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 gods.” He sees in the speech “a resemblance to that theism or natural religion which Christians affect to confound with atheism and impiety, though in fact diametrically opposite.” (The translation used here appears in Fordham University’s “Modern History Sourcebook” and can be found on-line at

It was (and is) commonly thought that the Vicar’s views were identical with those of Rousseau himself. See Jeffrey Macy, “’God Helps Those Who Help Themselves’: New Light on the Theological-Political Teaching in Rousseau’s ‘Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,'” 24 Polity 615, 618 (1992); Paul de Man, “The Timid God: A Reading of Rousseau’s Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard,” 29 Georgia Review 533, 538 (1978). And certainly Rousseau was very proud of the piece, immodestly declaring it to be “the best and most useful Writing in the century.” Letter to Beaumont at 46-7. However, Rousseau purports to be merely the “editor” rather than the author of the work; and in the dialogue itself, the character of the young Rousseau reserves “a number of objections” to the Vicar’s beliefs. Moreover, Rousseau elsewhere claims that it is unsafe to presume that he agrees with the Vicar’s views “in their entirety,” although one may presume that “he at least favors them greatly.” J.-J. Rousseau, Letters Written from the Mountain (1765), First Letter, in Collected Writings, vol. 9 at 139.

The Vicar is presented as a priest, once defrocked for an adulterous relationship, but later restored to the priesthood and now ministering to a small congregation near the Alps in Savoy. In his outward conduct, the Vicar conforms fully with the requirements of the Catholic priesthood. Although he suffers an “involuntary skepticism” about the Gospels, he “serve[s] God in the sincerity of [his] heart.” He complies “with a scrupulous exactness, to all the forms [the Church] prescribes as [his] duty.” In saying Mass, “I recite carefully, and strive not to omit the least word or ceremony. Before going to communicate, I first recollect myself, in order to do it with all those dispositions that the church and the importance of the sacrament require. . . . I reverently pronounce the sacramental words, and annex to them all the faith that depends on me.” Despite his acknowledged disbelief in much Catholic doctrine, the Vicar considers himself no hypocrite: “Whatever . . . be the truth with regard to that inconceivable mystery, I am not fearful of being charged at the day of judgment with profaning it in my heart.” (The Vicar’s attitude to his Catholicism corresponds fairly closely to Tocqueville’s own view of his ancestral faith, as outlined in my first posting.)

The character of the young Rousseau corroborates the most of the Vicar’s self-description. “I should have been apt to consider him a protestant in disguise, had I seen him less observant of those very ceremonies which he seemed to think of so little account.” But he also notes that the Vicar “was not altogether corrected” of “the failing that first brought him into disgrace” with the bishop who had defrocked him.

After being defrocked, the Vicar tells his young pupil, he underwent a profound crisis of faith. But he found that he could not remain permanently in a condition of doubt. “To be in doubt, about things which it is important to know, is a situation too perplexing for the human mind; it cannot long support such incertitude; but it will, in spite of itself, determine one way or the other, rather deceiving itself than being content to believe nothing of the matter.” (There are perceptible echoes of this statement in Tocqueville’s letter of October 22, 1831 to Charles Stoffels.) But when the Vicar consulted “the philosophers,” he found them all useless – though he makes something of an exception for the “celebrated” Samuel Clark. Accordingly, he decided to pursue his own rule of method which (unlike Clark’s) did not start from premises that were purportedly self-evident to reason, but instead from “everything to which I could not in the sincerity of my heart refuse to assent,” along with “all that seemed to me to have a necessary connection with it.” The heart, not the reason, thus provided the starting point for the conquest of doubt. The Vicar characterizes this as “the simple and easy rule of common sense.” To borrow from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Vicar’s starting point is his personal “can’t helps,” not universally self-evident axioms. See Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Natural Law,” 32 Harvard Law Review 40 (1918).

On this understanding, the Vicar’s method marks a significant break from any earlier form of religious rationalism. It has accordingly been seen as the beginning of “religious anti-foundationalism” and as “Rousseau’s great innovation in the history of religious thought.” See Melzer at 352. On another interpretation, the “common sense” notions to which the Vicar assents correspond in the religious sphere to the “general will” of Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) in politics. There is universal consent to the simple notions on which the Vicar bases religion, just as there must be universal consent to certain common rules and norms in politics; some deviations from the common religion may be allowed by the body politic, just as deviant private opinions may be allowable in politics; but if those private opinions in either religion or politics threaten the internal order of the State, they may be suppressed or punished. Democracy is intended to avoid the extremes of both anarchy and tyranny in religion as in politics. See Morris Dickstein, “The Faith of a Vicar: Reason and Morality in Rousseau’s Religion,” 28 Yale French Studies 48, 53 (1961).

In any case, the Vicar’s discourse on natural religion purports to apply his novel method of discovery. The Vicar distills many (though not all) of his findings in three main “articles of faith.” The first two of these are that “a Will gives motion to the universe, and animates all nature;” and that, given that a Will is the first active cause of the motion of matter, “the subjugation of this matter to certain regular laws of motion displays also intelligence.” The being that combines “intelligence, power, and will” in this way “I call God.” The third article is that man “is a free agent, and as such animated by an immaterial substance.”

Although the Vicar insists that human beings consist of an “immaterial substance” or soul joined to a body, he demurs when it comes to affirming that God will reward or punish souls in an afterlife. Because it is immaterial, the soul “may” survive the body; and “if” it survives, that alone justified “Providence.” “Is the soul immortal in its own nature? . . . I believe that the soul survives the body so long as is necessary to justify Providence in the good order of things; but who knows if that will be forever?” Furthermore, should the soul survive the body’s death, its reward or punishment will be the “remembrance” of its “perceptions” and “actions” during life. Heaven and hell, as traditionally conceived, do not await us, only an indefinite period of self-congratulation or regret.

Rousseau (or rather, the Vicar) thus teaches that reflection leads us to one, perhaps two, of the basic doctrines of natural religion: there is a God; and the soul, which is immaterial, “may” survive the body’s death and, if it does, may find some form of reward or punishment. As for the third basic doctrine of natural religion, the Vicar maintains that the rules that are to govern “the conduct of life” are “written in indelible characters on [our] heart.” They consists, in essence, in listening to and following conscience: “Conscience is the voice of the soul.” Although conscience “is timid, she loves peace and retirement,” she nonetheless “speaks to us the language of nature.” Her operations “are not intellectual, but sentimental.” And despite the arguments of philosophers like “the skeptical Montaigne,” her teachings are understood and practiced everywhere. “Tell me if there be any country upon earth in which it is deemed a crime to be sincere, compassionate, beneficent, and generous – in which an honest man is despicable, and knavery held in esteem?” The materialists and skeptics are wrong to maintain that “conscience is founded merely on our prejudices;” the Vicar claims to “know from my own experience that its dictates constantly follow the order of nature, in contradiction to all human laws and institutions.

What Tocqueville would have learned from his predecessors

Tocqueville would thus have discovered, in his reading of Montesquieu and Rousseau, sophisticated accounts and defenses of the main doctrines of “natural religion.” He would have found claims that the existence of God, and of some, at least, of His attributes, could be proven. He would have encountered the teaching that soul and body are distinct, although neither the immortality of the soul nor a posthumous system of rewards and punishments were provable. And he would have learned arguments that the basic rules of a common human morality could be known through reflection on experience. In the “natural religion” described by these authors, Tocqueville could readily have discerned a framework of beliefs which would be useful to almost any form of government, and without which political activity in a democracy would be corrupted.

Will Protestantism collapse into natural religion?

We have finally to establish the link in Tocqueville’s thought between Protestantism, a revealed religion, and natural religion. The answer seems to be straightforward: Tocqueville believed that, over time, Protestantism, or at least Calvinism (the dominant form of Protestantism in the United States) would collapse into natural religion. Moreover, even when Calvinism had been so transformed, its position might well not prove to be sustainable: natural religion might well itself collapse into what Tocqueville called “pantheism.” And pantheism, he believed, would provide no bulwark against the worst tendencies of democracy – particularly its tendency to “soft” despotism. Indeed, pantheism is nothing but the metaphysical counterpart or expression of democratic despotism. If any revealed religion is to provide American democracy with a firm line of defense against pantheism, Tocqueville believes, it will be Catholicism.

I intend to explain and defend this interpretation of Tocqueville over my next few posts. But let me anticipate part of that argument here, by citing part of a letter Tocqueville wrote from Hartford, Connecticut to his friend Ernest de Chabrol on October 26, 1831:

I have always believed, you know, that constitutional monarchies would arrive at the republic; and I am persuaded as well that Protestantism will necessarily end up at natural religion. What I am saying to you is felt very deeply by many religious souls here; they are revolted at the sight of this consequence of their doctrines, and the reaction throws them into Catholicism, whose principle is very questionable, but where, at least, everything is linked together.

Quoted in Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I, Editor’s introduction lxviii-lxix (Eduardo Nola ed. 2010).

Leave a Reply