In my last post, I discussed Tocqueville’s personal religious opinions. Here I extend that discussion by considering his relationship to Machiavellianism.
Few theorists have emphasized the usefulness of religious belief for government and society as strongly as Tocqueville. Yet, if the interpretation of his private views that I sketched out in my previous post is correct, it would seem unlikely that Tocqueville was an advocate of a purely “civil religion.” To be more precise: Tocqueville did not advocate the “Machiavellian” position that the “magistrate” ought to inculcate religion in the “populace” because of its social utility, even while disbelieving it himself.
There are at least three ways by which Tocqueville reached this conclusion: through logic, through personal observation and through the study of history.
The Illogic of the Utilitarian Case for Religion
First, it would have been especially difficult to have advocated this “Machiavellian” policy for America. In the United States, the sovereign “People,” which Tocqueville described as acting “in the American political world like God over the universe,” see Democracy in America at 71 (Bevan trans.), was itself at once magistrate and populace. Hence, to have any chance of being effective, the policy would have required collective self-deception on a mass scale. (Note, however, that one of Tocqueville’s subtlest and most profound interpreters seems to think that this was indeed Tocqueville’s view. See Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy 92 (John Waggoner trans. 1996)).
Furthermore, if the American public generally accepted religion solely for its utilitarian consequences, then its faith would be unable to produce the desired effects: religion can only serve social utility if the public generally believes it to be true. Just as a placebo will do good only if the patient believes that it is a medicine and not a placebo, so religious belief will promote public welfare only Read more