Rainwater on Selby (2015)

Selby, David A. Tocqueville, Jansenism, and the Necessity of the Political in a Democratic Age: Building a Republic for the Moderns. Amsterdam UP, 2015, pp. 284, ISBN 978-90-8964-605-7

In this comprehensive study of Jansenist influence in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, David Selby explores its historical and contemporary relevance for political action. Significantly, Selby acknowledges that, despite the title of Tocqueville’s renowned Democracy in America, first published in 1835, “the purpose of Tocqueville’s investigations was always to understand France” (216). In the wake of upheavals during and after the French Revolution, Tocqueville sought to facilitate a rapprochement between the aristocratic attitudes still common in political circles and the democratic tendencies that he judged would ultimately prevail.

The book is clearly structured with an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, and ancillary tables that highlight links between Jansenism, constitutional monarchy, and democratic republicanism. In his introduction, Selby notes that the first three chapters of his book are historical and provide “the foundation for the second part of the book, which focuses on Tocqueville’s modern republicanism” (21). With this in mind, Selby begins with a detailed analysis of Jansenism and its connection to recurrent themes in Tocqueville’s thought. Chapter one emphasizes “the long history of French Jansenism” (23) in Catholic political culture and its ideological role in resisting absolute monarchy, while chapter two focuses more specifically on its personal and professional appeal to Tocqueville. Their response to the Reformation placed Jansenists in direct conflict with Jesuits for influence at court and in the sphere of education.  The importance of such celebrated Port-Royal residents as Pascal and Racine extended the reach of Jansenist ideas, but the Jansenist rejection of the divine status of kings challenged current arrangements between church and state.  This challenge precipitated the eventual destruction of the Port-Royal Abbey itself and the prohibition of Jansenism after 1713. However, Selby is quite clear that the appeal of a constitutional monarchy had at least been recognized as a viable alternative supported by reason.

Perhaps chapter three is the most crucial in Selby’s book because it emphasizes the importance of Jansenism for the republican project. It is here that Selby unpacks the Jansenist understanding of Providence, in contrast to the dominant account by Bishop Jacques Bossuet, the celebrated eighteenth-century theologian whose influence extended well into the nineteenth century.  Bossuet posited a hidden God whose plans remained secret and inevitable, unavailable to any human intervention. By comparison, the Jansenist conception of Providence suggested a plan that was partially revealed, a dialectic of “clair-obscur” (83) with space for human agency to affect potential outcomes. Moreover, since Jansenists were inspired primarily by Augustinian theology, the domains of religion and human sciences remained separate, each making its own contribution to the duality of human nature. Historic events may, indeed, manifest Providence, but they also reveal a trajectory that human emotion and reason can shape.

In the remaining chapters, Selby unravels the implications and relevance of the Jansenist project for modern political culture. For example, on the question of sovereignty in chapter four, Selby analyzes the crucial difference between the nineteenth-century Doctrinaires, who placed their trust entirely in the sovereignty of reason, and Tocqueville, who “unequivocally embrace[d] the sovereignty of the people” (121). Thus, even before the failure of the Restoration Monarchy in 1830, Tocqueville questioned the viability of a constitutional monarchy, and he travelled to America to witness a modern alternative.  

Likewise, in chapter five the author focuses on the problematic relationship between power and virtue, and uses what he calls “the Jansenist toolbox” (145) to address the advantages of a psychology of practice in civic virtue over moral individualism. Selby contrasts Benjamin Constant’s liberal investment in the private family sphere as the source of moral formation with the more collective formation of republican values. For Constant, the public domain is limited to power relations, whereas for Tocqueville, the res publica “connects the development of ethical virtues by citizens to the use of power within the institutions of the republic” (161).

In the final two chapters, Selby explores Tocqueville’s “sociology of religion” and links it to theoretical positions in political philosophy and sociology held by Robert Bellah and Martha Nussbaum. Tocqueville recognized “the political utility of religion” (202) because he had observed it as a positive public phenomenon that was practiced with restraint and separation in the American context. Going forward, it will be most interesting to see Selby further incorporate these critiques of contractarianism into his future work.  

Mara Rainwater
Florida State University
Volume 45.1-2