Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Joseph de Maistre: First Anthropologist?

No. 270: Saturday, September 7, 2002

In a famous phrase in Tristes tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss, speaking for the anthropological/ethnological community, called Rousseau "our master and our brother." With respect to the standard discourse of academic anthropology, Rousseau is indeed the first thinker to construct a model of the human "state of nature" on the basis of limited but reasonably reliable data. Whereas Hobbes peopled his rivalrous state of nature with men corrupted by the "sciences and arts" Rousseau denounced in his first Discourse, Rousseau’s extrapolation from ethnographic data offers a more attractive model: primitive humanity ("begun society," la société commencée) inhabits a silver age paradoxically situated on the interface between the innocent state of nature and society’s corrupting mimetic influences. Rousseau’s expulsion of Hobbesian rivalry from human nature may well be called the first gesture of modern anthropology-as-ethnology, but the washing away of the original sin of mimetic desire that motivates anthropology as a discipline ensures that it will never construct a generative model of the human.

Rousseau’s expulsion of mimetic desire founds anthropology as an infinite, open-ended process; but it is the oft-demonized Joseph de Maistre who deserves to be called the founder of anthropology as a minimal, originary theory of the human. De Maistre expresses in a religious vocabulary a Hobbesian understanding of human desire; what makes him an anthropologist as well a political philosopher is his focus on the sacred generative center of primitive and indeed all human society, ignored by the Enlightenment, to which we characteristically relate through sacrifice. If Rousseau may justly be called the precursor of Boas and Geertz, de Maistre is that of Durkheim and Girard. Like the latter’s Things Hidden since the Foundation, de Maistre’s posthumously published Eclaircissement sur les sacrifices [Clarification about Sacrifices] (Oeuvres complètes V, 283-360, Geneva: Slatkine 1979 [1884]; all translations mine) applies the central insights of Christianity to historically existing institutions. In contrast with Rousseau’s anecdotal use of data, De Maistre argues from a corpus of sacrificial rites ranging from classical antiquity to the Aztecs.

De Maistre’s religiously tinged rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that the discussion of pagan sacrifice that opens the Eclaircissements is essentially functional; the pagan gods are less supernatural beings than manifestations of an "idea of God" that de Maistre considers coeval with humanity: ("I am far from believing that the idea of God could have begun for humanity, that is, that it could be less ancient than man" [284].) Because for de Maistre the divine source of this idea is only fully known in Christianity he rejects the ancient notion, revived in modern times by Vico, that "fear created the gods," and insists on the inherent goodness of all conceptions of the divinity, however primitive. But the dichotomy between flesh and spirit coeval with the idea of God makes us guilty, so that we fear God’s just wrath and seek to allay it through sacrifice:

[H]istory shows us that man has been persuaded in every era of this frightful truth: That he lived in the power of an irritated force, and that this force could only be appeased by sacrifices. . . .

[We say:] "The Gods are good, and we are indebted to them for all the good things we enjoy; we owe them praise and thanksgiving. But the gods are just, and we are guilty: they must be appeased, we must expiate our crimes; and, in order to accomplish this, the most powerful means is sacrifice." (284; emphasis here and elsewhere is the author’s.)

De Maistre’s thesis is that spilling blood in sacrifice is the means by which we atone to God for the sinful physical nature whose appetitive "soul" (âme) cohabits in us with our transcendent "spirit" (esprit). Blood is the essence of life, and life is the source of the worldly appetites that require expiation. This explains why "[Sacrifice] was [sc. in pagan societies] always the basis of every kind of religious observance, regardless of place, time, opinions, or circumstances" (285). Christianity perfects but does not deny the principle of sacrifice that founds the partial truth of pagan religion; where the latter requires a regularly repeated "communion in blood," Christ sacrifices his divinely innocent blood so that the sacrifice can be constantly renewed without further bloodshed. Although the pagans had the right idea in seeking "redemption through blood," pre-Christian humanity "could not guess which blood it needed. How could man limited to his own resources suspect the immensity of the fall and the immensity of redeeming love?" (346).

De Maistre is not unaware of the violent potential of mimetic desire, but he prefers to rely on the Biblical tradition of the Fall and the Christian doctrine of original sin, for which our rivalry with God is historically as well as ontologically prior to rivalry among ourselves. Thus he pays little attention to the communal basis of sacrifice to which expressions like "communion in blood" ultimately refer. Yet although de Maistre would have thought it an abomination to view with Durkheim the sacred as a projection of the social, his focus on blood sacrifice as apotropaic violence provides a better-articulated model of the functioning of the sacred in human society than Durkheim’s vague notion of ritual as reinforcing collective solidarity.

Throughout the series of Chronicles on early modern thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, Rousseau, Vico, Herder, Kant, Burke), my historical thesis has been that the anthropological thrust of the Enlightenment corresponds to a unique confidence in the ability of our scenic imagination to construct valid models of the fundamental categories of human behavior, beginning with Hobbes’--and ending with Rousseau’s--scene of the social contract.

The reaction against the Enlightenment in general and the French Revolution in particular condemns the arrogance of seeking to found social institutions on speculative models rather than historical experience. To the Enlightenment’s imagined scenes, Edmund Burke (see Chronicle 268) opposes historical ones. The events of the English Revolution are described not as radically new beginnings but as modifications of a preexisting context, whereas the French Revolution’s attempts at re-origination lead only to violence. Burke is concerned with politics, not anthropology, but, precisely, his analysis can be read as a critique of anthropology as a basis for politics; for Burke it is rather politics, the crucial locus of human interaction, that teaches us anthropology.

De Maistre is even less concerned than Burke to construct imaginary scenes. Using the scene of the Passion as a source of anthropological understanding, he constructs a model of human society on the basis of a hypothetical generalization from the historically observed phenomenon of sacrifice. Rather than either opposing Christian to pagan sacrifice as truth to falsity or seeking in the latter proofs of the truth of the former, De Maistre presents sacrifice as an universal phenomenon whose meaning is understood only retrospectively through the Christian revelation.

Yet the Passion does not become for de Maistre the basis for a general theory of sacrifice until it is recalled to him by historical experience. If Burke sees nothing but disorder in the French revolutionary scene, de Maistre, writing after the Revolution had run its course, finds in its very violence the seeds of redemption. One redemptive scene obsesses de Maistre and influences all his subsequent writing: the execution of Louis XVI:

. . . We are continually confronted with the tiresome image of innocents perishing along with the guilty. But, without delving into that question, which is of the greatest profundity, we may consider it solely in relation to the age-old universal dogma of the reversibility of the sufferings of the innocent for the benefit of the guilty.

It was from this dogma, I believe, that the ancients derived their universal practice of sacrifice, which they judged of value not merely for the living but even for the dead; a routine procedure that habit lets us observe without surprise, but whose roots are nonetheless obscure.

. . .

The coming of Christianity consecrated this dogma, which is infinitely natural to man, although it seems difficult to derive by logical reasoning.

Thus there may have been [at the moment of his execution] in the heart of Louis XVI, and in that of the heavenly Elisabeth, an emotion (mouvement), an acceptance capable of saving France. (Considerations on France (1796), III)

There is another brief but telling reference to the king’s martyrdom in Eclaircissements :

. . . Men have always attached an infinite price to the submission of the just person who accepts his suffering . . .

When the ferocious jailers of Louis XVI, then a prisoner in the Temple, denied him a razor, the faithful servant who has given us the interesting history of that long and atrocious captivity said to him: Sire, show yourself to the National Convention with that long beard so that the people can see how you are being treated.

The king answered: I must not seek to interest others in my fate. (347)

What Burke, writing nearly three years before the king’s execution, saw as mere unchained violence has become for de Maistre a sacrificial scene interpreted in the light of what he calls the "Christian Theory of Sacrifice." In his work, the dehistoricizing scenic imagination of the Enlightenment gives way to a new conception of the scene of representation grounded in a dialectic between historical reality and the transcendentally given model that it both realizes and develops. This is indeed the inaugural act of modern anthropology.

Epilogue: de Maistre on the origin of language

De Maistre discusses language and its origin in the second chapter or "Entretien" of his masterwork, Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (Paris: La Colombe, 1960 [1821]). It should not surprise us that this enemy of the Enlightenment both refuses to imagine a worldly event of linguistic origin and insists on its transcendental necessity, scornfully rejecting gradualism.

No language could have been invented, either by one man, who would not have been able to make himself obeyed, or by several, who would not have been able to understand/agree with each other (s’entendre). The best thing one can say about speech (la parole) is what was said of him who is called the WORD (parole). His origin goes back to the distant past, to the days of old… [Micah 5, 2]. Who shall declare his generation? [Isaiah 53, 8]. . . .

. . . Rousseau . . . admits that . . .  he does not understand very clearly how [language] was invented. But the great Condillac takes pity on such modesty. He is amazed that an intelligent man (homme d’esprit) like Rousseau . . . failed to see that languages came into being imperceptibly . . . one generation says ba, another ; the Assyrians invented the nominative, and the Medes, the genitive. (67-68)

In de Maistre’s religiously grounded anthropology, language is intrinsic to the human and therefore complete from the beginning; "the prodigious talent of the first peoples for forming words" in fact declines with the progress of civilization. New languages are formed from old, but this cannot explain the origin of language itself. There is a separation between historical and transcendental, ontic and ontological language origin:

If, on this question of the origin of language . . . our century has missed the truth, it is because it was mortally afraid of encountering it. Languages have beginnings; but language (la parole) never, not even with man. The one [sc. la parole] must necessarily have preceded the other; for speech (la parole) is possible only through the WORD (le verbe). Every specific language is born, like an animal, by way of explosion and development without man ever having gone from the state of aphonia to the use of language. He has always spoken, and it is with sublime justice that the Hebrews called him a “speaking soul.” When a new language is formed, it is born in the midst of a society in full possession of language . . .  (73-74)

This split stimulates empirical research into specific languages by bracketing the question of origin, an effect accomplished more drastically by the Paris Linguistic Society’s 1866 ban on discussion of this question. Yet each language is at the same time a totality derived from the (divine) origin of language:

Each language, taken by itself, repeats the spiritual phenomena that took place in the beginning; and the more ancient the language, the more these phenomena are apparent (sensibles). (73)

Although the historical (languages) is separated from the transcendental (language), each historical language “repeats the spiritual phenomena” of its origin. If to go forward in time is to explore, in anticipation of Humboldt, “the genius of each language” (75) in its historical context, going backward to the earliest times brings us closer to the mystery of human origin. De Maistre remains unaware of the paradoxical relation between transcendence and immanence that language incarnates, but his insistence on both sacred origin and worldly history provides the basis for the dialectical ontology of the new century.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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