Religion and the Romantic Movement

By Christopher Dawson


De Maistre

Joseph de Maistre – architect of the Counter Revolution

Introductory Remarks: I have found this old piece by the historian Christopher Dawson remarkable in several ways. For in a relatively short space, Dawson serves to evoke – with penetrating insight – the lost world of the Catholic and Romantic Revival that characterised the response of the Nineteenth Century to the Eighteenth century rationalism and “enlightenment” which culminated in the French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic Wars – which were to destroy so many of the foundations of the Faith throughout Europe.

The Counter Revolution story of how Catholics responded to this destruction it seems to me is too-often forgotten today and again in remarkably succinct and lucid way, Dawson can serve here to re-introduce much that seems very important to me – and to the main concerns of this website.

I also feel Dawson’s piece also throws remarkable light on the controversial figure of Joseph De Maistre, whose role in forging a new direction for the Church after the initial Revolutionary period is frequently not sufficient understood or appreciated.

For easier assimilation from a computer screen, minor formatting changes have been introduced including paragraph headings and breaks– RB.

From Christopher Dawson:

The revival of religion that followed the French Revolution was not confined to any one country or to any single Church. It was common to the Latin and Germanic peoples and to Catholic and Protestant countries. Indeed it made itself felt far beyond the limits of organized Christianity and imparted a religious tendency to social and intellectual movements of the most diverse kinds, even though they were apparently in revolt against everything orthodox and traditional, whether in the sphere of religion or morals.

Christianity, which had been relegated by Voltaire to the stables and the scullery, was brought back to the court and the salon, and even those who still rejected it no longer did so in the contemptuous and cocksure manner of the man of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is the attitude of Auguste Comte, whose denial of all metaphysical validity to religious belief does not prevent his wholesale acceptance of the moral and ritual tradition of Catholic Christianity as one of the essential elements in the spiritual life of humanity.

Thus on the one hand we have a series of religious thinkers that represents the movement of revival within the limits of organized Christianity — men such as Count Joseph de Maistre, Maine de Biran, Ballanche, and Lamennais and Lacordaire in France, Coleridge, Newman in England, Möhler and Görres in Germany, and Kierkegaard in Denmark, while on the other, there is a series of no less eminent names of men who stood outside the frontiers of Christian orthodoxy and who attempted to build up a new religious edifice on humanitarian or idealist foundations — as, for example, did St. Simon, Leroux, Comte, Bazard and Guinet in France, and Fichte and Hegel in Germany.

A Second Reformation

This revival of belief in religion, or at least a respect for religion, is the more remarkable when we contrast it with the external losses that religion had suffered during the precedingperiod. In sheer material destruction of monasteries and churches, in confiscation of property and abrogation of privileges, the Age of the Revolution far surpassed that of the Reformation; it was in fact a second Reformation, but a frankly anti-religious one.

Throughout Europe the old regime had based itself on a union between Church and State so close that any revolt against the political system involved a corresponding revolt against the established Church. Moreover, the Church was singularly ill-prepared to stand a shock of this kind.

For more than half a century – first in the Bourbon kingdoms and Portugal and then in Germany and the Austrian dominions — the policy of enlightened despotism had been at work, reducing the Church to complete dependence on the secular power.

The princes and statesmen who carried out this policy, Choiseul in France, Pombal in Portugal, Florida Blanca in Spain, and Joseph II and Leopold II in Austria, were themselves the disciples of the philosophers, and in some cases were animated by the same spirit that inspired Voltaire’s campaign against Christianity.

It was, however, not their intention to destroy the Church, but rather to make it a part of the machinery of the new bureaucratic state — and to limit its functions to that of an educational institution whose business it was to make men useful and obedient citizens.

This ideal was most completely realized by the Emperor Joseph II, who set himself to rationalize and socialize the Church in his dominions with Teutonic thoroughness. No detail of ecclesiastical usage was too small to escape his meticulous regulation, and the parish priest was expected to supervise the rural economy as well as the morals of his parish. And while in Austria the Church was thus reformed by an enlightened despotism inspired by the rational and progressive ideas of eighteenth-century Freemasonry, in the rest of Germany every kind of abuse continued to reign.

Nothing could be darker than the picture which the papal nuncio, Cardinal Pacca, paints of the Catholic Rhineland at the close of the century. The prince bishops lived a thoroughly secular life and squandered the resources of their sees on their courts and their mistresses.

Of the electors of Mainz, the primates of Germany, Ostein was the friend of Voltaire and Erthal was the patron of the neo-pagan Heinse, and things were no better in the archdiocese of Cologne for the greater part of the eighteenth century, though the best elector, the Archduke Maximilian, was a well intentioned ‘enlightened despot’ of the type of his brother Joseph II.

But underneath this corruption in high places the faith of the masses remained as strong as ever.

When Pacca travelled through the Rhineland, the peasants assembled in their thousands, old men and children alike, to receive the sacrament of confirmation which their own bishops had for decades neglected to administer. And when the power of the electors collapsed before the armies of the Revolution, it actually relieved the tension that existed in the German Church between the traditional Catholicism of the masses and the innovations of the enlightened prelates.

Nevertheless, the net result of the revolutionary wars and the wholesale secularization that followed the Treaty of Lunéville was to leave the Catholic Church in Germany weaker and more at the mercy of the secular power than ever before. The old order was destroyed, but there was as yet no new life to take its place; and the leaders of the clergy, like Wessenburg and Dalhberg, were still permeated with Josephite ideas.

In France at the close of the eighteenth century the situation seemed even more grave, since it was there that the rationalist propaganda of the Enlightenment had made most progress among the educated classes, and it was there that the storm of the Revolution had produced its most destructive effects.

There it was not merely a question of the disendowment of the Church and its subjection to the secular power, as in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy enacted in 1790; matters rapidly reached such a pitch as to involve apostasy and wholesale persecution. Priests and nuns were executed in scores and deported and exiled in thousands.

By 1795 even the constitutional clergy, which had accepted the new order and renounced all dependence on Rome, was reduced to a pitiable state: of the eighty-two bishops, some twenty-four had renounced their episcopal functions and only about fifteen were left to rally to Grégoire, the constitutional Bishop of Blois, when he attempted to restore the ruins of the Gallican Church.

Yet the very violence of the storm revealed the strength of those religious forces which the eighteenth century had ignored. The persecution itself did much to restore the prestige of religion and of the clergy by investing them with the halo of martyrdom. If it was difficult to take seriously the religion of the frivolous and the well-dressed abbés of the old regime, it was just the opposite with men like the Abbé Pinot, who mounted the scaffold like a priest going to the altar in his ecclesiastical vestments, with the words ‘Introibo ad altare Dei’ on his lips.

Disillusionment with the Enlightenment

The effect of such things was, in fact, just the opposite of what the Jacobins intended. Fifty years earlier, when religious conformity was enforced by law, and people were obliged to produce certificates of confession, the rising generation grew up as infidels: but now that the churches were closed and the ‘refractory’ clergy said Mass in secret at the peril of their lives, religion took on a new lease of life and the new generation — the generation of Lamennais and the Cure d’Ars — turned to Christianity with an enthusiasm and conviction which in the preceding century had been found only among the Methodists and the Moravians.

Thus the Revolution, which was the child of the Enlightenment, also proved to be its destroyer. The philosophic rationalism of the eighteenth century was the product of a highly civilized and privileged society which was swept away by the catastrophe of the ancien régime. In the salons of Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Deffand, or Madame Geoffrin, it was easy to believe that Christianity was an exploded superstition which no reasonable man could take seriously.

But the same men and women felt very differently when the brilliant society that had worshipped at the shrine of Voltaire was decimated by the guillotine and scattered to the four winds. Many of them, like Chateaubriand, recovered their faith in Christianity by the stress of personal suffering and bereavement, but even those who did not recover their faith in God, lost that faith in man and in the law of progress that had been characteristic of the previous age. Rationalism flourishes best in a prosperous age and a sheltered society; it finds few adherents among the unfortunate and the defeated.

The course of the Revolution was equally fatal to the hopes of every party. It seemed as though fate had determined to explode the hollowness of any kind of idealism by the destruction of all that was best in France and by permitting only the basest elements — the Barras and the Fouchés — to survive and prosper.

There were some to whom this sense of the malignity of fate came with a force of a personal revelation. One of the writers of the French emigration has described in a striking passage how this happened to him while he was making the terrible march over the frozen Zuyder Zee with the defeated English army in 1796. As he marched over the ice he felt all the illusions of the Enlightenment falling away from him under the cold light of the winter stars until he realized with a flash of blinding conviction that his life had hitherto been based on a lie. And a similar experience was had by many of the most distinguished minds of the age in many different countries.

No more terrible answer could have been given to the facile optimism of the age of Louis XVI than the twenty-five years of revolution and war from 1790 to 1815, and it is not surprising that the more sensitive minds who contemplated this long drawn out spectacle of human misery were led not only to surrender their illusions but to question the principles which had been the foundations of their whole thought. In many cases, as for instance with Senancourt, the author of Obermann (who is so well known to us through the poems of Matthew Arnold), or Mallet du Pan, or the young Chateaubriand, these doubts found expression in a pessimistic fatalism which left no room for human effort.

De Maistre and the Restoration

There were some, however, who found in the disillusions and tragedies of the Revolution the key to a new philosophy of society dramatically opposed to those of the Enlightenment.

The chief representative of this tendency was Joseph de Maistre, one of the most original thinkers and brilliant writers of his age, and one of the most important formative influences on French thought in the early nineteenth century. His style was the fit instrument of his thought. In striking contrast to the luxuriant and cloying sweetness of Chateaubriand and his followers, it has the clash of naked steel and the strength and dexterity of the swordsman.

Yet he was by no means insensitive to the new romantic appeal, as we see in rare passages like the famous and lovely description of the northern summer night and the songs of the Russian boatmen of the Neva which opens Les Soirées de St Petersbourg.

Although he belonged to the pre-Romantic generation, it was not until after the Restoration that his influence was fully felt, owing to the circumstances of his life. He had spent the whole of the period from the Revolution to the Restoration in exile, and the greater part of it in Russia, as the penniless ambassador of an exiled dynasty — that of Savoy — for de Maistre, though a man of French culture and speech, was never a French citizen.

But the intellectual isolation and material failure which marked his whole career only served to strengthen the almost fanatical singleness of purpose and force of conviction that characterized his thought. Beneath the exterior of a diplomat and a man of the world he hid the spirit of a Hebrew prophet, and in fact the problems that preoccupied him were fundamentally the same as those that confronted Job and Jeremiah — the problem of suffering and evil and the justification of the obscure purposes of God in history.

The men of the Enlightenment had lived on the surface of life. They had rejected the very idea of mystery and had done their best to eliminate and ignore everything that was irrational and obscure; they explained the problem of existence by denying that there was a problem to explain. De Maistre, on the other hand, concentrated his attention on the other side of life and made the suffering and evil of the world the key to the understanding of it.

This insistence on the darker aspects of life earned de Maistre the reputation of a pessimist, a fatalist and an enemy of humanity, and it was undoubtedly shocking to men who had been brought up in the facile optimism of eighteenth-century thought.

But de Maistre would have replied that a philosophy which ignores these things ignores the substance of reality. War and revolution are not unfortunate accidents, they are the very texture of historic change. They are not the result of the free choice of individuals. The men who seem responsible, victors and victims alike, are but the instruments of impersonal forces, which move to their appointed end by paths which none can foresee.

Society is not a number of individuals who have consciously determined to combine for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, it is a living stream whose surface may be partially illuminated by the fitful light of reason but which springs from subterranean sources and flows towards an unknown sea. In this unceasing flow, this whirlpool of forces, in which all things pass and yet remain the same, how is it possible to distinguish cause from effect and means from end?

And if this is the case throughout history, it is above all so in time of revolution, when the current of change suddenly increases its momentum and sweeps away every stable institution in its path. Wise men and fools, heroes and criminals, all contributed to its success, whether they willed to oppose it or to turn it to their own ends. The very men who seemed to lead and dominate it were passive tools in the hands of events, and they were broken and thrown aside when their hour had passed.

But this spectacle of the impotence of man to change the course of history does not lead de Maistre to fatalism or despair. In the mysterious force which carries men with it like straws in a torrent he sees the power of God which destroys to create and erases to write anew.

The Revolution was not an event, he wrote as early as 1794, it was an epoch in the history of humanity, the birth pangs of a new age. And its real significance was not to be found in its conscious ideals, as for instance in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were nothing but hollow abstractions concealing the real trend of events by a sort of rationalizing mirage; it was to be found on a much deeper plane in profound spiritual changes of which the contemporary mind was still unconscious. “’What we are witnessing”, he writes, “is a religious revolution; the rest, immense as it seems, is but an appendix.”

And again:

“It seems to me that any true philosopher must choose between two hypotheses: either that a new religion is in the process of formation, or that Christianity will be renewed in some extraordinary way.

This conjecture will only be rejected contemptuously by those short-sighted men who believe nothing is possible but what they see. What man in antiquity could have foreseen the success of Christianity in its beginnings. How then do we know that a great moral revolution has not already begun?”

De Maistre regarded the Revolution as a cleansing fire in which the forces of evil were employed against their will and without their knowledge as agents of purification and regeneration; and as he believed that France and the French monarchy would emerge stronger than ever after the Terror and the wars of the Revolution had accomplished their work; so, too, he believed that the destruction of the Gallican Church and the ecclesiastical system of the old regime at the hands of the enemies of religion was a necessary step towards the restoration of the unity of Christendom and the freedom and universality of the Church.

This ideal was in fact the dominant preoccupation of Joseph de Maistre’s mind from his younger days when he urged Ferdinand of Brunswick, in 1781 at the time of the Masonic Congress of Wilhelmsbad, to transform the order of Freemasons into a society for the union of the Churches, down to his old age when he was the intellectual leader of Ultramontanism.

For however intransigent his views, and however inflexible his orthodoxy, de Maistre was always ready to recognize the ‘signs of the times’, whether in Freemasonry and Illuminism, or in the French Revolution or the Holy Alliance, whose weaknesses he fully realized. All of them were in his eyes phases of the great religious revolution which was inevitable and already far advanced.

“It is their function to melt the metal, afterwards the statue will be cast.” “All our plans”, he wrote in 1809, “vanish like dreams. I have preserved as much as I could, the hope that the faithful will be called to rebuild the edifice, but it seems to me that new workers advance in the profound obscurity of the future and that Her Majesty Providence says, “Behold I make all things new”.

Of course de Maistre’s philosophy of history is not quite so Christian as this. It has a certain Hindu or Buddhist element in it — history is governed by an impersonal law of retribution or Karma. Every evil will or act produces an inevitable fruit of suffering — the innocent may pay for the guilty, but history shows that the full payment must be made. The only way out of this circle of guilt and suffering is to be found in detachment and in the voluntary acceptance of suffering.

And this view of history as a superhuman process, which transcended the aims and ideas of the men who were apparently the makers of history was to influence all the thinkers of the next generation in both camps — on the one hand the founders of socialism and Positivism like the St Simonians, especially Bazard and Comte, on the other the founders of liberal Catholicism, like Lamennais and his school, and of the Catholic conservatives like Donoso Cortes.

The Rise of Romanticism

But in his own time de Maistre was an isolated figure standing between “two worlds, one dead, the other power-less to be born”. He belongs neither to the eighteenth nor the nineteenth century, neither to the Enlightenment nor to the Romantic movement. But though this simple and austere gentleman of the old regime has little in common with the undisciplined, emotional, unstable spirit of Romanticism, there is a curious parallelism between his thought and that of the leaders of the Romantic movement.

This parallelism is seen most clearly in the essay on Europe or Christendom composed by the young Novalis in 1798, only two years after de Maistre’s Considerations on France. In spite of his Protestant origins, Novalis exalts the religious ideal of the Middle Ages and condemns the Reformation for its sacrilegious attempt to divide the indivisible Church and to imprison religion within political frontiers.

Like de Maistre, he regards the Reformation as the source of rationalism and free thought, which found its culmination in the work of the Revolution. But at the same time he sees in the Revolution the dawn of a new era and shares de Maistre’s belief that the signs of the times pointed to a great spiritual renewal which would bring Europe back to religious unity.

All the early Romantics were inspired by the same consciousness of an imminent spiritual revolution, all of them were enemies of the Enlightenment and admirers of medieval Catholicism, and many of them, such as Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel, Adam Müller, Zacharias Werner, Franz von Baader, Görres and Clemens Brentano found their spiritual home in the Catholic Church.

It would of course be a mistake to ignore the existence of a Protestant element in the movement. Schleiermacher, perhaps the chief formative influence on Protestant religious thought in the nineteenth century, was a friend of the Schlegels and was closely associated with the origins of the movement, while at a later date the most original Protestant thinker of the nineteenth century, the Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, was a true Romantic in spite of his isolation and his hostility to everything for which Schleiermacher stood.

Nevertheless contemporary opinion was not unjustified in regarding Romanticism as a Catholicising movement. The tendency is to be seen most clearly, years before the conversion of the Schlegels, in the writings of early Romantics like Wackenroder and Novalis, who never themselves became Catholics and whose admiration was in no way inspired by propagandist motives.

I have already referred to Novalis’ remarkable panegyric of medieval Catholicism and his criticism of the Reformation, and in the same way Wackenroder in 1797 initiated that return to the religion of the Middle Ages through the art of the Middle Ages which became so typical of the Catholic revival in the nineteenth century.

This Catholicising tendency, which was denounced by Heine and the young German school as mere reactionary sentimentalism, did much to render Romanticism unpopular in the later nineteenth century, as we see for example in the well-known volumes of George Brandes, The Romantic Movement in Germany (1873), which for all their ability are biased by an almost sectarian bitterness.

In reality, however, the religious element in Romanticism, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, goes much deeper than the superficial aesthetic appeal. It has its roots in the fundamental principles of the movement, which differed not merely aesthetically but also metaphysically and psychologically from those of both seventeenth-century Classicism and eighteenth-century Rationalism.

Behind the change in literary taste and aesthetic appreciation there lies a profound change of spiritual attitudes: an attempt to enlarge the kingdom of the human mind by transcending the limits of ordinary consciousness. Human consciousness is a little circle of light amidst the surrounding darkness. The classicist and the rationalist keep as close to the centre of the circle as possible and order their life and their art as though this little sphere of light was the universe.

But the romantic was not content with this narrow sphere. He sought to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness and preferred the twilight regions that fringe the verge of consciousness to the lighted house of reason. Thus the most profound expression of the romantic spirit is to be found, not in the Byronic cult of personality or the aesthetic gospel of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, but in Novalis’ Hymns to the Night with their mystical exaltation of death.

There is in fact a definite connection between romanticism and mysticism, for religious mysticism tends to express itself in the form of romantic poetry, as in the poems of St John of the Cross, while literary romanticism at its highest aspires to the ideal of religious mysticism, as in the case of Novalis and Blake.

In the same way the victory of classicism at the end of the seventeenth century was intimately connected with the defeat of mysticism and was followed by what Henri Brémond, in his great work on the history of religious sentiment in France, calls la retraite des mystiques. Throughout the eighteenth century mysticism was exiled from the world of higher culture, and the religion of society became more and more arid and rationalistic.

Mysticism took refuge among the sects — Quakers and Quietists, Moravians and Methodists, Swedenborgians and Illuminists — or in Catholic Europe among the common people where it produced saints like Benedict Joseph Labré, who seems as out of place in the age of Enlightenment as an Indian fakir in a London club. This artificial separation of the higher culture from the deeper forms of religious experience has been described by Coleridge in the remarkable passage of the Biographia Literaria in which he acknowledges his own debt to the mystics.

Footnotes to this article are given below.

From Amazon USA:

Here are some important inspirations for this website. Each title also has a review at our site – the links are below. These books can also be found in our Amazon UK Store here.

Links to each Review here: Heart of the Redeemer, Meditations on the Tarot, Puritan’s Empire, Life of St M.M., This is the Faith, Marian Apparitions, The Secret of the Rosary, France and the Cult of the Sacred Heart


1 Letter to Mme de Costa, in G. Goyan, <La Pensée religieuse de J. de Maistre>, p. 88.

2 Considerations sur la France.

3 Letter to Count De Vallaise, October 1815 (<Oeuvres XIII>, pp. 163-4.)

4 Oeuvres, X, 405-6.

This article was taken from the EWTN website which had taken it from “The Dawson Newsletter,” Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.

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