In his book titled St. Petersburg Dialogues, the Roman Catholic philosopher and stark defendant of the Roman Church in the age of the Enlightenment, Joseph de Maistre, sets out to explain and provide answers to the age-old complaint concerning “the happiness of the wicked and the misfortune of the just.”[1] This complaint, which is raised either to God or to the nature of things itself, essentially boils down to a complaint as to why it is that the wicked are prosperous or happy in this life and that the just and virtuous meet with all sorts of grave misfortunes. This is a puzzle that every person, if he or she is in any way prone to deep, personal reflection, has pondered on at one time or another, and this merely shows the question’s grip on the human conscience and its seriousness. For if virtue is something truly good, it is expected that those who abide in it must reap a good reward. And on the other hand, if wickedness is bad, then we expect those who follow its path must receive their just deserts. If this is not the case, then we believe that there is some injustice being done. After all, why would the world be so structured such that the bad are rewarded with good and the good rewarded with bad? Further, and as de Maistre orients the complaint, why would God allow the wicked to obtain happiness despite their character and allow the just to suffer. To this question, the natural answer which is found in nearly every sermon is that “the wicked are happy in this world; but they will be chastised in the next; the just, on the other hand, suffer in this world, but will be happy in the next.”[2] But, given that this explanation has no meaning for those who do not believe in the Afterlife and that, even among Christians, this answer seems shallow and not very helpful to them, de Maistre seeks to give an explanation that avoids this common answer.[3] He gives three different answers, all of which help explain the mystery, but the third of which, it is clear, he deems as the ultimate answer and has behind it the most important truth. Here, I will attempt to spell out de Maistre’s three answers to the question concerning the happiness of the wicked and the suffering of the just. 

           De Maistre voices his first answer through the Count as he speaks to the others, Chevalier and the Senator, who are featured in the dialogues. First, de Maistre is quick to define the question at hand. He points out that the question cannot be “why are the wicked always happier than the just” or “why are the just punished for their virtue.” These questions would make no sense, because we see that not all wicked people are necessarily happier than the just. We see that there are both a good amount of miserable wicked persons and the same amount of happy just persons. Therefore, it is not the case that, generally, wickedness is happy and virtue is unhappy. It is also not the case that the good man suffers because he is good, or that the wicked man is happy because he is wicked (if this was the case, all wicked persons would be happy).[4] As de Maistre points out, the real question that needs to be asked is rather, why are the just not spared from misfortune, and why are the wicked allowed happiness. It is to this question that he gives his first answer, that happiness belongs to virtue, but not the virtuous man.[5] The ancients were correct in believing that happiness consisted in virtue and that it belonged to the man who could follow in the path of virtue. But, as Maistre argues, where can we find this “virtuous man” whom they speak of? Even if you searched the world over with lamps, you would not find this being.[6] What you will find is that each man, even the greatest one, has at one time or another departed from virtue. And being mostly virtuous is infinitely different from being fully virtuous to which happiness properly belongs. This virtuous man of whom the ancients speak is at best an abstraction, an ideal of what a man should be, but this does not mean that a person of this quality truly exists. Instead, what we do find is that all humans share in being non-fully virtuous. As such, all of humankind suffers the consequence of what it means to be a human (that is, non-fully virtuous). “Every man as man is subject to the misfortunes of humanity: the law is general, so it is not unjust.”[7] All suffer, for all are guilty and suffer the consequence of their departure from virtue, even the so-called virtuous man.

           Seeing that all humankind suffers indiscriminately, de Maistre adds in his second answer that, essentially, suffering proves beneficial to all, but that happiness is a snare only to the wicked. I shall explain both of these aspects of his second account. First, that suffering is beneficial to all. Elsewhere in de Maistre’s Considerations on France, he says, “there is no chastisement that does not purify.”[8] In this quote, I find the embodiment of this aspect. De Maistre says that, with respect to happiness and suffering, people do not know what is truly good for them. In this first aspect, suffering is beneficial, for by it, the wicked are brought to terms with themselves, they learn of their wickedness through the suffering which must be seen as a punishment of some kind. This is just as when a parent punishes a child for misbehavior. By punishing children, or criminals, we hope that in so doing, they would be reformed, they would learn of their wickedness and change for the better. So suffering can serve as a reality check for the wicked.

           In a similar way, the virtuous person, by suffering, realizes just how far from virtue he is and that he is only somewhat virtuous, which again is to say only human.[9] But, what is more, for the virtuous to suffer may be better than that the wicked suffer. For, “Sufferings are for the virtuous man what battles are for the soldier; they improve him and add to his merits.”[10] In suffering, the virtuous face a noble test, and just as the soldier fights the sting of battle in order to become stronger, so do the virtuous have a chance to fight well and stand strong against the suffering and become more resolved toward the cause of virtue. If today we say that a soldier is battle-hardened, we ought to say of the virtuous who suffer that they too are battle-hardened, against suffering. The virtuous should have no complaint, then, against suffering since we never hear of brave warriors complaining that they are sent into dangerous battles.[11] With these considerations, it would seem to de Maistre that “nothing could be so unfortunate as a man who never experienced the test of misfortune.”[12]

           The second part of this answer goes along with the first in that while suffering proves beneficial for both the wicked and the just, this is not the case with happiness. We have all heard the old saying “goods badly acquired scarcely profit”[13], and de Maistre would agree with this. For he believes that the wicked who are happy do not have the same happiness as the just. He says, “can one prevent oneself from contemplating with delight the happy man who can say each day before going to sleep: I have not lost the day?”. The just man is able to find peace of heart in his happiness, knowing what he has, he has earned through honest means and “sleeps with the certitude of having done what is good, and awakes with new strength to become better still.”[14] Compare this with the supposed happiness of the wicked, and you will find a different story. The wicked may have great success in the world, wealth, friends, reputation, power, but peace of heart is something they will never have, according to Maistre. They live in regret of the wicked means they used to gain happiness, and this can lead them into severe and damaging mental strife. If what the wicked has is happiness, what the virtuous and just have is inner peace, which all the success of the wicked could never afford.

           Certainly, I believe we have all heard an explanation such as this in one form or another, but de Maistre’s point goes deeper than this. Whereas suffering serves the purpose of awakening the wicked man to the truth of his own wickedness, happiness only serves to blind him from this truth. If the wicked are allowed some happiness in this life, this happiness only serves to distract them from the truth; everything seems to be in its place according to them. They become unaware of their own wickedness, and if this state of happiness continues uninterrupted, if there is nothing to awake them from this dream world in which they live, they stand no chance of turning from their wicked state. Or, as Maistre says, “I believe in my soul and conscience that if man could live in this world exempt from every kind of misfortune, that he would begin by degenerating to the point of forgetting all spiritual matters and even God himself.”[15] Happiness, then, while a blessing for the just, is a curse and horrible punishment for the wicked.[16]

           After this second answer given by Maistre, he delivers a third and final answer, which, as I said, he holds as the highest answer to this problem of the happiness of the wicked and misfortune of the just. The third answer is a mystery that encompasses the entirety of the book. De Maistre’s dwellings on war, the violence of nature, the executioner, on animal and human sacrifice, on the violent destruction of all living things[17], on death, and on the blood which seems to him to cover the whole earth as a vast altar[18], all of these dark ruminations only make sense in context with this final answer: sacrifice and substitution. These dark themes only make sense because man finds himself the culprit of an enormous crime against God and against the nature of things which He established. And it is because of this crime that the whole earth calls out for blood that may atone for the crime. One can very well see de Maistre’s Christian influence in this answer that he gives. The atonement by the blood of the just and innocent Christ for the sake of the guilty is the crux of Christianity. But, Maistre adds to this, in Catholic fashion, a system of merits. With this system, which I myself reject personally, he believes that the guilty and wicked can have the satisfactions of others “imputed to him by eternal justice, provided that he wishes it, and that he makes himself worthy of this substitution.” Thus, the just suffer as a sacrifice made for the sake of the wicked who are repentant yet who “of themselves, could not expiate their own debts.” He believes whether it is the blood of Christ or the blood of the just, both work to provide satisfaction for the guilty. In short, the third answer is, as Maistre puts it, “Innocence suffers for you, if you wish it.”[19]

           Finally, in order that this whole answer may seem more convincing and make it based less so much on religious doctrine, de Maistre points out that this idea, that of sacrifice and substitution, has found its way into the beliefs of the people from every corner of the globe. He spends some time in his Dialogues and an even greater deal of time in its epilogue section, Elucidation on Sacrifices, to note various instances of this belief throughout the world and its history. He recounts that, in ancient Rome, the cult of Mithra performed a baptism in blood. In it, the initiates would be drenched in the blood of the bull which was immolated above them. This was believed to cleanse those were bathed of sin.[20] He says that the Gauls of continental Europe participated in human sacrifice, where prisoners were sacrificed at the tombs of the dead. And that these Gauls, when the Romans were threatened by war or disease, were themselves sacrificed. Also, he recounts that, in India, it is said that “the sacrifice of a man gladdens the divinity for three thousand years.” And in this same region, you will also see women throwing themselves onto the flaming pyres of their husbands, which, in Bengal, meant they had lost more than thirty thousand widows to the practice.[21] Lastly, he comes to the New World, where the explorers and missionaries recounted numerous examples also. For example, that the Aztecs sacrificed roughly twenty thousand people in one year, and the “still beating hearts” of some were pulled from their chest, allowing the priest to feed into the mouth of the idol the blood of the victim.

           De Maistre uses all of these examples to show the universality of this seemingly innate or instinctive idea in the heart of mankind, that there is “an expiatory power in blood; so that life, which is blood, can redeem another life.”[22]He says that the universality of this idea is proof that it is not an erroneous belief, for “no error has been universal and constant. If a false opinion reigns over one people, you will not find it among its neighbor, or if it seems to spread over a great number of people, the passing of time will efface it.”[23] All of these examples, then, only go toward supporting the truth of this grand mystery of the universe, that the innocent suffer for the sake of the guilty, which Christianity perfected from its base forms in paganism, and consecrated and encapsulated at its core in the sacrifice of Christ and the salvation of the guilty by His blood. With this, de Maistre concludes, in a rather brilliant fashion, his third answer to the question at hand.

[1]  J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 7

[2] Ibid, 8

[3] De Maistre does not mean that this simple answer is wrong. Rather, he admires those who, with a simple and child-like acceptance, can have their spirit calmed by such a simple and basic truth of Christianity. But, he also does see the need, in the case of some people, for a separate account to be given.

[4] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 9-10, 12.

[5] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 246. “the greatest temporal happiness is not promised, and could not be promised, to the virtuous man, but to virtue.”

[6] Zephaniah 1:12

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] J. Maistre, Considerations on France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 31.

[9] In this case, the old adage “to err is human” works well.

[10] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 248.

[11] Ibid. “Does the brave man ever complain to the army about always being chosen for the most hazardous expeditions?”

[12] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 248. This whole argument may sound similar to those who have read Plato’s Gorgias, where I believe roots of this argument may be found. There it is stated that it is better for those who have done injustice to suffer than to not suffer, and since all have done injustice in de Maistre’s case, all ought to suffer.

[13] Ibid, 91.

[14] Ibid, 96.

[15] Ibid, 247-248.

[16] It might also be said that, given the current non-virtuous state of humanity and its need for the knowledge of its own wickedness so that humanity may turn from its wickedness, that suffering is necessary so that happiness may be a good, otherwise it is a curse.

[17] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 217.

[18] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 217. “The entire earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be immolated without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death.”

[19] Ibid, 313.

[20] Ibid, 359.

[21] Ibid, 368.

[22] Ibid, 268.

[23] J. Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 268.


Maistre, J. St Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence.

McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Maistre, Joseph Marie, and Richard Lebrun. Considerations on France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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