SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Alan Kahan, professor of British Civilization at the University of Paris-Saclay, and visiting professor of conservative thought and policy at the Benson Center. Alan is author of Aristocratic Liberalism, Mind Versus Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism, and Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion. His forthcoming book from Princeton University Press is entitled Liberalism: An Incomplete History. Our conversation today explores the thought of 19th century political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest books on America ever written. We discuss why Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, why the book is still worth reading today, and what Tocqueville thought about race, religion, and the prospect of American decline. Alan Kahan, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast.
ALAN KAHAN: Well, thank you very much, Shilo. It's a pleasure to be here.
SHILO BROOKS: I've been wanting to get you on this podcast for a long time. For people who don't know, I recruited Alan to the Benson Center by way of stalking him and reading his work, and talking to his friends, and trying to get him to come be a visiting scholar here. And the reason I wanted Alan to come is because Alan is one of the world's experts on what is, to me, one of the most intriguing political theorists in my view, but he's many things, of the 19th century, and that is Alexis de Tocqueville. And so I wanted to get Alan on today to talk about Alexis de Tocqueville, talk about some of the features of his work, why he endures, why he's worth reading. Let me start with this question, Alan, for folks out there who have never heard the name Alexis de Tocqueville, or maybe they heard it when they were in high school or college, but it's been 25 years, can you say who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, to start with, he was a Frenchman, as you may have gathered from the name, even if you've only heard it for the first time now. And he's a Frenchman who's probably most famous for writing the best book ever written about the United States of America named Democracy in America. Which in some ways is peculiar because it actually isn't a book about the United States of America. It's a book about democracy. Which Tocqueville defined as a situation of equality of conditions is the usual way it's translated. But in fact, what it really means, we all have equal status.
When you wake up in the morning and you go out on the street, you think that every person you meet that day is basically your equal. And we think that's normal. But for most of human in history, as Tocqueville points out, that was not normal. You had superiors, you had inferiors, you had very few equals. And because he wrote this book, which is in fact a wonderful book about America as well as being a wonderful book about democracy, he has helped Americans to understand America, foreigners to understand America, and everyone to understand democracy. That's probably the reason why he's known today throughout the world.
He also wrote another masterpiece about the origin of the French Revolution, which in some ways is the same book. One of his friends suggested to him when he was trying to figure out what to call this book, that the real title ought to be Democracy in France, but that he couldn't use that because he needed to get the word revolution in the title or else nobody would buy the book. So instead it's called the Old Regime and the Revolution.
SHILO BROOKS: So he's got these two books, Democracy in America and the Old Regime. And I think for the purposes of our conversation today, we'll focus on Democracy in America, although it's certainly possible, conceivable, and desirable that I would have you back on to talk about the Old Regime at some point in the future. I remember reading Democracy in America in graduate school, and the professor said something like, "It's among the most frequently quoted books on both the left and the right." In other words, everybody seems to want to own Tocqueville. And Tocqueville seems conscious in Democracy in America that he doesn't want anyone to own him. And so I'm curious, why do you think that Tocqueville has played or has had such an influence on American political thought? What is that sort of enduring dimension, feature of his book that makes it relevant even today on the left and on the right? Everybody wants to claim him. Why is that?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, everybody wants to have God on their side. And when it comes to political theory, Tocqueville's pretty close to the divine. And so everybody thinks it's profitable, first of all, to claim Tocqueville as part of your ancestry. And sometimes he's been seen predominantly as a left wing figure, sometimes he's been seen predominantly as a right wing figure. This has been true ever since the book was first published. The first half of it was published in 1835. And he had reviewers both in France, and then when the book was almost immediately translated in England and in the United States, who said, "Oh, he's a great conservative." "Oh, he's actually a radical, he's on the left." And there's something in the book for everyone.
But the reason I think people like to quote it so much is there's this wonderful mixture in Democracy in America on sort of general statements and particular illustrations. And people like to pick up on the general statement, and then use it with or without the illustration to develop their own position. Tocqueville is a wonderful thinker to think with. There's some thinkers you think about what they said, Tocqueville really inspires you in his arguments about what democracy means, about what's the relationship between America and this general democratic social state, what it is that makes America particularly American and makes it different from the rest of what he considers to be European society.
Tocqueville inspires you to use his ideas to think about your problems. Because in so many ways, his problems are our problems. He and we are still trying to work out what it means to live in an egalitarian world, or a world that is proceeding towards equality. And for some of us that word equality is automatically, "Oh, this is wonderful." And for some few of us, "Oh, this is terrible." For Tocqueville, and this is why he can appeal to both the left and the right, equality in and of itself can be either wonderful or terrible.
That is to say we can have an egalitarian society in which we're all equally free or an egalitarian society in which we are all equally slaves. And the primary purpose of Democracy in America is to encourage us and to give us some hints in a practical and theoretical sense as to how we can make sure we get the right answer here. That we end up with a society that is democratic and free rather than democratic and servile. And thinking about our world in these terms, many people have found profitable and enlightening, and it gives you something to struggle for and means with which to struggle.
SHILO BROOKS: You're talking now about the primary purpose of Democracy in America. And for folks who haven't read the book, can you just tell us a little bit about, okay, so Tocqueville is a Frenchman. He comes to America. I mean he does this extraordinary cultural, political, anthropological, spiritual study of America, and produces two volumes. Can you tell us a little bit of the story of why did Tocqueville come to America, what did he do when he was here? And just give us the basics of the two volumes before we get into them, what differentiates them and that sort of thing.
ALAN KAHAN: So Tocqueville was a young man from a very aristocratic family. Unlike most noble families in France, he had an ancestor who fought with William the Conqueror to take England in 1066. His family had supported the king against the revolutionaries during the French Revolution, and was very strongly Legitimist, as that political grouping was known. Tocqueville, young man, goes to law school, gets a law degree, becomes a sort of assistant prosecuting attorney in Versailles outside Paris.
And then the restored monarchy is overthrown in 1830. And unlike all his friends, or almost all his friends, and certainly unlike all his relations, Tocqueville doesn't quit public life. Instead, he takes the oath to the new king and discovers that nobody will talk to him in his usual circle, and he really needs to go away. And he and a friend he'd made at the prosecutor's office, a gentleman named Gustave de Beaumont, who was in a very similar position, decide they need to go very far away.
And so they ask the French ministry to do a report on the American prison system, which believe it or not, was considered the world's best prison system at that time. And France was considered to have one of the world's worst. And so they were going to make some suggestions, write a big report about how to reform it. And they got an unpaid leave of absence to write this report on the American prison system. And they got in a boat.
Now at this point, Tocqueville can read English, but he can barely speak it. He spends the entire six week voyage talking to all the Americans on the ship trying to improve his English, which he does with a good deal of success. A famous 19th century French critic said about Tocqueville that he began to think before he knew anything. And one of the great disputes within Tocqueville scholarship is how much did his trip to America actually influence Tocqueville? For many people, he came with a whole bunch of preconceived notions and never changed them.
I think however, the majority of Tocqueville scholars would now agree in saying that's not the truth. He certainly had thought deeply about democracy and about the United States before he got on board that boat. But he was surprised by many things about the United States. And he spent a little over a year traveling, not quite all over America. He did not make it to the deep South. He was intending to spend six months there when, for reasons no one has ever been able to figure out, he was recalled by the French government and told Get back home as soon as possible.
So he lands in New York, He spends a lot of time in New England. He travels in the Midwest to what is then the complete wilderness of Michigan and Wisconsin. Takes a boat down the Mississippi River. Spent several hours talking on the steamboat with Sam Houston, gets to New Orleans, and at that point he gets his summons to come back home. But he certainly spent a very profitable time. And for those who've occasionally criticized him for never having actually visited the South, he did spend over a month in Maryland. And Maryland at that time, unlike today, was very much a southern state. And he visited a Maryland plantation. He spent a lot of time in Baltimore, as well as the well known time that he spent in New England.
He met a lot of famous people. He met John Quincy Adams, the former president of the United States. He spent time with the president of Harvard with a lot of the New England intelligentsia. He was deeply impressed by William Ellery Channing, who was known as the Pope of Unitarianism at the time. In fact, he was deeply impressed by Unitarianism in general about which he'd never heard a thing before he came to the United States.
He goes to the wilderness. One of the things that he was most looking forward to when he arrives in the United States is meeting Native Americans. He's the cousin of Chateaubriand, who is a French writer who wrote a sort of romantic novel about a Native American romance. And Tocqueville was rather disappointed with his first sight of a Native American as someone who's lying dead drunk in the road outside of Albany, New York. But when he gets further west, he meets Native Americans who are still independent and free and has lots of conversations with them. He finds them fascinating, and in general, he finds America fascinating. And it's not just for the period of time he spends in the United States, he makes a lot of American friends, and he keeps up a very heavy correspondence with those Americans throughout his life.
SHILO BROOKS: And so he comes. Extraordinary that he meets Sam Houston, by the way. You've mentioned that to me before. I'm a Texan. I delight frankly in a picture of Tocqueville and Sam Houston on a boat. I mean, it's just wonderful. But he talks to people. He looks at the social state, the way politics, culture, religion, these sorts of things take place in America. And then he composes this book Democracy in America, which is in two volumes. And from my point of view, the first volume and the second volume are different in a way in terms of approach and content, and maybe even aim and purpose. They're complimentary. It's not to say that they're not. But can you give us some account of what the first volume is? What does it contain, broadly speaking? What does the second volume, and what does it contain, and how is it different from the first and also an elaboration of the first?
ALAN KAHAN: So what Tocqueville says, and I'm inclined to take his word about this, is that his first volume was drawing forth all the political consequences of democracy in America. And the second volume was drawing forth all the consequences in terms of mores, culture, and these broader kinds of subjects. And so he sees them as different in perspective, but complimentary. They're all about democracy as well as about America.
There is, as you may be aware, a considerable controversy too in the Tocqueville scholarship about are these two books really different or are they really the same? And I confess, I'm a lumper rather than a splitter. I see him as taking the rock and turning it from side to side and looking at the different facets of democracy and of America. It can be easy to forget this. For example, the famous phrase tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville invented, is used repeatedly in the first volume, the 1835 volume of Democracy. And not at all in the second volume. And yet he talks about the thing a lot, even though he doesn't repeat the words. In this respect, perhaps Tocqueville's not very Straussian in his vocabulary. It varies.
But the purpose of the whole book is really laid out in the introduction to volume one, which is a remarkable piece of work. Because it starts out with a brief history of democracy. How the world moved from an aristocratic social state to a democratic one. And first it's told in purely secular terms. Oh, there was the printing press. Oh, there's the spread of literacy. Oh, there's the development of commerce and industry. And then it's retold in really religious language. This is the plan of providence. It is hopeless to fight it. One of the purposes of this book was to try to tell French aristocrats, "No, you cannot bring back the old regime. You cannot return to a feudal society. The world is going to be a democratic world and attempting to make it anything else is a waste of your time." And Tocqueville had lots of relatives who were wasting time in just this way.
And so you get a secular and a divine history of democracy. One's to appeal to the conservative Catholic religious types and one to appeal to the radical atheists. Both ends up in the same conclusion. We have this democratic world, but it's neither as utopian nor as catastrophic as both sides think it is. It's a world that can go either way. And Tocqueville says, my mission, and this is the mission statement of Democracy in America, "My mission is to help the superior and enlightened classes to direct democracy in such a way that it means freedom and not despotism."
And that's what all the rest of the book is about. Teaching you about what democracy is and what America is so that you know what can be done, what can't be done, what fits with democracy, what are democracy's strengths, what are democracy's weaknesses? And Tocqueville himself, he writes himself a note at one point and he says, "Look, all my instincts are aristocratic. I don't really like to feel part of a crowd. I'm terrified of the crowd and of the mass. But my reason is purely democratic. I know that this is the way the world is. And furthermore, I believe that in God's eyes, democracy is more just than aristocracy. That all souls are equal in the eyes of God. And therefore, whether I like it or not, I need to support this."
SHILO BROOKS: So Tocqueville has, you just mentioned, these aristocratic leanings in a way. I'm curious why you call Tocqueville an aristocratic liberal. What do those two words put together mean? I think a lot of people would say, "Well, you can't have that." It's a contradiction in terms. So why do you call Tocqueville an aristocratic liberal when you describe him, even just now? What does that mean?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, first of all, let me say what I don't mean by that term. It's not a reference to the fact that he had an ancestor who was a shipmate of William the Conqueror. It's not a reference to his aristocratic birth. He's not the only aristocratic liberal I include in that category. People like John Stuart Mill who was as middle class as you come, at least in terms of his social origins. What makes Tocqueville, first of all, aristocratic here is he really does not think much of the middle class. One of the things that you see repeatedly in Democracy in America is his denunciation of the materialism of democratic societies in general, of the middle class in particular. And since America is a country dominated by its middle class American materialism. This is a criticism that many European visitors have had of the United States.
And Tocqueville's thinks, first of all, that it's natural to democratic societies. When you don't have an inherited status, the duke, whether he has money or doesn't have money, he's still the duke. Well, we're not dukes. We're just Mr. Brooks. And so the only way that's left to distinguish ourselves in many respects from others is through money. And when you've made your own money, and this goes back to Plato's Republic, you care about it.
But for Tocqueville, it's very important that this not be the only thing that you care about. He does not condemn this materialism. There's no point. It's natural in a democratic society, but it needs to have something else. And that's something else is a fundamentally aristocratic and elitist ethos. Now, when most people hear those words today, aristocratic and elitist, they think, blah, right? These are bad things. That's not what Tocqueville has in mind. What he has in mind is the necessity for a democratic society, alongside its pursuit of technological and economic progress, individual material progress, alongside that, there needs to be a quest for a moral greatness, moral grandeur is the word he uses, both on the part of the society and on the part of individuals.
And one of the things he points out is to say, "Look, if you're looking to have a moral greatness of the kind they had in the days of the knights of the round table and chivalry and aristocratic societies, you're never going to find that in a democratic society. But there is a democratic moral greatness that is possible. It's different, but it's equally great, and perhaps even morally superior." So this is why I call him an aristocratic thinker. This pursuit of moral grandeur, which has to parallel this more widespread and natural search for material improvement.
To why he's a liberal, well, he's a liberal because Tocqueville's real God is freedom. And for him, the only way for us to have moral grandeur is in the context of a free society. If you don't live in a free society, it is going to be very hard, in fact, nearly impossible for you to have the kind of moral development, character development, that he thinks people need to seek both as an individual and as a member of society. And so that for him, freedom is necessary to make great human beings.
Indeed, one of the things that he faults too many governments of his time, and it would apply equally to ours, one of the things he faults governments for thinking about is they think about what things they can do with people. What great, wonderful accomplishments they can make with human beings. As opposed to thinking about, well, how do I help contribute to the creation of great human beings? And for Tocqueville, that's the point. That's what you want to organize your society to be able to do, to encourage moral grandeur. And that's a real possible thing for him in America in democratic societies. But it's also possible to have democratic societies which are full of petty money-grubbing individuals who are very concerned to obey the law, but who have no interest whatsoever in any form of greatness
SHILO BROOKS: I want to just pursue this moral grandeur theme for just one more second because I'm curious. I too am drawn to Tocqueville for this very reason, the moral grandeur aspect of his thought. It's also why I'm drawn to Nietzsche in an odd way. But I'm interested in when you look out at America today, when our listeners look at America today, it's not clear to me that anybody would say that the United States is a land of moral grandeur. That it's made good on Tocqueville's hope or promise to that democracy can in some way ennoble man. I mean, you certainly see this in Democracy in America, American citizen is in a certain sense, a ennobled citizen. But I just wonder, when you look out there today and you look through the Tocqueville goggles, and you ask yourself this question about American democracy and its cultivation of moral grandeur, what do you see?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, we all have a certain tendency to think that back in the good old days, everybody was a great hero. Even Tocqueville had a little bit of this tendency. He said, "I look around America in 1830, and I don't see quite as much moral grandeur as perhaps I did at the time of the founding." Nevertheless, the opportunity is there as far as Tocqueville is concerned. And I remember there's a wonderful passage in a novel by William Dean Howells' called The Rise of Silas Lapham.
And it's set in the 1880s, and an older gentleman is talking to a younger gentleman. And he says to the younger gentleman, "If you look around the men your age in this room, how many of them do you think would be willing to lay down their lives for a cause?" And the younger gentleman says, "Well, I have to say sir, I think the answer would probably be something like no one." And the older gentleman says, "Well, if you had asked me that question in 1855, that's exactly what I would've said. And yet, five years later, when the Civil War came, they all did."
Moral grandeur, to some extent, is a matter of having an occasion for it. And there hasn't been a whole lot of occasion for Americans to show moral grandeur for some time in this respect. Things may be changing in the course of a few weeks. We'll see. But it's a permanent problem. Because for Tocqueville, there are tendencies in democracy which tend to be destructive of moral grandeur, just as there are ways in which democratic society provides the opportunity.
I'm certain, looking around American political and social life today, it's hard to know who those morally great individuals would be, but I'm sufficiently optimistic to think the potential for them remains as long as the society remains free. I think that's Tocqueville's argument. As another aristocratic liberal, Jacob Burckhardt, said in one of his rare, optimistic moments, "Never underestimate the potential for renaissances." This coming from the man who was the greatest scholar of the Italian Renaissance who arguably ever lived. And I think that's true of moral renaissances as well as other kinds of renaissances.
We have a certain kind of tendency, for good reason, to think of our society as being in many respects, intellectually, morally, politically, and economically a corrupt one. But that doesn't mean that there's no capacity in it for a renaissance and hope for such a renaissance, as long as at least a certain amount of freedom is preserved. And so in that sense, even though Tocqueville himself by the end of his life is completely pessimistic about the prospects for freedom, not in America, but in France, which is the country he cared about most, even though he's pessimistic about freedom in France because of a series of events which we can talk about perhaps, he still maintains the potential for optimism in the future.
In some ways, it's a Manichean view. We have this permanent struggle within democratic society between tendencies towards freedom and tendencies towards slavery, and in which we're all called on to take our stand on the right side. And so you could find plenty of reasons for pessimism. You usually can in human events. But there are enough reasons left for optimism that I don't think Tocqueville would tell us to despair.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, let's drill down a little bit more deeply into some of these themes of Democracy in America since we're headed in that direction. I mean, when I teach this book, first of all, this book is always just a delight to teach. But there are parts of it that I think the students always think are sort of the highlights. I mean, the Puritan origins of America, the students are always puzzled by the New England Township, especially out here in the West and Colorado, students are like, "What the heck is a New England township?" The part of the book about slavery and race in America is one that students are always interested in. Tocqueville's views on religion are always of interest to students. The shaping of the American mind, where Tocqueville talks about the American mind, the restlessness of the American mind, the Cartesian character of the American mind, American writers, I mean, the students always get a real kick out of that part.
And then they also seem to me to be made solemn in a way, or they're quieted by the end of the book where Tocqueville talks about his hopes and fears for democracy. He talks about soft despotism and us being in chains, but freeing ourselves long enough to go vote and then returning to our chains again. And this is kind of a worst case scenario for democracy. So I want to turn to some of these themes, and of course we can't get to all of them in the time that remains, but why don't we start with one that is a sort of perennial question, both for students and for America as a whole, and that is Tocqueville's views on the problem of slavery and race. There's a beautiful section in volume one where Tocqueville talks about the current condition and future of the African race in America, also the Native Americans and their condition and nature. And so I thought we might start with his remarks on the African race and slavery in America. What is Tocqueville's view of slavery in America?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, the first thing to say is that Tocqueville was an abolitionist who hated slavery. In the French context, there was slavery in the Caribbean Islands. Tocqueville fought while he was a member of the French National Assembly to abolish slavery there. In the United States, his position was a little bit more complicated and really quite interesting. He says, "Look, the immediate total abolition of slavery poses much more of a problem in America than it does in the Caribbean. Why? Because in all those Caribbean islands, the population is 90% Black. You free the slaves, and they are going to run society, the ex-slaves, because they're 90% of the population, and that'll be fine."
"In America,' he says, "the situation is much more complicated and very different. You have a situation in which in parts of the United States, in the South, Black people makeup," at this point in places like Mississippi and Alabama, "even a slight majority of the population. Other states in the American South, a large minority of the population. Because they have been enslaved, they are illiterate. It's against the law to teach a slave to read and write. They have no practical experience in self-government, either on the level of the family," because as he points out, the African American family is continually being destroyed by slavery and so on and so forth.
And so he devotes a lot of time to saying, "Well, what would happen if you free the slaves in America on the day after?" And very perspicaciously he says, "You can free the slaves, but you can't eliminate racism in 24 hours." And so you are going to have a situation in which you have a deeply racist white society faced with a large, ignorant, unorganized, uneducated in both a practical and academic sense of the word, Black population. And Tocqueville knows a lot about American racism, even with regard to free Black people, because he's spent time in the North. He's fascinated to discover, for example, that in the state of Pennsylvania, of course Black people have a right to vote, and of course they never exercise it because if they go to a polling place, Tocqueville is informed by one of his American informants, they'd be lynched. So that even when Black people, and he has seen this in real experience, even when Black people are free, that doesn't mean the Black people are free as it were.
And his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont writes a novel Marie that's basically about this. In which a woman who has one ex-slave grandfather marries a wandering Frenchman, and the racism they experience and the problems for their relationship that occur and so on and so forth. So Tocqueville is thinking hard about what happens after abolition in the context of this profoundly racist situation. And what he says is going to happen is that there's going to be a race war and the whites are going to win.
And if you think about the history of Jim Crow in the United States, that wasn't a bad prediction for what happened in the course of Reconstruction and the end of Reconstruction. And Tocqueville says, "This is not a reason to justify slavery." He says, "Let nobody who reads Democracy in America ever think that because of what I'm saying about the practical consequences of abolition, that slavery is in the slightest bit justified, or that the racism of the whites is in the slightest bit justified. But this is simply what is going to happen, and there is no way to avoid it."
So in his lifetime, Tocqueville is a strong opponent of the extension of slavery to new states in the United States. But he is always circumspect about what do you do about the actually existing situation? And he sheds light about what might be done. And here again, he compares it to the Caribbean Islands. He says, "The only way to overcome this is intermarriage." He says, "The problem with that is that," in 1831, or for that matter in 1866, "there's no white person either in the North or in the South who would dream of marrying a Black person." He looks at intermarriage in the North, and he says, "This is just not happening, and it's not going to happen for the foreseeable future." And again, he's correct.
And here he has some interesting comments, some of which actually developed in the book The Old Regime where he starts talking about a concept he calls caste, which he had not developed in Democracy in America. And the concept is originally invented to talk about the French nobility, which he says is no longer an aristocracy, but has become a kind of hereditary caste, but it applies very well to race in America. And he says, "There's only one way to know if caste is disappearing or has been overcome." And he's writing this book in the 1850s. He said, "Caste hasn't been overcome in France despite 60 years post-revolution. And the only way to know caste has been overcome is intermarriage," again.
And so if you look at the United States and marriages between white people and Black people, first of all, in many states, they were illegal until Loving versus Virginia in the late 1960s. But it didn't matter. Even in the states where they were legal, they didn't happen. Intermarriage in the United States doesn't start to really take off until the 1990s, and has been rising very steadily ever since. So from Tocqueville's perspective for the past 30 years, we've been seeing for the first time in American history a serious decline in racism and caste spirit, which is not exactly the message that you would get from, say, critical race theorists, but for Tocqueville, it's simply evident.
And in fact, and this is an interesting subject, because some critical race theorists have tried to draw support from Tocqueville. Where they agree is the notion that racism is a long lasting and important problem in American history. But for Tocqueville, first of all, it's not a democratic problem, it's an American problem. And Democracy in America talks about both of them. But more importantly, while race is important in the United States, it's never the most important or the most interesting thing for Tocqueville. That's why his comments about it can be concentrated in that one chapter at the end of the first volume of Democracy.
What's interesting about the United States, what's really important about the United States, is not the fact that there was slavery and there was racism, because these things had existed forever in one way or another, what's really interesting and important about the United States is that it's the most democratic society that's ever been in a world that is moving in that direction. And it is a free society in important ways. And it's American freedom and American democracy that strike him as the really interesting and important things about the United States. Even though along the way, he's going to be perhaps the most brilliant analyst of American racism that's ever written.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, this is a really interesting question. I mean, I recall that there's that part of Democracy in America in the race section, I believe it is, where he talks about the differences between slavery in the ancient world and slavery in the modern world. And this leads him to conclude that intermarriage is a solution, I believe, because slavery in the ancient world, when you free the slaves, they look like everyone else. And so it's not clear who they were. Whereas he sees this as a problem in America, when you free the slaves, they bear the mark of slavery, and that this is a very difficult social problem. And so the way to dissolve the mark of slavery is to mix the races so that everyone's got a bit of the mark of everything. It's a fascinating section.
Can you talk a little bit, I mean, we're touching on the hot button subjects, Alan, we talked about race, what the heck? Let's talk about religion too. Let's really just stir the pot. So we've got to Tocqueville's attitude on race in America. What is his view of religion in America? What is unique about the way religion and American democracy interface with each other? Because he seems to think Christianity plays a crucial role in conditioning the moral, and maybe even the political life of Americans. So why does Tocqueville see Christianity as a kind of special ingredient in the American soup that makes the whole thing taste good?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, think of it this way. In a democratic world, we're all equal. We can even extend this in the 21st century to men and women, all possible gender combinations, white people, Black people, brown people, and so on. There's one exception to that general equality. You are not God's equal. God is different. Fundamentally different. And for that very reason, God is crucial in democratic society as sort of the ultimate example of diversity and the ultimate other who nevertheless exists in a direct relationship with every human being and provides resources for each of us and for the society as a whole to counter essentially all of the bad tendencies of democracy.
Now, I mean, one of the things that I like to stress is that Tocquville always thinks on two parallel tracks as ways of getting where he wants to go. There's always a secular way and a religious way. So you want to prevent people from being dominated by the soft or harsh despotism of the majority, because we're all just isolated individuals in this egalitarian society. Well, the secular way is we form civil associations, one of the classic themes in Tocqueville, and those associations could perform some of the functions in terms of preserving our freedom that aristocrats once performed in a feudal society.
Well, we have secular civil associations on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have religion, which performs a lot of the same assumptions that takes us out of ourself, that makes us think about different kinds of things, that gives us different kinds of resources, that shows us among other things that materialism should not be all of human life and so on. And Tocqueville comes to America, which he perceives as being the most religiously practicing country in the Western World. People often say today, "Oh, America's a much more Christian country than any place in Europe." Well, this is just as true for Tocqueville coming in 1830. He's astonished, the fact that everybody's in church on Sundays.
And he looks to try to figure out how come religion serves this function in the United States when it clearly has not served this function in France. What is it about American religion that makes it different than Catholicism in France? Even though there are Catholics in America too, and they seem to be doing the same kind of work that Protestants are doing for religion. And the answer for Tocqueville is the Americans have separated church and state. And this is utterly crucial. That if the church becomes identified with the government, if the church worst of all becomes identified with a particular political party, well, that means that when you disagree with the government, you disagree with God. When you vote against the other party, you are voting against God. And it means that the opposition is by definition atheists, as it were. And that when they get control of the government, they are going to be the enemies of religion and consider themselves such.
And in France, this is what's happening in the 19th century and indeed for the first half of the 20th century. We have the Catholics on one side, and we have those secular irreligious types on the other side. And between the two of them, freedom gets destroyed. Because the only way you can have a consensus about freedom for Tocqueville is if you can bring together these religious and secular elements. And the only way you can do that is by separating church and state.
The metaphor I like to use is that Tocqueville's ideal of the relationship [inaudible] two is think about adjoining houses that share a wall, and they have separate entrances. And when you go into the religious house, you put aside your secular allegiances. And when you go into the secular house, you put aside your religion. But the wall is very thin, so you can hear what's going on. And that way when the secular society or the religious society is going off track, they can hear what's going on and provide a certain kind of influence. For example, democratic secular society, encouraging the democratization of Christianity, and Christianity encouraging the moralization of democratic society. And that's what's supposed to be going on, and for Tocqueville really is going on in the United States.
And he's trying to persuade basically his conservative French Catholic friends that freedom is not the enemy of religion. And he's trying to persuade his radical left French friends that it's not your enemy either. Religion's not your enemy. God can be your friend. God can be the friend of freedom. That may not sound like a very radical proposition now, but it's still a very tough proposition to get across in France, and it's becoming increasingly a tough proposition to get across in the United States. And here I think Tocqueville would see indeed a decay from the situation in his own time.
Now, one of the curious things here is is he talking specifically about Christianity, or is he talking about religion in general, or even substitutes for religion? Because there are times in the book where he talks about everything from poetry to science to patriotism as being able to provide some of the checking and balancing functions that religion does in terms of materialism, despotism, and so on. But he comes back to saying, no, religion does a better job than any of those secular things in these respects, and that the right kind of Christianity does it better than anybody else.
Now, the right kind of Christianity doesn't actually exist. He kind of makes it up. Tocqueville personally is he is not a Christian. He's a deist in his own beliefs. There's some controversy about the last three months of his life, but we can leave that aside. And he does not endorse any particular variety of Christianity, although he comes pretty close to saying that if he was an American, he'd be a Unitarian. Although he's not quite certain that Unitarianism has enough lower class appeal, but he thinks that for well-educated people, Unitarianism may be the way to go.
Nevertheless, he considers Christianity because it is the existing religion of the West in some form as the only way to appeal to religion for most people. Very briefly, he completely rejects Hinduism because the caste system doesn't fit with democracy, and he doesn't like it. He has some complicated views on Islam. The problem with Islam for Tocqueville is that there isn't sufficient separation of church and state in his view. Of course, that's also a problem for contemporary Catholicism for him. So whether this is a disparagement of Islam is really hard to say.
One of the places I actually think Tocqueville was wrong is a very short chapter in Democracy in America, in which he condemned pantheism as the worst of all possible religions because it doesn't have any otherness to it. There's a little bit of God in everyone and everything. Well, then God can't perform this checking and balancing differentiating function. I'm not so sure he's right about that. In fact, to the extent that in our contemporary world, traditional religions are having a hard time of it, whereas some form of more general pantheist spirituality seems to be on the rise in everything from the ecology movement to all kinds of alternative spirituality, as they're sometimes called, I think that perhaps we need to rethink Tocqueville's condemnation of pantheism.
After all, Tocqueville said that pantheism was the kind of religion most natural to democratic peoples because everybody gets the same little bit of God in them. And Tocqueville's already taught us you can't fight city hall. You can't fight democracy. So if pantheism is the natural religion of democratic peoples, it seems to me you ought to, if necessary, embrace it and find a way in which it can become a support of freedom in the way in which traditional Christianity has been. But in any case, you are going to need religion to motivate people to be not just materialist, to motivate them towards moral grandeur in all kinds of ways. And the secular substitutes for this, whether it be poetry or patriotism, all have serious drawbacks compared to religion.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, this is interesting. I wish we had more time because you and I have disagreed about this off camera, about whether pantheism can do the same thing that Christianity does to democracy. Maybe it can. You'll have to convince me, but it's an interesting proposal nevertheless. I do want to ask you, I mean, we're concluding now, but I do want to ask you this sort of final question because I think, as I said a moment ago, it's one of the gravest parts of the book that really unsettles my students in a way that young people today, you can't really unsettle them.
But when they read the end of Democracy in America, and Tocqueville gives this stirring account of what might happen were American democracy gradually to decay and to crumble, what would be at those causes of that? What would it look like? And he gives this account of soft despotism, and a sort of wholly uninterested people who are individualists and pursuing their own appetites and sort of completely uninformed. I mean, it looks like Nietzsche's Last Man in some ways. Can you give us an account of what Tocqueville was afraid of, what some of the greatest dangers to democracy were here in the last couple minutes?
ALAN KAHAN: Well, one of the great mysteries is whether Tocqueville ever read Benjamin Constant. And we'll never know the answer to this question. But in his famous speech on the distinction between ancient and modern liberty, Constant talked about how we want to be free in our private lives, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, but that we really had little interest in politics and social questions. And that this was a bad thing, both because without an interest in politics, we had no guarantees for our private freedoms, and because something about political participation was really necessary for moral grandeur.
And Tocqueville really in that last bit of Democracy in America is addressing the same kind of question as Constant was. This tendency for us to become utterly petty and utterly under the thumb of the majority, or of some authoritarian individual who will give us our private satisfaction provided we give up all our freedom in return. And this is a permanent temptation for us. We'd all rather do anything than go to yet another committee meeting. And democracy is one committee meeting after another in a sense. And if you can just discharge your duty by going into that voting booth and leaving it, wouldn't we all rather do that because we have better things to do with our time, except for this small minority of political hobbyists that we occasionally encounter.
So this is a permanent problem. And it unsettles our students because they recognize themselves. They don't want to be involved in this way in politics. And Tocqueville's solution is to involve people on a local level where you do care about what's happening in your kid's school, and you do care about what's happening on your block. And this is why he emphasizes decentralization, and this way of bringing people out of the private into the public by slow steps that eventually get you where you would not be able to go in one great leap. And this is the democracy of the every day, the freedom of the every day that unfortunately, today, neither the left nor the right seem to be terribly interested in cultivating.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, Alan, I want to thank you for talking to us. For folks who are interested in Democracy in America, I had this discussion with Alan off camera, but there are two translations that he likes. One is the Goldhammer translation, and that's part of the Library of America series. The other is a Liberty Fund translation. So if you're interested in reading more about Democracy in America, have a look at those two translations. There's also one by Harvey Mansfield, But what's most important is not the translation you read, but that you get a hold of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and that you read it from cover to cover. So Alan, thank you so much for these insightful remarks on Tocqueville today
ALAN KAHAN: My pleasure.
SHILO BROOKS: Take care everybody. The Free Mind Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.