The Needs of the Soul: Professor Jean Yarbrough on Alexis de Tocqueville

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John Cabot University’s Department of Political Science and International Affairs,  the Department of History and Humanities, and the Rome Political Theory Colloquium welcomed Jean Yarbrough, Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College for the lecture “Alexis de Tocqueville on the Needs of the Soul” on March 15th.

Jane Yarbrough

Jean Yarbrough

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher best known for his works Democracy in America (1835) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856)He first came to America in 1831, officially in order to study the American prison system, though his study proved to be much broader. The first volume of Democracy in America explores how the American political system operates, while the second examines how democracy affects opinions and mores.

Tocqueville saw that the entire Western world was becoming increasingly democratic with America leading the way. Democracy held out much promise but also posed certain dangers. In particular, democracy induces men to focus on the needs of the body, but in Toqueville’s words, the soul, too, has its needs. Yarbrough told the audience that it was surprising how many times Tocqueville mentions the word “soul,” given that other thinkers of the time simply ignored it. Tocqueville suggests that if the soul’s needs are not satisfied in ordinary ways (e.g. through traditional religion) they will be satisfied in strange ways (for example, though eccentric religious sects).  According to Yarbrough, Tocqueville’s distinctive liberalism lies in his understanding of human beings as creatures of both body and soul, and she argued that other scholars have not sufficiently appreciated this more metaphysical aspect of Tocqueville’s thought.

Yarbrough went on to discuss the human longings for immortality, political freedom, and human greatness, which Tocqueville identifies as longings of the soul. In his view, religion, more than philosophy, can speak to these longings in democratic times. Religion, by inducing men to believe in and reflect on the immortality of their souls, could act as a counterweight to the materialism typical of democratic eras. He was critical of the Puritans for their theological rigidity, but at the same time, he appreciated the way in which in America (as distinguished from France) religion and liberty were in harmony. Whereas many scholars believe that Tocqueville emphasized only the “political utility of religion,” Yarbrough believes that he viewed religion as the most powerful and natural form of hope, and that he was himself something of a believer.

Tocqueville wrote mostly for and about the Christian world, but he was well aware of other religions and was interested in Islam and Hinduism. Tocqueville also compared Protestantism and Catholicism, criticizing the former for making religion more “rational and inert,” in Yarbrough’s words, while he viewed a reformed Catholicism as more politically salutary.

In sum, Yarbrough maintained that what is distinctive and important about Tocqueville’s liberalism is his teaching regarding satisfying the needs of soul and not only those of the body. This teaching remains as relevant and thought-provoking today as it was when he wrote Democracy in America.