Religion and culture – the national soul!

This is part two of a series of Reflections on the nature and functioning of cultures. Here is part one, and here is the conclusion.


Here is a passage from Joseph de Maistre’s Study of Sovereignty on the “national soul” (Book I in English here, the entire work in French here). It compares government to a religion, and talks about the fact that one culture/worldview must bind them together and that man must be surrounded in his everyday life much more by inherited teachings and traditions, rather than to reinvent a way of life and a set of doctrines for himself. Prejudice and social order must be there and the individual must know that it’s his duty to be a part of the latter.

Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems. His cradle should be surrounded by dogmas; and, when his reason awakes, all his opinions should be given, at least all those relating to his conduct. Nothing is more vital to him than prejudices. Let us not take this word in bad part. It does not necessarily signify false ideas, but only, in the strict sense of the word, any opinions adopted without examination. Now, these kinds of opinion are essential to man; they are the real basis of his happiness and the palladium of empires. Without them, there can be neither religion, morality, nor government. There should be a state religion just as there is a state political system; or rather, religion and political dogmas, mingled and merged together, should together form a general or national mind sufficiently strong to repress the aberrations of the individual reason which is, of its nature, the mortal enemy of any association whatever because it gives birth only to divergent opinions.

All known nations have been happy and powerful to the degree that they have faithfully obeyed this national mind, which is nothing other than the destruction of individual dogmas and the absolute and general rule of national dogmas, that is to say, useful prejudices. Once let everyone rely on his individual reason in religion, and you will see immediately the rise of anarchy of belief or the annihilation of religious sovereignty. Likewise, if each man makes himself the judge of the principles of government you will see immediately the rise of civil anarchy or the annihilation of political sovereignty. Government is a true religion; it has its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests; to submit it to individual discussion is to destroy it; it has life only through the national mind, that is to say, political faith, which is a creed. Man’s primary need is that his nascent reason should be curbed under a double yoke; it should be frustrated, and it should lose itself in the national mind, so that it changes its individual existence for another communal existence, just as a river which flows into the ocean still exists in the mass of water, but without name and distinct reality.

What is patriotism? It is this national mind of which I am speaking; it is individual abnegation. Faith and patriotism are the two great thaumaturges of the world. Both are divine. All their actions are miracles. Do not talk to them of scrutiny, choice, discussion, for they will say that you blaspheme. They know only two words, submission and belief; with these two levers, they raise the world. Their very errors are sublime. These two infants of Heaven prove their origin to all by creating and conserving; and if they unite, join their forces and together take possession of a nation, they exalt it, make it divine and increase its power a hundredfold….

But can you, insignificant man, light this sacred fire that inflames nations? Can you give a common soul to several million men? Unite them under your laws? Range them closely around a common center? Shape the mind of men yet unborn? Make future generations obey you and create those age-old customs, those conserving prejudices, which are the father of the laws and stronger than them? What nonsense!…

Joseph de Maistre, Study of Sovereignty, Book I, Chapter X. The National Soul

This passage is so beautiful, so well-written, and describes so many sublime parts of man’s nature and especially his social nature. Here are my comments on it:

  1. God created man with inherited desires and a nature. Man thirsts for God – like Saint Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But man is not limited to this – even before the fall, he had a proper way to relate to the rest of creation, and when he fell from Grace he still kept many properties. He was, in fact, left dependent much more to his nature than on the deifying nature of God’s presence. While nothing on this world is perfect and infallible, man has been given a wife – and many other things. The family (the smallest society) has expanded into tribes, which have expanded into larger communities as man entered in contact with more and more human beings who shared the same essence as him. Man is a social animal, and the collectives to which he belongs have many beliefs who bind them together. In order to belong to them, he must submit and share their beliefs.
    1. So, unlike with fascism, where the beliefs of the community are the higher authority, here God gives man a culture which he must wear, and he understands himself from within his own culture.
    2. Unlike with liberalism, where man has the freedom to chose whether he will relate to a culture and whether he will relate to God/the transcendent, here man is bound by his inherent nature to the worldly and fallible culture which can preserve his earthly happiness, and this culture plays a role in the shaping of man’s heart vis-à-vis the world to come.
    3.  This is also unlike Marxism, which is a compromise between the first two (James Kalb has expressed himself in a similar way), where man is redefining himself but in the end he doesn’t really exist apart from the collective. The collective is thus the one who has to chose and create its own nature and mechanisms.
    4. I think that the relation between Christianity and non-Christian cultures is the best way to distinguish between proselytism and evangelism. The former attempts to “kidnap” the convert from his own culture, while the latter finds a way to express itself through the language and worldview of the nation’s culture, or even its religions or philosophies.
  2. Prejudice is often ancestral wisdom (a wonderful defense of it here!), without it there is often instability and imprudent experiments with society are the step forward. Most liberals who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of prejudice are thinkers who believe man has no inherited beliefs and assume empiricism to be true. Prejudice also inherits the right approach to things according to their nature. If we deny the inherent essence of particular things and the existence of universals, then prejudice is often useless, or at best useful but irrational. On the contrary – this ancestral wisdom contains undeconstructable (because we don’t know how it was obtained) knowledge of the nature of things, and it is an inherent need for every individual to receive it so that he can correctly and practically relate to the world.
  3. The great distinction between traditionalist authoritarianism and totalitarianism (inherently modernistic) is that in authoritarianism an external authority asserts itself as governing the (distinct from it) governed class; in totalitarianism, there is simply the democratically legitimate government, or else the majority itself, that violently manages the people without asserting an external authority. Without religion and an imposed culture with tradition and prejudice, man will stop believing in legitimate authority and thus will either have to be managed in a totalitarian way or be left to his own devices in anarchy.
    1. In fascism, totalitarianism means the state as the absolute authority of the people. If the state says something, it means that the people think it. We can compare the state to the brain and the people to the rest of the body. The brain controls the body while no legitimacy comes outside the brain and the body, there being no external authority to the whole. Here we might talk of a modernistic authoritarianism, in the middle between totalitarianism and traditionalist authoritarianism.
    2. In liberalism, the totalitarian state protects the individual’s right to self-create and self-define. Thus it restricts or even forbids all philosophical and political forces that contradict individualism and autonomy. It’s totalitarianism for the individual’s rights, and he only has one thing forbidden to him – limiting others’ liberties and autonomy.
      It is still hard to believe in a liberal totalitarianism – unlike neomarxism (social democracy), liberalism tends to be more anarchistic and to claim no metaphysically objective authority exists outside the individual.
    3. Marxist totalitarianism is when the proletarian state is managing out of its way all elements (people and forces) strive for the earthly egalitarian paradise, le Grand soir. It’s important that the Marxist believes that things are determined to end up in the Grand soir.
  4. Religion legitimates authority. No authoritarianism can be atheistic – atheism can only be totalitarian or anarchical, since only someone who is not metaphysically or socio-methodologically materialistic can believe in a *good* and *legitimate* authority. Thus, as the Mad Monarchist once explained very well, where man, culture and society are religious, there is little need for state intervention. On the other hand, irreligion and modernism bring one of the two models – totalitarianism or anarchy. I don’t believe that irreligious societies fall away from the inherent altruism of human nature – I think that their repression of man’s religious instincts has bad effects on his altruism; it weakens it and makes man adopt the false and counter-intuitive instrumentalism/utilitarianism, where value is purely subjective and usefulness is the only logical value.

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