In the second volume of “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville discerns a radical danger on democracy’s horizon. “Pantheism” is Tocqueville’s name for the condition in which democracy becomes its own God. At the end of the democratic dispensation, the mind becomes obsessed with unity; all true diversity, all heterogeneity and rank order, which necessarily appeal to some reality beyond the self-enclosed humanistic system, and therefore all true individualism, must be laid low; there must be no permanent, authoritative pillars of order, no mediating representations between the all-too-human and the divine. All that still stands is “an immense being which alone remains eternal in the midst of the continual change and incessant transformation of all that composes it.”
“Pantheism,” as understood by Tocqueville, represents a dark, even mysterious possibility, and the idea is not easy to grasp. It is best understood negatively, in opposition to mediation, as mediation’s relentless foe or solvent. Mediating institutions are those “little platoons” that Burke famously opposed to the abstract and inhuman rationalism of the atheistic Enlightenment, and such institutions play a critical role in Tocqueville’s resistance to the self-hollowing of democracy. They are ordered groupings such as family, churches, voluntary associations and organs of local self-government.
Such little platoons or self-ordered clusters of human activity stand in between the naked individual and the impersonal state, and they represent vital concerns and authoritative ends excluded by the mutually reinforcing poles of amoral individualism and collective security or welfare. The emerging horizon of global humanity extends this polarity between the individual and the collective to the limit of imagination, and “pantheism” is an apt term to evoke the power of the void at this limit of actual human meaning.
An institution “mediates” when it provides moral contents that resist this exhaustion. Healthy families enact every day the need for authority as well as mutual regard, and the inseparable connection between caring feelings and the discipline of the passions. Churches reinforce both love and the disciplining virtues from the perspective of eternity. Associations public and private promote mutual respect as they give scope to ambitions of excellence. All mediating institutions help to define human meaning as they solicit moral action without some bounded field. Without mediation, Tocqueville has written earlier, reminding us of Pascal, we are left without any foothold between nothingness and infinity.
Abstract “humanity,” as the “Idol of Our Age” (an important recent book by Daniel J. Mahoney), matches Tocqueville’s specter of “pantheism.” It is at once Tocqueville’s unthinkably “immense being,” a being beyond all truly human proportion, and at the same time what is subject to “continual change and incessant transformation.” When all mediating institutions have been abolished, or at least discredited and weakened, then human beings can enact transcendence only on a purely horizontal vector, a plane with no truly humane thickness, no upward élan or effective moral grit; the fumes of spirituality can only be converted into the end-less transformation of humanity itself, the “hideous strength” of the ongoing “abolition of man” (C.S. Lewis).
Are we not now witnessing daily the encroachment of the hideous strength of this two-front war against concrete humanity, the paralyzing spiritual power of the elusive notion of global humanity threatening to complete its fusion with the allure of extreme individualism, the bottomless quest for equal and irresponsible freedom and passive security? How else are we to understand, for example, the fervor that swept over our society practically the moment the right of same-sex marriage was conceded on our behalf by a sovereign court, that is, the fervor to explore and to promote every possible insult to the natural human division and complementary natures between male and female? Adolescents are putting into action our adult flirtation with an extreme freedom that shows scant respect for our natural humanity, and our youths find themselves it seems, in too many cases, with no meaningful action to undertake but the rejection of their bodies.
Grown-ups who should know something more about responsible and limited human existence either find themselves at a loss to answer this rage or actually connive in and promote the hopelessly destructive quest for an impossible meaning, a meaning that would triumph over nature. Tocqueville’s “immense being” is the dark spirit that orders this destructive disorder; and we offer our children, nothing but subjects of “continual change and transformation,” to this idol.
Tocqueville concludes his chapter on pantheism with this appeal: “(A)ll who remain enamored of the genuine greatness of man should unite and do combat against it.” Count me in.
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His views are his own.