Joseph de Maistre's Civilization and its Discontents

Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (3):429-446 (1996)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Joseph de Maistre’s Civilization and its DiscontentsGraeme GarrardIn his study of Sigmund Freud’s social and political thought Paul Roazen claims that Freud was the first to depict the human psyche as torn between two fundamentally antithetical tendencies:The notion of a human nature in conflict with itself, disrupted by the opposition of social and asocial inclinations, the view that the social self develops from an asocial nucleus but that the social trends are also dynamic and emotional in nature, and finally the conception that reason’s control can be extended by a detailed knowledge of the repressed asocial tendencies—all this was not known before Freud. 1Although Freud is undoubtedly the most famous modern exponent of this conception of human nature at war with itself, he was by no means its first, let alone only, proponent. Kant, for example, wrote of the “unsocial sociability of men” over a century earlier. 2 An even more unlikely precursor of this basic assumption of Freudian social psychology is the Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821). The social theory elaborated by this arch-paladin of throne and altar—who was, quite literally, plus royalist que le roi, plus catholique que le Pape—is strikingly similar to that expressed by Freud in his famous essay Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). 3 [End Page 429]Both conceived of the individual as “a being both social and evil,” 4 perpetually struggling to prevent the innate aggressiveness of the species from plunging society into a Hobbesian war of all against all. That is why Freud insisted that it “has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts,” 5 a view advanced over a century earlier by Maistre. Events in Europe after 1789 led many conservatives such as Maistre, as events after 1914 would lead Freud, to reject the common Enlightenment view of human beings as naturally sociable and of social life as a reflection of the spontaneous harmony of a natural world governed by laws established by God and discoverable by reason. In Maistre’s view, social and political life are better understood as the artificial and fundamentally precarious imposition of order on the violent flux of nature. Anticipating Freud, he asserts that individuals, if left to their own devices in society, would soon be plunged into a state of social warfare identical to that which Hobbes had attributed to the state of nature. His particular brand of extreme conservative thought derives its social and political authoritarianism from these deeply pessimistic social assumptions, which leave him with more in common (on this subject) with Freud than with either the Enlightenment or fellow conservatives such as Edmund Burke.Homo Homini LupusThe pessimistic, even tragic, argument of Civilization and Its Discontents is that human beings are driven by extremely powerful instincts, the full satisfaction of which is incompatible with social life. According to Freud, the “cultural frustration” that ensues from this incompatibility “dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings. As we already know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations has to struggle.” 6 Unhappiness, understood as the non-satisfaction of these basic libidinal urges, is therefore a necessary part of human association. “One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy,’” Freud writes pessimistically, “is not included in the plan of ‘Creation.’” 7Freud also argues that, in addition to these basically erotic instincts, there is a “constitutional inclination in human beings to be aggressive towards one another,” 8 which “constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.” 9 [End Page 430] This ineliminable tendency accounts for Freud’s Hobbesian view of the precariousness of civilization: 10[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to...



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David Hume, contractarian.David Gauthier - 1979 - Philosophical Review 88 (1):3-38.
The social contract as ideology.David Gauthier - 1977 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (2):130-164.
Essay on the generative principle of political constitutions.Joseph Marie Maistre - 1847 - Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints.

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