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  • Tocqueville’s politics of providence: Pascal, Jansenism and the author’s introduction to Democracy in America
  • David A. Selby (bio)

One aspect of Alexis de Tocqueville’s particular genius is his ability to combine social science and political rhetoric. The category of Providence is a wonderful example of this mix. Though infrequently used, it appears at key moments in Tocqueville’s texts. In this article I argue that there are two senses in which Tocqueville uses Providence, with distinct intellectual histories. The first can be traced to the Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. Its history and function is well understood. The second, notably expressed in the Author’s Introduction to Democracy in America, has yet to be sufficiently contextualized. It is best understood in relation to the Jansenist religious tradition in France, especially the works of Blaise Pascal.1

As my analysis shows, Bossuet’s understanding of God’s will—that it is expressed through particular causes and is connected to the divine status of kings—was poorly suited for Tocqueville’s argument in the Author’s Introduction. In contrast, there are two arguments that can be traced to the Jansenist tradition. The first is the use of secular history to identify the progress of equality. Only after this movement is shown to have the characteristics of universality and inevitability, does Tocqueville argue it is “un fait providentiel.”2 Put differently, the progress of equality is fact first, Providence second. The second is Tocqueville’s moral strategy of at once reconciling the French to the progress of equality and prompting them to act within the structure of political opportunity made available by Providence. [End Page 167] This moral strategy is the central feature of the Jansenist notion of Providence, and Tocqueville even uses the verb s’accommoder (to reconcile oneself), a Jansenist favorite.3

There is a small literature on the function of Providence in Tocqueville’s oeuvre. Scholars agree that Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle was his main intellectual source, and the political theory of Joseph de Maistre his main political target. Given Bossuet’s Gallicanism, his continued popularity in the nineteenth century, and the fact that he is today remembered as “the theologian of Providence,” it is not surprising that scholars look to him as a model.4 In this view, Bossuet’s notion of Providence is analogous to Hegel’s cunning of reason and most helpful for conceiving of how actions have unintended consequences. Lucien Jaume highlights a particularly strong paraphrase of Bossuet’s Histoire universelle in the Old Regime.5 J.-L. Benoît also argues for the influence of Bossuet, but is careful to distance Tocqueville from Bossuet’s particular historical vision, “The admiration that [Tocqueville] had for Bossuet does not indicate complete agreement with his vision of history, any more than Tocqueville’s admiration for Pascal permitted him to find faith, even as Tocqueville performed the practices of faith.”6 Benoît’s allusion is to Pascal’s Wager and Tocqueville’s lack of faith: act “as if you believed,” Pascal argues, so that the practices of religion may “incline your heart.”7

Neither Jaume nor Benoît considers the possibility that Tocqueville could have also used Providence in a Jansenist manner. This is puzzling. Both authors have insisted on Jansenist influences in his life and works, and it has been more than fifty years since Lucien Goldmann argued that Providence is central to Jansenist theology.8 The notes from Democracy in America show that Tocqueville also used Jean Baptiste Massillon, banished from court for suspected Jansenist sympathies, and other evidence shows that he read the Jansenist lawyers Jean Domat and Chancellor Henri François d’Aguesseau.9

This article moves in three steps. First, I reconstruct the basic theoretical structure of the Jansenist idea of Providence. Second, I demonstrate that Bossuet’s political theory was an important intellectual source for nineteenth century Gallicans and Ultramontanes. Both sections have a special focus on how religious knowledge is connected to political action. Third, I use this [End Page 168] intellectual history to inform a new reading of the role of Providence in Tocqueville’s oeuvre. The interpretation offered here does not suggest we...


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pp. 167-190
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