Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tocqueville's take on Private Judgment

Peter Robinson interviewed Paul Rahe, who has just published a book titled Soft Despotism: Democracy’s Drift. The book is an anaylsis of our current state of affairs in light of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In the interview, Rahe discusses the four institutions which shielded Americans from the desire to surrender their liberty to the state in the past:

1) Local Government
2) Civic Associations
3) Family
4) Church

The first two cultivate a do-it-yourself attitude. The third provides a safety net of stability and comfort for individuals who would otherwise experience anxiety. Where Rahe gets Tocqueville wrong is on the fourth institution, religion. Rahe describe it in the same terms as the first two: cultivation of a do-it-yourself attitude. Indeed, he depicts Tocqueville as saying that it encourages skepticism toward authority. I, however, remember Tocqueville’s take on the matter as more akin to his view on the family: a source for certain truths in a world that seemed to be more and more in flux. But don’t take my word on it. Here is a direct quote from Mr. T himself:

General ideas respecting God and human nature are therefore the ideas above all others which it is most suitable to withdraw from the habitual action of private judgment and in which there is most to gain and least to lose by recognizing a principle of authority. The first object and one of the principal advantages of religion is to furnish to each of these fundamental questions a solution that is at once clear, precise, intelligible, and lasting, to the mass of mankind….This is especially true of men living in free countries. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Every man accustoms himself to having only confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself. His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned; and, in despair of ever solving by himself the hard problems respecting the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them…Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude.

For Tocqueville, the skeptic is more, not less, susceptible to surrendering his freedom due to his uncertainty about the biggest questions.

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