Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I

To this point, we have seen that Tocqueville believes that religion is necessary to the well-being of society, and especially to market democracies. Since the religious sentiment is natural to human beings, religion should flourish when it does not lend itself to exploitation by the State. But the natural tendency toward religious belief is weakened or even overcome by a competing passion for wealth. Because American democracy celebrates and encourages the pursuit of wealth, our democracy exerts a ceaseless, grinding pressure that gradually wears down our religion. Thus, American democracy has a built-in disposition to destroy a necessary condition of its own existence. To guard against that, Tocqueville urges American leaders and opinion-makers to surround religion with their protection – without, however, enmeshing it in the State. If they are wise, they will understand that our religion is “the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times.” Democracy in America at 633 (Bevan trans.). “It is vital that all those who are involved in the future of democratic societies unite together and . . . diffuse throughout these societies the taste for the infinite, the appreciation of greatness, and the love of spiritual pleasures.” Id. at 632.

But what, exactly, are the doctrines of the “religion” that Tocqueville considers necessary for the proper functioning of American democracy? Granted, America in the period of his visit was overwhelmingly a Protestant Christian nation, and would surely remain so for the foreseeable future. But Tocqueville does not contend that American democracy depended on the vitality of Protestantism. Instead, in an important chapter entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” he argues that “[t]he belief in a spiritual and immortal principle united for a time with matter is . . . indispensable to man’s greatness.” Id. at 633. That is, he appears at first to argue that a prevalent belief in one religious doctrine — the immortality of the human soul — is the irreducible minimum required for a healthy democracy. He does not, however, mention here any other doctrine that is characteristic of Christianity, Protestant or other, even the existence of God.

Furthermore, when read closely, Tocqueville does not even insist on the belief in immortality, as Christianity has traditionally taught it. Rather, he indicates that the belief which he considers necessary need not extend to “the idea of rewards and punishments” after bodily death, nor even that the “divine principle” that survives death be understood as personal: it would suffice if most citizens believe that that the soul was “absorbed in God or transformed to bring life to some other creature.” Id. Thus, he says that it is better for citizens to believe in transmigration, “believing that their souls will pass into the body of a pig,” than for them to think that “their soul is nothing at all.” Id. Finally, he concludes with an observation that seems intended for his more perceptive readers: “It is doubtful whether Socrates and his school had very definite opinions upon what was to happen in the afterlife.” Id. Instead, “Platonic philosophy” simply teaches the “one belief” that “the soul has nothing in common with the body and would survive it.” Id. The prevalence of that “one belief,” which does not even amount to the idea of personal immortality, is the indispensable prerequisite for a vital democracy.

Tocqueville thus does not teach that Christianity, or any other form of revealed religion, is absolutely indispensable for democracy. Indeed, he does not even say that democracy cannot function well unless belief in natural religion in its entirety is widespread. Rather, at least in this place, he reduces the indispensable minimum to something even less demanding than natural religion as that was generally understood – i.e., to the “one belief” that he associates with Platonic philosophy. All he contends for, in other words, is an extremely thin belief that amounts to little more than the rejection of philosophical materialism, i.e., of the metaphysical position that he associates with the dominance of the drive for physical pleasure and wealth. Nonetheless, some religious, or at least metaphysical, belief must be widely held in order to ensure against political calamity.

In order to understand his thinking fully, we need to start with the idea of “natural religion.” What did Tocqueville think constituted natural religion, and from what sources did he acquire that idea? We will see that a large and important body of French thought underlies the brief and enigmatic remarks cited above from Democracy.

The doctrines of natural religion

In his marvelous account of the origins of Unitarianism in America, Conrad Wright distilled the essence of “natural religion” down to three essentials: “the existence of God, the obligations of piety and benevolence, and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America 140 (1955). The chief points of natural religion were understood to be discoverable by natural reason, assisted perhaps by reflection and experience, but without regard to revelation. The first two of the doctrines Wright identified were considered to be subject to rational proof; the third was more problematic and often considered unprovable.

Thus, as the philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke sought to show in the first series of his influential Boyle Lectures, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1704), God’s existence, eternity, infinity, omnipresence, unity, agency and so forth could be known by deduction from certain initial, self-evident principles. Alternatively, God’s existence might be shown by reasoning from the order or “design” of the world to the existence and nature of the designer that had caused it. This argument was framed succinctly by Montesquieu: “the least reflection is enough for a man to cure himself of atheism. He has only to consider the Heavens, and he will find an invincible proof of the existence of God. It is inexcusable when he does not see the Divinity depicted in everything that surrounds him; for as soon as he sees the effects, he must acknowledge a cause.” Montesquieu, My Thoughts (Mes Pensées) # 1946 (Henry C. Clark trans. 2012).

In the second series of his Boyle Lectures, A Discourse concerning the Unalterable Obligations of Natural Religion and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation (1705), Clark turned to the nature of morality, or our duties to God and to other men. He contended that there were certain necessary relations among persons that gave rise to the “fitness” or “unfitness” of their behavior, so that morality was, like geometry, a subject admitting of rational demonstration. (There is a superb summary of Clark’s ideas in Ezio Vailati’s on-line article about him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The theorists of natural religion did often concede, however, that their doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments was more difficult, if not impossible, to prove rationally. Some of them took the position that that belief rested solely on revelation; others thought that the doctrine was at least not subject to refutation by reason. See Wright at 146.

Tocqueville was aware that “natural religion” was not invariably understood to include the doctrine of rewards and punishments after death. That helps explain why he did not include that doctrine in his analysis of the indispensable elements of natural religion.

Tocqueville’s own natural religion

In a revealing letter of January 8, 1858 to his friend, the philosopher Louis-Fermin Bouchitté, Tocqueville delineated the scope and limits of philosophical reasoning as he understood them. What he had found amounted to rational proof of the doctrines of natural religion. Beyond that, he said, his mind could not penetrate. In studying philosophy, he says,

I always reached a point where I found that all the notions that the sciences provided me took me no farther, and frequently took me less far, than I had reached at once with the aid of a small number of very simple ideas, which indeed all men have more or less grasped. These ideas lead easily to belief in a first cause, which remains utterly evident and utterly inconceivable; to the fixed laws which the physical world allows us to see and which we must assume to exist in the moral world; to the Providence of God, hence to His justice; and to the responsibility of man, who has been allowed to know that there is good and evil, hence another life. I confess to you that, beyond this revelation, I have never found that the subtlest metaphysics provided me with clearer notions on these matters than the crudest common sense . . . . Quoted in Jean-Claude Lamberti, Tocqueville and the Two Democracies 156-57 (Arthur Goldhammer trans. 1989).

But this rationally attainable knowledge left Tocqueville unsatisfied. In a passage that echoes Pascal, he says that metaphysical reasoning cannot explain “the why of the world” (id.):

What I have called the bottom that I cannot touch is the why of the world, the plan of this creation, of which we know nothing, not even our bodies, let alone our minds; the reason for the destiny of that singular being that we call man, who has been granted just enough enlightenment to see the wretchedness of his condition but not enough to change it. . . . That is the bottom, or rather, those are the bottoms which my mind would like to touch but which will always remain infinitely beyond my means of knowing the truth.

Tocqueville’s Sources

Tocqueville would have encountered the idea of natural religion in the writings of two of his masters: Montesquieu and Rousseau. As I noted in my first posting, Tocqueville wrote in a letter of October 10, 1836 that he was spending his time reading these two thinkers, along with Pascal. Although Tocqueville is unusually reticent about his sources, he specifically praises Montesquieu. See Letter to Louis Kergolay (Dec. 15, 1850), Selected Letters at 257 (speaking of the “inimitable model” created by Montesquieu’s study of the Romans). And even if the “precise character” of Rousseau’s influence on him cannot be determined, still there are “numerous and obvious affinities” between his work and his predecessor’s. Jonathan Marks, Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 156 (2005).

Indeed, the author of an extremely valuable study dedicated to exhibiting the relationships among the three thinkers has said that Montesquieu and Rousseau were Tocqueville’s “tutelary deities and household gods.” See Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect 155 (2009). See also Lucien Jaume, Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty 159-63 (Arthur Goldhammer trans. 2008) (influence of Pascal).

In surveying the thought of Montesquieu and Rousseau on natural religion, we should keep in mind that that subject was of interest to them, not only or even primarily for theological reasons, but for political ones. Both these thinkers believed that religion (and in their circumstances, that meant Christianity) was necessary or useful to government. But both believed that traditional Christianity was no longer well-suited to that purpose. For Montesquieu, the leading objection was, perhaps, that by its intolerance and tendency to violence, Christianity disrupted peaceable commercial relations. For Rousseau (who, in contrast to Montesquieu, regarded commercial activity with revulsion), Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, fractured the sovereignty of the State and thereby subverted the solidarity of its citizens. Rousseau, in other words, like the pagan moralists of antiquity, objected to the Christian Church’s central aim of “becoming a universal people, a universal race, more universal than any empire of gods or men, and subject only to Christ.” David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies 116 (2009) (discussing this argument against Christianity under the Roman Empire). For various reasons, then, both Montesquieu and Rousseau were drawn to the project of fashioning a “natural” religion that would prove serviceable to government but also be purified of the dangerous tendencies in Christianity.

In what remains of this posting, I will review Montesquieu’s thought on natural religion; my next posting will resume with a discussion of Rousseau’s views on that topic.

Montesquieu: The Persian Letters

We have seen that Montesquieu, along with Pascal and Rousseau, must be considered one of the thinkers who exercised a deep and lasting influence on Tocqueville. It should not be strange, therefore, to find important resemblances in their thinking about religion and its relation to politics. Thus, Montesquieu maintained (as Tocqueville was later to do) that religion is natural to mankind. In a late letter of May 26, 1754 to William Warburton, the Bishop of Gloucester, Montesquieu affirmed that religion “is drawn from the nature of man . . . and his inner sentiment.” See Francis Kilvert (ed.), A Selection from Unpublished Papers of William Warburton 236 (1841).

But what specific religious beliefs did Montesquieu “natural”? For Montesquieu’s answer, we may look to his famous epistolary novel, the Persian Letters (original edition 1721; J. Robert Loy trans. 1961).

The Persian Letters consists of letters exchanged among Usbek, a Persian nobleman visiting Paris, and others, including the women in his harem in Persia, the eunuchs who guard them, and Moslem holy men. The work is a lively and ironic description of French life towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV. See Michael Curtis, Orientalism and Islam 88-9 (2009). Indeed, Usbek, in relation to his harem, might be considered to be the embodiment of despotism, to which Montesquieu suggests the monarchy of Louis XIV was prone. (See Letter No. 37 (“People have often heard [the King] say, that of all the governments in the world, that of the Turks, or that of our august sultan would please him best.”)). However, Montesquieu often seems to be using Usbek as the channel for expressing opinions that he would not dare to assert openly himself. Of particular relevance here, Usbek puts forward ideas that relate closely to each of the three principal doctrines of natural religion identified above.

First, Usbek writes to his cousin Jasheed, a dervish living in the monastery at Tabriz, that he is struck by how much Christianity and Islam have in common. See Letter 35. In this Letter, Usbek outlines the basic and pervasive commonalities of these two very different faiths, apparently in the hopes that the differences in belief and practice between them can be pared away, leaving only a “natural” religion behind.

Usbek asks his cousin if he thinks that the Christians will be condemned to hell (like the Sunni Turks and the Jews), given that “they were not fortunate enough to find proper mosques in their own countries” and that God had not made Islam known to them? Usbek points out that if Jasheed were to examine the Christians’ doctrines closely, he could find there “in seed, as it were, our dogmas,” and adds that he has himself “often admired the secrets of providence, which seems . . . to have wished to prepare them all [i.e., Moslem dogmas] for a general conversation.” Moreover, Usbek observes striking and extensive similarities between Christian and Moslem habits:

Their baptism is the very image of our legal ablutions. . . . Their priests and their monks, like ours, pray seven times a day. They hope to enjoy a paradise where they will partake of a thousand delights by means of the resurrection of the body. Like ourselves, they have set aside days for fasting and mortification of the flesh, by which they hope to sway divine mercy. They offer up worship to the good angels and shun the evil ones. They possess a blessed credulity for miracles performed by God through the ministry of his servants. Like ourselves, they admit to the insufficiency of their good works and to the need they feel for an intercessor in the presence of God.

In short, Usbek exclaims, “I can see Mohammedanism everywhere, although I cannot find Mohammed here at all. Do what you will, Truth will out . . . . ” At the very least, Montesquieu is advancing an argument for religious toleration here (as he does, e.g., in Letter 60 (advantages to Christians from toleration of Jews); Letter 85 (advantages to Persians from toleration of Armenian Christians)). See Sanford Kessler, Religion & Liberalism in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, 15 Polity 380, 393 (1983); Roger B. Oake, “Montesquieu’s Religious Ideas,” 14 Journal of the History of Ideas 548, 552 (1953). But he may be intimating something even bolder: the idea that what the great monotheisms have in common counts for far more than their differences, and that insofar as those differences cause violent conflict, they should be abandoned.

Second, Montesquieu also has Usbek offer a view of morality that accords with natural religion and is indeed remarkably close to Samuel Clark’s (Letter 83):

Justice a true relationship of appropriateness which exists between two things, and this relationship is always the same, no matter by whom considered, whether it be God, or an angel, or, finally, a man.

Further, Usbek deduces from the existence of God a system of morality that, by requiring both piety to God and benevolence towards our fellow men, will also make us “better citizens” (Letter 46):

In truth, should not the first object of a religious man be to please the divinity who established the religion he professes? The best means of succeeding in this is doubtless to observe the rules of society and the duties of humanity. For under whatever religion a man lives, from the moment that a supposition of religion exists, there must also be a supposition that God loves men, since he established a religion to make them happy, and since if he loves men, men are thus assured of pleasing him by also loving them, that is, by practicing all the duties of charity and human kindness in their behalf and never violating the laws under which they live. So doing, we are much surer of pleasing God than we are by observing such and such a ceremony.

Third and finally, through another character, Rica, Montesquieu tells the tale of a Hindu widow about to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Rica explains that the point is to show the uselessness of believing in rewards or punishments after death (Letter 125):

For every religion, there has always existed the embarrassing problem of giving some idea of the pleasures awaiting those who have lived well. One can easily terrify the wicked with a long list of threatened punishments. But as for the virtuous, it is not easy to know what to promise them. It seems that it is of the very nature of pleasures to be of short duration; imagination finds it difficult to picture any others.

Weaving all these strands together, we find Montesquieu (or his fictitious characters) defending a form of natural religion. There is a benevolent God who cares for humanity. He demands piety from us for Himself and benevolence towards our fellow human beings. These obligations towards our fellows exist regardless of the (doubtful) existence of heaven or hell. Although the forms by which we worship Him may differ, those differences are inessential and should not be a cause of conflict between us. Together, these propositions seem to provide at least a first approximation to the natural religion that Tocqueville considers in Democracy.

I will resume this account of Tocqueville’s sources in my next posting.

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