Paul Berman on Style and Passion in Tocqueville

In Dissent:

About the people in democratic nations, Tocqueville writes: “Perceiving the human race as a single thing, they easily conceive that a single such design presides over their destinies, and, in the actions of each individual, they are pushed to recognize the truth of the general and consistent plan according to which God governs the species.”

It has become fashionable today to argue that theological reforms are a main source of democratic liberty, and that, absent such reforms, democratic liberty can never be achieved. But Tocqueville also argued the opposite. He saw in democratic liberty a source of theological reform—a tendency that was going to lead not to a watered-down view of God but to a grander view than ever before. Whitman entertained the same idea. And, to be sure, in acknowledgment of the poetic nature of this particular thought, Tocqueville went on to say, in a one-sentence paragraph in the chapter on poetry: “This again could be considered as an abundant source of poetry, which emerges through the centuries.”