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.

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Tocqueville on Unitarianism

In the last two postings in this series, we considered Tocqueville’s thinking onWilliam Ellery Channing natural religion, especially in light of the views on that subject of two of his masters, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Like those two earlier thinkers, Tocqueville is interested in natural religion, not only for theological reasons, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for political ones. All three thinkers shared the view that religion is necessary or useful to government. And since Christianity was (and is) historically the dominant religion in the West, all three recognized that if any religion were to serve that purpose in Western societies, it would necessarily be Christianity. But Rousseau, at least, thought that Christianity, especially in the form of Roman Catholicism, was also potentially highly disruptive to society.Alexis de Tocqueville Rousseau, therefore, seems to have advocated “natural religion” – which he regarded as a purified form of Christianity – as an alternative to the traditional forms of that religion. Natural religion, as Rousseau conceived it, would offer the State the essential benefits of traditional Christianity: it would, e.g., function to integrate and bind the citizens together in a cohesive social union, and it would fashion their characters and inculcate virtuous habits in civically desirable ways. At the same time, Rousseau thought that natural religion would not have the destructive tendencies of traditional, revealed Christianity, among them that of teaching us to love our fellow humans as much as our fellow citizens. Rousseau may have thought that his natural religion was a particularly apt form of belief for democratic states, because its starting points were simple, common ideas that were accessible to people of ordinary intelligence and because its dogmatic teachings were few, undemanding, and generally accepted.

Tocqueville was far more uncertain that mere natural religion will suffice to serve the needs of a democracy. Thus, his position is different from that of Rousseau. True, as we saw in Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I, Tocqueville may be saying, in the chapter of Democracy in America entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” that democratic statesmen will do well enough for democracy if they succeed in maintaining in the general population a bare belief in the soul’s survival of the body’s death. But surely Tocqueville realized that that is an unstable position – a kind of half-way house between traditional, dogmatic Christianity and outright unbelief. Belief in the immortality of the soul at least has the sanction of long tradition and seems to answer to a deep human need; belief that the soul dies with the body is encouraged by the testimony of the senses and has the warrant of materialist philosophers going back to Lucretius. But what credible reason is there to think that the soul has a shadowy existence for a period after the body’s death, only to flicker out indefinitely later? And even if one could find a reason to credit such a belief, how effective would it be in motivating the kind of attitudes and conduct necessary for a vital democracy?

Thus, I am reluctant to think that Tocqueville’s considered view is that natural religion alone provides truly satisfactory and durable support for democracy. The better interpretation, as I shall try below to show, is that he thinks that democracy requires – or, at least, is better served by – a more traditional, revealed religion.

But if that interpretation is right, then Tocqueville would have had cause to question the long-term health and stability of American democracy. For, as we saw at the conclusion of the last post, he believes that Protestantism in America will tend to collapse into mere natural religion. See his Letter to de Chabrol (October 26, 1831). If natural religion is at best a weak and undependable safeguard for democracy, then the future of democracy, in a Protestant society like America, must be clouded.

The June 29, 1831 Letter to Kergolay

Tocqueville gives expression to these thoughts in a long and fascinating letter of June 29, 1831 to his intimate friend Louis de Kergolay. See Selected Letters 45 et seq. Plainly Tocqueville is extemporizing in this letter: it was written in two stages, and Tocqueville tells Kergolay at the start of the second stage that he writes “without knowing just what I am going to say to you.” Nonetheless the tumultuous flood of ideas in this letter reveals much about Tocqueville’s deeper thinking.

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