Review of “Letters on the Spanish Inquisition” by Joseph de Maistre

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Maistre makes for interesting reading (and his work was one of Professor Hanson’s homeworks).

For example, here he is discussing David Hume:

Who has not heard of David Hume? Cui non no­tus Hy­las? Tak­ing ev­ery thing in­to con­sid­er­ation, I do be­lieve that the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, so re­mark­ably pro­duc­tive of in­fi­deli­ty, nev­er gave birth to so heart­less and in­vet­er­ate an en­emy to the Church of Christ. . . .

Let us sup­pose that Hume had been con­demned to death, or even ar­raigned at the bar of his coun­try, for one of those crimes which, ac­cord­ing to the black statute book, are punish­able with death; would not many of those of­fences which that code deems cap­ital, (for in­stance, the steal­ing of a sheep, or any ar­ti­cle of the val­ue of a shilling) be less criminal, in the eyes of eter­nal Jus­tice, than his de­mor­al­iz­ing works, where­in he so ob­sti­nate­ly and im­pi­ous­ly at­tacks the most sa­cred dog­mas of nat­ural and re­vealed re­li­gion, and where­by he en­deav­ors to con­vulse and con­found the Chris­tian uni­verse? Even with such an im­pres­sion on their minds, I am sat­is­fied that the Protes­tant and tru­ly fal­li­ble head of the En­glish Church, and his min­is­te­ri­al par­lia­ment, would not refuse the ded­ica­to­ry homage of this in­fi­del’s his­to­ry.

Anyway, the book is a defense of the Spanish Inquisition. Maistre’s argument is that the Church was not responsible for any excesses that may have occurred during the Inquisition. Instead, he makes clear that the Inquisition was conducted by the Spanish state. Further, he argues that the Inquisition was just – his argument here isn’t all that different from much modern scholarship. Finally, he argues that the Inquisition saved the Spanish state from the consequences Protestantism in other countries (think 30 years war, french revolution, english civil war, etc.).

He does all this with remarkable style. Here is his argument in a nutshell:

Truth must nev­er com­pro­mise; oth­er­wise it would change its na­ture and its name. The tol­er­ation of er­ror, in re­li­gious con­cerns, would be its ru­in. The In­qui­si­tion, there­fore, be­ing a pro­tec­tive law of the on­ly re­li­gion of Spain, the in­tro­duc­tion of re­li­gious er­ror, or heresy, must be con­sid­ered a species of coun­ter­feit, or con­tra­band goods — a pleas­ing but poisonous drug, which, by de­feat­ing or de­stroy­ing the law, would ru­in the in­dus­try, com­fort, hap­pi­ness, and lives, of all who are ben­efit­ed by the law. It is, there­fore, the du­ty of the sovereign to see the law re­spect­ed; but, should his civ­il agents tran­scend its pres­cribed lim­its, the law, or the monarch, and, least of all, the re­li­gion, of the na­tion and of the Catholic world, should not be cen­sured for it.

It is incumbent on the modern reactionary to try to understand how people who are long dead thought. This task is quite difficult. Maistre thinks very differently than anyone alive today. On the modern political spectrum Maistre is so far to the right as to be almost incomprehensible. I don’t think it a stretch to say that he would be physically repulsed by modern society. His arguments are interesting in that they provide a nice glimpse into this long-lost mindset.

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2 Responses to Review of “Letters on the Spanish Inquisition” by Joseph de Maistre

  1. Stephen says:

    In case you haven’t already heard of it, I would highly recommend Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, published by ISI. It gathers into one volume writings by the like of Maistre, Bonald, Chateaubriand, and a few others.

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