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Louis de Bonald’s On Divorce

[1]3,852 words

Louis de Bonald
On Divorce [2]
Translated and edited by Nicholas Davidson
New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1992

On the European continent, Louis de Bonald has long been named alongside Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre as a foremost first generation critic of the French Revolution and founder of modern conservatism. De Maistre himself, late in life, wrote to Bonald: “I have thought nothing you have not written; I have written nothing you have not thought.” But while Burke has become the object of a veritable cult, and de Maistre is at least widely known and available in translation, it was not until 1992 that a work of Bonald’s (On Divorce ) finally appeared in English. Two other volumes have recently been added to his English bibliography; these will be the subject of a future essay.

Early Life

Louis Gabriel Ambroise Viscount de Bonald was born the only son of a landowning family near Millau in the Rouergue region of Southern France in 1754. The area had long been a center of religious strife, with a Protestant rebellion breaking out as late as 1702. Bonald’s father died when he was four, and he was raised by his mother, a pious Jansenist; he himself remained an orthodox Catholic his entire life.

Bonald received an unusually extensive education for a provincial nobleman of his time. He attended the celebrated College de Juilly near Paris (1769–1772), run by the Oratorians since the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1762. While the Jesuits had offered a strict classical education, the Oratorians embraced the new learning: Cartesianism and the latest advances in empirical science. Bonald’s closest mentor, Fr. Mandar, with whom he always remained in contact, was even a disciple of Rousseau! After graduation, Bonald joined the Royal Musketeers and served until their dissolution in 1776. He then returned to his native region and married. He and his wife of forty-eight years had seven children, of whom four would survive to adulthood.

Content to devote himself to domestic life, Bonald was pressed by the royal intendant into accepting the mayoralty of Millau in 1785; the citizens retained him as Mayor when the office was made elective in 1790. He initially imagined the Revolution might lead to a revival of localism, and even led civic celebrations of some of the early acts of the National Assembly. He also succeeded in averting a riot between Catholics and Protestants in Millau at this time, an accomplishment in which he took special pride.

Elected to the departmental assembly, Bonald resigned rather than countenance the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which subordinated the Church to the revolutionary State. In October 1791, he fled with his two eldest sons to Heidelberg, where the Duc de Bourbon was gathering a counter-revolutionary army, and took part in the abortive Jemappes campaign. Back home, the rest of his family were forced into hiding.

During this exile, Bonald produced his first book: Theory of Political and Religious Power (1796). Most of the copies were smuggled into Paris, where they were seized and burned by the authorities. This early work has been described as “an immense, rambling statement of his principles in impenetrable Latinate prose.” Bonald’s finest work is almost always found in shorter pieces written in response to specific situations; his attempts at general treatises have contributed less to his reputation.

In 1797 Bonald returned to France, “traveling across the mountains at night to avoid French border patrols,” and was briefly reunited with his family in Montpellier. But the modest “Jacobins revival” of 1798–99 intervened and he sought the anonymity of Paris. In hiding there, he produced three books: An Analytical Essay on the Natural Laws of the Social Order (1800), “essentially a more economical statement of A Theory of Power,” On Divorce (1801), written in opposition to the legalization of divorce in the proposed Civil Code of 1800; and Primitive Legislation (1802), “a systematic statement of the principles of his political philosophy.”

Fundamental Concepts

On Divorce is a good place to begin studying Bonald’s leading ideas. Unlike Burke and de Maistre, he devotes little space to analyzing the Revolution itself. He is interested in explaining what was lost because of it, viz., a social pattern he viewed as natural.

The work opens:

It is a fertile source of error, when treating a question relative to society, to consider it by itself, with no relationship to other questions, because society itself is only a group of relationships. In the social body as in every organized body—that is, one in which the parts are arranged in certain relationships to each other relative to a given end—the cessation of vital functions does not come from the annihilation of their parts, but from their displacement and the disturbances of their relationships. (3)

We note at once the rejection of enlightenment ‘individualism.’ That vision of man and society, still very much alive, assumes a materialist metaphysic: since only bodies are real without qualification, society is simply the sum of its members, and the social good is ‘the greatest good of the greatest number.’ Bonald described enlightenment thought (“la philosophie”) as “the universal solvent.”

For Bonald himself, society has a natural structure or order analogous to that of a living organism. Our social roles are part of what we are, so that people are not interchangeable (“equal”). Society suffers, therefore, when the natural disposition of different kinds of men to one another is disturbed.

Editor Nicolas Davidson points out the relevance of this organic view of society to the failure of modern ‘progressive’ social crusades. The reformer does not grasp “the infinite feedback loops that relentlessly frustrate [his] targeted plans” (xx). For example, he sets out to help ‘the working man’ by championing him against his employers, with whom he is engaged in a common enterprise. Or he advocates for women by encouraging them to compete against men in a zero-sum game rather than partner with men in marriage.

A little farther down, Bonald states that all beings and their relationships can be comprehended under the “three general ideas: cause, means, and effect.” They may be seen, for example, in the natural human family:

[T]he father has, or is, the power to accomplish through the means or ministry of the mother the reproductive and conservative action of which the child is the term or subject. . . . The father is active or strong, the child passive or weak; while the mother, median term between the two extremes of this continuous proportion, is passive to conceive, active to produce, receives to transmit, learns to teach, and obeys to command. (44–45)

The purposes of the natural family are the production and conservation of man. The relationship between the sexes produce the child, and the relationship between the ages (parenthood) conserve him. Conservation includes not only nourishment and physical preservation but everything which comes under the heading of education.

The reader of Bonald cannot fail to notice his frequent references to “conserving,” “conservative,” and “conservation.” His use of these terms is, in fact, the direct source of the modern political term “conservative.” In 1818, Bonald and Chateaubriand would found a newspaper called Le Conservateur, which made it popular. Chateaubriand is more often given the credit, but the term does not occur frequently in his works. (The first self-described “liberal,” by the way, was a member of the Spanish parliament of 1812 who opposed the restoration of the old regime.)

The three fundamental social relations power, minister, and subject apply not only to family members but “to all intelligent beings; [they] embrace the generality, the immensity of their relationships, and open the very gates of the infinite to contemplation.” For even the relations between God (“our Father”) and man are conceived no differently:

The society between God and primitive man has all the general characteristics of the society we have observed between men, and I see in it the moral persons: the power, who is God; the subjects, who are the domestic persons; the minister, who is the father of the family. The father is at once passive and active, partaking of the dependence of the child and the power of God himself; receiving orders to transmit them, and obeying one to command the other. (50)

According to Bonald, this original religion of the family predates the establishment of civil society: “nowhere do I find a historical truth better established than the religion of the first families and the priesthood of the first patriarchs” (50; examples include the Roman lares and Laban’s “gods” mentioned in Genesis 31: 19, 30–35).

As the domestic society of the family is necessary to conserve man, so the public or political society becomes necessary to conserve families:

Common needs bring [families] together but equally strong passions more often disunite them. Women, children, herds, territories, hunting and fishing grounds—everything becomes a subject of conflict between families. In every society there are private wars as soon as there are families living close together, and neighbors who sue each other today would have taken up arms a few centuries ago. (54)

The pattern of public society is once again a mediated hierarchy:

Among all peoples I perceive a man who speaks and commands and men who listen and obey—i.e., men in an active state and men in a passive one. I perceive other men (magistrates or warriors) median between the two extremes, who receive orders which they transmit, and obey to command. (54)

Contra Rousseau

Bonald’s explanation of social structure as mediated hierarchy may strike the reader as trite or obvious if he does not perceive the implied polemic against Rousseau. “What God wills man to do,” Rousseau declares, “he does not tell him through another man; he tells it to him himself, and writes it in the bottom of his heart.” In other words, Rousseau rejects all human or visible forms of authority. The Social Contract was his attempt to construct a state without such authority, something Bonald would consider a fool’s errand. (The final outcome of Rousseau’s effort was his inability or refusal to provide an unambiguous method for determining the general will: see my “From Salon to Guillotine,” TOQ 8:2, p. 74.)

The notion of God writing things on our heart—direct individual inspiration—Bonald calls “the theory of all extravagances and the arsenal of all crimes” (51). For anyone may assert that God has “told” him to do anything. Some radical puritans, indeed, were known to claim divine inspiration as authority for criminal behavior, and Bonald believed Rousseau got the idea from his early Protestant upbringing.

Bonald even defines “fanaticism” as “believing that God perpetually acts without means, like a prince who, relying on God for the care of his defense by a supernatural operation, neglects to levy troops.”

Rousseau does not explain what criterion to use when the divine inspiration of one man contradicts the divine inspiration of another. It seems there would have to be some public authority to make such decisions.

(An atheistic version of the claim to private inspiration, viz., the imputing of “false consciousness,” is alive and well on American university campuses today.)

Nature in Bonald: Contra Rousseau Again

“Everything that is not in nature has its disadvantages,” writes Rousseau, “and civil society more than all the rest” (quoted in 9).

To this vision of an originally good nature corrupted by the development of society, Bonald opposed his idea of “the three states: imperfect; perfect or natural; [and] corrupted or against nature.” These states apply to all living beings:

The organized beings which have an end and the external means to attain it are born in a state of weakness of means which prevents them from attaining their end. So begin man and society. This is the imperfect state; and it is imperfect since it tends toward another state which is better and stronger, and since the being perishes if it does not attain this latter state.

Time and acquisitions develop its means, and cause the being successively to pass to a more advanced state. Thus the seen becomes a plant, the fetus becomes a man, and a savage people becomes civilized. (67)

There is no such thing as a natural man prior to all society: we are born into the domestic society of our family, if nothing more.

Some [beings] use their developed means in the manner best suited to the end for which they exist, and attain that state which is called maturity in the plant, manhood and reason in the man and civilization in society. This is the perfect or natural state of beings (67).

Thus the adult is more natural than the child, the educated man more natural than the ignorant one, the virtuous man more natural than the vicious one, and the civilized man more natural than the savage (71).

Bonald implicitly returns to the premodern understanding of nature found in Aristotle and scholastic philosophy. He himself cites Leibniz, the modern philosopher most conversant with this older tradition: “certain philosophers locate nature in the state which has the least art, failing to notice that perfection always includes art.”

Society, to attain its end, which is its conservation, has laws, which are its will, and persons, the means or ministers of the laws in the execution of social action. Nascent society is in the imperfect state: it has weak laws and a weak or violent action (for violence is weakness). [This] is political despotism which subjects everything to its whims. Sometimes it acts without ministers, like Clovis, who personally split the skull of one of his soldiers. Sometimes power is usurped by its ministers, [e.g.,] by the mayors of the palace under the first dynasty. (68)

In the good or perfect state of society, will, represented by the laws, is perfect, and action is ruled by will. Power is absolute and not arbitrary; the ministers are subordinate, the subjects obedient. This state of society rests on laws rather than persons. (69)

Later on, Bonald concedes that the “natural, perfect” society is an ideal type which actual societies—particularly Christian societies—tend to approach: “although no society is in this fulfilled state, no more than any man, one can observe, in the social world, more enlightenment, virtue, strength and resolve among Christians than among other peoples” (76).

Rousseauan primitivists made their same characteristic mistake in treating religion:

As the religion of primitive families was exclusively called natural, and the religion of the State was exclusively called revealed, it was concluded that only primitive or patriarchal religion was natural, and that the religion of the State was artificial, and the religion of priests. (72)

There was a great debate at the time opposing the ‘positive’ religion of Christian dogma to an alleged ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ religion which never quite got worked out; eminent thinkers such as Kant, Fichte, and Hegel contributed. Bonald rejected the very terms of this debate. To him, the religion of the Christian State was the natural development of the original patriarchal religion (which he tended to identify with biblical Judaism).

The third state is the deviant state which beings fall into

either because their means are insufficiently developed, because they have deviated in the course of their development, or because they do not use them in a manner appropriate to their end. For man, this is the state of bodily infirmity or moral weakness. In society, it is the state opposed to civilization: evil, corrupt, unnatural. (67)

In other words, corruptio optimi pessima. And for once, Bonald quotes Rousseau with approval: “If the legislator, mistaking his object, establishes a principle different from that which arises from the nature of things, the State will not cease to be agitated until it is destroyed or changed, and invincible nature has resumed her sway” (75–76).

Bonald again:

Once a nation has attained the perfect state, and has tasted the heavenly gift of natural laws, it cannot descend from thence without falling into the last degree of misery and degradation. France, having fallen into the monarchical democracy of 1789, descended to the vile and bloody demagogy of 1793. Thus a nation declines and falls when it descends from the perfect state. Who would dare to contemplate the probably consequences of this revolutionary delirium, if the principle of life which fourteen centuries of constitution had given this society had not drawn it back from the abyss of shame, corruption, and sorrow.

The Assyrians, Medes, Romans, and Greeks perished because they had passed from the imperfect state of nascent peoples to the corrupt state of degenerate peoples. The Northern peoples continue to exist in Europe, stronger than at the time of their establishment, because they have passed from the imperfect to the perfect state of society. There is no rest for a people but in society’s perfect state. (75–77)


The reader may be forgiven for wondering why the foregoing matters are discussed at length in a treatise called On Divorce. Today we are inclined to view marriage as a “personal matter.” But it is not. Most obviously, it also concerns the interests of the children it produces:

Public power is the guarantor of the commitment of the two spouses to form a society; for public power always represents the absent person in the family: the child before birth, the father after death. The contract formed between three persons cannot be broken by two, to the prejudice of the third, the weakest one in the society. (176)

It also concerns the larger society, since the family is its fundamental element.

As Bonald says, “no question is simpler in its principles or more fertile in its consequences, since by itself [divorce] raises all the fundamental questions for society concerning power and duty” (38).

Bonald’s treatise was occasioned by the proposal of a new Civil Code which allowed divorce on various grounds. Arguing against the permission, he referred to his threefold division of societies: primitive or patriarchal, perfect or natural, and deviant or unnatural. The law of polygamy, as well as the Mosaic permission to repudiate wives, are imperfect laws permissible to a primitive society:

[They] can be tolerated in that state of society which precedes any public establishment and is called the patriarchal state; because the multiplication of the species, which polygamy encourages at this age of society alone, may be appropriate to a small tribe which is trying to raise itself to the strength and dignity of a nation. (79)

Polygamy is imperfect because it creates conflicting interests within the family; but it does not separate children from their parents.

Similarly, the law of repudiation is harsh, since it punishes a woman for the fault of nature (childlessness). But it is not unnatural, since it leaves exclusively in man the essential attribute of power, the right to judge the woman; it is always an act of jurisdiction even when it is not an act of justice. The power vested in the man is, indeed, excessive and despotic; but in this respect it merely resembles public authority in its earliest stage.

The permission of repudiation has less dangerous consequences among a nascent people than it would for us. The family lived a rural life, isolated from other families, occupied with healthy work; repudiation was seldom used except in cases of infertility.

In a more advanced state of society, “communication of the sexes becomes more frequent through the proximity of families, and less innocent through the taste for pleasure and the progress of the arts, which follows that of wealth” (79). Under these circumstances, repudiation is certain to be abused. Among the Jews of a later age, for example, one famous rabbi taught that a man could repudiate his wife for having burned the soup; another because he found one more beautiful, or even without any pretext at all (82).

“Among Christian peoples,” says Bonald, “marriage makes woman, not a being equal to man, but a helper (or minister) similar to him.” (108) The purpose of the union is not merely the production of children (for which marital indissolubility is unnecessary), but for their proper conservation—what sociobiologists term “high-investment parenting.” For society does not consist of those who are born, but of those who subsist.

“The law of indissoluble monogamy is perfect,” declared Bonald; “its opponents themselves acknowledge this, since they only criticize its perfection.” (The legislators had alleged that indissolubility laid too great a burden on weak human nature.) He even quotes Christ’s injunction “be ye perfect!” (96).

It is not difficulties which must be opposed to man’s desires, for difficulties only enflame them, but the impossibility of satisfying them altogether. (185)

Laws must be more severe in proportion as society is more advanced and man looser. Thus the grown man has duties to fulfill which are far broader and involve a whole different level of obligation than those to which the child is subject. (129)

Like many writers of our own time, Bonald notes that divorce can be especially hard on women:

Out of everything [the wife] brought into the [domestic] society, she can only, in the case of dissolution, recover her money. And is it not supremely unjust that the woman, having entered the family with youth and fertility, may leave it with sterility and old age; and that, belonging only to the domestic state, she should be put out of the family to which she gave existence, at the time in life when nature denies her the ability to begin another one?

But unlike many of our contemporaries, Bonald was perfectly cognizant “that most divorces are provoked by women; which proves that they are weaker or more impassioned, not that they are more unhappy” (106). He even calls indissolubility a way of protecting women from their own inconstancy, a privilege feminists have rarely demanded for their constituency. He also notes that the plurality of men is “more contrary to nature” than the plurality of women practiced by primitives (119). (The sociobiologist would say that polyandry does not contribute to the evolutionary fitness of the species.) Finally, allowing women to divorce the father of their children overturns the natural pattern of authority within the family; it makes wives the judges or tyrants of their husbands.

Bonald notes that separation remains perfectly legal even where marriage is indissoluble: “the separation of goods and bodies (a mensa et a toro) remedies all the disorders of the disunion of hearts: reason is satisfied with it. It is the passions which go further and demand the capacity to form new bonds” (177–78).

To allow divorce on the grounds of adultery is to propose adultery as a means to divorce; such a law makes “change the cure for inconstancy [and] pleasure the restraint on voluptuousness” (197). It also encourages false accusations of adultery. And it creates analogous incentives for abandonment, cruelty, or false accusations of mistreatment, wherever these are named as permissible grounds.

[Divorce] takes all authority from the father, all dignity from the mother, all security from the child, and transforms domestic society into a struggle between strength and weakness; [it] constitutes the family as a temporary lease, where the inconstancy of the human heart stipulates its passions, and which ends where new passions begin. (38)

The reader may wonder: was this book really written in 1801?

Bonald did not succeed in persuading the Empire’s legislators; the Civil Code was ratified, including the provisions for legal divorce. But after the Bourbon Restoration, he would be given a second chance.

TOQ Online, Oct. 31, 2009 and Nov. 1, 2009