June 17, 2006


Tocqueville's Influence on "Deus Caritas Est": Interview With Samuel Gregg of Acton Institute (Zenit.org, , APRIL 3, 2006)

Q: Who was Alexis de Tocqueville? Why is his thought notable?

Gregg: Count Alexis de Tocqueville is perhaps one of the most important social philosophers of modern times.

Born in 1805 into one of the oldest French aristocratic families, Tocqueville grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution -- a revolution, I might add, that guillotined several of his relatives.

Despite this, Tocqueville recognized that there was no going back to the ancient régime. He was, however, appalled by the ferocity of the violence unleashed by the Revolution, especially against the Catholic Church.

Another paradox is that though Tocqueville was a practicing Catholic, we know from his correspondence that he struggled with the question of faith for his entire life.

What Tocqueville did not, however, question was the pivotal role played by Christianity in creating and sustaining societies that aspire, as John Paul the Great once wrote, to be both free and virtuous.

In terms of books, Tocqueville is most famous as the author of "Democracy in America," a text that many regard as containing the most enduring insights into democracy's promise and its challenges.

The book draws heavily from observations made by Tocqueville during his visit to the United States in 1831 and 1832, in which he traveled the length and breadth of the country.

"Democracy in America" is especially penetrating when it comes to describing Christianity's role in grounding the young American republic in basic moral principles that helped to prevent this free society -- with the obvious and terrible exception of slavery -- from degenerating into anarchy upon which it is so easy to establish dictatorship.

Q: Why do you think Tocqueville influenced the thought of Benedict XVI, especially in "Deus Caritas Est"?

Gregg: St. Augustine's "City of God" was a background influence on Tocqueville's thinking, and Benedict XVI has never disguised St. Augustine's profound effect on his own work.

But more concretely, there were several occasions before his election as Pope when Joseph Ratzinger mentioned his admiration for Tocqueville's thought.

In a 1992 speech, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger described Tocqueville as "the great political thinker" and remarked that Tocqueville's "'Democracy in America' has always made a strong impression on me." He also underlined Tocqueville's insistence that democracies cannot sustain themselves without widespread adherence to "common ethical convictions," which, in America's case, had been provided by Christianity.

As far as "Deus Caritas Est" is concerned, I'd suggest a particularly Tocquevillian influence may be found in Paragraph 28. Here, Pope Benedict underlines the folly of allowing the state to absorb all social activity and letting it evolve into an all-encompassing bureaucracy that is incapable of discerning people's deeper moral and spiritual needs.

In "Democracy in America," Tocqueville suggested that democracies were especially susceptible to this temptation and could develop the characteristics of what is called soft despotism.

This despotism, Tocqueville argued, was one in which the democratic state slowly but surely suffocated all the independent and spontaneous initiatives arising from that complex of free associations we often call "civil society" -- associations that are, in most situations, far more effective in addressing people's problems than bureaucracies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2006 6:15 PM


Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 9:06 PM

I wonder if the Pope has read Christopher Dawson, who was also profoundly influenced by Augustine's City of God, and who also defended democracy while warning about the "folly of allowing the state to absorb all social activity and letting it evolve into an all-encompassing bureaucracy ."

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at June 17, 2006 9:08 PM

Orestes Brownson is another key figure in rconciling the Church to America:


Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 9:12 PM