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 correspondence.  (For older, but still useful, accounts, compare Dorothy S. Goldstein, The Religious Beliefs of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1 French Hist. Stud. 379 (1960) with John Lukacs, Comment on Tocqueville Article, 2 French Hist. Stud. 123 (1961)).

Tocqueville had been brought up in an aristocratic, Catholic French family under the tutelage of a kindly priest, the Abbé Lesueur, to whom he remained deeply attached.  “I have prayed to him as a saint,” Tocqueville wrote after Lesueur’s death. See Goldstein at 380.  Even as late as 1856, he described him fondly as “a saint, and a kind saint, which is not always to be encountered.”  Letter to Jeanne-Rachel de Cordoŭe, Countess de Mandat-Grancey (December 28, 1856), Selected Letters at 340.  But Tocqueville underwent a shattering deconversion experience in July 1821, at the age of sixteen.  The crisis (which Tocqueville later compared to an earthquake) was brought on by the reading that the young Alexis did in his father’s library in Metz.  (A recent biographer conjectures that Tocqueville’s reading of Voltaire and Rousseau shattered his early faith.  See André Jardin, Tocqueville:  A Biography 62 (Lydia Davis trans. 1988)).

Tocqueville seems never to have recovered fully from that trauma.  He returned to it a letter written on February 26, 1857 – about two years before his death – to Mme. Sophie Swetchine, a Russian lady and convert to Catholicism with whom Tocqueville formed a close friendship.  On this occasion, Tocqueville wrote to Mme. Swetchine with an openness and intimacy regarding his personal faith that is unparalleled in his surviving correspondence.  He says that the incident in Metz left him “seized with the blackest depression, taken by an extreme disgust for life without having experienced it, . . . as if overwhelmed by trouble and terror at the road I had still to travel in the world.”   Even now, he tells Swetchine, “[t]he problem of human existence constantly preoccupies me and constantly overwhelms me.  I can neither penetrate this mystery nor detach my eyes from it.  In this world I find human existence inexplicable and in the other world frightening.”  Although he believes both in God and an afterlife, “everything beyond the bounds of this world seems to me surrounded by shadows which terrify me.”  (Quoted in Joseph Epstein, Alexis De Tocqueville:  Democracy’s Guide 192 (2006)).

What Sort of Catholic?

If his serene childhood faith had been destroyed, Tocqueville remained under its lasting, indelible influence.  To the extent that he found himself unable to be a faithful Catholic, he regretted it.  He wrote to Kergolay on June 25, 1834 that when he encountered a truly religious person, he “avidly desired to end up thinking and feeling the same way, with the evidence that that is impossible for me.”  (Goldstein at 383).  Certainly his view of life was saturated with Christian, even Jansenist, feeling.  In a letter of October 22, 1831 to his friend Charles Stoffels, he insists that life is a serious business, a “charge”:

Life is therefore neither an excellent nor a very bad thing, but . . . a mediocre thing partaking of both.  One must neither expect too much from it, nor fear too much, but attempt to see it as it is, without disgust or enthusiasm, like an inevitable fact . . . . Life is neither a pleasure nor a sorrow; it is a serious affair with which we are charged, and toward which our duty is to acquit ourselves as well as possible.  (Selected Letters at 63).   

And in a late letter (January 24, 1857) to his secretary, Count Arthur de Gobineau (now best known for his Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853/55), a defense of Aryan supremacy), Tocqueville depicted – in what may well be a subtle form of self-description – a certain character type:

I believed you to be one of those people, as there are and always will be so many of them, even in centuries of faith, who are full of veneration and a sort of filial tenderness for the Christian religion, without unfortunately being for all that absolutely convinced Christians.  In that state of soul, a person does not believe himself to be performing an act of hypocrisy in evidencing all sorts of respect for a religion that is so beneficial and holy (taking this word at least in the sense of one of the great instruments of morality and civilization with which God has ever been served).  (Selected Letters at 142-43).

Against the weight of the correspondence, we must set Tocqueville’s consistent conduct of life.  As summarized by John Lukacs, we must consider the facts that:

Tocqueville was born a Catholic, that he married in the church, that his English wife became a convert, that he was known and seen attending Mass, that he was cared for by nuns, visited by the parish priest, took the last Sacraments, and was buried in the parish churchyard.  (Lukacs at 123).

Further, asks Lukacs, if Tocqueville was not a Catholic, what was he?  “He was not an atheist, not an agnostic, not a deist, and – most important – not even a liberal Catholic. . . . Tocqueville was a Catholic with an aristocratic, Jansenist, Pascalian bent.”  (Id. at 123 n.*).

Powerful as Lukacs’ arguments are, I find them finally unconvincing.  The better view seems to me to be that of Tocqueville’s biographer André Jardin.  Jardin writes:

Religious skepticism was the most private of his contradictions.  He disguised it as best he could.  His wife did not know of it.  At [the village of] Tocqueville, he attended mass and vespers. . . . He had declared once and for all that not every man had the means to resolve the metaphysical problem on his own, but this dimension could not easily be eliminated from the outlook of an intellectual of the romantic era.  In his American journal, he spoke of doubt as one of the three great evils, along with illness and death, and he would confide his qualms to no one but Madame Swetchine, who seemed to him “saintliness and genius combined.”  (Jardin at 384).

Tocqueville, in other words, was neither a religious hypocrite nor (altogether) a religious believer.  He lived by Christianity; practiced it; sympathized with it; was convinced of its centrality and indispensability in human life; considered it superior to all other faiths; accepted its most basic doctrines; but remained inwardly skeptical of its metaphysical teachings.   Was he attempting to live out Pascal’s wager, hoping that “by acting as if [he] believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” he would “naturally” be led to believe?  See Blaise Pascal, Pensées and The Provincial Letters 83 (W.P. Trotter trans. 1941)?  He might be said to have longed for Christian faith rather than securely possessing it.

Tocqueville’s Religion and America’s

If this understanding is correct, it is interesting to ponder the similarities (and dissimilarities) between Tocqueville’s own belief system and the religious sentiments of the Americans, as he perceived them.  The Americans, he says, practice religion, believe in its utility for society, but are often unconcerned with or indifferent to questions of dogma.  See “Indirect Influence of Religious Beliefs Upon American Political Society,”in Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, 340, 341, 342, 343 (Gerald E. Bevan trans. 2003) (“One may suppose that a certain number of Americans follow their habits rather than their firm beliefs when they worship God.  Besides, in the United States, the sovereign authority is religious and consequently hypocrisy must be common. . . .Among Anglo-Americans there are some who profess Christian dogmas out of belief, others because they are afraid they might appear to lack belief.  So Christianity reigns without obstacles by universal consent. . . .  I do not know whether all Americans put faith in their religion, for who can read men’s hearts?  But I am sure they believe it necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions. . . .  You will be mistaken if you think that these [Christian missionaries to the West] are acting solely with an eye for the afterlife; eternity is only one of their concerns.”).   Or as he put it bluntly in a private letter to Kergolay, in the United States “[p]eople follow a religion the way our fathers took a medicine in the month of May – if it does not do any good, people seem to say, at least it cannot do any harm, and besides, it is proper to conform to the general rule.” Letter to Louis de Kergolay, June 29, 1831, Selected Letters at 49.   In this depiction of American religiosity, may we see a projection of his own religious attitudes in a vastly cruder, simpler and demoticized form?

My next post will concern Tocqueville’s appraisal of Machiavelli’s views of religion.

[Editor: see Professor Delahunty’s posts on Tocqueville and Machiavellianism and Tocqueville and the Limits of the Political Imagination.]

Back to the Center for Law and Religion Forum.

4 responses

  1. Well, Dr.Delahunty, how many saints had dark doubts? See Blessed Theresa Calcutta or St. Theresa D’Avila for instance. Should Catholics never have faith doubts?

  2. I have to admit, even as a devout Catholic, the guy just sounds amenably honest. Wouldn’t agree with taking Pascal’s approach too seriously, but you can’t argue that doubt plays a role in everyone’s life.

  3. Does Mssr. Delahunty understand Pascalian Christianity? Since doubt plays a central role in Pascal’s spirituality, the evidence here suggests that the author misunderstands Tocqueville at a fundamental level. Lukacs has the advantage here. One might argue for “optionality” (a la Charles Taylor) but the argument for “deconversion” is really very weak against better explanations.

  4. The commentators here have it wrong, and Delahunty, right. Tocqueville, at least between age 16 and right up to his death, was only a Catholic in a technical sense (i.e. he had been baptized). He never received the Eucharist during that time period, nor confession, nor did he even believe in the Nicene Creed. Commentators here are also misrepresenting Pascal – the latter actually insisted the you actually believe, even while you of course might have doubts: Tocqueville simply had the doubts. In essence, those like Lukacs (whom I greatly admire, by the way) who are somehow able to see Tocqueville as a Christian are truly inflating that word, to the extent that it becomes essentially meaningless.

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