Home > Uncategorized > Joseph de Maistre: The soldier and the executioner

Joseph de Maistre: The soldier and the executioner


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace


Joseph de Maistre
From The Saint Petersburg Dialogues
Translation by Jack Lively

I have often imagined a scene in which I want you to participate. I suppose that for some good reason a stranger to our planet comes here and talks to one of us about the condition of this world. Among the strange things that are recounted to him, he is told that corruption and vices, of which he has been fully informed, in certain circumstances necessitate men dying by the hand of men, and that we restrict the right of killing within the law to the executioner and the soldier. He will also be told: “The one brings death to convicted and condemned criminals, and fortunately his executions are so rare that one of these ministers of death is sufficient for each province. As far as soldiers are concerned, there are never enough of them, because they kill without restraint and their victims are always honest men. Of these two professional killers, the soldier and the executioner, one is highly honored and always has been by all the nations who have inhabited up to now this planet to which you have come; but the other has just as generally been regarded as vile. Try to guess on which the obloquy falls.”

Surely this spirit from afar would not hesitate a moment; he would heap on the executioner all the praise which you did not feel able the other day to refuse him, Count, in spite of all our prejudices, when you talked of this gentleman, to use Voltaire’s phrase. “He is a sublime being,” he would say to us, “the cornerstone of society. Since crime is part of this world’s order and since it can be checked only by punishment, once deprive the world of the executioner and all order will disappear with him. Moreover, what grandeur of soul, what noble disinterestedness must necessarily be assumed to exist in a man who devotes himself to services which are no doubt worthy of respect but which are so distressing and so contrary to human nature! For, since I have lived among you, I have noticed that it hurts you to kill a chicken in cold blood. I am therefore convinced that opinion must cover him with all the honor necessary and so rightly owing to him. As for the soldier, he is on the whole an agent of cruelty and injustice. How many obviously just wars have there been? How many obviously unjust! How many individual injustices, horrors, and useless atrocities! I imagine therefore that opinion among you has very properly poured as much shame on the head of the soldier as it has thrown glory over the impartial executor of the judgments of sovereign justice.”

You know the truth, gentlemen, and the extent of the spirit’s mistake. In fact, the soldier and the executioner stand at the two extremes of the social scale, but in quite the opposite extremes put forward by this splendid theory…

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