Tocqueville, Pascal, and the Transcendent Horizon

American Political Thought 5 (1):109-131 (2016)
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Abstract

Most students of Tocqueville know of his remark, “There are three men with whom I live a little every day; they are Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.” In this paper I trace out the contours of Pascal’s influence upon Tocqueville’s understanding of the human condition and our appropriate response to it. Similar temperaments lead both Tocqueville and Pascal to emphasize human limitations and contingency, as Peter Lawler rightly emphasizes. Tocqueville and Pascal both emphasize mortality, ignorance of the most important subjects, the effects of historical contingency on what we take to be human nature, and both represent the complex internal dynamic of human nature in terms of the interplay of “angel” and “brute.” The most important difference between them concerns their relative estimates of human power and the significance of human action. Whereas the motif of human weakness is fundamental for Pascal, Tocqueville repeatedly affirms that, under the right conditions, human beings are “powerful and free.” Beginning from Pascalian premises, and endeavoring to be more faithful to some of those premises than Pascal himself was, Tocqueville aims to illuminate the possibility of an amelioration of the human condition through a “new political science” that redeems the political realm without divinizing it.

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Alexander Jech
University of Notre Dame

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