Tocqueville’s Faith

To begin with, I would like to express my gratitude to Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian for inviting me to write this month for the Center for Law and Religion Forum.

What I propose to do over the course of the month is to post a series of short essays dealing with the great French nineteenth century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville.  Specifically, I shall aim to discuss a set of questions arising from his work that concern the relationships between Church and State in the United States and France.  These are well-studied subjects, to be sure. But I hope to have some new things to say.   Moreover, although my primary interest here will be historical and exegetical, I will also consider the application of Tocqueville’s ideas to contemporary matters.

I need hardly stress that Tocqueville remains a thinker of lasting influence and importance.  He plays a prominent role, e.g., in the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s recent book, The Great Degeneration:  How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (2013).  Other significant works on contemporary society and culture bear the impress of Tocqueville’s thought, including Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001) and Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life (original edition 1985) by Robert N. Bellah (whose death Mark Movsesian noted in this forum this week) and Bellah’s associates.   (Indeed, the title of the last of these books encapsulates a phrase of Tocqueville’s.)   But however valuable Tocqueville remains as a student of culture and society, his thinking pivots on religion and its varied relationships to political regimes.  He was, he wrote, “convinced . . . that man’s true grandeur lies only in the harmony of the liberal sentiment and religious sentiment, both working simultaneously to animate and restrain souls,” and he noted that he had worked “for thirty years . . . to bring about this harmony.”  (Letter to Claude-François de Corcelle, September 17, 1853, in Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society 295 (Roger Boesche (ed.) 1985)).   The power, depth and complexity of Tocqueville’s analyses of the relationships between the “liberal” and the “religious” sentiments repay close and repeated study.

Tocqueville was the intellectual heir to both the Enlightenment and Christianity.  In a sense, his entire work can be understood as a dialogue between these two traditions in his mind.  In a letter of October 10, 1836 to his life-long friend Count Louis de Kergolay, he writes that he is passing part of each day reading “three men, Pascal, Montesquieu and Rousseau.”   The choice of these three writers is revealing:  Tocqueville’s interest in Pascal reflects the Christian (and Jansenist) side of his mind; Rousseau and Montesquieu speak for the Enlightenment side.  No less revealing is the fact that Tocqueville does not name any figures from the radical French Enlightenment, such as Diderot or D’Holbach.  He appears to have had little acquaintance with or interest in their ideas.  Rather, he turns to Montesquieu, the leading figure in the moderate Enlightenment, and Rousseau who, though a revolutionary figure, can be considered to represent the counter-Enlightenment.  (For the distinction between “radical” and moderate” Enlightenments, see Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind:  Radical Enlightenment and the Origins of Modern Democracy (2011)).

Tocqueville’s Deconversion

Before turning to the particular questions that will concern us in later posts, it will be useful to consider Tocqueville’s personal religious beliefs.  These rarely appear in his published works.  But we can infer them from his manner of living and from his extensive Read more

Martin Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” (Luther Helfferich (ed.))

Next month, Hackett will publish a new edition of Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian, edited by Tryntje Helfferich luther_freedom_165x260_5th(Ohio State University). The publisher’s description follows.

In addition to the first-ever English translation of Martin Luther’s own German text, this edition offers: a substantial introduction to Luther’s life and work; a selection of related documents designed to help students set this masterpiece of Reformation thought into its historical and theological contexts; and thorough annotation identifying the many Biblical and historical references found in the text. Reproductions of several contemporary woodblock prints are also included.

Wijeyeratne, “Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka”

This September, Routledge will publish Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism 9780415462662in Sri Lanka, by Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne (Griffith University, Australia). The publisher’s description follows.

Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka offers a new perspective on contemporary debates about Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. In this book de Silva Wijeyeratne argues forcefully that ‘Sinhalese Buddhism’ in the period prior to its engagement with the British colonial State signified a relatively unbounded (although at times boundary forming) set of practices that facilitated both the inclusion and exclusion of non-‘Buddhist’ concepts and people within a particular cosmological frame. Juxtaposing the premodern against the backdrop of colonial modernity, de Silva Wijeyeratne tells us that in contrast modern ‘Sinhalese Buddhism/nationalism’ is a much more reified and bounded concept, one imagined through a 19th century epistemology whose purpose was not so much inclusion, but a much more radical exclusion of non-‘Buddhist’ ideas and people.

In this insightful analysis modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, then, emerges through the conjunction of discourse, power and knowledge at a distinct moment in the trajectory of the colonial State. An intrinsic feature of this modernist moment is that premodern categories (such as the cosmic order) were subject to a bureaucratic re-valuation that generated profound consequences for State-society relations and the wider constitutional/legal imaginary. This book goes onto explore how key constitutional and nation-building moments were framed within the cultural milieu of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism – a nationalism that reveals the power of a re-valued Buddhist cosmic order to still inform the present.

Given the intensification of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist project following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, this book is of interest to scholars of nationalism, South Asian studies, the anthropology of ritual, and comparative legal history.