Aurelian Craiutu yesterday posted an interesting essay on Tocqueville at the Library of Law and Liberty blog, covering just a single-page chapter on what the nineteenth-century observer termed “pantheism.” It’s from the second part of the voluminous Democracy in America , and often recieves less treatment than his more widely-read chapters on, for example, how Roman Catholicism’s features uniquely position that faith to offer a credible modern alternative.
By pantheism, Tocqueville did not have in mind the classical definition of this term, i.e. a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe. He worked instead with a different meaning that had little in common with its philosophical components (emphasized by German philosophers) or with the literary ones (introduced by French writers). The key observation made by Tocqueville was that in democratic times, people have a strong tendency to espouse general ideas and search for rules applicable indiscriminately and in the same way to several matters at once ( DA , III: 728).
Craiutu’s distinction is helpful, and there’s a rich potential tangent here about the value of pluralism in a world in which we are constantly extolling diversity while enacting greater homogeneity. But to the subject at hand: I would posit that this “pantheism” is still a kind of faith; it is not really in the same category as the quite-powerful “public opinion,” the social influence of which Tocqueville discusses elsewhere. It’s important to understand his view of “pantheism” (while admittedly not the pantheism of the philosophes or sects of antiquity) as still retaining some theological markings because, if one buys Tocqueville’s diagnosis, then he does not consider atheism (not, at least, ‘hard’ atheism, newer or older in variety) to be the primary threat to a culture that is already democratic. (Indeed, in one earlier chapter of the book, he recounts his attendance at a Pennsylvania court’s jury selection, and tells of the astonishment of the presiding judge, who promptly dismissed an avowed atheist candidate because the judge in the case could simply not fathom how such a man could be trusted to be a good citizen. I’d vouch that, for all the advances made by secularism since the early 1830s, this way of thinking still has deep resonance with many Americans”I don’t care what you believe so long as you believe something”).
So to some extent, what Tocqueville is saying here complicates the narrative of many cultural traditionalists, who want to draw a straight causal line from “democracy” (or modernity, or the turn to the subject, or what have you) to faithlessness; to a hard rejection of the transcendent and a reduction of life to pure materialism. If that were indeed the case, religious believers might have a clearer path to combatting its errors. It would be the task of positing a spiritual realmand, really, almost any brand of spirituality would doagainst mere “matter.” But it’s more frustrating than that, because democracy itself relies on its own kind of theology. The “spirituality” most compatible with democracy, then, is hazy, anti-systematic, and more than passively unfavorable to traditional organized religion, but it certainly exists. And it is not easily dislodged because its primary purpose is to underwrite the metaphysics that democracy’s relentless push for “equality” depends upon.
Ultimately, as Craiutu notes, for Tocqueville “pantheism represented a formidable if invisible threat to preserving liberty and human greatness.” Pantheism is so insidious as a replacement spirituality not only because of its imprecision (jokes about “the way of the universe” and “thresholding” are too easy) but finally because unlike Christianity, which asserts that the highest form of love is to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” pantheism flatters the person who espouses it. It cuts out friendship, civic and even personal, turning human existence into a simple relationship between an “I” and some grand, unapproachable unifying force ‘out there’ (in practice, of course, this dangerously begins to look less like the Lord and more like the Leviathan).
For a political theorist whose work is suffused with a quasi-mystical “soteriological dimension,” the urgency of challenging this inclination is evident. And for members of actual, established religionssay, Roman Catholicismtheir ability to be faithful to their own tradition becomes paramount; witnessing against rather than joining, however unintentionally, in this “shortcut solution.” Because this new democratic faith not only muddles the clarity of orthodoxy and soils theological precision; it comes paired with a way of thinking that obsessively, almost-instinctively returns to the state as the means of accomplishing its goals.