Alexis de Tocqueville

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 if the populace believes in its truth, not merely in its utility. As Tocqueville epigrammatically put it, “religious nations have often achieved . . . success in this world by concentrating upon the next.” Democracy in America at 636. To believe in Christianity on the grounds of its utility is to believe in utility, not in Christianity. Truly religious people, Tocqueville remarks, do good for their fellow men simply “for the love of God.” Id. at 614.

Granted, the belief that certain habits and practices are useful to society may well encourage the cultivation of those habits and practices. But even if belief in the principle of utility, like belief in religious doctrines, may produce benign consequences, the two beliefs achieve these results through different causal pathways. In fact, Tocqueville seems to have thought that utilitarianism lent itself to the defense of tyranny. He condemned the “impious maxim” that “everything is legitimized in the interests of society” on the grounds that it was used “to justify every future tyrant.” Democracy in America at 342.
Objections of these kinds were laid out in Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments (1815; Dennis O’Keefe trans. 2003; original version 1810), a work Tocqueville might have known. (The question of influence is explored in George Armstrong Kelly, The Humane Comedy: Constant, Tocqueville and French Liberalism 3-6 (1992)). Constant, a renowned political theorist, foe of Napoléon, French legislator, Protestant, and defender of religious liberty, devoted a chapter of this book to discussing “the utilitarian case for religion” Book VIII, ch. 7. Constant argued that those who sought to defend religion by representing it as useful were “rendering religion the worst service. . . . [I]n constantly endowing religion with vulgar utility, one makes it dependent on that utility. It now has only a secondary status, now seeming only a means, and it is consequently degraded.” And in ch. 5 (“On the Reestablishment of Religion”) of the same Book, Constant argues that if a government seeks to reestablish religion in “a skeptical age” such as his, it cannot avoid the problem that “religion is then defended by those who do not believe in it.” Those who govern, being themselves part of the “educated part of a nation” or, at least, subject to its influence, will be unbelievers “who can never bring themselves to show regard for” religion without fear of being “taken for fools.” The people will not long be deceived by such “[b]ad missionaries.”

Tocqueville’s Personal Observations

Second, Tocqueville had observed at first hand the unsuccessful efforts of the French Restoration monarchy during the 1820s to draw legitimacy and support from its sponsorship of the Catholic Church. (For an account of the Restoration’s policies with regard to the Church, see Georges Weill, Histoire de L’Idée Laïque en France au XIXe Siècle 11- 33 (1925)). Tocqueville described these efforts and their consequences:

The clergy became political authorities through the weight given to their recommendations. Places were often given on the basis of the belief of those who competed for them rather than on the basis of capacity. As the Restoration became more and more settled, the union of Church and State became more obvious. A law was promulgated to punish with the utmost rigor the profanation of religious vessels and theft in Churches. All the archbishops and many bishops entered the Chamber of Peers. The nation was, or rather it believed itself to be, governed by priests and saw their influence everywhere. Then what is called the Voltairean spirit was reborn, that is to say, the attitude of systematic hostility and mockery not only of the ministers of religion but of religion itself, Christianity in all its forms.

Quoted in Larry Siedentop, Tocqueville 33 (1994). The “law” to which Tocqueville refers is studied in Mary S. Hartman, “The Sacrilege Law of 1825” in France: A Study in Anticlericalism and Mythmaking, 44 J. Mod. Hist. 21 (1972).

While discrediting the Church, the Restoration’s program also failed to save Charles X’s throne during the “July Revolution” (1830). The lessons of the Restoration’s mistakes were not lost on the young Tocqueville. Even later in life, recalling that the Church had “shield[ed] the Restoration with its word,” Tocqueville remarked that “it did not seem to me that it profited from this course of conduct.” Quoted in André Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography 476 (Lydia Davis trans. 1988).

Tocqueville’s critique of the Restoration’s Church-State policy closely tracked the views of the leading Catholic politician Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, whom Tocqueville deeply admired and with whom he corresponded. During the legislative debates over the Sacrilege Law, Royer-Collard argued for a vision of Church-State relations that seems close to, or identical with, the views Tocqueville was later to hold:

I attack the confusion of [Church and State], not the alliance [between them]. I know well that governments have a great interest in allying themselves with religion because, by making men better, [religion] contributes powerfully to the order, peace and happiness of societies. But this alliance can embrace only that part of religion that is external and visible, its cult, and the condition of its ministers in the state. (Quoted in Weill at 21).

Personal observation of a country other than France fortified Tocqueville in his opinions. On his visit to Ireland in 1835, Tocqueville observed, recorded and approved of the consistent refusal of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy to accept salaries from the Protestant government. The Bishop of Kilkenny told Tocqueville that “[n]ow the people regard [the Catholic clergy] as their own work and are attached to us because of what they give us. If we received money from the state they would regard us as public officials, and when we should advise them to respect law and order, they would say, they are paid for that.” See Alexis De Tocqueville’s Journey to Ireland: July-August 1835 59 (Emmet J. Larkin trans. & ed. (1990)).

Tocqueville’s Historical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary French Establishment

Third, Tocqueville’s historical study of pre-Revolutionary France also pointed him to the same conclusions. The close, intimate, centuries-long alliance in France between Throne and Altar had only weakened the Church without saving the monarchy:

[The Church’s] power had grown weaker as the power of earthy rulers grew stronger. Starting as their superior, then as their equal, it had descended to the status of a client; between rulers and Church a sort of reciprocal arrangement had been established; the rulers lent the Church their material powers while receiving the latter’s moral authority; they secured obedience for the Church’s precepts while the latter ordered respect for its decisions….

Alexis De Tocqueville, The Ançien Régime and the Revolution 153 (Bevan trans. 2008). But when the interests of the monarchy diverged from those of the Church, the French Kings “were very slack in fulfilling their obligations towards it. They showed much less enthusiasm in protecting it than they expended in defending their own government.” Id. And when the Revolution against the monarchy finally came, “the Christian religion was attacked with a sort of madness.” Id. at 151.

For these reasons, Tocqueville was, throughout his life, a passionate enemy of “that most detestable of all human institutions, a political religion.” Quoted in Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 79 (Beth G. Raps trans. 1998). Thus, in Democracy (at 634) he writes that “as far as state religions are concerned, I have always felt that, although they could sometimes momentarily serve the interests of the political power, they always became sooner or later fatal to the church.” “I respect religion [and] I honor the priest in church,” Tocqueville wrote, “but I will always put him outside of government.” (To Paul Clamorgan, January 1, 1839, Selected Letters at 132).

Nonetheless, it may still remain tempting to regard Tocqueville as some sort of “Machiavellian.” (Note that the term “Machiavellian” is problematic: complicated scholarly controversies surround the question of Machiavelli’s teachings regarding Christianity. See, most recently, Philip Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made 40-45 (2013)). At the risk of extreme oversimplification, let me distinguish three doctrines that might plausibly be derived from Machiavelli’s writings, and then briefly examine Tocqueville’s likely views of them.

Three “Machiavellian” Theses

Niccolo Machiavelli

First there is the teaching that religion generally, and even Christianity in at least some form, is “the most necessary and assured support of any civil society” and serves “in the command of the armies, in uniting the people and keeping them well conducted, and in covering the wicked with shame.” Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius Book I, ch. xi, “Of the Religion of the Romans,” in The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings, Vol 2 (Christian E. Detmold trans. (1882)).

Second is the teaching that Christianity has historically weakened ancient, pagan virtù, and has therefore “made men feeble, and caused them to become an easy prey to evil-minded men, who can control them more securely, seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them. . . . [T]he world has become effeminate and Heaven disarmed.” Discourses, Book II, ch. ii, “What Nations the Romans had to Contend Against, and With What Obstinacy They Defended Their Liberty.”

Third is the teaching that to be successful, a prince must, in proper circumstances, violate the ordinary precepts of Christian morality. “[A] prince should seem to be merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and should even be so in reality; but he should have his mind so trained that, when occasion requires it, he may know how to change to the opposite. . . [The prince is] often obliged, for the sake of maintaining his state, to act contrary to humanity, charity, and religion.” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. xviii, “In What Manner Princes Should Keep Their Faith.”

How “Machiavellian” Was Tocqueville?

Tocqueville agreed wholeheartedly with Machiavelli on the first thesis: religion, and Christianity in particular, is essential for a sound, healthy civic life. Indeed, Christianity is indispensable above all in a democratic society. Thus, he writes in Democracy that of the “causes which buttress the maintenance of American Political institutions, . . . religion [is] one of the most important.” Democracy at 630. Accordingly, “[l]egislators and all worthy and enlightened men living in democracies must . . . work tirelessly to lift men’s minds toward heaven . . . . I am so firmly persuaded that Christianity should at all costs be maintained in the new democracies that I would sooner chain up the priests in their sanctuaries than allow them to leave them.” Id. at 632, 634. Even an unbeliever, Tocqueville says, can perceive the social usefulness of religion. “Looking at religious beliefs from a human point of view, he recognizes their sway over moral behavior and their influence in legislation. He realizes their power to inspire men to live in peace and to prepare them to die gently.” Id. at 350. By contrast, even if the beliefs of the “materialists” conceivably had some “use to man,” that would only be “in giving him a modest opinion of himself.” Id. at 632. “We have to recognize that if religion does not save men in the other world, it is at least very useful for their happiness and importance in this.” Id. at 511.

Tocqueville seems to be in at least partial agreement with the second thesis: Christianity often fails to inculcate a proper concern for civic virtue, and is to that extent gravely defective. Tocqueville seems to have been particularly inclined to this belief later in life: he was bitterly disappointed that the Catholic Church proved more than willing to collaborate with the Second Empire of Napoléon III (proclaimed in 1852), a régime to which Tocqueville was implacably opposed. See Mélonio at 117-18; Jardin at 474-76.

In this disillusioned vein, he wrote to Madame Swetchine (September 10, 1856) that the Catholic Church in France was too little occupied with the part of morality that “concerns public life: these are the duties that every citizen has toward his country and the human society to which he belongs.” Although this part of morality is “as important . . . in the eyes of God” as that which “relates to private life,” the Church, in coming to terms with Napoléon III, has neglected it. Selected Letters at 338. And to Louis Kergolay he wrote (August 4, 1857) that “the passion for religion,” if “pushed to a certain point,” “makes everything disappear that is not religion, and creates the most useless or the most dangerous citizens in the name of morality and duty. . . . . It is not healthy to detach oneself from the earth, from its interests, from its concerns, even from its pleasures, when they are honest.” Selected Letters at 357. Tocqueville may have thought that Christianity’s eschatological origins and its submissive attitude to the authorities of the Roman Empire accounted for its persisting, if dangerous, neglect of the public sphere. See Siedentop at 134.

When he writes in this manner, Tocqueville is echoing, if in more tempered form, the Machiavellian thoughts of one of his great masters, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the section of the Social Contract entitled “Civil Religion,” (Book IV, ch. viii; G.D.H. Cole (trans.) 1923), Rousseau vehemently condemns Christianity for its effects on public life:

Christianity as a religion is entirely spiritual, occupied solely with heavenly things; the country of the Christian is not of this world. He does his duty, indeed, but does it with profound indifference to the good or ill success of his cares. Provided he has nothing to reproach himself with, it matters little to him whether things go well or ill here on earth. If the State is prosperous, he hardly dares to share in the public happiness, for fear he may grow proud of his country’s glory; if the State is languishing, he blesses the hand of God that is hard upon His people. . . .

I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; the terms are mutually exclusive. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.

But despite these important areas of agreement with Machiavelli, Tocqueville is emphatic in repudiating his teaching regarding morality, at least as he interprets it. In a long letter to Royer-Collard (August 25, 1836), Tocqueville reports on his reading of two works of Machiavelli: The Prince and The History of Florence. To be sure, he found things to praise in both works. Thus, even though he judged The Prince “a superficial work,” he admitted that “very profound thoughts that are to be found in it from time to time.” The History of Florence was “the work of a great writer and often a great man of politics.” But he objected vehemently to both works on the ground that they displayed “the same indifference for justice or injustice; the same adoration for adroitness, whatever might be the means it employs; the same profound esteem for those who succeed.” Machiavelli seemed to Tocqueville to be “endowed with a nature so flexible and so free of all principles that he would be capable of doing anything.” Selected Letters at 111. And in such teaching he found neither usefulness nor truth. For Tocqueville, as for that later great French moraliste Albert Camus, “Il y’a de certaines limites.” Albert Camus, The Just 31 (Henry Jones trans. 1970).

In my next post, I will consider how Tocqueville thought that religion enforces such limits on political leaders and the public.

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