not at all guide the Revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. It is well said that it has its own impetus. This phrase shows that never has the Divinity revealed itself so clearly in any human event. If it employs the most vile instruments, it is to regenerate by punishment.


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