Alex Tocqueville: A Catholic in America

When he arrived to inspect Sing Sing prison in Ossining New York in 1831 he was motivated to understand exactly how the American’s succeeded in building a Republic based on equality where his native France failed miserable.  The Reign of Terror that engulfed French society ended its experiment with freedom and equality.

I’ve always been amazed at this Monarchist, a lover of freedom and liberty in a land long known for its Catholicity.  For anyone deeply interested in understanding the breach that was the American Founding in all its complexity look no further than Alex Tocqueville (pronounced Tah-coat-vill).

For those unknown with his legacy the following dominated his life:  Tocqueville was interested in examining whether or not freedom is possible in the modern world.  He raised uncomfortable questions about the authority of intellectuals to pronounce on political issues, about the compatibility of high culture and democratic equality, about the possibility of securing disinterested political leadership in the absence of an aristocratic caste.  And these were just some of his questions that shaped his motivation to examine America.  After leaving America he went on to write extensively about ways in which modern democracy can become contemptuously institutionalized  as welfare and populism, where egalitarian societies give birth to new forms of tyranny unrealized.  Without erecting vast theoretical schemes he showed how to take conflicts of values as seriously as conflicts of interest, how to take the need for well designed political institutions seriously without deceiving ourselves about how much they could achieve.  He understood soft despotism, manipulative elites, economic blandishments, military adventures, all used to stupefy the masses.  In a sentence:  he was a man for all seasons.

Yet it is a mistake to contrast his life with his ideas.  The frustration of his political ambitions provoked his imagination.  Contemporary people often fail to discover or recognize the necessity of frustration as the source for imaginative use of failure.  Dante’s failed erotic embrace of Beatrice stimulated him to write the infamous Medieval trilogy, Machiavelli’s misfortune at the hands of the Medici led to exile and the stimulation to write ‘The Prince’.  It was no different for Alex Tocqueville.

Being a Catholic he tread heavily on the cultural requirements for sustained liberty.  He was familiar with Locke, Jefferson and all the intellectual heavy weights that preceded him.  He remained vocal to admonish French intellectuals of the absolute need for religious attachments required to preserve the nuptial bond that held liberty to equality. Such a bond could not be sustained unless the res publica (population) both cultivated and desired it.  Tocqueville understood that the age of Heroic action or ambition was passe.   In this regard his time had passed and he remained painfully aware of the cultural, political breach the American and French Revolutions had ushered.

Central to his entire canon of writing is the emphasis on personal and cultural moeurs.  The congeries of beliefs and values, the habits of the heart that provided the cultural soil in which political institutions can grow.  He understood deeply that their was room for political intelligence to channel, divert, and direct the tide of Revolution that cannot be resisted.  He remained one of the few writers to expound on the central requirement of liberalism:  freedom requires social differentiation, not proletarian solidarity.  In this vein he wrote contra John Mill ‘On Liberty’ that progress requires a cultural and intellectual aristocracy.  For Tocqueville, what was required is an account of the institutions and social entities possibly willing to actively support freedom.  His vein of thought was similar to Madison’s writings on ‘factions’ in the ‘Federalist Papers’; what freedom requires is a plurality of attachments.  This was no supporter of the professional Revolutionary (Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot . . . ) exhorting the necessity of a monolithic revolution.

In the end, it is the Church under John XXIII & John Paul II that began to answer systematically what was defiantly asked under Tocqueville: what institutional, cultural, economic, familial, religious, moral and psychological resources are required to sustain the new order of freedom and liberty.

If anyone’s been listening, the Church has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by the Enlightenment.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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