This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

Tocqueville's Third State of Mind as a

Model for Open Attachment in American Religious Life

Charles Courtney, MC'57


Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (2 vols, 1835 and 1840) is perhaps still unsurpassed as an account of the American character. In this essay I want to present and develop some of the philosophical ideas and conceptions which informed his work. Although they are often given only in passing, they are surprisingly suggestive and coherent. If at the dawn of a new century Tocqueville can contribute to a viable philosophy of religion in a time of secularism and religious conflict, he will once again have proved that his work is a classic, that is, a text from which every generation of readers can gain new insight.


In a chapter on "Liberty of the Press in the United States" Tocqueville says, "The human intellect, in truth, may be considered in three distinct states, which frequently succeed one another" (I:188). He presents the stages so succinctly that I can do no better than to continue the quotation:

A man believes firmly because he adopts a proposition without inquiry. He doubts as soon as objections present themselves. But he frequently succeeds in satisfying these doubts, and then he begins again to believe. This time he has not a dim and casual glimpse of the truth, but sees it clearly before him and advances by the light it gives (I:189).

Tocqueville thought that the free press would continually supply people with propositions to believe uncritically, in fact, new ones every day. He confidently believed that this first stage could soon be "traveled over" because "experience comes to undeceive" us (I:189). Nonetheless, he was equally convinced that very few could take the step out of doubt and move to the third stage of rational and independent conviction produced by knowledge.

Are there echoes of Descartes here? The movement from received opinion to doubt to methodically grounded knowledge? There is a difference, however. Rather than the reflections of the philosopher, for Tocqueville it is experience, living in the world, which undeceives us. But being undeceived is not yet to have knowledge. It is, rather, to refer to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, to see that the shadows are shadows. In this passage, Tocqueville does not go on to present the basis for rational knowledge. Instead, he makes a very interesting reference to religion.

He observes that "in times of great religious fervor men sometimes change their religious opinions; whereas in times of general skepticism everyone clings to his old persuasion" (I:189). The suggestion is that in matters of religion the move from stage two to stage three needs the push of emotion or volition. Intellection alone will not do the job. Commitment in these matters requires a sense of sureness. So long as several positions of roughly equal validity are available, a person will stick with the one already adopted. Moreover, when certainty is lacking, mere instincts and material interests will predominate. We have contrasting situations of fullness and need. When there is need, people will not be venturesome. They will not be supported and carried forward by their religion, but all the more they will cling to what they have. When there is fullness, whether of emotion or a combination of emotion and intellect, the religious conviction will carry the person and even lead to a change in position. Tocqueville observes in a footnote that a rational and self-guiding conviction [third state] probably will not arouse as much fervor or enthusiastic devotion as does dogmatical belief [first state] (I:189, n.3).

To sum up, Tocqueville's theory of three states of intellect has taught us (1) that dogmatic beliefs will almost certainly be called into question and (2) that once doubt has been introduced, people are likely to cling to a diminished version of their original position unless something clearly more convincing is available.


We learn more about the nature and implications of Tocqueville's third state in a later chapter called "Advantages of Democracy." He sketches a kind of "patriotic attachment which principally arises from that instinctive, disinterested, and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace" (I:241). Tranquillity, religious enthusiasm, even obedience to a monarch, characterize this "first state" patriotism. When this state of attachment is broken, morality, custom, religion, and law are "lost to. . . [the] senses" of the people. This second state leads to "a narrow and unenlightened selfishness" for the people "are emancipated from prejudice without having acknowledged the empire of reason" (I:242-3). The third state is characterized by attachment, but of a more rational sort,

less generous and less ardent, . . . it is more fruitful and more lasting: it springs from knowledge; it is nurtured by the laws; it grows by the exercise of civil rights; and, in the end, it is confounded with the personal interests of the citizen (I:242).

This third state is more praiseworthy because the affirming dynamism shared with the first state is coupled with rational insight capable of responding to problems and dealing with doubts. Tocqueville notes, however, that among the Americans the high level of participation in public life leads to pride and an excessive defensiveness which is unwilling to tolerate any criticism. That is, an involuted kind of attachment emerges where what we might call an "open attachment" was possible. Tocqueville concludes this chapter with the judgment that

in our times we must choose between the patriotism of all and the government of a few; for the social force and activity which the first confers are irreconcilable with the pledges of tranquillity which are given by the second (I:244).

What is the situation "for our times," for the late twentieth century? Can we be religious so as to have attachment, rationality, participation, and open dialogue with those of other traditions? That is the question that animates this essay. What more can Tocqueville contribute to our thinking on it?


He contends that the American character took shape in a "field for human effort far more extensive than any sum of labor that can be applied to work it" (I:297). Since it appears that the wants of everyone can be satisfied, great enterprise is encouraged. And, not surprisingly, "the passions that agitate the Americans most deeply are not their political, but their commercial passions." Anticipating Calvin Coolidge's pronouncement that the business of America is business, Tocqueville says that the Americans "introduce the habits of business into their political life" (I:297).They love order and regularity because with them affairs prosper; they prefer positive calculation to general ideas, practice to theory. In short, reason which forms the basis of the third state of society becomes foreshortened in the American character. The balance between public and private interest is tipped toward the latter. Society, including politics and religion, is regarded as a means to individual well-being. Moreover, democratic institutions "promote the feeling of envy in the human heart" because most who use them to rise to the level of others are disappointed. Because the goal seems to be within reach, nearly everyone makes the effort and many end up bitter and disillusioned.

Do these observations lead to any questions to be pursued by philosophers of religion? I suggest this one. If a context of material abundance tempts people to become acquisitive, competitive, and narrow-minded, do religions make available another sort of abundance that can both satisfy and open up the human mind and spirit?


In another chapter in which he contrasts European passive subjects with American participatory citizens, Tocqueville notes that subjects, who live as strangers in their own land, will, nevertheless, make great exertions to defend their country if religion is the motive. When the nation becomes part of the faith, no sacrifice is too great, for protecting the one is protecting the other. Taking issue with Montesquieu, he says that

religion, and not fear, has ever been the cause of the long-lived prosperity of an absolute government. Do what you may, there is not true power among men except in the free union of their will; and patriotism and religion are the only two motives in the world that can long urge all the people towards the same end (I:93).

Fifty pages earlier in the book, Tocqueville observes that two elements which elsewhere are put in opposition the Americans have succeeded in combining admirably, to wit, the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty (I:43). The two are linked while remaining distinct.

For the Americans the political realm is one of unlimited exploration and innovation. Anything formed can be reformed. An independence scornful of experience and jealous of all authority makes everything "agitated, disputed, and uncertain" (I:44).

But, when it comes to religion, "the human spirit stops of itself; in fear it relinquishes the need of exploration; it even abstains from lifting the veil of the sanctuary; it bows with respect before truths which it accepts without discussion." Here, rather than independence, we have obedience, passive though voluntary, for which everything is "classified, systematized, foreseen, and decided beforehand" (I:43).

Knowing that his reader will wonder why the two realms are not in conflict, Tocqueville quickly states how he sees that they advance together and support each other.

Religion perceives that civil liberty affords a noble exercise to the faculties of man and that the political world is a field prepared by the Creator for the efforts of mind. Free and powerful in its own sphere, satisfied with the place reserved for it, religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength.

Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom (I:44).

Tocqueville surely had impressive evidence as the basis for his claims, particularly John Winthrop's speech on liberty which he quotes at length. But the tenuousness of these relations are equally evident to us. In the first place, there is tension between the freedom to challenge authority in the political realm and the freedom of religion to institute a fixed order grounded in fear. It seems that freedom has different meanings in the two contexts. Moreover, how can conflict long be avoided? If the spirit of political freedom challenges old opinions, ways, and barriers, will it not inevitably come up against moral laws and religious doctrines? Will the idea that the Creator wants us to exercise our minds and other faculties not be applied in morals and religion as well as politics? The history of the 160 years since Tocqueville wrote can be portrayed as a struggle between those who would keep fear and obedience to authority as the basis of the religious life and those who would admit into religion the liberty and exploration that the Puritans reserved for politics.

Again, before leaving this topic, let me try to formulate some philosophical questions that it suggests. Is it possible that the theory of distinct realms for politics and religion is more serviceable in a situation of religious pluralism? Could it be extended so that not only is politics distinct from religion, but within the religious realm various religions can co-exist without "touching"? Or, to take another perspective, does a situation of religious pluralism add to the momentum for challenging the thesis that in morals and religion everything is fixed and decided beforehand? Are there resources in Christianity (and Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to cite only the most prominent traditions active in American religious life) to suggest other ways of relating religion and the wider society? Does a pluralistic situation make it necessary to develop new ways of seeing these relationships?


The questions just posed raise the issue of the scope of applicability of ideas and attitudes, an issue about which Tocqueville has some pertinent things to say. The American institution of majority rule caught his attention and led to worry over what he called the "tyranny of the majority."

He firmly rejects the maxim that the people have a right to do anything they please, yet just as firmly holds that all authority originates in the will of the majority. Does he contradict himself? He believes that he can escape contradiction because he holds to a third principle which he calls the "sovereignty of mankind."

He holds that whenever a particular body enacts a general law bearing the name of justice it is invoking the sanction of the majority of mankind. That is, a law can rightly be called just only if it is able to be universalized for all human beings. The actions of any given political body must always be measured by the standard of what is good for human beings as such. Tocqueville knows that individuals are capable of doing wrong to others and that they will not act always in their own self interest. Moreover, "men do not change their characters by uniting with one another" (I:259). Therefore, there must always be an appeal to a universal standard. The tyranny of a majority may be a fact here and there and from time to time, but there is nothing in democratic theory which justifies it.

Tocqueville is supremely confident that there is agreement about what is just and reasonable. When he distinguishes the majority of this or that people from the majority of mankind, he is assuming that there are certain truths about human nature that have been attained. But where are they written and who subscribes to them? Do we turn to Isaiah? Plato? Machiavelli? Montesquieu? Hobbes? Locke? Manu? Confucius? Muhammed? Ashoka?

In an earlier chapter, Tocqueville shows that he is aware of the difficulty of conceiving the condition of the other so as to gain a valid view of what it is to be human as such.

As a democracy is unable to conceive the pleasures of the rich or to witness them without envy, so an aristocracy is slow to understand the privations of the poor, or rather is unacquainted with them. The poor man is not, properly speaking, of the same kind as the rich one, but a being of another species (I:218).

Here Tocqueville's subject is merely the compensation paid to public officials. His later discussion of race is an even more searching inquiry into the issue of regarding the other. The conclusion is just as chilling, namely, that blacks because of somatic characteristics are judged to be of another species.

But, however it stands with Tocqueville's own consistency, he has raised for us a central question. Can we live our political and religious lives without appealing to or, better, constantly searching for a standard of human nature which will include all of us? History, sociology, anthropology, and psychology have shown us how varied we are. New awareness about class, race, and gender has added to the complexity. To some, it looks as if the search for the universal is impossible, even unjust. I assume, nonetheless, that philosophy's role is continually to pursue those universal meanings which can bind us together as humanity.

In The Closing of the American Mind, that personal and passionate book which evoked such passionate responses a few years ago, Allan Bloom (1987) contends that even though we have defined openness as "our virtue," we are closed precisely because we have failed to pursue the basic philosophical questions about the true, the good, and human nature. He is convinced, for example, that with all of our knowing we have not sufficiently challenged ethnocentrism, neither that of the cultures we study, all of whom assume that they are the best, nor that of our own scientific culture, which is distanced from the prejudices of myth and dogma. The following paragraph appears near the end of his first chapter:

Thus there are two kinds of openness, the openness of indifference--promoted with the twin purposes of humbling our intellectual pride and letting us be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don't want to be knowers--and the openness that invites us to the quest for knowledge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination. This second kind of openness encourages the desire that animates and makes interesting every serious student--"I want to know what is good for me, what will make me happy"--while the former stunts that desire (Bloom 1987:41).

If we connect Bloom's diagnosis to Tocqueville's scheme of three states of intellect, we see that Bloom is describing a version of the second state. With our great knowledge and our scientific sophistication we have passed beyond innocent affirmations. But, by keeping a "cool" distance from the concrete and from the search for truth, we are not in the third state. Bloom's book can be read as a call to move toward a third state appropriate for our time.

Almost 150 years after Tocqueville, Richard Reeves retraced the Frenchman's route and wrote American Journey (1982). At each point along the way Reeves reminds his reader of what Tocqueville did and thought, and then attempts to perform a parallel service for late twentieth-century America. He, like Tocqueville, found us to be a nation of boasters, irritably conceited about our country. But he sensed beneath this bravado doubts and insecurities which perhaps were also shared by the nineteenth-century nation builders. And Reeves (1982:275), too, speaks of openness and a "second state" mind-set.

The doubts--like almost everything else in America--were now bandied about in the name of "openness," another new value. There was what seemed to be a double life of patriotism, too. I came home after more than a year with at least one clear impression: the American was still, instinctively, the loud flag-waving patriot. Below that red-white-and-blue surface there was often confusion and frustration, especially about the fairness of the economic system and the effectiveness of the political system, and it was fashionable for many people to function rhetorically at that cool level of disdain. But late at night. . . Americans believed in it! .  . . There was a faith, a set of beliefs shared by almost all of the people almost all of the time.


To conclude, let us ask what is standing in the way of moving together as citizens and religious persons from various traditions religious traditions toward a "third state" future? And what are our prospects?

Tocqueville thought that faith and patriotism never abandon the human heart. If these basic impulses can be connected with the thoughts, the passions, and the daily habits of life, they may be consolidated into a durable and rational sentiment (I:93).

But the Americans have an aversion to reflective thought, to philosophy. They are, nonetheless, mentally very active. Reeves (1982:296) finds that he can quote Tocqueville to good effect on this point.

Nowadays the need is to keep men interested in theory. They will look after the practical side of things for themselves. So, instead of perpetually concentrating attention on the minute examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it therefrom sometimes and lift it to the contemplation of first causes. . . . If the lights that guide us ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord. Confining ourselves to practice, we may lose sight of basic principles, and when these have been entirely forgotten we may apply the methods derived from them badly; we might be left without the capacity to invent new methods and only able to make a clumsy and an unintelligent use of wise procedures no longer understood.

Perhaps it is always true that it takes a special effort to keep us interested in theory. But Americans, more than most, have developed practice to the neglect of theory. And this is an obstacle when the concern is spiritual development.

For one thing, it leads to regarding religion in an instrumental way, to making the religious life a program where certain acts done are expected to lead to certain benefits. The intrinsic character of religion--praising God because God is God, or simply beholding holiness or beauty--is neglected.

It can also lead to prejudgments about other people and other ways of being religious. Tocqueville notes that Americans, more than the English and less than the French, have an aptitude for general ideas. General ideas serve to bring a large quantity of facts under one heading. They are useful for planning and for organizing experience. Tocqueville thinks that in a democratic period, when there is much striving for advancement, people "want to obtain great success immediately, but they would prefer to avoid great effort. These conflicting tendencies lead straight to the search for general ideas, by the aid of which they flatter themselves that they can delineate vast objects with little pains" (II:17). Where is the risk of prejudgment in this? In a democratic country, where class differences are muted, one sees people differing but little from one another. One "cannot turn his mind to any one portion of mankind without expanding and dilating his thought till it embraces the whole" (II:15). Yes, but couple the interest in practicality with the desire for minimal effort, and you can see how the defining characteristics of humanity can come to be gathered only from those who are near me and like me. This has happened too much in American experience, both political and religious.

Are there religious resources which can give us the prospect of overcoming this limitation? Tocqueville gives us a clue when he makes a point that he must have learned at school. He says that our use of general ideas is a sign of the insufficiency of our intellect. The Deity by contrast has no use for them because God's mind can discern directly the very being of each creature (I:13). The other side of that same point is to note, with Spinoza, that "the more we understand particular things, the more do we understand God" (Ethics, V, xxiv). There are both speculative and contemplative resources in religions for attaining knowledge which is both concrete and universal. It is this kind of knowledge that can lead us toward a human future worth experiencing and worthy of being called blessed. My own efforts to search for and live by such knowledge have been nourished by the teaching of Charles Speel. I am grateful that he was my teacher.1


1. The prose and argument of this essay are better because of the skills of my friend and Monmouth classmate, Martin Wincott, MC'57.

Works Cited

Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Reeves, Richard. 1982. American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of "Democracy in America." New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1945. Democracy in America. 2 vols. Translated by Henry Reeve, revised Francis Bowen, further corrected Phillips Bradley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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