Catholic Social Science Review

Volume 17, 2012

Gary D. Glenn
Pages 33-45

Situating Tocqueville Between Modern Political Philosophy and Pre-Modern Catholic Political Philosophy About What Constitutes Society

Sixteenth-century neo-scholastic Catholic thought defended a Christian-Aristotelian view of society as constituted by intergenerational moral obligations derived, not from consent, but from the benefits later generations are given by earlier generations’ progress in the arts and sciences (language, civilization, society, the regime itself). In contrast, self-consciously modern political philosophy substitutes “social contract” in which individuals’ natural rights are primary as well as natural, and moral obligations are not derived from any natural relation by which human beings benefit one another but only from consent. So understood, society is constituted by the agreement and will of the present generation rather than by moral obligation derived from benefits freely given by the preceding generations. This paper considers whether Tocqueville’s account of the origin and development of American democratic society is closer to the medieval Catholic understanding or to the modern account and inquires how strong his affinity for either might be.