Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre
Princeton University Press, 2014
888 pp., $39.95
Dale Van Kley
The French Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment
A decade and a half ago I put forward a counterintuitive thesis about the religious origins of the French Revolution. Although the book underscored the importance of a century-long controversy resulting from the Bourbon monarchy's attempt to suppress the "heresy" of Catholic Augustinians, or Jansenists, it did not argue that Jansenists made the French Revolution. Put briefly, the thesis was rather that the monarchy's repeated need for papal authority to condemn Jansenism as a heresy eventually put it on the unpatriotic side of France's Gallican liberties, which had long held the papacy to be subject to general councils and which Jansenists began to use in their own defense. By the mid-18th century—so the thesis went—a religious fight picked by the monarchy desacralized the monarchy in its own terms, sanctified the notion of national sovereignty in indigenous Gallican terms, and caused a schism within the Gallican Church that reappeared in more virulent form during the Revolution. It also produced Europe's most anti-Christian enlightenment, which of course also inflected the course and character of the Revolution. The point was therefore not to dismiss the role of the French Enlightenment in the Revolution, but to enlighten the longer-term religious and political parameters within which that enlightenment assumed its peculiar character and could make its force felt.
In contrast to such an indirect and structural attempt to factor religion into an account of the "causes" of the French Revolution, a more frontal and totalizing approach might have reduced all causes to religious ones on the grounds that, whether they knew it or not, the revolutionaries were still within the paradigm of the redemption of time originally established by the Judeo-Christian tradition, just as they were acting on the notion of human "rights" originally postulated in medieval canon law and scholastic theology. The notion that human beings have intrinsic worth is not after all a self-evident or empirically verifiable proposition; by the standards of human justice itself, humanity cannot be judge and party in its own cause. If no such attempt was made in that book, it was due not only to the desire not to press the evidence beyond the obvious, but also to be taken seriously by the entire community of professional historians.
In comparison to this argument, the case for the ideas of the French Enlightenment as the chief cause of the Revolution is much easier to make. That is the case that Jonathan Israel argues in his recently published Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Although revolutionaries possessed no French term for the "enlightenment" now used to designate the intellectual movement thought characteristic of their century, many indeed acknowledged "philosophie" or the works of individual philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Gabriel Bonnot de Mably as their sources of inspiration. That revolution also culminated in a campaign to "dechristianize" France, the ideological inspiration for which could hardly have come from Christianity.
That books about the intellectual and even religious origins of the French Revolution can be written again is one of the long-term results of a veritable historiographical revolution on the subject of the French Revolution. Culminating simultaneously with the collapse of Eastern European communism around 1989, this rethinking undid a long regnant Marxian metanarrative of the French Revolution that had reduced the ideas of the Enlightenment to the subordinate role of an ideology of the bourgeois or middle class, which was thought to have triumphed in this revolution. By upending the Marxian interpretation of uniquely socio-economic origins and meaning of the Revolution, revolutionary revisionism cut ideas loose from their tight orbits around a socio-economic center of gravity, endowing them with independent movement as possible "causes" of the Revolution, even making them into worthy objects of study for other reasons.
One result of these developments has been an embarras de richesse in the form of studies of the Enlightenment and enlighteners high and low, central and marginal, in unaccustomed cultural and political settings. Another has been an analytic refraction of a single Enlightenment into an array of enlightenments in the plural. More faithful to 18th-century parlance that spoke of a "century of lights," the newly various enlightenments vying for places beneath the historiographical sun include "national" varieties such as Scottish and Neapolitan ones, and thematic versions such as a Catholic Enlightenment or an Arminian Protestant one. Even within the French Enlightenment, it is possible to distinguish civic humanist and physiocratic variants as well as the notoriously radical or "philosophic" one associated with Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie.
It is into this confusing but creative plurality that Jonathan Israel has marched with this last of his four-volume-long advocacy of a "radical" enlightenment inaugurated by the writings of Baruch Spinoza. This 17th-century Jewish Dutch philosopher notoriously reduced his contemporary René Descartes' two opposed substances of thought and material extension to a single eternal and infinite substance that, whether called God or Nature, included both and everything else, moved and developed without outside agency, and did so in strict conformity with general laws that left no room for free will or miracles and reduced morality to the natural and necessary pursuit of self-preservation. Attributing socially egalitarian and politically democratic corollaries to what he characterized as Spinoza's materialistic and monistic atheism, Israel equated the whole with what he called the "radical" Enlightenment, and in the three preceding volumes traced its dissemination over time and space by means of exposure to Spinoza's works and restatements by successive generations of converts.
By far the best, Israel's first volume, entitled Radical Enlightenment, might have been read as a fleshing out of the Spinozan element in Margaret Jacob's original thesis of a radical Enlightenment while seemingly allowing for others—for example an early, mature, moderate, Protestant, Catholic, and German Enlightenment. That illusion fell victim to the surgical quality of the second volume, Enlightenment Contested, which, damning all religiously labeled enlightenments to the infernal category of "counter-enlightenment" and reducing the "real" ones to two, all but preordained the ultimate victory of the radical Enlightenment over its "moderate" Lockian-Newtonian rival by virtue of its superior internal consistency, explanatory parsimony, and revolutionary potential in comparison to its moderate rival's superfluous retention of God in addition to nature and its political limitation to reformist half measures. After a tour of the radical Enlightenment's progress around the globe, including a stopover in the American Revolution, Israel's third volume, Democratic Enlightenment, found an impregnable redoubt for that Enlightenment in Old Regime France, where, reducing all causes to the sole efficacy of ideas, Israel ignited his radical Enlightenment's accumulated ideological ordnance in the explosion known as the French Revolution. By the end of the trilogy of volumes, Israel had effected something like the re-closing of the enlightened mind, reducing the variety to a monistic monotony. With this third volume, he also produced a curiously sectarian history of the French Revolution.
Having already carried the story well into the French Revolution, and having laid down the thesis that the Revolution's founding principles embodied the radical enlightenment, why yet this fourth volume on the entire Revolution? The reason has to do with an older, pre-Marxian metanarrative about the origins of the French Revolution first formulated by such "conservative" critics of that revolution as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre and later argued with a greater show of "positivist" empirical rigor by the late nineteenth-century historian Hippolyte Taine. That narrative held the Revolution to be as philosophically atheistic as Israel does, and similarly located the origin of the Revolution thus characterized in the intellectual movement we now call the Enlightenment, especially its French variant. Indeed, the long 19th-century image of the Enlightenment as "radical" in this ontological and anti-Christian sense is largely a product of this "conservative" interpretation of the Revolution, itself a product of seeing the 18th century through the distorting prism of an already very partial view of the Revolution. And since this "radical" image of the Enlightenment is Israel's too, it becomes tactically necessary to end his argument by firming up a comparably "radical" characterization of the origin and nature of the French Revolution, this image's original source, and in so doing coming close at times to updating the conservative abbé Augustin Barruel's notorious thesis of the Revolution as the result of a philosophic conspiracy.
One main difference between the classically conservative thesis of a radical Revolution caused by a radical Enlightenment is that while conservatives excoriated both, Israel celebrates both. That a liberal historian of the French Revolution so heavily weights ideas—and in particular, of the Enlightenment—in an account of the origins and direction of the Revolution is of itself a welcome development, as historians sympathetic to the event have tended as a whole to downplay the ideological factor in favor of an emphasis on the Old Regime's many injustices and dysfunctions, perhaps in reaction to conservative historiography's indictment of it. A potential corrective, Peter Gay's two volumes on the Enlightenment culminated in the American Revolution and avoided the French. But in order to restore a modicum of balance, is it necessary to discount all other "causes" and propound a liberalized version of an originally conservative thesis of a philosophic plot?
Besides a positive evaluation of this philosophic plot, the other main difference between Israel's thesis and that of conservative historiography is that while Burke and his successors viewed the Revolution as nothing if not contingent, the totally unnecessary product of the plans and actions of a generation perversely schooled by a "literary cabal," Israel regards it all as inevitable, almost as much so as did the Marxian metanarrative—or at least until at some point in 1793, about which more later. Given a Spinozan "radical" Enlightenment, in his view, it was inevitable that it would prevail over all its enlightened competitors and also erupt in revolution sooner or later, destroying the Old Regime and supporting world view and making straight the highway, not for capitalism, but for cultural "modernity" consisting of radical secularization, total toleration, complete democracy, and comprehensive equality. But whereas for the Marxian metanarrative the engine of inevitability is the socio-economic substructure, for Israel it is ideological "superstructure."
The "philosophic" identity and the inevitability of that French Revolution are therefore this volume's twin theses, and call for examination in that order.
As for the identity of the members of what Israel calls the "real" Revolution's "steering group" or "committee," Israel's only strictly evidential quarrel with Burke is to contest his characterization of them as petty lawyers in favor of Taine's portrait as intellectual or literary loose cannons. In addition to such obvious names as the comte de Mirabeau and the abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, Israel's ever varying list includes from ten to fifteen characters, some as relatively obscure as Jean-Louis Carra, Joseph-Antoine Cerutti, or François-Xavier Lathenas. Some better known names appear on this list as well, in part by reason of their future importance, for example the journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the mathematician marquis de Condorcet, both future leaders of the Girondin faction but neither even deputies in the National Assembly in 1789. Granted the reality of any such "steering committee," some missing names would seem to belong on it: Armand-Gaston Camus, for example, who outtalked Mirabeau in the National Assembly, or the abbé Henri Grégoire, who led the defection of the clergy to the Third Estate. But one was a lawyer, the other a Catholic priest, and both Jansenists.
One secret to membership on this "committee" is that in order to qualify for it, candidates must be "radicals" in Israel's twin political and ontological senses: that is, as anti-aristocratic as well as anti-royal republicans who derived their political positions from a monist, materialist, and atheist ontology, in turn indebted to the works of philosophes such as Diderot, the baron d'Holbach, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, if not to Spinoza directly. But this combination can seldom if ever be demonstrated. If for example Brissot had really come to believe at heart that France should be a republic in 1789, he kept this belief in his heart and derived his ideological inspiration from the deistic Rousseau rather than d'Holbach or Helvétius. The journalist Carra in contrast had incontestably thought his way to a materialistic atheist position with d'Holbach's help as early as 1782, yet as late 1789 argued that in the new order of things "the authority of the Monarch" would be "precious," as it alone "can act in concert with the nation." The quite famous street-level orator Camille Desmoulins did indeed publish a fully republican manifesto in 1789, but in it called atheism a "delirium." (In point of curious fact, of 30,000 pages of pamphlets consulted during the pre-revolutionary period in preparation for Pergamon Press's research collection on that subject, the only pamphleteer before 1789 who expressed the desire that France might be a republic was one Pierre-Jean Agier, a Jansenist lawyer.)
Nor—the second of Israel's criteria—is it demonstrable that even the most politically radical members of Israel' putative committee had been so in both an anti-royal and anti-aristocratic sense before late 1788, as though they had entered the events of the pre-revolution with a set scenario for how they wanted France to look by October 1789, and plotted and planned to make it happen. Since the Revolution began with a classic Old Regime-style set-to between the monarchy trying to promulgate fiscal reforms at the expense of noble and clerical privileges on the one side and the chief royal court, or Parlement, invoking the principle of national consent on the other, most of Israel's protagonists became "revolutionaries" dialectically, entering the maelstrom either on the anti-aristocratic or anti-despotic side of the debate until the mutual discrediting of both of these institutions forced a synthesis between these two positions. Thus Condorcet entered the lists in 1788 on a reformist monarchy's side and against the convocation of the Estates General, and only embraced the principle of national sovereignty later; while Brissot broke into print on the side of the Parlement and against a royal propagandist's proposal that the monarchy get rid of its debt by declaring bankruptcy. And in this situation, figures who subsequently divided along numbers of political fault lines, and not just Israel's radicals, felt the historical ground shake beneath their feet and the need to explore terrae incognitae.
Stated baldly, the method used by Israel in order to fill out his revolutionary "steering committee" with members who meet his "radical" criteria would therefore seem to consist in finding evidence of either anti-royal or anti-aristocratic political radicalism or of radical ontology and then extrapolating from this one criterion to the necessary existence of the others. Given a method that efficient, research can be economized.
With his cast of radical architects of the Revolution thus constructed, Israel attributes to them an influence over events and deliberations by the National Assembly in 1789 out of all proportion to the evidence. At no point, for example, can Paris's street-level speechifying or pop-up periodicals be said to have dictated the decisions reached by the National Assembly at Versailles in July through September 1789, unable as they were even to prevent the Assembly from giving the king a suspensive veto in the new constitution. Yet Israel attributes to his "radical" few the Assembly's decision to precede a new constitution with the a declaration of rights, as though such a declaration did not command support from a wide array of political positions and may be said to be the product of a century and a half of political philosophy and experience culminating in the examples of the American states' declarations, little of it atheist or materialist. Among Israel's radicals, only Mirabeau, Jérôme Pétion, Sieyês, and the comte de Volney took part in the debates leading to the final draft of the declaration; Mirabeau contributed a "physiocratic" preamble, Sieyes perhaps the phrase "general will," and Pétion and Volney nothing. Far from being allies on the constitutional committee, as Israel suggests, Mirabeau held out for a royal absolute veto that SieyÈs opposed while Sieyès proposed a very "absolutist" and elitist conception of representation that Mirabeau opposed.
At street level, Desmoulins indeed mounted a chair in the Palais royal in the wake of the news of the king's dismissal of the popular minister Jacques Necker on 12 July, from which perch he effectively urged people on to demonstrations that led to the first clashes with royal troops in Paris, and indirectly to events culminating in the storming of the Bastille two days later. In such a hurry, however, is Israel to steer the Revolution in the direction he thinks his heroes steered it that he stumbles over the elementary narrative of the storming of the Bastille, making the collective intent of this action about the release of prisoners from a reputed citadel of "despotism" instead of obtaining powder for the defense of Paris and removing the threat that the fortress's cannons posed to the local Saint-Antoine quarter. If the storming of the Bastille saved the National Assembly, it was only by ricochet; if the event assumed the meaning of the "tomb of despotism," it did so in retrospect.
After manipulating the evidence in such a way as to attribute whatever was "radical" about the early Revolution to the agency of ten or fifteen men whose ideas were "radical" in the requisite sense, Israel's brand of historical logic further demands that he retrospectively postulate the "inevitability" of a revolution thus far driven by ideas so intrinsically superior to their more "moderate" competitors. Thus a second thesis of this book: the French Revolution's inevitability. For the same reasons, that inevitability inevitably drives Israel's French Revolution forward too, on to the National Assembly's radical reform of the Catholic Church and later break with Catholicism, then to the Revolution's war with the rest of Europe, the fall of the constitutional monarchy, the declaration of the republic, and the election of the Convention of 1792-94, and so on and so forth. Thus, for example, the final collapse of the constitutional monarchy established by the National Convention's constitution of 1791 is attributed to the intrinsic incompatibility of the "radical" democratic or republican elements in that constitution with the retention of a monarchy empowered by a veto, an institutional throwback insisted upon by such "moderate" enlighteners as—alas—Mirabeau and Volney. That a king more willing than Louis XVI to play the constitutional role newly assigned to him might have made that constitution workable—a possibility entertained by Timothy Tackett's volume on When the King Took Flight—is not a contingency that can enter into Israel's logic.
For the sake of readers of this journal, it seems worth lingering a little over the putative inevitability of the Revolution's break with Catholicism, a break that Israel of course regards as the necessary consequence of a "radically" inspired Revolution's total incompatibility with revealed religion of any sort, much less a Catholic sort. For that break is arguably what derailed the Revolution into terror, since the papal condemnation of the Revolution's reform of the Catholic Church is what finally drove a pious king into attempting flight, his flight is what first clearly implicated the counter-revolutionary complicity of Habsburg Austria, the war with Austria joined by Prussia is what brought down the monarchy, and the war in combination with internal revolts motivated in part by religion is what justified the policy of Terror.
Now, at no point in the National Assembly's series of ecclesiastical reforms culminating in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy did "radical" reasoning of Israel's sort raise its head in that Assembly, whatever may have been the unspoken motivations. The element in revolutionary ideology that, repeatedly decisive, made the totality of the Revolution's ecclesiastical reforms unacceptable to many French Catholic consciences as well as to the papacy was its opposition to any corporate authority other than that of the "nation." This anti-corporate bias held for guilds, provinces—all the Old Regime's privileged corps—as well as the church. It was that reasoning that, besides stripping the church of its property and denying the clergy the right to participate as such in its own elections, also made it impossible for the church to convene a national council to lend "spiritual" sanction to these reforms, making the whole reform vulnerable to papal condemnation and all the consequences that followed. Yet the deputies who most persuasively gave voice to this reasoning were, not Israel's "radicals," but rather the likes of physiocrats and Rousseauians such as Guy Le Chapelier and Robespierre, both of whom later fall afoul of Israel's radical standards, especially Robespierre. The vote on some of these issues was also sometimes contingently close.
As it happened, it was the resultant intra-Catholic schism that opened up the gap though which Israel's ontologically radical enlightenment passed on its way to "dechristianization."
At a certain point in the narrative, however, Israel's variety of inevitability encounters stiff competition from another, this one limited to the duration of the French Revolution, but very persuasive and powerful within those boundaries. Also a post-Marxian revisionist one, the argument is that of the formidable François Furet, who in 1979 explained the revolutionary dynamic of repeated purges and leftward purification as the product of the Revolution's unconscious attempt to replicate the theoretical unity of the Old Regime absolute monarchy's undivided will in the guise of something like a similarly single Rousseauian "general will." Since in elected legislative bodies no such quest could hope to avoid the brute fact of disagreement despite its conceptual incapacity to allow for it, the result was a verbal competition between groups and individuals over which or who best spoke for the people or articulated the general will, a contest in which the winner invariably defined the loser as a conspiratorial and counter-revolutionary "faction" until the whole revolutionary leadership thus factionalized and eliminated itself, not excluding Robespierre and the "hard core" in the Convention's Committee of Public Safety.
Now, Israel wants no part of Furet's brand of inevitability because, far from sparing his "radicals," it lumps them along with all their opponents from the Feuillant Right to the Robespierrian Left as part of an inexorable process that fed on their ideological differences, if not produced them. Israel clearly wants his radical principles to count for something, most especially when in his opinion they reached the point of perfection in the ideology of the "faction" known as the Gironde or Brissotins, some of whom like Condorcet came to call for the political equality of women and who reached the high point of their power and influence in late 1792 and early 1793. Furet's thesis has of course not remained immune to criticism over the past several decades, in part because it throws out all socio-economic babies with the Marxian bathwater, as does Israel's own take on the Revolution for that matter. But this alternative theory of intra-revolutionary inevitability has the advantage of smoking out the limits of Israel's claims. For, having thus far chosen sides within Furet's infernal process rather than analyzing it from the outside, he takes his last stand with the Brissotins or Girondins at the point of the violent expulsion of 29 of their deputies from the Convention on May 31- June 2, 1793. The perpetrators of this new purge were Parisian National Guardsmen and militant members of popular Parisian sectional assemblies in collaboration with an opposing faction known as the "Mountain," which included Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat.
Disallowed though it is by Israel's own deterministic Spinozan ontology, at this point contingency takes the place of inevitability in his argument. Having applauded every successive purge until that point, he deplores this one. And having rejoiced so far at the capacity of his radicals to manipulate the Parisian populace to take their side until the spring of 1793, he now faults the Mountain for doing so just as successfully (and faults Parisians for their gullibility). And having eschewed the possibility of contingency in the Revolution's inevitably radical rupture with the Gallican Church in 1790, he now wishes to wash his radicals' hands of all responsibility for the persecution that eventually followed.
What is now at issue for Israel is that he does not want his radicals to be responsible for the Terror or for the display of anti-Catholic—indeed, anti-Christian—persecutory intolerance of that phase of it known as dechristianization. To be sure, most historians date the onset of the Terror with the expulsion of the Girondin deputies on June 2 or the invasion of the purged Convention by members of the Parisian sections and the Jacobin Club on September 5, 1793. But the Revolution's descent into Terror was nothing if not gradual and inseparable from the declaration of war against Austria on April 20, 1792 and the rhetorical criminalization of the anti-constitutional Catholic clergy that preceded it, in both of which developments Brissot and fellow Girondin deputies played leading roles. In his preceding volume Israel went to great pains to distinguish between Denis Diderot's deliberative concept of the "general will," which he makes that of his radicals, and Rousseau's more absolutist notion of a "general will," which he identifies as that of Robespierre and the Mountain. Yet however artificial and precarious that distinction even before the Revolution, it gets hopelessly melted and welded in the crucible of the events of late 1792 and 1793, when all went to war against all under the ensign of the volonté générale, and the group that prevailed did so because they were willing to meet Parisians at least half way in their demands for price controls and "terror" against hoarders. And though Rousseau's contention that Christianity's transnational loyalty made it incompatible with any national cult may have provided the form for the campaign to "dechristianize" France, the quite atheistic content of the first phase of that campaign could only have come from Israel's radical Enlightenment. Nor finally is the separation between "radical" Girondin and "popular authoritarian" Montagnard personnel at all clean, as on Israel's own evidence numbers of his radicals drifted over onto the Montagnard side, among them Desmoulins, Marie-Joseph Chenier, Anacharsis Cloots, Lathenas, and Pierre-Sylvain Maréchal.
One result of this book's dramatically contingent shift from a triumphant to a tragic trope is that Robespierre and Marat are made the scapegoats for all that led to the failure of the French Revolution. Failure it is in Israel's reckoning by the time his book reaches Napoleon's coup d'état of November 9-10, 1799 with the connivance of the erstwhile "radical" Sieyès, despite what Israel sees as a brief revival of the "real" revolution during the post-Terror Directorial period from 1795-99. Israel's vilification of Robespierre takes this volume from the tendentious to the mendacious, as he denies all the notorious evidence of Robespierre's conversion to republicanism before the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 and magnifies the role of the Brissotins, who just as notoriously got cold feet after the anti-royal feelings that they had stirred up began to escape their limited political aims. Applying such anachronistic categories as "proto-fascism" to characterize Robespierre's and the Mountain's political thought, Israel accepts at face value Robespierre's post-mortem enemies' accusations that he aimed at establishing a personal dictatorship while obscuring the evidence that, however tragic his attempt to empower "virtue" in a wartime situation not of his own making, he too aspired to "accomplish the destiny of humanity" and "keep the [political] promises of philosophy."
A second result of the shift to the contingent and tragic is the excommunication of Robespierre's self-identified intellectual mentor Rousseau from the Enlightenment, as though his moralistic deism was incompatible with enlightenment or this Genevan citizen's republicanism was not more authentic and deeply rooted than that of a Helvetius or d'Holbach. In this dubious exercise in what Peter Gay called defining the Enlightenment by subtraction, an unlikely survivor is Mably, who curiously figures on all of Israel's lists of duly radical philosophes, even though he never uttered a syllable against Christianity or religion and professed a civic humanism even more austere and anti-commercial than anything that Israel holds against Rousseau.
Can nothing therefore be said on behalf of this book? To the contrary, it contains a persuasive attempt to distinguish between the Brissotins or Girondins on the one side and the Mountain on the other on ideological rather than regional or merely tactical grounds, if not totally on the subject of the constitution of 1793, at least on their respective plans for national education. It also features illuminating and quite original sections on how the intra-revolutionary conflicts literally as well as figuratively played out in the theater. And it is impossible not to stand in awe of Israel's capacity to read so many languages in original and sometimes manuscript sources, to assimilate staggering quantities of information, and to write and publish faster than most of us can read.
Yet it is hard not to conclude that, with the last two volumes of this series, Israel has taken himself out of contention as a trustworthy historian of origins and character of the French Revolution, perhaps of the Enlightenment as well. Worse, the cavalier and partial handling of evidence in this and the previous volume inevitably raise retrospective questions about the reliability of the first, from which most historians including this one thought they had profited. It goes without saying that Israel is entitled to his materialistic, monistic, and atheist Spinozan worldview, including his schismatic conviction that none of us who arrive at political positions similar to his ever legitimately do so without his Spinozan starting points. But ontology is not history, and no historians have so far succeeded in getting this elemental verity across to Israel, among them historians as "secular" as he is. His best book remains his volume on the relatively unideological subject of the Dutch Republic, an invaluable source of reliable information.
For readers of this journal, the encounter here with several teleological "inevitabilities" or triumphalist versions of historical determinism contains a potentially cautionary lesson for Christian historians, formally—and ironically—dependent as these macro-narratives indirectly are on Christian providential determinism as last and best expressed in Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle in 1682. Those who would invoke a divine master plan as an explanation for any one historical development whatever, such as the spread of Christianity under the recently unified Roman world, are obliged to apply it to all others, for example the loss of a good part of that world to Islam a few centuries later. As no such plan can be discerned by looking through a glass, darkly, and no form of providential determinism can hope to prevail against others on post-Enlightenment terrain, the best defense of the doctrine of providence is to cling to the merely contingent against all deterministic macro-narratives, Bossuet's included. Explaining how and why things happened as they did is to explain how and why they did not happen otherwise; the supposition that things might not have happened as they did is often the condition of throwing fresh light on what had hitherto seemed all too obvious about how they did. What we find is the closest we are likely to get to the divine in history, and is in part what Leopold von Ranke meant by each moment being equally close to God.
To a degree, faith in providence is also to believe in divine intent within if not for all that has happened; daunting enough for our abilities is the task of ascertaining what and why. Faith is after all a theological virtue, as humility is a moral one.
Dale Van Kley is professor of history at Ohio State University. He is the author of, among other books, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (Yale Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.