The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 01, 2015

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Charles Maurras, Shaper of an Age
Thomas Molnar (MA 41:4, Fall 1999) - 12/11/08

There are serious obstacles in our way when we try to acquaint America with the personality, the role, and the thought of Charles Maurras (1868–1952). One of these obstacles is that American scholars and their academic endeavors have been mostly shaped by the Germanic spirit, with here and there a representative of Latinitas, a Santayana, or a Maritain. The French university system is far from their accustomed mode of thought, and the French model of schooling is more distant still. The works of Maurras have therefore been little translated, hardly discussed (this would be today politically incorrect), let alone read on any academic level. The fact, too, that T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of Maurras does not help, and even diminishes the French thinker in the eyes of American critics.

There are other reasons, too, for the wide gap. Maurras is the quintessential anti-democratic thinker, and “pluralism” would mean for him the coexistence of several closed worlds, “republics” under the unifying monarchy. Or they would be “minorities” as we would call them: Protestants, Freemasons, Jews, and foreigners. These almost self-contained “republics,” these four riders of the Apocalypse, penetrated France as alien elements, and, with modernity coming, corroded the autochthonous substance. They would be “republics under the king,” an ideal image in need of a great deal of political architecture. For Maurras the State (politics) cannot be separated from the classical (aesthetic) canons.1

At this point we are at the heart of Maurrassian doctrine, at the farthest pole from Anglo-Saxon premises: a Mediterranean worldview in which Greeks and Latins commune. The State is a work of art (Aristotle balancing Plato in neverending tension), an orderly and just arrangement, built for permanence, an ideal. It is far, unbridgeably far, from pragmatic politics, the duel of lobbies, voting procedures, responses to polls, authorized flag-burning. The classical spirit is everywhere present in Maurrassian literature, even in his full name: Charles-Marie-Photius, the last-mentioned from the sixth-century Greek merchant-discoverer of Marseille, metropolis of the Midi, not far from Maurras’s birthplace. The Greek ideal accompanied him to the end as the sign of perfection, peak-achievement, reference, and a kind of inner clock. It has been held by “terrible simplifiers” that Maurras introduced fascism in France, and, of course, he was sentenced to life-imprisonment at age seventy-seven as a “collaborator of the German occupant.” This fact further explains why Maurras and his oeuvre are practically unknown in the United States, where occasionally college students will sidle up to you showing some Maurrassian texts as if they were dirty pictures.

We shall attempt here to reestablish a modicum of truth. There were some youthful errors of judgment on Maurras’s part, but they were then common to the generation of Anatole France, Ernest Renan, and others, all followers of Auguste Comte’s positivism, a “scientific” philosophy and sociology (the latter term coined by Comte himself), a doctrine not unlike Herbert Spencer’s in England. We must explain the Comtian success-story and generational influence by the fact that the nineteenth century turned France upside down, a trying era indeed. It began with the worldshaking rule of Napoleon, followed by three revolutions which, with 1789 in the background, changed society’s structure; this was followed by the crisis of restoring or abolishing the monarchy, the colonization of North Africa and Indo-China, the outlawing of religious orders by the ideologically and aggressively lay republic (1905). Thus one half of the country’s intelligentsia followed Comte’s positivism and preparation for a scientific society, the other half, Catholic and royalist. We see the outline of Maurras’s important position as a unifier of the two discourses. A unifying factor was the general detestation of Germany, victorious at Sudan (1870), a Germany nevertheless admired for her progress in all of the sciences and technologies. For Maurras, the Germans were the par excellence aliens (Protestants, romantics, sentimental and barbarous), and facing them, positivism that represented French (Greco-Latin) rationality, lucidity, and the politically best organizational principle. The ideological climate for this vision was the clear Mediterranean air, the sun at high noon, the silence and equilibrium celebrated by Paul Valéry’s great poem, Le cimetière marin—German darkness versus French light. The wisdom of pre-Socratic sages was close to this Provençal vision.

In 1896 Maurras was sent by his newspaper to report on the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens. There is some discussion whether he “discovered” the classical ideal on the Acropolis, or whether this episode meant only the final revelation of maturing ideas. That trip for him was the privileged moment, as other moments were decisive for Descartes and for Pascal, and before them for St. Augustine—all three Mediterranean. (Let us also bear in mind that throughout his life Maurras was stone-deaf; vision and intellect were his chief channels to the apprehended world.) His Greek-Latin forma mentis translated for him the image of classical columns to the political architecture of sharp contours and hierarchies within which the citizen occupies his place. Expressed otherwise, there are the multiplicities of civil society, but institutions and finally the hereditary king are at the top. This is not as rigid as Plato’s Republic, but of a similar inspiration. This is not fascism, nor even Nazism, both being too turbulent for Maurras’s classic preferences, both alien on account of their socialistic ingredient and enthusiastic but temporary unity, not fixed in institutional form. The Maurrassian edifice is also different from that of Carl Schmitt, the German critic of the modern State, who faulted the Weimar constitution for its failure to make room for a supreme arbiter in case of turmoil and danger. Precisely, the Maurrassian State needed no appointed arbiter, it possessed such a function in the monarch, surrounded by loyal civil servants of the common good. Thomas More would be a good illustration.

Is this a utopian construct? Is it Plato’s ideal republic, without a philosopher-king, but a flesh-and-blood member of the nation and its history? I tend to believe, rather, that the Maurrassian realm is an attempted answer to modern politics before anarchy sets in and appeals must be made to the “exceptional individual.” In its pure form, such a political body will never be found, but one must keep in mind that Maurras grew up in the first decades of the Third Republic, with its hypocrisy and scandals of corruption, its weak national defense, unable to stand up to Bismarck and the Kaiser, and its fin-de-siècle hedonism. Thirty years before, in Spain, Donoso Cortes, in despair over the lack of royal guidance, asked for a dictator to govern a slowly pulverized empire. Napoleon III was but a failed imitation of such a dictator.2In Wilhelmian Germany, Max Weber diagnosed the modern political weakness, although his solution differed from that of Donoso Cortes and of Maurras. Yet he tried to bring a remedy to the same ills: namely, the hope that patriotic and educated civil servants would protect the questionably valid democratic industrial order.

In a France still royalist at heart, Maurras had no great difficulty to find support for restoration. From the Dreyfus case to the defeat in 1940, half-a-century, Maurras was the undisputed icon of army officers, the clergy, fashionable ladies, the bourgeois class, and even of some leftist patriots who found “their” republic not militant enough. Contrary to later times, large sections of the intelligentsia were also avid reader of Maurras’s journal, Action française, which embodied the aspirations and the literary taste of the Right. Even today, the remnant of the Right considers him as its maître à penser, and young men are not lacking who commit themselves to his cause, an unflinching patriotism. Many of my own friends pay tribute to his form of intelligence; indeed, when Maurras was sent to prison and then died, France was again divided into two camps, and the cleavage almost led to civil war when Charles de Gaulle granted independence to Algeria and liquidated the empire. The followers of Maurras never forgave the General-President.3

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