Louis de Bonald, a radical traditionalist thinker

This review of Louis de Bonald’s important work, On Divorce, published at National Review in 1992, represents my first articulation of a traditionalist conservative perspective, that is, a conservatism which recognizes that we need something more than an individually experienced transcendent as the source of moral truth and individual rights, which is the typical American notion of conservatism. Beyond the God-based individualism of “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” we also need to be part of a concrete society founded in revelation and tradition.

A few months before I wrote this, the translator of the Bonald book, Nicholas Davidson, a conservative author with whom I was friends at the time, and who, as I remember, was the person who introduced me to Voegelin, seemed to go into despair about America’s prospects and moved to France where he had family roots (his mother was French, his father an American Jew). He then vanished from the conservative scene, at least as far as one can tell from a Web search.

Lawrence Auster
November 2, 1992

On Divorce, by Louis de Bonald, translated and edited by Nicholas Davidson, foreword by Robert Nisbet (Transaction, 198 pp., $24.95)

FOR AN AMERICAN “conservatism” that has lost its way amid the contemporary welter of rights and equality, there can be no stronger corrective than Louis de Bonald’s On Divorce. Written during the 1790s, when its author was in hiding from the French revolutionary authorities, and published in 1801, this seminal work by one of the principal founders of conservatism has never before been translated into English, an oversight now remedied by Nicholas Davidson.

In a powerful introductory essay, Davidson argues against the current habit of dividing the world up into “women’s questions,” “men’s questions,” and “children’s questions.” “There are only social questions,” Davidson writes, “which can only be answered in terms of society as a whole. Do you wish to help any of these groups? It can only be done by strengthening the bonds of society. To attempt specifically to help any of these groups necessarily corrodes those bonds, injures vital relationships, and so hurts those it purports to help.” But, Davidson continues, in a society already transformed by group-think, the remedies offered by mere conservatism are of no avail. What is needed isn’t conservation but restoration. Bonald provides us with a rational and reactionary analysis.

In effect, Bonald supplements the classic understanding of the soul and its virtues with the insight from the Western religious tradition that the constitution of man’s being consists of “natural relationships with his being’s author” and with his fellow men. As human beings we participate in three distinct societies—religious; public (the state); and domestic (the family)—which operate according to common principles. Just as there is a supreme Cause that willed the world and a universal Minister by whom the world was made and through whom it is saved, so in the state there are laws, ministers that carry out the laws, and subjects. In the family, it is the father who functions as power, the mother as minister, and the child as subject. Reading Bonald, we need to look beyond this hierarchical scheme, which appears so strange and forbidding to our eyes, to the inner core that animates it: the experience of religious truth as the ultimate source and paradigm of legitimate authority and community.

Bonald is a tough-minded exponent of the classic and Christian view that our native penchant for disorder must be repressed for our true nature to be fulfilled; “Be thou perfect.” said the supreme lawgiver of our civilization. But the Rousseauian democratic notion that “man is perfect in his native state and is depraved by society” threw this natural order on its head, denying any authority in God, making all human customs seem arbitrary, and reducing parents and children to the merely biological status of “males,” females,” and “young” (or, in today’s unispeak, “moms.” “dads,” and “kids”). With this collapse of the human constitution, Bonald argues, “there were still fathers, mothers, and children in France, but there was no longer a power in the family, no longer a minister, no longer a subject, no longer a domestic society; and political society was shaken to its very foundations.”

For Bonald, the key to this breakdown is divorce (legalized in France in 1792 and abolished again, due largely to Bonald’s own efforts, in 1816). Divorce destroys domestic society in the same way that anarchic democracy destroys public society, turning marriage into a kind of at-will contract between untrammeled individuals. Not only does divorce separate parents from children; more importantly, it breaks the chain of the transmission and perpetuation of culture.

Bonald is undoubtedly too extreme for most modern readers. His unrelenting hostility toward Protestantism as an agent of divorce and democracy, his one-sided emphasis on the supreme authority of the father and the “weakness” of the mother, and. most of all, his cold readiness to condemn abandoned spouses to a life of loneliness (since it is better to let a few individuals suffer the consequences of indissolubility than to harm society by permitting divorce and remarriage) make Bonald a difficult man to embrace completely. But the sometimes repellent harshness of his prescriptions should not blind us to the underlying truth of his analysis, any more than the totalistic proposals offered in The Republic invalidate Plato’s essential argument about the structure of the human soul and its downward course as man moves farther and farther from the truth. Indeed, Bonald’s account of the loss of natural authority in divine revelation, in community, and, most of all, in fathers, provides one of the most cogent explanations I have heard for the accelerating disorder—the loss of will to enforce or obey any common standards of behavior— that distinguishes our own era from most times past.


Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 23, 2004 12:40 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):