Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part II

Tocqueville thinks that democracy tends toward a metaphysics of pantheism, and urges noble natures living in a democracy to resist that tendency fiercely. Pantheism is suited to democracy because it captures democracy’s ambivalences. Pantheism both deifies and trivializes the human person. It equates the individual ego with the universe, but also shrinks the ego to an infinitesimal point. It exalts individuality, but also merges it into the totality of things. Pantheism liberates by announcing that the realm of possibility is unlimited, but oppresses by subjecting all things to necessity. It denies original sin, thus opening endless vistas for human action, but it also denies human agency, thus making action impossible.

Perhaps that is why Tocqueville followed his chapter on pantheism with another short chapter entitled “How Equality Suggests to Americans the Idea of the Perfectibility of Man” (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. I, ch. 8) (Bevan trans.). If man is at least latently divine, why should he not strive fully to realize that divinity — that is, to perfect himself? If original sin does not foredoom our pursuit of perfection to failure, then why not pursue perfection in earnest? Only aristocratic societies believe that the human situation is inherently tragic and that human history cannot finally be transcended. Democratic societies believe on the contrary that “man can improve throughout all time” and that human history reaches “the end of the long path human beings have to tread.” Democracy at 523.

Tocqueville recounts that he asked an American sailor “why his country’s vessels are constructed to last for so short a time.” The sailor answered unhesitatingly that “the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life for more than a few years.” From this casual remark, Tocqueville “glimpse[d] the general and systematic idea by which a great nation directs its every action.” Id.

As often in Tocqueville, the same cause is held to produce contrary effects. As we saw in the last posting, pantheism produces the beliefs that human individuals are mere ripples on the surface of an infinite ocean, that human action is without lasting consequences, and that the proper attitude to nature is to disturb its eternal order as little as possible. But pantheism also produces the belief that nature is endlessly malleable in our hands, that we should ceaselessly remake and exploit it to serve human ends, and that humanity itself can and should be refashioned to overcome the limits that nature appears to have set for it. In our world, technological rationality in the form of genetic engineering, the continuous effort to modify and improve crops, animals and human embryos, and the search for a cure, not merely for disease, but also for death, are as much a consequence of pantheism as the deep ecology movement is.

In his chapter on pantheism, Tocqueville tells us that he “later” describe how that metaphysical system has “a parallel in politics.” Democracy at 520. We shall soon consider that political parallel, which is democratic “despotism.” But first, let us consider a possible source of, or influence on, Tocqueville’s view of pantheism.

Henri Louis Charles Maret

Henri Louis Charles Maret was a Catholic priest (later bishop) and theologian, born in 1805 (also the year of Tocqueville’s birth). He became a Professor on the Theology faculty at the Sorbonne in 1841, and Dean of that faculty in 1853. He was associated with French liberal Catholics, most importantly the Abbé Hugues Félicité de Lammenais and the circle of like-minded Catholics involved in publishing the journal L’Avenir, which Lammenais had founded. See Wademar Gurian, “Lammenais,” 9 Review of Politics 205 (1957). Lammenais acquired an international reputation for his defense of the separation of Church and State and his demand that the Church take the side of “the people” and “the princes.” But his positions did not endear him to Pope Gregory XVI, who condemned him in his encyclicals Mirari vos (1832) and Singulari nos (1834). Tocqueville knew Lammenais personally, corresponded with him and agreed with many of his leading ideas, but maintained his distance from him, probably because he did wished to avoid appearing sympathetic to “clericalism.” See Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville and the French 115 (Beth Raps trans. 1998).

Lammenais left the Catholic Church after his condemnation, but Maret remained faithful to it. Suspicion of Maret’s ties to liberal Catholicism probably caused Pope Pius XI to delay confirming his appointment to a bishopric. The article on Maret in The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes him as “well acquainted with contemporary intellectual movements, and an effective opponent of pantheism and atheism.” Article, “Maret, Henri Louis Charles,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 9, p. 147-48 (2003). During the course of his career in the Church, he remained a liberal, continuing to defend the separation of Church and State and seeking to persuade Pius IX from publishing his Syllabus of Errors (1864)
In 1840, Maret published a book entitled Essai sur Le Panthéisme dans les Sociétés Modernes (“Essay on pantheism in modern societies”). The book enjoyed an astounding success and was “avidly” read by “all the educated classes in France, both clerical and lay.” Jan Goldstein, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750-1850 at 247 (2005). The first printing sold out within weeks, and a second printing was called for within the year.

The second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy also appeared in 1840. There are sufficiently striking resemblances between Maret’s writing and Tocqueville’s to raise the question of influence. This is particularly so with regard to Tocqueville’s claim about the future contest between Catholicism and pantheism in a post-Protestant America.

Among other things, Maret argued that the emergence of contemporary pantheist systems was not accidental, but revealed the workings of “a law of the human spirit.” He wrote: “When the human spirit has exhausted particular systems, too incomplete to convey the reason of things, the need for generality, one of the most noble instincts of our intellectual nature, the need for a more comprehensive and universal explanation, dominates it. Then it may choose between Catholicism and pantheism; there is no other outcome of its activity; for it finds in these two doctrines alone the real or seeming satisfaction of the need for generality, its first law.” Essai sur Le Panthéisme 95 (3d ed. 1845; my translation). (I regret that I have not had access to the first, 1840 edition).

Maret, like Tocqueville, saw the underlying philosophical trends in modern society as forcing an ultimate choice between Catholicism and pantheism. And Maret worked through that argument at substantial length. The similarity to Tocqueville on this important point is very striking. I cannot prove that Maret’s writing exerted a direct influence on Tocqueville, although it is likely that Tocqueville was aware of it and may have read it while completing Democracy in America.

Democracy or despotism?

Throughout his life, Tocqueville dreaded “despotism.” He was well acquainted with it personally, having been born under one Napoléon and died under another. Tocqueville’s nightmare was that democracy would, so to speak, reverse itself and become despotic.

We should note that the possibility of the degeneration of democracy into despotism presents a major crux in Tocqueville’s thought. On the one hand, Tocqueville’s providentialism leads him to say that democracy is the culmination of a long civilizational development over the course of which mankind, or at least Western mankind, has come to realize the truth of the Christian insight that all men are of equal worth in the eyes of God. That recognition has steadily gained in force, resulting in the social and political condition of democracy which is, indeed, characterized by human equality. From that condition, Tocqueville suggests, there can be no return to an aristocratic order. On the other hand, Tocqueville’s diagnosis of democracy sees it as an unstable condition, programmed (so to speak) to transform itself into a social and political order that, while not aristocratic, has many of the more tyrannical and inegalitarian characteristics of pre-democratic society. See Mathew W. Maguire, The Conversion of Imagination: From Pascal through Rousseau to Tocqueville 218-19 (2006).

We can see this tension in stark form by comparing the beginning and the ending of Democracy. Tocqueville’s Introduction to Democracy narrates the irresistible rise of equality over many centuries, beginning with the admission of the poor into the ranks of the clergy of the medieval Church. He describes this “gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions” as “a providential fact,” and hears in it “the voice of the Creator.” Democracy at 15. But near the end of Democracy, he warns that a democratic society like America’s “could lay itself open to the establishment of despotism with unusual ease,” and expresses the fear that “the nations of Christendom would perhaps end up by suffering some similar oppression to the one which once burdened several of the peoples of the ancient world.” Id. at 803. It is as though Tocqueville had intertwined two distinct and incompatible doctrines: a “linear” or Christian philosophy of history that affirms the idea of progress, and a pre-Christian account of the corruption and cyclicality of political constitutions (see Plato, Republic, Book VIII; for a later view, see Machiavelli, History of Florence, Book V, ch. 1 (1532)).

However one is to interpret or resolve this crux, it remains that Tocqueville feels deep anxiety over the possibility of a democratic turn to despotism.

Despotism ancient and modern

In a late chapter in Volume II entitled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” Tocqueville describes a phenomenon that he thinks is new to world history. Accordingly, he says, “the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable” to it, although “I can find no name for it.” Democracy at 805. Let us call this new phenomenon, which is possible only after the advent of democracy, “soft” despotism, to mark both its resemblance to, and difference from, the kind of despotism found in earlier ages. When Tocqueville refers in his chapter on pantheism to a “later” treatment of that doctrine’s political “parallel,” he is referring to this discussion. “Soft” despotism is the parallel in politics to pantheism in metaphysics.

Tocqueville is of course aware that despotism has existed in the past: he discusses the case of the Roman Empire at some length. But he insists that there were unavoidable limits to the Emperor’s powers. Subject nations retained their own customs; the imperial provinces were administered separately; individual cities and townships were effectively self-governing; and “although the whole government of the empire was concentrated in the emperor’s hands and he remained the arbiter of everything when the need arose, the small details of social life and private everyday existence normally eluded his control.” Id. at 804.

But if despotism were to be established in a modern democracy, “it would probably assume a different character; it would be more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them.” Id. The leaders of this kind of despotism would appear, not as “tyrants,” but as “guardians.” Id. at 805. Theirs would be the rule of administration, not of politics. They would rule, not over self-governing citizens, but over a population characterized by “general apathy,” dedicated entirely to the pursuit of private life. Id. at 859. The members of this population would lack, not only a civic consciousness, but also fellow-feeling for one another. For such an individual, “[h]is children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them.” Id. at 805.

And brooding over this disaggregated, listless, hedonistic, apolitical mass of individuals is a vast, tutelary State. In a celebrated passage, Tocqueville writes (id.):

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. . . .

Thus, the ruling power. . . cover[s] the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that it finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.

It is surely impossible for a contemporary American to read those words and not understand them as an exact and prescient description of our welfare State. (That Tocqueville might have had in mind the English “Old” Poor Law system only underscores such a reading, because that system prefigured the modern welfare State and exhibited similar failings. See Alexis de Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism (Seymour Drescher trans. 1997)). Tocqueville is warning us that democracy can only too easily transform itself into anti-democracy; that democratic equality can be made to demean, as well as to ennoble, the ordinary man and woman; that engaged, self-governing citizens can be turned into wards of the State; that in the absence of a genuinely democratic politics, an elected government can become a benign but relentless oppressor; that the inordinate pursuit of private comfort and gain can lead to the ruin of our common, public life.

Are we there yet? A comparison of the America that Tocqueville visited with the contemporary scene invites the answer, Yes we are.

I will take up that question in my next posting.

One response

  1. Thanks for the essay. I intend to come back and read the rest of your essays on Tocqueville later. I believe that the way we teach science is very much in accord with pantheism even though many scientists don’t take that leap.

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