Some Thoughts on Tocqueville and Religion
In reading Marvin Zetterbaum’s book Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy, Zetterbaum argues quite sensibly that Tocqueville turned to religion “to remedy the deficiencies of the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood.” As did the founders of the American political order like George Washington who in his inaugural argued that it was essential for the nation to follow “the eternal rules of order and right” that were provided by religion. And in his Farewell Address, Washington said the “morality can[not] be maintained without religion.” So, Tocqueville, like other moderns, used religion to serve political purposes, as Zetterbaum pointed out.
However, it would be better to say that the moderns used religion for worldly purposes. That is, religion was used to, e.g., allow the American experiment to succeed, where succeeding means obtaining power, security, prosperity, some liberty, or in a word “greatness,” or “empire.” The advantage of emphasizing how religion was used for worldly purposes is that other, even religious institutions – like the Catholic Church – may be said to have used religion for their worldly purposes, for their success, for their greatness, for their empire, for their fame, for their “immortality.”
And this raises a question about the assertion that the moderns “lowered the standard” in order to guarantee success of their project. Is it that the moderns lowered the standard or that they politicized the standard, meaning that the standard became success or greatness? A lot turns on the difference. Because if the moderns politicized the standard, then it means that they fanaticized it by implying that the human task is or should be the pursuit of greatness. This pursuit of greatness leads away from the polis toward nations, as Machiavelli demonstrated, and, of course, nationalism is a kind of fanaticism or points toward a kind of fanaticism.
So, fanaticism is then buried deep within the modern project. In fact, it might be called the essence of the modern project. And so when fanaticism appears, say as in the Inquisition or during the Holocaust or in a war terror that aims to eliminate evil from the world, we ought not be surprised.
And isn’t the crux of the differences between Plato and Aristotle and, say, Pericles and Athens, just this? That Plato and Aristotle turned away from greatness or empire and tried to turn political life away from the pursuit of greatness and empire. It may be argued, for example, that Socratic politics was characterized by a double turn inward. First, Socrates wanted Athens to turn inward, that is, turn to domestic affairs rather than foreign affairs or empire. Second, Socrates wanted the Athenians to turn to the pursuit of virtue, of “making your soul the best possible,’ which required most importantly being just.
Religion, spiritually understood, would represent such a turning away as was wanted by Socrates. But once religion is co-opted, made to serve worldly purposes, made to serve political purposes, it forfeits the capacity to have human beings turn away from the pursuit of success, from the pursuit of gratification, from the pursuit of greatness, from the pursuit of a kind of immortality, whether that pursuit be personal or political. And so it is not clear that while the use of religion might be beneficial in some ways, it cannot be useful in the most important way, that is, as an alternative to political fanaticism. In fact, as we have seen repeatedly, religion so used will in fact be used in the service of political fanaticism.