Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Delahunty on Tocqueville on Pantheism in America

You should not miss Robert Delahunty's most recent post exploring Alexis de Tocqueville's view that the logic of American democratic egalitarianism would eventually lead for many toward a religion of pantheism. And his prediction rings true in Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism and in Walt Whitman's poetry (I had forgotten the praise that Whitman lavishes on the stench of his own armpits). Just a small fragment of the post (but it's a treat to read it in full):

What about those democratic men and women who yield to the democratic “predisposition” and abandon Christianity? Here Tocqueville suggests that the “prevailing taste democratic nations have for general ideas” will lead them, not to the unity that some will find in Catholicism, but instead to pantheism:

Man is obsessed with the idea of unity. He seeks it in every direction; when he believes he has found it, he willingly rests in its arms. Not content with discovering that there is but one creation and one Creator in the world, he is still irritated by this primary division of things and he seeks to expand and simplify his thought by enclosing God and the universe in a single entity. If there is a philosophic system according to which things material and immaterial, visible and invisible within the world are to be considered only as the separate parts of an immense being who alone remains eternal in the continuous shift and constant change of everything which is within it, I shall have no difficulty reaching the conclusion that a similar system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy.

Democracy at 521.

Tocqueville recoils from pantheism, even while admitting that it is “one of the most likely [metaphysical systems] to entice the human mind in democratic ages.” He denounces it as an idea that “naturally attracts and arrests [the] imagination [of democratic men] and nourishes their arrogance, while cosseting their laziness.” And he calls on all who are “smitten with the nobility of man” to “join forces and fight against this idea.” Id.


What evidence is there, we might ask, that the America of the present is tending toward pantheism?

The evidence, I believe, is not hard to find. Consider, e.g., our changing attitudes toward the environment. By this I mean, not primarily our concerns with pollution or resource depletion, but rather the much more fundamental changes in the ways we have come to think about man’s place in nature.

Ever since the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess baptized it with a name in 1973, the “deep ecology” movement has exerted an influence on contemporary culture. See Arne Naess, The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary, 16 Inquiry 95 (1973). The (originally) seven points in which Naess summed up “deep ecology” included discernibly egalitarian and pantheistic elements. Naess advocated the abandonment of “the man-in-the-environment image” and its replacement by “the relational, total-field image,” in which living organisms would be seen as “knots in the biospherical net.” He also urged “biospherical egalitarianism,” rejecting “anthropocentrism” in favor of “the equal right to live and blossom” for every form of life....Others have seen intimations of deep ecology in the works of such major thinkers as Martin Heidegger and the seventeenth century pantheist Baruch Spinoza.

Of course one might dismiss the deep ecology movement as culturally marginal and uninfluential. But do we not also see the signs of a kind of “practical pantheism” everywhere about us? Consider, e.g., our changing dietary habits (the preference for organic foods) or travel interests (eco-tourism). Let me conclude this essay by using what seems to me a particularly telling example: our changing burial practices.

Burial practices are especially revealing, I submit, because they indicate how a society implicitly thinks of human life, of death, of collective memory and individual fame, of an after-life, and of the relationship of the human body to the earth.

In his beautiful and moving book Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (2003), Ken Warpole describes the recent, but growing, desire for “natural burial” in Britain and northern Europe. Proponents of natural burial, Warpole writes, “seek to create cemeteries that meld into the uncultivated landscape as quickly as possible, returning to a ‘state of nature’ as if the human presence on earth had never been.” At 191. And this, he rightly says, is “a presumption of astonishing radicalism”:

For the past 2,000 years at least, one of the principal functions of burial and funerary ritual – from the inscriptions and epitaphs in the Roman catacombs through to the cult of the headstone in the era of the Enlightenment – has been to leave, where possible, a permanent record for posterity of each individual life lived. Natural burial denies this function, at least with regard to any kind of design or inscription at the place of interment, though other forms of commemoration or record may take place elsewhere. This suggests that the strong desire to ‘be at one with nature’ and to leave no sign of burial behind is an unexpected and late-modern phenomenon, at least within Western culture, part of a new and unique kind of ecological consciousness, rather than a trace element of pre-historic or pagan belief systems.


Natural burial is philosophical pantheism woven deeply into the fabric and habits of a society. It expresses that society’s view of the inconsequentiality of the individual human being, and of its unconcern with the perpetuation of its own collective memory and identity. It is the handiwork of a society that sees human existence as merely a momentary perturbation of the natural order, an irritation on the earth’s surface. Ironically, the attitude of “letting be” that this kind of society displays in relation to nature is merely the photographic negative of the technological rationality that the deep ecology movement condemns as exploitative. If Tocqueville is to be believed, this is the type of society towards which we are drifting. Little wonder that he calls on all who believe in the “nobility” of man to oppose it.


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink


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