Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part I

We have seen that Tocqueville believes that the dominant American faith, Ralph Waldo EmersonProtestantism, will tend to decompose. The process of dissolution will occur in two phases. In the first, Protestantism (or more accurately, Calvinism) will tend to become a form of natural religion, such as he believed he had encountered in Unitarianism. This movement will take place chiefly among American élites; working class American Protestants, he believes, will be increasingly drawn to Catholicism. In the second phase, Unitarianism or natural religion will itself tend to become what he calls “pantheism.” These movements are traced out, albeit in very summary and schematic form, in Vol. II, Pt. I, chh. 6-7 of Democracy in America, dealing, respectively, with Catholicism and pantheism. In a powerful and illuminating study, Peter Lawlor has described these as two of the “least studied and strangest chapters” of Democracy in America. See Peter Augustine Lawlor, Tocqueville on Pantheism, Materialism, and Catholicism, 30 Perspectives on Political Science 218 (2001).

Tocqueville’s notions may seem very wayward and idiosyncratic to us. After Walt Whitmanall, contemporary America is neither predominantly Catholic nor predominantly pantheistic. Nonetheless, when examined more closely, Tocqueville’s analysis is full of interest and even, remarkably, of current applicability.

The “decline” of Protestantism

Since the 1960s, there has been vigorous and ongoing debate over whether American Protestantism – or at any rate “mainstream” Protestantism – is dead or dying. See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The end of American Protestantism (July 2, 2013), available at Equally, the question whether American Catholicism has become, or is becoming, a form of Protestantism also provokes current controversy. (Tocqueville himself had noted the tendency of American Catholicism to be less dogmatic and less ritualized than French Catholicism.) Neither of these interesting issues can detain us here. What is more relevant to our purpose is why Tocqueville should have thought that Protestantism would decline, and whether the evidence from the period in which he wrote might have supported the prediction that it would turn into something radically different from traditional Christianity.


Tocqueville could certainly have derived his thesis from reading the work of the great eighteenth century French Catholic theologian, historian and apologist, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux and the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest child, the Dauphin of France. Probably the greatest work by the prolific Bossuet was his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688; English trans. 1836). Bossuet’s History is a massively learned account of what the author sees as the steady fragmentation of the main branches of Protestantism into different and discordant sects. We know that Tocqueville had studied this work. In his letter of November 15, 1835 to Gustave Beaumont, he says that after finishing reading Machiavelli’s History of Florence, I turned to Bossuet’s Variations. Finding the “distance” between Machiavelli and Bossuet “great,” he writes that “I had never looked at [the Variations] so closely, and I cannot tell you how much I admired its content, and even more perhaps, its form. It is truly a magnificent and powerful arrangement.” Selected Letters 112. In thinking that Protestantism was bound to disintegrate, Tocqueville was very possibly adopting, if quietly, the polemical case that Bossuet had made for that proposition.

Tocqueville seems to have drawn on Bossuet in the places in Democracy in America in which he connects the growth of democracy with Divine Providence. For instance, in Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 17 of Democracy, entitled “A Few Sources of Poetry in Democratic Nations,” he writes that in egalitarian ages, as “each man . . . begins to perceive humanity itself, God reveals himself more and more to the human mind in his full and complete majesty . . . Observing the human race as a single entity, men find it easy to imagine that the same plan rules its destiny and they are inclined to perceive, in the actions of any individual, the trace of that universal and consistent design by which God guides our race.” Bevan trans. 563-64. Likewise, in his Introduction to Part I, Tocqueville speaks of the “gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions” as “a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics: it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.” Id. at 15. In such passages, Tocqueville is echoing another of Bossuet’s works, the Discourse on Universal History (1681), which he had also read. (For a fuller treatment of providentialism in Democracy, which downplays the influence of Bossuet, see David A. Selby, Tocqueville’s politics of providence: Pascal, Jansenism and the author’s introduction to Democracy in America, 33 The Tocqueville Review 167 (2012)).


It is also possible that Tocqueville formulated his thesis about Protestantism on the basis of reading Rousseau. After the publication of The Vicar of Savoy (on which see posting Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II), Rousseau was compelled to defend his views against the Protestant authorities of his native city of Geneva, who accused him of undermining the Reformed religion. Rousseau defended himself in a series of lengthy pieces called Letters Written from the Mountain (1764). In the second of these Letters, Rousseau identifies what he considers to be the “two fundamental points of the Reform,” and contends that his writings fully comply with both. Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 154. These two core principles are “to acknowledge the Bible as the rule of one’s belief, and not to admit any other interpreter of the Bible than oneself.” Id. To this he adds: “Combined, these two points form the principle on which the Reformed Christians separated from the Roman Church, and they could not do any less without falling into contradiction; for what interpretive authority could they have reserved to themselves, after having rejected that of the body of the Church?” Id.

To make the Bible the sole rule for deciding questions of faith and practice appears to be adopting a common standard of truth that transcends any individual opinion; but to take the principle of private judgment to mean that each believer is the final judge for himself or herself of the Bible’s meaning is to abandon the idea of a common authority.


Whatever an individual believer takes the Bible to mean, it has that meaning for that believer; and no external or ecclesiastical authority can override it. Rousseau insists that the only coherent alternative to his position is to betray the Reformation and return to Catholicism: “Let someone prove to me today that in matters of faith I am obliged to submit to someone else’s decisions, beginning tomorrow I will become a Catholic, and every consistent and true man will act as I do.” Id. Thus, Rousseau contends, the principles of the Reformation require that believers have “not only the right to explain passages” from the Bible solely by their own private lights, but even to “remain[] in doubt over [passages] that [they] find doubtful.” “[N]either Pastors nor Magistrates have anything to do with” that right. Id. at 155. Accordingly, Rousseau can claim that the deism, or near deism, of his Savoyard Vicar is fully consistent with the Reformation.

If Tocqueville had read Rousseau’s Letters Written from the Mountain, he could thus have found a conceptual or philosophical argument to place alongside Bossuet’s historical argument in support of the view that Protestantism has an inherently self-destructive logic.

Hence I agree with Lawlor’s conclusion (though I reach it on different grounds) that Tocqueville found American Protestantism “an incoherent compromise between freedom and obedience in belief,” and accordingly predicted that “Protestants will move in the direction of either Catholicism or unbelief in Christianity altogether.” Lawlor at 224.


Tocqueville argues that democratic men and women have an inherent tendency to become unbelievers. In his chapter on the progress of Catholicism, he writes that “equality persuades men to judge for themselves,” and that, because they are free thus to exercise their private judgment, they are “predisposed to slide away from all religious authority.” Democracy at 519.

But he also believes that those who live in a democratic age, if they agree to obey a religious authority at all, will ineluctably be drawn to Catholicism. Equality “gives them the taste for and conception of a single, simple social power which is the same for everyone.” They abhor “religious powers that do not emanate from the same center.” Hence even though those who live in democracy “are, by nature, little inclined to belief,” nonetheless “as soon as they take up religion, they immediately encounter within themselves a hidden instinct which drives them unknowingly toward Catholicism.” Repellent as they might at first find Catholic “doctrines and customs,” they eventually “conceive a secret admiration for [Catholic] organization and are drawn to its unity.” Hence if only Catholicism manages “to elude the political hatred it engenders” because of its association with undemocratic régimes,” it “would suddenly achieve extensive conquests.” Id. at 519. And because Tocqueville was optimistic (when he wrote Democracy) that the Catholic Church would disentangle itself from such political forces, he thinks that “our descendants will tend increasingly to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.” Id. at 520.


What about those democratic men and women who yield to the democratic “predisposition” and abandon Christianity? Here Tocqueville suggests that the “prevailing taste democratic nations have for general ideas” will lead them, not to the unity that some will find in Catholicism, but instead to pantheism:

Man is obsessed with the idea of unity. He seeks it in every direction; when he believes he has found it, he willingly rests in its arms. Not content with discovering that there is but one creation and one Creator in the world, he is still irritated by this primary division of things and he seeks to expand and simplify his thought by enclosing God and the universe in a single entity. If there is a philosophic system according to which things material and immaterial, visible and invisible within the world are to be considered only as the separate parts of an immense being who alone remains eternal in the continuous shift and constant change of everything which is within it, I shall have no difficulty reaching the conclusion that a similar system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy.

Democracy at 521.

Tocqueville recoils from pantheism, even while admitting that it is “one of the most likely [metaphysical systems] to entice the human mind in democratic ages.” He denounces it as an idea that “naturally attracts and arrests [the] imagination [of democratic men] and nourishes their arrogance, while cosseting their laziness.” And he calls on all who are “smitten with the nobility of man” to “join forces and fight against this idea.” Id.

What should we make of this argument?

Tocqueville may well be right in thinking that the democratic mind has a natural bent to posit single, uniform causes behind complex and even contradictory events, rather than searching for multiple and varied causes that may include personal character and individual will. Thus, Tolstoy writes in War and Peace that the French Army went out to kill and be killed at the battle of Borodino, not because Napoléon had ordered it to fight, but because the Army itself knew that “the wine is drawn, and must be drunk.” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 945 (Ann Dunigan trans. 1981). Tolstoy here is thinking democratically, not aristocratically. To suppose that history is made, not by particular great men, but by forces beyond the control or even the awareness of those swept up in them, is a “democratic” mode of thought. See Democracy at 572 (“Historians of democratic periods . . . attribute hardly any influence on the destinies of mankind to individuals . . .; but they see great general causeds behind the slightest particular events”).

Pantheism can be considered a “democratic” belief system because it is a kind of cosmic egalitarianism. Revealed religion, even in the diluted form of deism, posits a gulf between the world and its Maker. But pantheism erases even that last kind of inequality. The pantheist mind, as Tocqueville puts it, “encloses” God and the world “in a single entity.” There is no transcendent person or object above or outside me, whom I may encounter with awe and love, or to whom I owe obedience or offer prayer. The universe is causa sui. There is indeed divinity within me – as there is equally in every other being. Or, equivalently, nothing at all is divine.

Was Tocqueville right in predicting that America would turn to pantheism? Let us look again at the religious and philosophical tendencies he saw at work in Jacksonian America; then we can briefly consider the contemporary scene.


On July 15, 1838, two years before Tocqueville published Part II of Democracy, a former Unitarian minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an address to a class of six students graduating from the Harvard Divinity School and their guests. Emerson’s Divinity School Address caused a sensation. It was taken as an attack on all forms of Christianity, however liberal, including Unitarianism itself. Emerson had been a disciple of William Ellery Channing, see Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire 47-49 (1995). Orthodox Calvinists responded with grim satisfaction to Emerson’s speech, treating it as confirmation of their argument that Unitarianism would lead to unbelief, while Unitarians reacted to it with consternation and chagrin. Among the more interesting reactions to the Divinity School address was a rather critical review by Orestes Brownson, originally a Calvinist and by 1838 a Transcendentalist, who completed his spiritual journey by becoming a Catholic. See Orestes Brownson, Review of R.W. Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” The Boston Quarterly Review (Oct. 1838), pp. 500-514, available at; see also Patrick J. Deneen, Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson versus Emerson, 37 Perspectives on Political Science 8, 12 (2008).

Emerson condemned “historical Christianity,” though not in the spirit of Enlightenment skepticism. Rather, he saw an opportunity to rethink Christianity in the light of then-recent German philosophy, including Kant and Schelling. See Richardson at 291-2. Historical Christianity had erred because it had become, “not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” As a result, Christianity had turned into an “eastern monarchy . . . which indolence and fear have built.” Further, as a consequence of Christianity’s mistaken understanding of Jesus, it had failed to explore “the Moral Nature, the Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness . . . . Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” Because of its mistakes and failures, Christianity was moribund: Emerson saw only a scene of “the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct.” “The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology.” A “new revelation” is therefore needed. Man needed to be “made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God.” Hereafter preaching must concentrate on “the exploration of the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power.” Preachers must appropriate “[t]he true Christianity,” which is “a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man.” Emerson had begun his address with an invocation of “[t]he mystery of nature,” which on that summer day in Cambridge “was never displayed more happily.” He concluded by calling for the coming of “the new Teacher,” who “shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul.” Divinity School Address, available at

In a classic article entitled Jonathan Edwards to Emerson, 13 New England Quarterly 589 (1940), Perry Miller reviewed the itinerary of the New England mind in traversing the path from orthodox Calvinism to pantheism. Miller found that even early in the history of Puritanism, orthodox Calvinists had “good cause to be apprehensive lest mystical or pantheistical conclusions arise out of their premises.” Id. at 599. From orthodox doctrines it was possible to deduce that “God imparted His teaching directly to the[] individual spirit” or indeed that God “was immanent in nature.” “[T]here was in Puritanism a piety, a religious passion, the sense of an inward communication and of the divine symbolism of nature.” Id. Countervailing these was another side of Puritanism, which emphasized “social conformity,” “law and order” and “regulation and control.” Id. at 600. Jonathan Edwards had managed, with greater or less success, to combine both sides of Puritanism, but his theological successors had watched them grow apart. Although Unitarianism was “entirely different wine from any that had ever been pressed from the grapes of Calvinism,” it nonetheless represented “one half of the New England tradition” – the side of sobriety, rationality and order. Id. at 606. The other half, expressing Puritanism’s “mysticism, the hunger of the soul, the sense of divine emanation in man and in nature,” broke through and found expression in Emerson. Id. at 607. In particular, pantheism reveals its close kinship with Calvinism in their common denial of human agency and will. As William Ellery Channing had argued, for the Calvinist, “Man acts only in show. He is a phenomenal existence, under which the One Infinite Power is manifested; and is this much better than Pantheism?” Quoted, id. at 610.

Later scholarship has corrected or amplified Miller’s account in important ways. See Robert Milder, From Emerson to Edwards, 80 New England Quarterly 96 (2007); David Robinson, The Road Not Taken: From Edwards, Through Chauncy, to Emerson, 48 Arizona Quarterly 45 (1992). But much of lasting value remains in Miller’s analysis. And for our purposes, it is enough to say that Miller confirms Tocqueville’s insight that Calvinism would traverse a path through Unitarianism to pantheism.


The first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, about fifteen years after the completion of Democracy in America. It is a measure of Tocqueville’s powers of discernment that he could identify a trend at work in America that Whitman was to express so powerfully half a generation later.

Even the title of Whitman’s great work conveys the spirit of democratic egalitarianism, for what is more lowly and commonplace, or less individualized and distinct, or weaker and more perishable, than a blade of grass? Indeed, the Bible uses the image of grass to signify human mortality: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.” Isa. 40:7 (KJV). And yet, to look at the grass may be to see, as Whitman tenderly put it, “the handkerchief of the Lord.”

Whitman knows himself to be the poet of pantheistic, democratic equality, the leader of the “poets of the kosmos.” Preface to Leaves of Grass, in Mark van Doren (ed.), The Portable Walt Whitman 19 (1977). In this new dispensation,

[t]here will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. . . A superior breed shall take their place . . . the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest . . . . Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things.

Id. at 25.

In Whitman’s egalitarian universe, everything – himself emphatically included – is divine. In Song of Myself, he writes:

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

Id. at 57.

And in On the Beach at Night Alone, Whitman raises a great pantheistic hymn of praise to the self-enclosing universe:

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

Contemporary pantheism

Of course, even if we were to credit Tocqueville with the insight that American poetry would soon exhibit and celebrate a democratic pantheism, it would not follow that a tendency toward pantheism was deeply rooted in the American soul. What evidence is there, we might ask, that the America of the present is tending toward pantheism?

The evidence, I believe, is not hard to find. Consider, e.g., our changing attitudes toward the environment. By this I mean, not primarily our concerns with pollution or resource depletion, but rather the much more fundamental changes in the ways we have come to think about man’s place in nature.

Ever since the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess baptized it with a name in 1973, the “deep ecology” movement has exerted an influence on contemporary culture. See Arne Naess, The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary, 16 Inquiry 95 (1973). The (originally) seven points in which Naess summed up “deep ecology” included discernibly egalitarian and pantheistic elements. Naess advocated the abandonment of “the man-in-the-environment image” and its replacement by “the relational, total-field image,” in which living organisms would be seen as “knots in the biospherical net.” He also urged “biospherical egalitarianism,” rejecting “anthropocentrism” in favor of “the equal right to live and blossom” for every form of life. Naess’ collaborator George Session has reviewed the philosophical background of the deep ecology movement, which he considers to be a challenge to “the pervasive metaphysical and ethical anthropocentrism that has dominated Western culture with classical Greek humanism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition since its inception.” George Sessions, The Deep Ecology Movement: A Review, 11 Environmental Review 105 (1987). Sessions linked the deep ecology movement back to several antecedents in American thought, including Emerson and Whitman (id. at p. 108). Others have seen intimations of deep ecology in the works of such major thinkers as Martin Heidegger and the seventeenth century pantheist Baruch Spinoza.

Of course one might dismiss the deep ecology movement as culturally marginal and uninfluential. But do we not also see the signs of a kind of “practical pantheism” everywhere about us? Consider, e.g., our changing dietary habits (the preference for organic foods) or travel interests (eco-tourism). Let me conclude this essay by using what seems to me a particularly telling example: our changing burial practices.

Burial practices are especially revealing, I submit, because they indicate how a society implicitly thinks of human life, of death, of collective memory and individual fame, of an after-life, and of the relationship of the human body to the earth.

In his beautiful and moving book Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (2003), Ken Warpole describes the recent, but growing, desire for “natural burial” in Britain and northern Europe. Proponents of natural burial, Warpole writes, “seek to create cemeteries that meld into the uncultivated landscape as quickly as possible, returning to a ‘state of nature’ as if the human presence on earth had never been.” At 191. And this, he rightly says, is “a presumption of astonishing radicalism”:

For the past 2,000 years at least, one of the principal functions of burial and funerary ritual – from the inscriptions and epitaphs in the Roman catacombs through to the cult of the headstone in the era of the Enlightenment – has been to leave, where possible, a permanent record for posterity of each individual life lived. Natural burial denies this function, at least with regard to any kind of design or inscription at the place of interment, though other forms of commemoration or record may take place elsewhere. This suggests that the strong desire to ‘be at one with nature’ and to leave no sign of burial behind is an unexpected and late-modern phenomenon, at least within Western culture, part of a new and unique kind of ecological consciousness, rather than a trace element of pre-historic or pagan belief systems.


Natural burial is philosophical pantheism woven deeply into the fabric and habits of a society. It expresses that society’s view of the inconsequentiality of the individual human being, and of its unconcern with the perpetuation of its own collective memory and identity. It is the handiwork of a society that sees human existence as merely a momentary perturbation of the natural order, an irritation on the earth’s surface. Ironically, the attitude of “letting be” that this kind of society displays in relation to nature is merely the photographic negative of the technological rationality that the deep ecology movement condemns as exploitative. If Tocqueville is to be believed, this is the type of society towards which we are drifting. Little wonder that he calls on all who believe in the “nobility” of man to oppose it.

In my next posting, I shall probe Tocqueville’s thought on pantheism further, trying to situate it more exactly in the philosophical debates of his period and also considering the relationship of pantheism to “soft despotism.”

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