Author Archives: Robert J. Delahunty

Animal Rights Trump Religious Rights

The Great Synagogue, Copenhagen

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The World Jewish Congress reported late last week that the Danish Minister of Food and Agriculture, a 38 year old Social Democrat named Dan Jorgensen, had signed a regulation effectively banning the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for food. Jorgensen explained the ban on Danish television by saying “animal rights come before religion” – or, according to another translation, “animal rights precede religious rights.”

Under the new regulation, all animal slaughter must be carried out after stunning, which is contrary to the Jewish practice of shechita, or ritual slaughter. Denmark’s Jewish community (which numbers a mere 6,000 persons) opposes the minister’s decision. The European Commissioner on Health, Tonio Borg, questioned the legality of the ban, saying that it “contradicts European law.” On the other hand, Jorgensen’s decision was acclaimed by the Animal Welfare Intergroup, of which he had been President.

If the Danish government and parliament let the decision stand, Denmark will join several other western European nations, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Poland and Switzerland in prohibiting such ritual slaughter. (Holland had attempted to ban shechita, but a Continue reading

Tocqueville and Gobineau

It is fitting to end this series with a study of the exchanges between GobineauTocqueville and his younger friend and assistant, Arthur de Gobineau. For if Tocqueville was the explorer of the new age of democracy, Gobineau was the herald of a return to an age of aristocracy, if in an untraditional and modernized form.

Though little remembered now, Gobineau was a prolific and assiduous writer, known chiefly for his defense of racism, the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-55) (“Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races”). Eleven years younger than Tocqueville and, like him, the Essaiscion of a noble family (if a lesser one), Gobineau was probably introduced to Tocqueville by royalist friends of both. Whether or not they had met previously, the two men began a correspondence in 1843. The exchange resulted from an invitation the Académie des sciences morales et politiques had extended to Tocqueville in that year, to prepare a study on modern moral doctrines in order to establish what, if anything, was novel in them. Tocqueville sought to enlist the young Gobineau’s assistance in the project. The ensuing correspondence took, for Tocqueville, a surprising turn, as he found his deepest beliefs about the relationship of Christianity to modern society sharply challenged. Tocqueville abandoned the study in 1848, probably owing to the revolution of that year.

A second major round of correspondence took place beginning about a decade later, around the time of the appearance of Gobineau’s book on racial inequality. This new, illiberal orientation in Gobineau’s thought deeply disturbed Tocqueville, who told Gobineau frankly that he objected to its “fatalism” and its “materialism.” To other correspondents, Tocqueville complained that Gobineau’s “stud farm philosophy” expounded “dangerous thoughts . . . in a journalistic style.” See Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 129 (Beth Raps trans. 1998). For his part, Gobineau exulted that the book had “struck the nerve of liberal ideas at its core.” Id.

Despite their basic differences, Tocqueville befriended Gobineau, launching him on a diplomatic career when Tocqueville became France’s Foreign Minister in 1849. Gobineau did not repay Tocqueville’s kindness: in his 1874 novel Les Pléiades, his used the character of Genevilliers to mock and satirize his benefactor. Mélonio at 128-30.

The interest and importance of the Tocqueville-Gobineau correspondence has been rightly emphasized by several scholars. See especially Aristide Tessitore, “Tocqueville and Gobineau on the Nature of Modern Politics,” 67 Review of Politics 631 (2005); see also Christian Bégin, “Tocqueville et la fracture religieuse,” 32 The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville 167 (2011); Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville 96-106; 126-30 (1994); William A. Galston, “Tocqueville on Liberalism and Religion,” 54 Social Research 499 (1987). The historian John Lukacs has edited and translated most – though unfortunately not all – of the correspondence, and I shall use this translation. Alexis de Tocqueville, “The European Revolution” & Correspondence with Gobineau (John Lukacs ed. & trans. 1968).

The ultimate issues

The confrontation between Tocqueville and Gobineau was played out on at least two levels.

First, as of 1843, Gobineau “might best be described as a radical partisan of the Enlightenment project.” Tessitore at 632. Throughout his career, however, Tocqueville had argued that modern Western society was indebted to both the Enlightenment and Christianity, that the central doctrines of both movements were compatible, and that the tension between them was fruitful and beneficent, each correcting the flaws and excesses of the other. See id. at 639; 652; Galston at 502-04. The core principles of the Enlightenment, such as “the natural equality of men,” were also part of the patrimony of Christianity. See Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the Revolution 21 (Bevan trans. 2008).

For Gobineau, the Enlightenment marks a revolutionary transformation in the West, ushering in a post-Christian era in which morality has come to rest on a wholly naturalistic foundation. See Tessitore at 641. For Tocqueville, by contrast, the coming of Christianity is the only true revolution that the West has yet seen, or may ever see. (The same thesis has been defended at length, but without reference to Tocqueville, in David Bentley Hart’s brilliant Atheist Delusions, cited earlier in this series.). There is, indeed, a radical discontinuity in the dominant ethos of the West; but this is the rupture between classical antiquity and the rise of Christianity, not between the Christian ages and the aftermath of the Enlightenment. True, the morality of the nineteenth century differs significantly from that of the pre-Enlightenment period, notably with regard to the importance of political action and the recognition of life’s material needs. But these changes, Tocqueville insists, merely reflect the development of Christian morality over long stretches of time and its adaptation to new circumstances. They do not constitute evidence of the dominance of a radically de-christianized ethos. See Tessitore at 636; 644-45; 648; Galston at 505-08.

Second, Gobineau’s view of modern morality in the early 1840s laid the foundation for his later teaching about human inequality.

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Tocqueville and Habermas

After their decisive victory over a larger Austrian force in the Battle of Leuthen (1757), the soldiers of the Prussian Army broke out spontaneously in the great Lutheran hymn, Nun danket alle Gott – “Now thank we all our God.” The Prussian King, Frederick the Great, listened in astonishment. A free thinker, friend of Voltaire, and a “benevolent” Enlightenment despot, the Great King exclaimed: Mein Gott! Welche Kraft hat die Religion – “My God! How much power religion has!”

Jűrgen Habermas

Another German free thinker and heir to the Enlightenment seems recentlyHabermas to have made a similarly startling discovery. I refer to the widely renowned German philosopher and public intellectual Jűrgen Habermas. For much of his career, Habermas identified himself as a staunch defender of Enlightenment rationality, the anointed successor of Immanuel Kant. His account of liberal, democratic constitutionalism assumed only secular foundations, and deliberately excluded any reference to the authority of religion. But in recent years, Habermas has veered away from that course; his stance toward religion has changed. First, he has come to accept that religion, even in the West, is not going away – at least not soon. Second, he is prepared, albeit tentatively, to recognize a role for religion to play in public, political discourse. Indeed, he even entertains the thought that “philosophy,” or secular reason, will engage in a colloquy with “theology” and revealed religion.

Reflecting this change of heart, Habermas, as guest of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, engaged then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in debate in Munich in 2004. Habermas’ address has been published as “Prepolitical Foundations of the Constitutional State?” in Jűrgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2012). Subsequently, in 2007, Habermas debated four Jesuit theologians, again in Munich, in 2007. His remarks on this occasion have been published as Jűrgen Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Ciaran Cronin trans. 2010). In a short, penetrating essay entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing” (New York Times, April 12, 2010), the distinguished literary theorist, public intellectual and deconstructionist Stanley Fish reviewed and criticized Habermas’ position in these debates.

Habermas’ later thoughts on religion and politics are relevant to this series for several reasons. First, it is interesting and instructive to compare the ideas of this early twenty-first century thinker with those of de Tocqueville. Tendencies in modern, democratic society whose first stirrings Tocqueville discerned have had almost two intervening centuries in which to work themselves out. In particular, secularization has become far more pervasive. But second and no less important, Habermas’ thinking sheds light on the question raised in my last posting: whether democracy can survive and flourish, despite the perceptible deepening and entrenchment of social and economic inequalities, if Western society is radically de-christianized? The bare fact that a thinker of Habermas’ repute considered it timely and important to raise the question of “prepolitical,” religious foundations for the liberal-democratic, “constitutional” State suggests that there may, indeed, be a possible need here that only religion can serve. Moreover, Tocqueville himself gave attention to the question that Habermas poses, albeit in a less systematic and focused way.

There is, I believe, a particular point of contact between Habermas and Tocqueville in the latter’s correspondence with his friend and assistant Arthur de Gobineau (whom we have briefly encountered earlier in this series). In that correspondence, Tocqueville comes closest to giving us his answer to the question whether modern Western democracy presupposes Christianity. That correspondence will be the centerpiece of my next and final posting.

Habermas on the prepolitical foundations of the constitutional State

A longstanding project of Habermas has been to provide a nonreligious, “post-metaphysical” justification of the normative foundations of constitutional democracy. He finds this type of justification in “political liberalism,” more especially in the form of “Kantian republicanism.” Prepolitical Foundations at 102. While acknowledging antecedents in Christian theology, Habermas insists that “the form of state power that remains neutral toward different worldviews ultimately derives from the profane sources of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy.” Id. Unlike Tocqueville, then, who sees the normative foundations of political liberalism as rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment thought, Habermas locates those foundations solely, or at least primarily, in the Enlightenment. (Habermas’ resistance to giving full recognition to Christianity’s historic role in shaping the modern liberal-democratic State recalls the long debate over whether the Preamble of the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe should include a reference to God or Christianity. In the end, it did not. See Srdjan Cvijic and Lorenzo Zucca, Does the European Constitution need Christian Values?, 24 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 739 (2004) (discussing J.H.H. Weiler, Un’ Europa Cristiana: un saggio explorativo (2002))).

The core of Habermas’ justificatory strategy is to base the legitimacy of the decision-making of the liberal, democratic state on an open, inclusive process of public communication, argument and reflection in which citizens engage on equal terms.

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Tocqueville’s America and Ours

The County Election (1852)

The “democracy” that Tocqueville observed in the United States was a pervasive social condition, not simply a matter of political or legal equality. Indeed, he opened Democracy in America by saying that “[o]f all the novel things which attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcibly than the equality of social conditions.” The “extraordinary influence” of “this fundamental fact” shaped both “civil society” and “political customs and laws.” Democracy at 11.

Tocqueville is sometimes misrepresented as opposing liberty to equality. The fact is that he was a partisan of both. In the chapter immediately succeeding his analysis of soft despotism (which he called a “Continuation” of the latter), he says unequivocally that “all those who now wish to found or guarantee the independence and dignity of their fellows should show themselves friends of equality.” Preventing democracy from slipping into despotism is a question, he says, of “drawing freedom from within the democracy in which God has placed us.” Id. at 809. True, he acknowledges that “[e]quality introduces into men’s minds several tendencies which are a danger to liberty.” Id. at 813. But he holds the “firm belief” that “the dangers imposed by the principle of equality upon human independence” are “not insurmountable.” Id. at 817. Inequality, no less than equality, may pose a danger to liberty in a democracy.

Democracy and social equality

Tocqueville observed social equality everywhere in America. In a short section of Volume I of Democracy entitled “Remains of the Aristocratic Party in the United States” (Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 2), Tocqueville invites his readers to consider the situation of “the wealthy man,” “this opulent citizen.” “Within the four walls of his house he adores luxury; he invites only a few chosen guests.” But in public, “[h]is clothes are simple and his demeanor is modest.” When “he emerges from home to make his way to work . . . everyone is free to accost him. On the way, his shoemaker might pass by and they stop; both then begin to chat. What can they say? These two citizens are concerned with affairs of state and will not part without shaking hands.” True, the rich feel “a deep distaste” for their country’s democratic institutions, and “both fear and despise” the people. But they bow before the force of democratic social conventions. Democracy at 208-09.

Elsewhere Tocqueville describes the manner of Americans towards one another as “natural, open, and unreserved.” “In America, where privileges of birth have never existed and where wealth grants no particular right to its owner, strangers readily congregate in the same places and find neither danger nor advantage in telling each other freely what they think . . . . [T]here is practically nothing that they expect or fear from each other and they make no more effort to reveal than to conceal their social position.” Id. at 656.

Fishtown and Belmont

It would be unrealistic to think of America in such terms nowadays. Consider Charles Murray’s recent work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). Murray argues that America is “coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class” (id. at 12). The white working class, he contends, has become estranged from the nation’s “founding virtues” of “industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” (id. at 131). Basing his Continue reading

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part II

Tocqueville thinks that democracy tends toward a metaphysics of pantheism, and urges noble natures living in a democracy to resist that tendency fiercely. Pantheism is suited to democracy because it captures democracy’s ambivalences. Pantheism both deifies and trivializes the human person. It equates the individual ego with the universe, but also shrinks the ego to an infinitesimal point. It exalts individuality, but also merges it into the totality of things. Pantheism liberates by announcing that the realm of possibility is unlimited, but oppresses by subjecting all things to necessity. It denies original sin, thus opening endless vistas for human action, but it also denies human agency, thus making action impossible.

Perhaps that is why Tocqueville followed his chapter on pantheism with another short chapter entitled “How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Perfectibility of Man” (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. I, ch. 8) (Bevan trans.). If man is at least latently divine, why should he not strive fully to realize that divinity — that is, to perfect himself? If original sin does not foredoom our pursuit of perfection to failure, then why not pursue perfection in earnest? Only aristocratic societies believe that the human situation is inherently tragic and that human history cannot finally be transcended. Democratic societies believe on the contrary that “man can improve throughout all time” and that human history reaches “the end of the long path human beings have to tread.” Democracy at 523.

Tocqueville recounts that he asked an American sailor “why his country’s vessels are constructed to last for so short a time.” The sailor answered unhesitatingly that “the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life for more than a few years.” From this casual remark, Tocqueville “glimpse[d] the general and systematic idea by which a great nation directs its every action.” Id.

As often in Tocqueville, the same cause is held to produce contrary effects. As we saw in the last posting, pantheism produces the beliefs that human individuals are mere ripples on the surface of an infinite ocean, that human action is without lasting consequences, and that the proper attitude to nature is to disturb its eternal order as little as possible. But pantheism also produces the belief that nature is endlessly malleable in our hands, that we should ceaselessly remake and exploit it to serve human ends, and that humanity itself can and should be refashioned to overcome the limits that nature appears to have set for it. In our world, technological rationality in the form of genetic engineering, the continuous effort to modify and improve crops, animals and human embryos, and the search for a cure, not merely for disease, but also for death, are as much a consequence of pantheism as the deep ecology movement is.

In his chapter on pantheism, Tocqueville tells us that he “later” describe how that metaphysical system has “a parallel in politics.” Democracy at 520. We shall soon consider that political parallel, which is democratic “despotism.” But first, let us consider a possible source of, or influence on, Tocqueville’s view of pantheism.

Henri Louis Charles Maret

Henri Louis Charles Maret was a Catholic priest (later bishop) and theologian, born in 1805 (also the year of Tocqueville’s birth). He became a Professor on the Theology faculty at the Sorbonne in 1841, and Dean of that faculty in 1853. He was associated with French liberal Catholics, most importantly the Abbé Hugues Félicité de Lammenais and the circle of like-minded Catholics involved Continue reading

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part I

We have seen that Tocqueville believes that the dominant American faith, Ralph Waldo EmersonProtestantism, will tend to decompose. The process of dissolution will occur in two phases. In the first, Protestantism (or more accurately, Calvinism) will tend to become a form of natural religion, such as he believed he had encountered in Unitarianism. This movement will take place chiefly among American élites; working class American Protestants, he believes, will be increasingly drawn to Catholicism. In the second phase, Unitarianism or natural religion will itself tend to become what he calls “pantheism.” These movements are traced out, albeit in very summary and schematic form, in Vol. II, Pt. I, chh. 6-7 of Democracy in America, dealing, respectively, with Catholicism and pantheism. In a powerful and illuminating study, Peter Lawlor has described these as two of the “least studied and strangest chapters” of Democracy in America. See Peter Augustine Lawlor, Tocqueville on Pantheism, Materialism, and Catholicism, 30 Perspectives on Political Science 218 (2001).

Tocqueville’s notions may seem very wayward and idiosyncratic to us. After Walt Whitmanall, contemporary America is neither predominantly Catholic nor predominantly pantheistic. Nonetheless, when examined more closely, Tocqueville’s analysis is full of interest and even, remarkably, of current applicability.

The “decline” of Protestantism

Since the 1960s, there has been vigorous and ongoing debate over whether American Protestantism – or at any rate “mainstream” Protestantism – is dead or dying. See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The end of American Protestantism (July 2, 2013), available at Equally, the question whether American Catholicism has become, or is becoming, a form of Protestantism also provokes current controversy. (Tocqueville himself had noted the tendency of American Catholicism to be less dogmatic and less ritualized than French Catholicism.) Neither of these interesting issues can detain us here. What is more relevant to our purpose is why Tocqueville should have thought that Protestantism would decline, and whether the evidence from the period in which he wrote might have supported the prediction that it would turn into something radically different from traditional Christianity.


Tocqueville could certainly have derived his thesis from reading the work of the great eighteenth century French Catholic theologian, historian and apologist, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux and the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest child, the Dauphin of France. Probably the greatest work by the prolific Bossuet was his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688; English trans. 1836). Bossuet’s History is a massively learned account of what the author sees as the steady fragmentation of the main branches of Protestantism into different and discordant sects. We know that Tocqueville had studied this work. In his letter of November 15, 1835 to Gustave Beaumont, he says that after finishing reading Machiavelli’s History of Florence, I turned to Bossuet’s Variations. Finding the “distance” between Machiavelli and Bossuet “great,” he writes that “I had never looked at [the Variations] so closely, and I cannot tell you how much I admired its content, and even more perhaps, its form. It is truly a magnificent and powerful arrangement.” Selected Letters 112. In thinking that Protestantism was bound to disintegrate, Tocqueville was very possibly adopting, if quietly, the polemical case that Bossuet had made for that proposition.

Tocqueville seems to have drawn on Bossuet in the places in Democracy in America in which he connects the growth of democracy with Divine Providence. For instance, in Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 17 of Democracy, entitled “A Few Sources of Poetry in Democratic Nations,” he writes that in egalitarian ages, as “each man . . . begins to perceive humanity itself, God reveals himself more and more to the human mind in his full and complete majesty . . . Observing the human race as a single entity, men find it easy to imagine that the same plan rules its destiny and they are inclined to perceive, in the actions of any individual, the trace of that universal and consistent design by which God guides our race.” Bevan trans. 563-64. Likewise, in his Introduction to Part I, Tocqueville speaks of the “gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions” as “a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics: it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.” Id. at 15. In such passages, Tocqueville is echoing another of Bossuet’s works, the Discourse on Universal History (1681), which he had also read. (For a fuller treatment of providentialism in Democracy, which downplays the influence of Bossuet, see David A. Selby, Tocqueville’s politics of providence: Pascal, Jansenism and the author’s introduction to Democracy in America, 33 The Tocqueville Review 167 (2012)).


It is also possible that Tocqueville formulated his thesis about Protestantism on the basis of reading Rousseau. After the publication of The Vicar of Savoy (on which see posting Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II), Rousseau was compelled to defend his views against the Protestant authorities of his native city of Geneva, who accused him of undermining the Reformed religion. Rousseau defended himself in a series of lengthy pieces called Letters Written from the Mountain (1764). In the second of these Letters, Rousseau identifies what he considers to be the “two fundamental points of the Reform,” and contends that his writings fully comply with both. Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 154. These two core principles are “to acknowledge the Bible as the rule of one’s belief, and not to admit any other interpreter of the Bible than oneself.” Id. To this he adds: “Combined, these two points form the principle on which the Reformed Christians separated from the Roman Church, and they could not do any less without falling into contradiction; for what interpretive authority could they have reserved to themselves, after having rejected that of the body of the Church?” Id.

To make the Bible the sole rule for deciding questions of faith and practice appears to be adopting a common standard of truth that transcends any individual opinion; but to take the principle of private judgment to mean that each believer is the final judge for himself or herself of the Bible’s meaning is to abandon the idea of a common authority.

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Tocqueville on Unitarianism

In the last two postings in this series, we considered Tocqueville’s thinking onWilliam Ellery Channing natural religion, especially in light of the views on that subject of two of his masters, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Like those two earlier thinkers, Tocqueville is interested in natural religion, not only for theological reasons, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for political ones. All three thinkers shared the view that religion is necessary or useful to government. And since Christianity was (and is) historically the dominant religion in the West, all three recognized that if any religion were to serve that purpose in Western societies, it would necessarily be Christianity. But Rousseau, at least, thought that Christianity, especially in the form of Roman Catholicism, was also potentially highly disruptive to society.Alexis de Tocqueville Rousseau, therefore, seems to have advocated “natural religion” – which he regarded as a purified form of Christianity – as an alternative to the traditional forms of that religion. Natural religion, as Rousseau conceived it, would offer the State the essential benefits of traditional Christianity: it would, e.g., function to integrate and bind the citizens together in a cohesive social union, and it would fashion their characters and inculcate virtuous habits in civically desirable ways. At the same time, Rousseau thought that natural religion would not have the destructive tendencies of traditional, revealed Christianity, among them that of teaching us to love our fellow humans as much as our fellow citizens. Rousseau may have thought that his natural religion was a particularly apt form of belief for democratic states, because its starting points were simple, common ideas that were accessible to people of ordinary intelligence and because its dogmatic teachings were few, undemanding, and generally accepted.

Tocqueville was far more uncertain that mere natural religion will suffice to serve the needs of a democracy. Thus, his position is different from that of Rousseau. True, as we saw in Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I, Tocqueville may be saying, in the chapter of Democracy in America entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” that democratic statesmen will do well enough for democracy if they succeed in maintaining in the general population a bare belief in the soul’s survival of the body’s death. But surely Tocqueville realized that that is an unstable position – a kind of half-way house between traditional, dogmatic Christianity and outright unbelief. Belief in the immortality of the soul at least has the sanction of long tradition and seems to answer to a deep human need; belief that the soul dies with the body is encouraged by the testimony of the senses and has the warrant of materialist philosophers going back to Lucretius. But what credible reason is there to think that the soul has a shadowy existence for a period after the body’s death, only to flicker out indefinitely later? And even if one could find a reason to credit such a belief, how effective would it be in motivating the kind of attitudes and conduct necessary for a vital democracy?

Thus, I am reluctant to think that Tocqueville’s considered view is that natural religion alone provides truly satisfactory and durable support for democracy. The better interpretation, as I shall try below to show, is that he thinks that democracy requires – or, at least, is better served by – a more traditional, revealed religion.

But if that interpretation is right, then Tocqueville would have had cause to question the long-term health and stability of American democracy. For, as we saw at the conclusion of the last post, he believes that Protestantism in America will tend to collapse into mere natural religion. See his Letter to de Chabrol (October 26, 1831). If natural religion is at best a weak and undependable safeguard for democracy, then the future of democracy, in a Protestant society like America, must be clouded.

The June 29, 1831 Letter to Kergolay

Tocqueville gives expression to these thoughts in a long and fascinating letter of June 29, 1831 to his intimate friend Louis de Kergolay. See Selected Letters 45 et seq. Plainly Tocqueville is extemporizing in this letter: it was written in two stages, and Tocqueville tells Kergolay at the start of the second stage that he writes “without knowing just what I am going to say to you.” Nonetheless the tumultuous flood of ideas in this letter reveals much about Tocqueville’s deeper thinking.

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Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II

Rousseau: “The Savoyard Vicar”

In my last post, I introduced the subject of Tocqueville’s views on natural religion. As we shall see, Tocqueville believed that Protestantism had an inherent tendency to collapse into natural religion, and indeed that its transmutation into something very distinct from traditional Christianity might not cease there. Because of Tocqueville’s insistence on the importance of religion to American democracy, the transformation or decline of American Protestantism would be, from his perspective, a momentous development.

One of the main sources of Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion, I argued last time, was likely to have been Montesquieu. We reviewed Montesquieu’s thought on that subject in his epistolary novel, The Persian Letters. A second likely influence on Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion is Rousseau’s Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar (1783), which forms a section of Rousseau’s novel, Emile.

Although Tocqueville is silent on the matter, I believe that the Savoyard Vicar exercised a lasting and extensive influence on Tocqueville’s thinking, and I would even conjecture that reading this very work precipitated the shattering crisis of belief that Tocqueville underwent in his father’s library in Metz when he was sixteen.

The Savoyard Vicar is a complex and many-layered work, and I cannot pretend to do anything like full justice to it here. Its complexity stems, in part, from the ambiguity of Rousseau’s intentions in writing it. Although Rousseau’s critics, then and later, found nothing, or almost nothing, of Christian doctrine or sentiment in it, Rousseau himself contended vehemently that the work to provide a more secure foundation for revealed religion, above all Protestantism, that would make it more attractive to his contemporaries. See Robert Derathe, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau et le Christianisme,” in 53 Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 375, 381-85, 410-14 (1948). (As noted in my last post, Rousseau’s hostility towards Roman Catholicism was unremitting.) Furthermore, the work can be read both to extend the Enlightenment’s scathing critique of Christianity and at the same time to point towards a post-Enlightenment return to Christianity. See Arthur M. Melzer, “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity,” 90 American Political Science Review 344 (1996).

The Savoyard Vicar consists chiefly in a lengthy discourse delivered by a Catholic priest (the Vicar) to a young man identified in the story as Rousseau himself in his twenties. The discourse is divided into two parts of unequal length, marked by a short intervention by the young Rousseau. In the first and longer discourse, the Vicar discusses natural religion; the second and shorter speech concerns revealed religion. Rousseau later explained that the “more important” first part was “intended to combat modern materialism, to establish the existence of God and natural religion” and “contains what is truly essential to Religion,” while the second part “raises doubts and difficulties about revelation in general” and is designed to make believers “more circumspect.” J.-J. Rousseau, Letter to Christophe Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris (1763), in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 75 (Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace eds. 2001). In the break between the two parts, the young Rousseau exclaims that during the Vicar’s speech, “I imagined myself attending to the divine Orpheus singing his hymns and teaching mankind the worship of the g Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Tocqueville on materialism

In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.

The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.

Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be[] satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.

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