December 21, 2010


Tocqueville in America: The grand journey, retraced and reimagined. (James Wood, May 17, 2010, The New Yorker)

But Tocqueville also believed that American expansion westward was blessed by God, and though Damrosch’s book never hides its subject’s contradictions from the reader, it slightly obscures this less appealing figure. Damrosch deals relatively lightly, for instance, with Tocqueville’s religiosity. There was a crisis of faith as a teen-ager—he had the run of his father’s library—that left him full of doubt. Tocqueville wanted to remain a Christian, Damrosch says, but “more accurately he was an agnostic lamenting the loss of the faith of his earliest years.” This is technically accurate, but it plays down the obsessive religiosity of Tocqueville’s thinking, especially after 1835.

Repeatedly, he returns to three religious concerns: he earnestly believed that American democracy was providential; he thought that there was an intimate connection between social equality and Christian equality (since Christ had proclaimed the good news for all, irrespective of color and creed, and insisted that the last shall be first); and he lamented that, in France, religion was not on the side of equality but on the side of order and hierarchy. Seen in this stained-glass light, “Democracy in America” is obviously a nineteenth-century book about the fragility of faith, written on the threshold of the age of Darwin and Flaubert and Ernest Renan, a book as much about moral authority as about freedom, and about how to retain the former in an age of the latter—when, as he writes, “all the laws of moral analogy have been abolished,” and “the lights of faith are obscured.” The prestige of royal power has vanished, Tocqueville says, “without being replaced by the majesty of the laws.” Matthew Arnold could not have put it better.

Just as Rousseau, in “Discourse on Inequality,” is really writing a theological history of society’s fall (man has been expelled from an original Eden, into the corruptions of modern civil society), so Tocqueville is really writing a theological history of society’s rise, which culminates in the founding of America. Christianity, he felt, was inherently democratic and inclusive, and Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine: “it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” American democracy was thus a providential fact; North America was discovered for a reason—“as if God had held it in reserve and it had only just emerged from beneath the waters of the flood.” The greatest geniuses of ancient Athens and Rome had not been able to grasp that slavery was wrong, or that equality was the ideal state of man, because they were pagans: “it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.”

Religion is thus vitally beneficial, but not only because it equalizes. It also places crucial checks on equality’s equalizing tendencies—it cleans up its own joyous mess. Society, Tocqueville felt, needs religion’s emphasis on the afterlife. God guarantees the authority of morals (goodness comes from God), and, more generally, religion leads democratic man away from the narcissism and materialism endemic to non-aristocratic societies. Yet how does one continue to renew religious belief in an age of radical doubt? Tocqueville’s solution has a whiff of characteristic French cynicism, even of hypocrisy. It is basically what Voltaire called croyance utile, “useful belief.” Religion doesn’t have to be true, Tocqueville thought, but it is very important that people profess it. So, he writes, whenever religion has put down deep roots in a society, one must “guard against shaking it; but rather preserve it carefully as the most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries; do not seek to tear men away from their old religious opinions to substitute new ones.” Materialism seems to have been a fearful abyss for Tocqueville, teeming with the devils of unbelief, nihilism, and disorder. In a pungent sentence, he avers that, if a democratic people had to choose between metempsychosis and materialism, he would rather have citizens believe that their souls will be reborn in the bodies of pigs than that they themselves are just matter.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2010 6:23 AM
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