Alan S. Kahan’s latest book gives us just what it promises: a comprehensive new English account of the place of religion in Alexis de Tocqueville’s thought. While there are good works that look at Tocqueville’s writing on religion and American democracy, Catholicism and the French Revolution, or Islam in Algeria, the disparate contexts in which Tocqueville raised religious questions have very rarely been brought together, and never in such a sustained way. However dispersed Tocqueville’s discussions of religion were across his œuvre, this book shows that the subject remained central throughout. For Kahan, this is because Tocqueville was a ‘moralist’: operating within a French tradition embracing La Bruyère, Rousseau and Chateaubriand, he saw his political and moral ideas as essentially interdependent. Yet unlike devoutly Catholic thinkers, Tocqueville—who, even though he remained to some degree a practising Catholic, had actually lost his faith in his teens—saw religion as a means rather than an end. Kahan particularly argues that religion formed part of the ‘checks and balances’ that Tocqueville thought necessary to the proper functioning of democratic societies. Religious beliefs and institutions check democratic governments by ‘raising barriers to arbitrary action’ (p. 79). At the same time, religion balances individual citizens’ tendencies towards materialism and individualism. When Tocqueville encouraged religion, then, it formed part of addressing his fundamental dilemma: how can we foster the development of human grandeur and liberty in a democratic society? Kahan divides his book neatly in two. The first section, ‘Theory’, explores the roots and premises of Tocqueville’s thought on religion. Chapters One and Two situate Tocqueville in the tradition of French moralists and explore the intellectual sources of his ideas, while Chapters Three to Five provide an outline of his ideas on the relationship between democracy and religion, as well as his comparison between religion and alternative sources of moral life such as patriotism or poetry. The second section, ‘Applications’, analyses how Tocqueville assessed concrete societies through these lenses. Chapter Six mainly treats Democracy in America, Chapter Seven looks at a variety of Tocqueville’s writings on France and Chapter Eight brackets together a range of other cases that he discussed at various points in his career (Ireland, England, Islam, Hinduism). The book is followed by a brief methodological appendix, where Kahan makes a useful case for taking the œuvre rather than the text as the unit of intellectual history. Non-Tocquevillian readers will probably focus on the second half of Kahan’s book, especially the readings of Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution, which could easily be extracted for discussion groups. But this would be a shame, because Kahan’s attempt in the first section to frame Tocqueville as a moralist operating within a precise French intellectual and literary tradition helps us see his texts in a new and interesting way. It allows us to recognise Tocqueville’s rhetorical models and modes, and to place his work in comparison with other nineteenth-century writers such as Guizot and Lamennais. The final chapter, ‘Tocqueville today’, asserts that Tocqueville’s religious politics is not only still relevant, but actually has advantages over subsequent thinkers ranging from Max Weber to Jose Casanova, Jürgen Habermas and Michael Sandel. In Kahan’s rendering, Tocqueville was ‘ahead of his time when it comes to religion’ (p. 195), because he envisaged a post-secular society where religion no longer held unquestioned authority but remained present and important to many citizens, rather than inevitably dying out. The utility of Tocqueville is thus that he becomes a sort of proto-Casanova, happy to ‘go with the flow’ (p. 210), rather than anxiously defending the political sphere from religiously grounded moral claims. Kahan’s case here is suggestive, but one wonders whether we can so quickly bracket the tension between Tocqueville’s liberalism on such questions and his rigid value judgements about particular religious constellations. As Kahan clearly outlines, especially in Chapter Eight, Tocqueville’s ideas about what kinds of religion were better or worse for democracy led him to dismiss Hinduism almost entirely, treat Islam with extreme scepticism and despair at contemporary French Catholicism (which he believed, nonetheless, to be salvageable). Critics of contemporary western secularism argue that it tends to demand that members of non-Christian faiths conform to an essentially protestantised conception of the definition and boundaries of religion. Since Tocqueville’s criticisms of Islam and Catholicism seem largely to rehearse, rather than challenge, such a conception, one wonders whether his thought truly offers the resources to solve the contemporary dilemmas of our diverse societies. But Kahan is right to raise the question, since there is certainly more to be said. For historians of nineteenth-century French intellectual history, as well as scholars of the liberal tradition, Kahan’s book is a significant addition to a literature where one sometimes wonders whether there is much new to say. In enjoyably lucid and well-organised prose, he provides numerous insights that others might take further—for instance, the similarity between Tocqueville’s treatment of religions and women as moral arbiters—as well as fresh eyes on old debates—for example, juxtaposing Tocqueville’s praise of Irish Catholicism as a resource for anti-colonial resistance against his reticence to praise Algerian Islam. As one would expect from one of the world’s leading authorities on Tocqueville, Kahan guides us through the whole span of his public and private texts with a sure hand. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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