Refuting Tocqueville by Way of Tocqueville

By Daniel Schwindt
January 6, 2014

When reading Tocqueville, we must always keep in mind that he is but one figure in a substantial tradition of erudite and meticulous Frenchmen—a tradition that includes the likes of Bertrand de Jouvenel and the famous sociologist, Jacques Ellul. These men and others can be loosely grouped together because they share certain general characteristics which contribute both to the joy and the frustration of reading their work.

Like Jouvenel in his analyses On Power and On Sovereignty, Tocqueville is relentlessly thorough, and thus reduces many a tree to paperstock and dulls many a quill, refusing to conclude his study without having addressed his subject in its entire scope. And like Ellul’s The Technological Society, Tocqueville has a persistent tendency to address the same subjects over and over so that they can be seen from all of their various aspects. These two tendencies taken together, present in the work of all three authors, result in the production of treatises which are packed with insight yet also doomed, almost like the Old Testament, to be read with misplaced emphasis, if not with wholly incorrect interpretation, if not seen within the context of the whole.

In fact, this curse has at times manifested itself in preposterous ways, evidenced by the following paragraph, which is perhaps the most well-known and oft-quoted passage of “Tocqueville,” and is always attributed to Democracy in America:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers - and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce - and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution - and it vas not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

This passage, as the reader probably knows, is completely spurious, appearing nowhere in Tocqueville’s works. It is now best used as evidence that the individual who quotes it has not really read his Tocqueville. (This phenomenon is similar to those abounding references to the “Freudian subconscious,” by which the informed listener can immediately detect that the speaker has not actually read his Freud: Freud never used to the term “subconscious.”)

So what, the reader might ask, is the point? In a recent series here at Ethika Politika, Nathan Gill sought to defend the liberal notion of “religious liberty” against those who would have the state play a more deliberate role in the establishment and support of the Christian faith. Throughout his argument he invoked the typical passages from Democracy in America, which have become staples in any discussion on “the separation of church and state.” I would first like to say that Mr. Gill is not in any way to be accused of incorrectly quoting Tocqueville’s work, or even of misrepresenting the opinions contained therein. However, I would suggest that he and any other writer who employs these stock Tocquevillian passages in their argumentation, may perhaps have fallen victim to those difficulties mentioned at the beginning of this piece, leading to a factually correct but fatally incomplete understanding of this Frenchman’s contribution to the subject.

It is my contention, which I will now seek to demonstrate, that even though Tocqueville undoubtedly favored the type of religious liberty sought by Mr. Gill, he nonetheless and at the very same time provides the most powerful arguments against this aspect of Lockean liberalism. In order to show this we must first explore some observations which may seem somewhat unrelated, but which are actually of utmost importance.

Consider, for example, Tocqueville’s observations regarding the rationalist mentality, which enthrones the reason of each individual as the supreme judge of truth, whether of the spiritual or the material order.  Few would argue that such a mode of thought provides fertile ground for religious devotion, and he observes that this very mentality has nowhere achieved such influence as in America:

I discover that, in the majority of mental processes, each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason. America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied…they follow his maxims because it is this very social state which naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.

The “social state” to which he refers is of course the widespread culture of individualism, which he believed to have embedded in Americans a significant tendency towards personal and spiritual detachment. We might even say he identifies in the American spirit an atrophy of the “communal faculty” in man. He properly identifies this individualism for what it is: the vice of egoism baptized and renamed, masquerading now as a noble “new idea.” He explains:

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which persuades each citizen to cut himself off from his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of his family and friends in such a way that he thus creates a small group of his own and willingly abandons society at large to its own devices. Egoism springs from a blind instinct; individualism from wrong-headed thinking rather than from depraved feelings. It originates as much from defects of intelligence as from the mistakes of the heart.

Egoism blights the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtue. In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge with egoism.

Bearing in mind the fact that folkways, customs, and shared beliefs are generally considered to be the most vital supports of religion and morality within any society, this “fracturing” tendency of American individualism, combined with an unconscious but fervent rationalism, was destined to have disastrous consequences for all traditions and beliefs, including the Christian faith. This also Tocqueville acknowledges, combining the two and predicting for himself the inevitable result:

Amid the continuous shifts which prevail in the heart of a democratic society, the bond which unites generations to each other becomes slack or breaks down; each person easily loses the trail of ideas coming from his forbears or hardly bothers himself about them…As for the effect which one man’s intelligence can have upon another’s, it is of necessity much curtailed in a country where its citizens, having become almost like each other, scrutinize each other carefully and, perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth. So, it is not merely trust in any particular individual which is destroyed, but also the predilection to take the word of any man at all. Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world…As they realize that, without help, they successfully resolve all the small problems they meet in their practical lives, they easily reach the conclusion that there is an explanation for everything in the world and that nothing is beyond the limits of intelligence. So it is that they willingly deny what they cannot understand; that gives them little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.

As individualism must merge sooner or later with egoism, and as rationalism must merge with skepticism, so eventually a rationalistic-individualism will hurl society into a practical, albeit still unconscious, atheism.

Elsewhere Tocqueville daringly elaborates that religious notions, under this sort of regime, come sooner or later to be reduced to only those which are most obvious and undeniable; and even then, spiritual doctrines are only embraced insofar as they are practical—never as a matter of doctrinal or traditional truth. Then, having taken to judging the true by the standard of utility, religion undergoes a transformation. In America, says Tocqueville, “the beauty of virtue is almost never promoted.” Virtue is preached by American clergymen, he says, but only as something useful to oneself. American moralists do not appeal to any higher sensibilities when exhorting men to serve one another; they only suggest that “such sacrifices are as necessary to the man who makes them as to those gaining from them.” Thus, virtue and morality are again reduced to their “use value”—and this sort of “value” must always be understood in temporal terms. (The reader should at this point be anticipating the egoistic philosophy of Ayn Rand.) Tocqueville concludes that no one is willing to “deny that every man can pursue his own self-interest but they turn themselves inside out to prove that it is in each man’s interest to be virtuous.”

In the new dispensation, Christian behavior is not taught as “right” because it is “good,” but is taught as “good” because it is profitable. This leads to a mentality by which Americans “are delighted to explain almost all the acts of their life in the light of self-interest.”—which is to say, egoism. So delighted are they in this philosophy that they even do themselves an injustice by it “because sometimes, in the United States as elsewhere, citizens yield to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses natural to man.” In short, Americans show love to one another simply because they are good and loving people. “But Americans rarely admit that they are giving way to such kinds of emotions; they prefer to attribute the credit to their philosophy than to themselves.” Thus they deny the existence of selfless love even where it exists, preferring to give homage only to the rationalistic philosophy of egoism.

Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors but also hides their descendants and keeps them apart from their fellows. It constantly brings them back to themselves and threatens in the end to imprison them in the isolation of their own hearts.

It should be obvious to the reader that, although these observations are not specifically of the religious order, they will inevitably wreak havoc there. Again, we leave it to Tocqueville to explain this danger, wherein rationalism and individualism reach their final end, which is a profound spiritual atrophy, or materialism:

…while man takes delight in this honest and lawful pursuit of his own well-being, it is to be apprehended that in the end he may lose the use of his sublimest faculties, and that while he is busied in improving all around him, he may at length degrade himself.

And this he follows with a most surprising assertion:

It should therefore be the unceasing object of the legislators of democracies and of all the virtuous and enlightened men who live there to raise the souls of their fellow citizens and keep them lifted up towards heaven…If among the opinions of a democratic people any of those pernicious theories exist which tend to inculcate that all perishes with the body, let men by whom such theories are professed be marked as the natural foes of the whole people.

Not only does he here condemn atheism, but he goes further, identifying the legislators specifically as the proper social body fit to defend religious principles, and to draw up the common people toward their higher calling, from which Tocqueville believed they would eventually fall away. Notice the logic here, for it is extremely important: Tocqueville is acknowledging that the people, at least in this instance, need to be saved from themselves by having some higher body draw them away from their materialistic bent. The logical corollary, as he acknowledges, is that atheists and materialists are to be suspect, if not altogether shunned as “foes of the whole people.”

The question now becomes: “How does this insightful observer continue to argue against the establishment of religion after such reasoning?” In all honesty, one is inclined to suggest that he can’t. The very tendencies which Tocqueville has painstakingly traced (I have cited but a few, and the interested reader would not be hard pressed to find many more), and the inevitable disintegration of the religious mood which he repeatedly predicts (again, he does this frequently), render him absurd when he finally offers his—and Mr. Gill’s—solution, saying:

I believe that the sole effectual means which governments can employ in order to have the doctrine of the immortality of the soul duly respected is always to act as if they believed in it themselves; and I think that it is only by scrupulous conformity to religious morality in great affairs that they can hope to teach the community at large to know, to love, and to observe it in the lesser concerns of life.

In short, Tocqueville, in his piercing insight, identifies throughout his entire work the corrosion of the religious attitude within the social body, isolating the various factors that contributed to it, even identifying the “legislators” themselves as the proper authority for reversing the decay. Always Tocqueville is speaking of this propensity of the democracy to turn its gaze inward and downward; and he calls logically on the state and the educated to guide man out from himself and upward toward the heavens. Why does he then still reject the idea of Christianized state?

To find the answer we must return, as always, to that revolutionary ideology which represents the schism between modernity and tradition. Tocqueville, like the American Founders, was enamored of Enlightenment liberalism, and thus he shares with Locke a deviated conception of government as a “necessary evil,” rather than as a divine institution for the benefit of mankind. Tocqueville, with James Madison, would say that “If men were angels, then no government would be necessary”—revealing in this simple slogan a deep misunderstanding of both angelic and human government, for no one is more “governed” than the angels. There may be a few angels who choose not to answer to an absolute authority, but they are residing in a place very different from Heaven.

Tocqueville’s insights are brilliant, but his philosophical sentiments are tainted by the ideology of his period—and ideology has a persistent tendency to render otherwise intelligent men incoherent and illogical. Even with his Catholicism, he could not have said “Amen” to the statements of Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei:

…the State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion…Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion -it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope…

This itself is nothing but the familiar echo of the Greek tradition (indeed it is nothing but the echo of all traditions but the liberal one), all the way back to Aristotle in his Politics:

But a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only…Nor does a state exist for the sake of alliance and security from injustice, nor yet for the sake of exchange and mutual intercourse…virtue must be the care of a state which is truly so called, and not merely enjoys the name: for without this end the community becomes a mere alliance…

They who would interpret Tocqueville must, therefore adopt a particular method:

His perceptive genius shines through, at times almost blindingly, when he is speaking in his detached and purely descriptive capacity. He is, in this sense, something of a scientist in the traditional sense of the word. Here, as a social scientist, he excels. Here he is valuable, coherent, and acts as a priceless guide to the nature and formation of our country, tracing the elements of rationalism, individualism, etc., and predicting their inevitable destinations. However, he does inevitably switch to a prescriptive manner of speaking, and it is here that he becomes shallow, suspect, and ultimately self-defeating, wrapped as he is in a particular ideology.

Luckily, the preponderance of evidence he piles up against the Lockean state in his descriptive capacity is so overwhelming that, in the few instances where he takes a prescriptive stance, it is far too late for him to be taken seriously.

In short: Democracy in America contains many excellent arguments in favor of Lockean liberalism; but it also contains all the evidence necessary to refute those arguments, and then some. To say it another way, Tocquevillian description is the best refutation for Tocquevillian prescription. Perhaps, like Jouvenel and Ellul, Tocqueville should have stopped short of application, simply reveling in his shrewd perception; if he had, he would surely have spared his readers a great deal of confusion.

Comments are no longer enabled on Ethika Politika. Instead, we are working to allow readers to submit more complete responses to essays that will be published. Click here to join and stay informed.