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 Read more