A Modern Maistre provides the first general account of the social and political thought of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a founding author of Continental conservative philosophy. Commonly repudiated or igred as an inconsistent and retrograde extremist, Maistre emerges on closer consideration as a subtle social theorist and a shaping force in modern intellectual history. Through his decisive effect upon Comte and Baudelaire, Maistre's influence far exceeds the narrow conservatism with which he is usually associated. Indeed, his critique of the Enlightenment bears an uncanny resemblance to central claims of postmodernist thought. The guiding thread of Owen Bradley's analysis is Maistre's theory of sacrifice, a comparativist study of the ritualization of human barbarity in religious practices, punishments, wars, and revolutions. Against the Enlightenment, Maistre insisted upon the central and inevitable place of violence and irrationality in human experience, a dark view of humanity that anticipates the doubts of the twentieth century. His central concern was how human disorder is shaped, limited, and managed by ritualized behaviors and symbolic forms. As Bradley demonstrates, Maistre was less an extremist obsessed with excess and paradox than an important theorist of excessive and paradoxical situations. The Maistre who emerges from this study is a far more nuanced, compelling, and modern author than has been previously imagined.
Owen Bradley is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee.