Redeeming Liberty: Tocqueville on the Omnipresent Threat of Democratic Pantheism

“I have only one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”

~Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America had a great ambition: to offer the blueprint for a new science of politics in the service of freedom. The famous claim made in the introduction to the book speaks for itself: “A new political science is needed for a world entirely new” (DA, I, 16).[1] To this effect, Tocqueville brought about a new way of analyzing social and political phenomena that opposed rigid deterministic theories of political and social development. Many political events, he believed, could not be accounted for by theories pretending to explain or foresee the development of societies. In the footsteps of Montesquieu, Tocqueville recognized that all societies are diverse and pluralistic in composition, molded by a complex mix of constantly evolving factors including history, physical environment, culture, and laws. No general theory of politics could adequately capture this complex amalgam and predict the development of society: “Antecedent facts, the nature of institutions, the cast of minds and the state of morals are the materials of which are composed those impromptus which astonish and alarm us.”[2]

Tocqueville’s new science of politics was not supposed to be value-neutral. He believed that his task (as legislator) was “to instruct democracy, to revive its beliefs if possible, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of public affairs for inexperience, knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to times and places” (DA, I, 16). As such, Tocqueville’s new science aspired to avoid both “political impressionism” and historical determinism threatening to rob individual human beings of their freedom and dignity. His well-known opposition to any form of determinism came to light in many of his writings, from his vivid Recollections to the important correspondence with Arthur de Gobineau included in volume IX of his Œuvres Complètes.

Tocqueville’s rejection of social and political determinism and his corresponding aversion to “pantheism” broadly defined must be linked to his belief that, in order to adequately explain social and political phenomena, an open and flexible method is required, one that does not seek to explain history by resorting to causal forces and explanations which show little or no respect to human beings as independent political actors. That is why Tocqueville shied away from endorsing reductionist or one-dimensional theories of social and political change. As an important passage from his Recollections shows, he detested “those absolute systems, which represent all the events in history as depending upon great first causes linked by the chain of fatality, and which, as it were, suppress men from the history of the human race. They seem narrow under their pretence of broadness, and false beneath their air of mathematical exactness.”[3]

All this helps explain Tocqueville’s take on democratic pantheism which can be found in chapter seven of the first part of Volume Two of Democracy in America. This is a small, one-page chapter whose significance might escape the attention of even the most attentive readers of the book. It is no accident that the discussion of pantheism comes after two important chapters on the principal source of beliefs among democratic peoples and the Americans’ preference for general ideas. Tocqueville argued that, in order for any society to exist and prosper, the minds of all citizens must be held together by certain ideas and “dogmatic beliefs.” He also emphasized the importance of public opinion in democratic times, adding that faith in the latter will become in democratic times a new sort of “religion” (sui generis). 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). The fact that this inclination manifests itself more prominently in democratic societies than ever before intrigued him, and he set out to explain the paradox that people who live very busy and pragmatic lives develop a strong taste for theories emphasizing unity and determinism.

He reached the conclusion that pantheism along with the tendency to look for single causes becomes a popular doctrine in democratic societies because it mirrors the new democratic social condition. While promoting equality and individual independence, the new état social also tends to make individuals isolated and powerless and predisposes them to superficiality and pragmatism. “In centuries of equality,” Tocqueville writes, “all men are independent of each other, isolated and weak; you see none whose will directs the movements of the crowd in a permanent fashion; in these times, humanity always seems to march by itself. So in order to explain what is happening in the world, you are reduced to searching for some general causes that, acting in the same way on each one of our fellows, therefore lead them all voluntarily to follow the same route. That also naturally leads the human mind to conceive general ideas and causes it to contract the taste for them” (DA, III: 733-34).  In democratic societies, he continued, this need “to find common rules in everything, to encompass a great number of matters within the same form, and to explain an ensemble of facts by a sole cause becomes an ardent and often blind passion of the human mind” (DA, III, 731-32).

Not surprisingly for an ardent lover of freedom like Tocqueville, the Frenchman was quick to point out the alarming implications of this powerful inclination that tends to make the mind obsessed with single causes and unity (at the expense of particularity) and leads it to embrace determinism. One such consequence, he insisted, was superficiality accompanied by democratic mediocrity. On the one hand, Tocqueville admitted, “general ideas are admirable in that they allow the human mind to make rapid judgments about a great number of matters at the same time.” On the other hand, “they never provide it with anything other than incomplete notions, and they always make it lose in exactitude what it gains in breadth” (DA, III: 729; all emphases added). Yet, democratic individuals do not seem overly concerned by that. Although their preference for unity, general ideas, and rules represents a potential threat to human individuality, it does seem to have a secret charm for them because it is accord with their commitment to equality, their independent spirit, and pragmatic mentality.

As such, pantheism in all of its forms is a shortcut solution that democratic individuals often resort to in order to avoid wasting their time with examining many particular and often dissimilar cases. They seek to arrange them according to a simple formula. “Men who live in centuries of equality,” Tocqueville explains, “have a great deal of curiosity and little leisure; their life is so practical, so complicated, so agitated, so active, that little time remains for them to think. The men of democratic centuries love general ideas, because they exempt them from studying particular cases; they contain, if I can express myself in this way, many things within a small volume and in little time produce a great result” (DA, III, 736; all emphases added). To this general pragmatic spirit Tocqueville added the taste that democratic individuals feel for easy success and present enjoyments with little effort: “Most of those who live in times of equality are full of an ambition intense and soft at the same time; they want to gain great successes immediately, but they would like to excuse themselves from great efforts. These opposing instincts lead them directly to the search for general ideas, by the aid of which they flatter themselves to portray very vast matters at little cost, and to attract the attention of the public without difficulty (DA, III, 736; all emphasis added).

In Tocqueville’s view, pantheism represented a formidable if invisible threat to preserving liberty and human greatness in democratic societies, which explains why this short chapter from Volume Two deserves more attention that it has commonly received until now. “Among the different systems by the aid of which philosophy seeks to explain the world,” Tocqueville wrote, “pantheism seems to me the one most likely to seduce the human mind in democratic centuries. All those who remain enamored of the true grandeur of man must join forces and struggle against it” (DA, III; 758). The alarming tone of Tocqueville’s claim deserves close scrutiny and raises a few questions. Why would a rather obscure philosophical and theological doctrine such as pantheism represent a formidable threat to human freedom and greatness in the age of equality?

Tocqueville gave several reasons for his concern, and here I would like to focus only on two of them. It seems hardly a mere coincidence that he laid them out in the last part of his work in which he introduced the seminal concept of democratic (soft) despotism and expressed his anxiety about the prospects of liberty in democratic times. First, Tocqueville noted, pantheism tends to foster fatalism and thwarts (or denies) the people’s ability to affect events; it attributes to individuals “almost no influence on the destiny of the species, or to citizens on the fate of the people.” At the same time, it gives “great general causes to all the small particular facts” and tends to present all events as “linked together by a tight and necessary chain,” thus ending up “by denying nations control over themselves and by contesting the liberty of having been able to do what they did” (DA, III: 853; all emphases added). This tendency, Tocqueville remarked, is visible especially among historians living in democratic times who, unlike their aristocratic colleagues, often contest the ability of peoples to modify their destinies by themselves and prefer instead to submit them to a sort of “blind fatality” and a tyranny of general causes, thus robbing them of their liberty.

Second, pantheism tends to foster uniformity and centralization of power among democratic peoples that have seen the principle of equality triumph among them.[4] The seemingly irresistible appeal of pantheism can be explained by the fact that it draws on individuals’ democratic instincts and their tendency to take delight in uniform rules, simple and general ideas, while being skeptical toward complex and multi-layered systems, local variations, and intermediary powers. In a draft note, Tocqueville put his finger on the problem, noting that “the theoretical and philosophical idea of government among democratic peoples is uniformity and centralization” (DA, IV, 1194, note a). He then explains: “In politics as in philosophy and in religion, the minds of democratic peoples receive simple and general ideas with delight.  They are repulsed by complicated systems, and they are pleased to imagine a great nation all of whose citizens resemble a single model and are directed by a single power. After the idea of a unique and central power, the one that presents itself most spontaneously to the minds of men in centuries of equality is the idea of a uniform legislation” (DA, IV, 1195).

This phenomenon was particularly visible in Europe where, as Tocqueville noted, “the notion of intermediary powers is growing dim and fading” and the corresponding “idea of the all-powerful and unique right of society is coming to take its place (DA, IV, 1197). This was, to be sure, a democratic phenomenon fostered by the progress of equality. “Everywhere” Tocqueville remarked, “the State arrives more and more at directing by itself the least citizens and at alone leading each of them in the least affairs” (DA, IV, 1222). Many initiatives and actions that were formerly undertaken by individuals or corporations had slowly come under the control of the unique power of the state. But it was the French who, among all European nations, went farthest in emphasizing the unity and omnipotence of the state and the social power and putting their trust in an all-encompassing state administration “in the image of a unique, simple, providential, and creative power” (DA, IV, 1199).

This trend led Tocqueville to despair of seeing freedom triumph in his native country during his lifetime. To be sure, after the coup d’état of Napoleon III in December 1851, France gave few reasons for optimism to all friends of freedom in Europe and around the world. This time, though, it was a new form of despotism (democratically legitimated at polls a few years earlier) that tended to become stronger in exact proportion as individuals felt increasingly demoralized. In this context, Tocqueville’s voice stood out like a beacon of hope and it is revealing that of all the dangers faced by his countrymen, he signaled pantheism because it tended  to legitimate “the science of despotism” (DA, IV, 1220). The French, he suggested (in a tone reminiscent of Mme de Staël’s argument in the last book of her Considerations on the French Revolution)[5] could be free once again if they really wanted to be free, that is, if they refused to believe that they were ruled by forces over which they had no control. “I believe,” Tocqueville wrote, “that in nearly each instant of their existence, nations, like men, are free to modify their fate” (DA, III: 858, note j). To his contemporaries who seemed all too inclined to doubt their free will and felt limited on all sides by their powerlessness, he reminded them that they could still regain their strength and independence. The stakes, he insisted, could not be any higher and Tocqueville saw his task as having an urgent soteriological dimension in the fight for liberty against despotism: “It is a matter of lifting up souls and not finally demoralizing them” (DA, III, 858-59).


[1] All references are to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, four-volume bilingual critical edition, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Each reference indicates the corresponding volume (with Roman numerals) and pages.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections, trans. A. Teixeira de Mattos, ed. J.-P. Mayer (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 64. On Tocqueville’s method, see Raymond Boudon, “L’exigence de Tocqueville: la ‘science politique nouvelle,’“ in The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville,  XXVII: 2 (2006): 13-34. I have explored this issue in my essay, “What Kind of Social Scientist Was Tocqueville?” in Conversations with Tocqueville: The Democratic Revolution in the Twenty-First Century, eds. Aurelian Craiutu and Sheldon Gellar (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 55-81.

[3] Tocqueville, Recollections, 64.

[4] The centrality of equality to Tocqueville’s argument must be duly emphasized here: “I have shown that equality suggested to men the thought of a unique, uniform, and strong government. … I think that, in the democratic centuries that are going to open up, individual independence and local liberties will always be a product of art. Centralization will be the natural government” (DA, IV, 1205; all emphases added).

[5] See Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, edited with an introduction by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008), 629-33.