FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: TOCQUEVILLE ON THE CALLING OF THE CHRISTIAN THINKER

I thought I would introduce a new feature on this blog that might interest some of you. I hope it will.

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I know in advance that I will forget about 95 percent (99 percent?) of all that I read. This is why I take notes on just about everything that I read other than the newspaper. When I finish a history book, for example, I type out its central thesis, outline its argument, record the most important factual information it contains, and conclude with an overall evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. All of this goes into my laptop, where I can readily access it as the need arises.

A tiny subset of the notes I take go elsewhere, however. Several years ago my older daughter gave me a handsomely bound journal as a Father’s Day gift. For some time, Callie had been keeping what she called a quote journal. As she read—and she is a voracious reader—she would write down “keepers,” passages from scripture or favorite books that she wanted to meditate on from time to time. As she explained in a note on the book’s first page, she found it “refreshing . . . to look back through my journal and remind myself of truth.”

She was so right. Since that time I have tried to follow Callie’s example, although I cannot match her prodigious pace. The journal is now one of my most prized possessions. It’s not for general information; it’s for gems—passages that affect me deeply in one way or another. And it has come to mean even more to me as I have come to realize that in keeping the quote journal I am perpetuating a centuries-old tradition. Beginning in the seventeenth century, if not before, it was common for students to keep what were then called “commonplace books,” journals in which they compiled quotations from what they were reading.

Many of our nation’s founders kept such commonplace books throughout much of their lives. In the Library of Congress, for example, you can find an entire collection of commonplace books kept by prominent Americans. The image below shows a page from one of the commonplace books of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson recorded passages from a wide array of books written not only in English, but in Latin and Greek as well. In the digital collections of the National Archives you can view an early commonplace book of John Adams, which Adams began while at Harvard and continued during his first job as a schoolteacher. In 1755, the twenty-year-old Adams recorded passages from a broad range of classical and contemporary works, from Roman poets to Puritan pastors.

A page from Thomas Jefferson's literary commonplace book.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s literary commonplace book.

From time to time I plan on sharing with you from what I am now calling my commonplace book. Many of the passages I record are explicitly religious. There are Bible verses, prayers, lyrics from hymns and praise choruses, and quotes from Augustine, Calvin, John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Stanley Hauerwas, among others. But there are at least as many entries from historians, philosophers, and educators, reflections that in some way or other help me to think through my calling as a Christian, historian, and teacher. In keeping with the theme of this blog, I will tend to pick passages that shed light in some way on the broad terrain at the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and contemplation of American history.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Just to get us started, and to keep this post from getting overly long, I thought I would begin with two very brief quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, since we’ve been engaging with him quite a bit of late. Tocqueville’s work Democracy in America is so rich that I could share quotes from it for months and still not get to all the good ones. These are both quotes that I regularly include on course syllabi. In all my courses I unabashedly challenge my students to seek life-changing knowledge, and both of these quotes challenge is in this regard.

The first comes from volume I, part I, chapter 8, a section in which Tocqueville is reflecting at length on the strengths and weaknesses of the U. S. Constitution. I tell my students at Wheaton that, whatever God has planned for their future, for the moment they are all clearly called of God to be Christian scholars. As such, part of pursuing their calling faithfully is determining not only to pursue truth, but to be willing to wrestle with truth in all its complexity. There is nothing about the latter that comes naturally. As Tocqueville put it,

A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.

We live in a sound-bite culture. We distil our world views into slogans, express our religious values on bumper stickers, develop our political philosophies on tweets. Our ever-dwindling attention spans demand simple answers to life’s questions, and heaven help the public figure who refuses to play along. As Christians, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do in contemporary America is to reject simplistic answers, even when they tell us things we wish were true.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

The second quote appears about twenty pages later (vol. I, pt. II, chap. 3) in a section in which Tocqueville is discussing the nature of freedom of the press in the United States. In this context, Tocqueville sets out “three distinct and often successive states of human understanding.” The first describes us when we hold a belief that we really haven’t thought deeply about and cannot defend. The second takes place when someone or something challenges that unthinking conviction and it rocks our world, so much so that we are no longer sure whether what we thought we believed is true. The third, and highest stage of understanding, comes when we wrestle with the challenge to our convictions, resolve our doubts, and lay a far firmer foundation for what we believe. Keeping these categories in mind, hear what Tocqueville has to say to us:

One may count on it that the majority of mankind will always stop short in one of these two conditions: they will either believe without knowing why or will not know precisely what to believe. But only a few persevering people will ever attain to that deliberate and self-justified type of conviction born of knowledge and springing up in the very midst of doubt.

It’s a sobering assessment that should bring us to our knees. O Lord, save us from the prejudice of believing without knowing why.  Deliver us from the doubt of not knowing what to believe. And in your mercy, grant us the perseverance in pursuit of truth that makes our doubt, not an enemy of conviction, but the seedbed from which it grows.

3 responses to “FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: TOCQUEVILLE ON THE CALLING OF THE CHRISTIAN THINKER

  1. Pingback: One Way Christian Journal

  2. I’m confused – the quote in context is talking about the effect that freedom of the press has on a free society. It is also talking about political views. I appreciate your religious stance, really I do, but to be true to the text requires talking about the absolute need for a free press. It tempers the public opinion and educates the public to be skeptical. I earned a history degree from the University of Washington. Don’t believe you were one of my teachers, and I always read the syllabus. The difficulty is if you read a religious message into every quote then no one (I would underline if I could) outside of the religious community will ever take you seriously as a scholar. I hold my belief in God just as tightly as you do, but trying to push God into every quote will ultimately undermine any Christian witness you have in this world.

  3. Jack be Nimble

    It seems I see almost everything through the eyes of the teacher. Is it not the teacher’s responsibility to help her students respond to the first quote by teaching them to naturally want to dig for the deeper and more complex truth rather than accepting false ideas that may seem to be more popular? A more troubling question is whether it is also the teacher’s role to challenge her students to find reasons why they believe something or to challenge the vagueness of their beliefs. It is so easy to cross over into a condition where my beliefs are being imposed on my students. It is easy to sow doubt but difficult to do much more than start students on a path toward conviction knowing that this often takes a lifetime of accumulating and assessing knowledge.

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