Harper-Collins, 2006, 208 pp., $21.95Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life
Yale University Press, 2007, 724 pp., $35
The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 428 pp., $80
Anglophilia is an endearing quality. At least Anglos find it so, and never more than when manifested by a Frenchman—especially a philosophic Frenchman who might, as a philosopher, be presumed to know something. Even normally Francophobic Englishmen and Americans make an exception for those Frenchmen who find us exceptional. When their Anglophilia is put in writing for all (including the French) to read, we can’t help but be pleased. The two French noblemen whom the English-speaking peoples have most taken to their collective hearts are Montesquieu and Tocqueville.
True, it is an Englishmen, John Locke, who has the sobriquet “America’s philosopher”; but Locke, of course, never knew us as anything more than a twinkle in his mild and far-seeing eye. By contrast, Montesquieu was contemporaneous with the English constitution and society he explicated and admired, just as Tocqueville was, a century later, with democracy in America. Both authors have the distinction of revealing us not only to others, but to ourselves. The English immediately recognized themselves in Montesquieu’s presentation of a system of separated powers, even though his perspective was novel at the time. It must have been like the moment when depth was introduced into painting—suddenly a flat medieval icon is transformed into a realistic portrait with dimensions and dynamism—or like the shift from reflecting pools to looking glasses. In Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), the English saw themselves for the first time in a clear, silver-backed mirror—a mirror that had the added advantage of showing them to be the fairest of them all.
Still, with both Montesquieu and Tocqueville, one soon realizes that the ultimate audience for the mirrored reflections is not the well-favored nations, but the homely (and growing homelier) homeland, France. The motive for their Anglophilia was Francophilia. They wrote to induce beautifying improvements, both cosmetic and constitutional. Anglophilia was part of their method—the method of comparative politics. National comparisons were undertaken not for the sake of comparison, but for the sake of politics. “Comparative” is the modifier of “politics.” Knowledge of other lands can contribute to reform of one’s own, which suggests that there is a standard (outside of either self or other) that informs the quest. For both Montesquieu and Tocqueville, even Francophilia is, in the end, subordinate to a truer love: the love of liberty.
While England and America may be fair, they are not without blemish. Montesquieu’s first consideration of England (in book 11 of Spirit of the Laws) details its liberty-producing governmental structure, but his reconsideration of England in book 19 sketches English mores and is much less complimentary. Tocqueville’s treatment of America also comes in two parts—two volumes actually, published five years apart in 1835 and 1840—similarly divided in emphasis. Volume one of Democracy in America presents “the visage of the political world” and volume two “the aspect of civil society”, particularly the ways in which democratic equality (“the generative fact”) has altered mores, manners and characters.
Testifying to the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville declares that he does “not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” A few paragraphs later he is even more emphatic: “There is no freedom of mind in America.” The phrase “political correctness” may be a neologism, but the phenomenon has been part of American life since the beginning. Tocqueville shows how it follows from our democratic dogma of popular sovereignty, which means in practice the oppressive weight of public opinion. The content of the regnant opinion may shift but, once solidified, the dominant opinion demands obeisance: “The majority, therefore, lives in perpetual adoration of itself.” To point out to the sovereign that he is surrounded by flatterers—or in this case that the sovereign is full of self-conceit—is not very flattering. Volume two of Democracy in America is less specifically American; it documents and forecasts the tendencies of democracy in general. However, the perils ahead are, if anything, more grim than those defects observed in volume one.
Montesquieu and Tocqueville had the advantage of precedent. As Alan Charles Kors has reminded us, Voltaire was a pioneer in Enlightenment appreciation of the liberal, religiously tolerant, commercial regimes of the Anglo-Saxons.1 In keeping with his more propagandistic, take-no-prisoners style, Voltaire offers an idealized version of England in his Lettres philosophiques (1734) as a foil with which to skewer France. Voltaire oversharpens the contrast. Montesquieu and Tocqueville proceed more moderately, with more attention to complexity and nuance, both in deference to the truth of the matter and, I suspect, in deference to their French audience. They are both more philosophic and more political, in the sense of being more aware of the requirements of persuasive speech, than Voltaire. Montesquieu, in particular, seeks to apply certain political lessons to France without sacrificing other elements (either attractive or fundamental) of the French character. He is a guide to the adoption and adaptation of liberal politics in various lands, taking account of the limitations set by history and circumstance.
Tocqueville is not as original as Montesquieu as a theorist of governmental structure, but he could not be under the circumstances. After all, in writing volume one of Democracy in America, Tocqueville had both “the celebrated Montesquieu” (the American Founders’ appellation for him) and The Federalist Papers as precursors. However, Tocqueville rivals Montesquieu in his sensitivity to the interplay of social and political factors. The new world aborning was his special topic. It was a moment that required a seer, and he was it. No one surpasses Tocqueville as a diagnostician of democracy. The scale of his ambition is revealed in his assertion that “a new political science is needed for a world altogether new.”
Despite occasional periods of neglect, Americans have been more faithful readers of Tocqueville than the French. For the last few decades especially, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in Tocqueville, both in his motherland and in the land of his dalliance. The last year has seen the publication in English of two noteworthy biographies (Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life and Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide) and a weighty anthology of scholarly assessments (The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, edited by Cheryl B. Welch).
The biographies are, in certain respects, poles apart. Whereas Brogan documents A Life in voluminous but engaging detail, Epstein is more selective, aspiring “to get at the quality of the extraordinary mind that wrote Democracy in America and other works.” He seeks not the “life” but the “mind”, and “the quality of the mind” more than the actual ideas it generated. Epstein’s is not a scholarly intellectual biography, but instead one insightful writer’s engagement with another. He wants to understand the nature of Tocqueville’s considerable gifts, the compelling force of his ambition, the unshakable presence of his self-doubts, the complexities of his temperament, and how all those elements “drove him to become the extraordinary writer that he was.” Epstein’s biography is part of HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series, which aims for Plutarchean brevity and penetration. Epstein delivers admirably. The work is compact, zippy and stylish. As biographies go, this is a mini-Cooper in an era of massive SUVs and stretch limos. His approach is not quirky, but it is personal and essayistic—a mode of writing in which Joseph Epstein excels.
For the most part, Epstein’s presentation of the recurring themes of Tocqueville’s political thought is creditable. There is, however, one clear misstatement that bespeaks a larger, and unfortunate, confusion. Epstein asserts:
Majorities’ enforcing their will on minorities was another of Tocqueville’s abiding worries about democracy. At first he thought this might come about through strictly political means—that is, through legislatures—but by the time he wrote his second volume he thought it more likely to be exerted through public opinion crushing different or even oddly angled views in favor of those upheld by the great mass. Only in the second volume of Democracy in America did Tocqueville avail himself of the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority.’
Tocqueville was indeed worried about the fate of minorities in a majoritarian system, but it is flat wrong to attribute either the concern or the specific phrase to volume two. Tocqueville’s major criticism of America in volume one is the phenomenon he calls tyrannie de la majorité. Moreover, his explication of that phenomenon stresses the unique social power and peer pressure of the majority as much or more than its undeniable legislative power. Accordingly, one striking example that Tocqueville gives shows how majority prejudice can invalidate the rights of discrete minorities, even when the law establishes equality. In Pennsylvania, free black citizens had the right to vote, but majority hostility prevented them from exercising the franchise. (This example, by the way, ties in to Tocqueville’s much more extensive account of race relations in the long, final chapter of volume one.)
Although well-expressed, Tocqueville’s concern here was not original. The Founders clearly worried about majority tyranny, understood it as both a political and social problem, and devised various means to circumvent it. The Federalist Papers explain both capital “C” Constitutional mechanisms (such as creating branches of government that represent majorities in different and competing ways) and small “c” constitutional innovations (such as creating a large republic that will multiply the factions and interests in society, thereby making majority faction less likely to form and prevail). Social conformity is obviously still with us, but Tocqueville perhaps underestimated the degree to which the United States departs from a simple majoritarian system. He was, however, right to single out race relations as an American dilemma for which the Founders’ solutions might not be sufficient. In the decades following Tocqueville’s visit, Abraham Lincoln confronted the problem of majority tyranny and seconded Tocqueville’s assessment, saying: “In this, as in like communities, public opinion is everything.”
Tocqueville was also correct that, for the foreseeable future at least, the dominant majorities would be local majorities. Epstein faults Tocqueville for predicting the demise of Federal power in deference to the states, but that is what actually happened for the next thirty years, what with John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of state interposition and nullification, Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty (giving local territorial majorities control over slavery), and finally, of course, the secession of 11 states attempting to invalidate an election by breaking up the Union. The victory of the Union may have pointed us in a new direction (both in our doctrines and our affections), but that victory was by no means a sure thing. While Epstein finds Tocqueville remarkably prescient on most counts, he wanted to find the handful of “miscalls . . . lest he take on the aura of Nostradamus.” This particular call, however, was not as wide of the mark as Epstein suggests.
Epstein’s error about majority tyranny is more than an instance of sloppy citation, for it leads him to undervalue Tocqueville’s truly original discovery described in volume two: the phenomenon Tocqueville calls le despotisme démocratique. Understandably perhaps, given the similarity of language, Epstein simply equates the two terms: “‘the tyranny of the majority’, or, as Tocqueville sometimes calls it, ‘democratic despotism’.” Conflating the two is, however, a mistake.
Tyranny of the majority is an old problem. It afflicted the direct democracies of ancient Greece, and it was why Aristotle classed democracy as a defective regime. The many, just like the few, misuse power when they have it. Based on what he sees in America, Tocqueville asserts that representative democracy has not solved the problem. Although there are tempering elements (especially juries, which serve to instruct the people in “good political sense” and bring them into contact with the aristocracy of the bar), the United States is plagued by majority tyranny.
By contrast, “democratic despotism” is a new peril. Indeed, according to Tocqueville, it doesn’t exist anywhere yet. It is the looming threat of the future—the direction Tocqueville fears democracy will take. His chilling vision of a centralized, administrative nanny state (reprinted at length on the next page) is not democracy in America, but Tocqueville fears it will be democracy in Europe, and his other great work, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), shows why. To avert that fate in his homeland, Tocqueville sketches all the ways Americans counteract the homogenizing, alienating and enfeebling tendencies of equality. Americans resist the apathetic withdrawal from public life that accompanies individualism by the art of association (America is the land of acronyms because individuals always act in concert with others). They further develop public-spiritedness by the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood: a capacious and enlightened sense of self-interest which counsels that I serve myself best by serving others, in moderation of course—no need for heroic efforts, just a decent regard for one’s neighbors, fellow citizens and humanity at large. As a result, Americans preserve their liberty in an egalitarian age.
Do Americans still have this healthy recalcitrant streak? After all, we have our infantilizing seat-belt laws (for our own good, of course). We often speak of “the government” as something other than self-government. And ordinary Americans, from babes in strollers to grandmothers with walkers, allow themselves to be treated as terrorism suspects, discalced and disrobed every time they enter an airport. We tolerate plenty of assaults on the liberty of citizens in the name of equality (no terrorist profiling allowed). But whatever our current condition, the America of Tocqueville’s day offered a model of democracy that might avoid le despotisme administratif.
While Epstein offers a highly readable, intelligent and sympathetic account of Tocqueville, in the end there is no substitute for scrupulous attention to an author’s ideas. Unfortunately, Hugh Brogan is even further from Tocqueville’s ideas than Epstein.
Nonetheless, Brogan’s biography has its strengths. Brogan does capture well the fullness of Tocqueville’s course of life, with all its twists and turns: his physically grueling, mentally galvanizing travels; his struggles to shape and complete his writings; his frustrated political ambitions; his marvelous friendships, especially with Gustave de Beaumont, but also Louis de Kergorlay and Eugène Stoffels; his deep but not untroubled marriage (a love-match and a misalliance about which Brogan says: “Nothing he ever did was more democratic, modern, or honourable.”); his lifelong battles with a delicate constitution and serious illness; and finally his early and affecting death. Brogan makes wonderful use of Tocqueville’s extensive and glorious correspondence with family, friends and foreign acquaintances. To top it off, he has a far-reaching knowledge of French political history that he employs to good effect to set the stage for Tocqueville’s career.
Having spent so many years in devoted study of one man, Brogan might be expected to think highly of that man’s thought—or, at least, to think seriously about it. It is, after all, because of Tocqueville’s thoughts that he comes to our notice. But Brogan is strikingly dismissive of Tocqueville’s accomplishments in his three major works: Democracy in America, The Old Regime and the Revolution and Recollections.
Brogan is particularly contemptuous in his evaluation of the second volume of Democracy in America. Tocqueville’s “theory of individualism”, which he grants is “perhaps the most purely original notion that he ever formed”, is derided a paragraph later as “snobbish prejudice against bourgeois society” and “patently fanciful.” The “threat of centralization”, which Brogan allows is “[h]is other great idea”, is soon deprecated by the author’s assertion that Tocqueville
sets out to give his readers a fright. This enterprise does not even have the merit of originality. . . . Tocqueville’s fulminations are not essentially different from those of any other member of his order.
Tocqueville’s reflections on religion are reductively accounted for by declaring that “he was never able to transcend the cultural limitations of his cradle Catholicism.” Finally, Brogan disdainfully concludes that “his book is shaped as much by personal neurosis as by logic and observation”—the clinching proof of this being Tocqueville’s reflections on the family, which are “effusions of nineteenth-century male ideology”, slipped in because “[h]e was vindicating his decision to marry Marie.” Not only his wife, but his dead mother, too, dictated his ideas:
He let himself be carried away by nostalgia for the old days and by loyalty to his caste into almost hysterical anxiety about the new era. It is tempting to guess that he was partly moved by guilt about his mother: he started writing the new Démocratie almost as soon as she was dead, but it would be straining the evidence to say more than that.
I can’t help wondering whether Brogan’s clichéd surmise is itself a product of “logic and observation” or “personal neurosis.”
Astonishingly, after this relentless effort at debunking, Brogan ends the selfsame chapter with the declaration that Democracy in America “was a masterpiece and a classic; and so it still seems in the twenty-first century.” Even here, Brogan distances himself a bit from this verdict by relying on John Stuart Mill to make the 19th-century assessment; as to the work’s contemporary relevance, Brogan grudgingly says only that it “seems” a masterpiece.
As enjoyable and informative as biographies can be, to really know Tocqueville it is necessary to turn to those who concern themselves first and foremost with his thought. The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville performs the office of a true friend—this is a companion volume that argues for Tocqueville as “an indispensable companion, even in the twenty-first century.”
As with most anthologies, the quality of the contributions varies, but the editor, Cheryl Welch, has realized her goal of assembling a collection that represents a range of approaches to Tocqueville and gives a sense of the scholarly Tocqueville map. I want to draw out two essays that make the strongest case for Tocqueville as a political philosopher.
In a short essay straightforwardly titled “Tocqueville, Political Philosopher”, Pierre Manent argues that “Tocqueville’s ambivalence toward democratic equality stems not from his biography but from his thought.” He rejects the common view that Tocqueville was afflicted with nostalgia for a bygone aristocracy, which warred with his intellectual resolve to face the democratic future. Although this is a “plausible and pleasantly dramatic” portrait, Manent shows how insufficient it is. Moreover, he presents an alternative interpretation of the tension between aristocracy and democracy in Tocqueville’s work.
Manent argues that these terms are not fundamentally historical; they refer instead to the timeless and conflicting perspectives of grandeur (aristocracy) and justice (democracy). Although these perspectives are rooted in our human nature, the times have rather decisively altered the balance between them. In the Greek world, the conflict between the few aristocrats and the many democrats was the stuff of political life. The condition of the modern world is quite different. Democracy has dogmatically triumphed, and the political realm has been, in a sense, de-politicized for lack of any fundamental argument to settle.
Tocqueville, like Plato and Aristotle, perceived that “there exists a close correspondence between the order of the city and the order of the soul.” The unchallenged democratic order therefore implies the reign of a new type of human being: democratic man. A modern democrat will differ markedly from an Athenian democrat who, in being forced to vie with those who claimed to be his betters, admired and internalized aristocratic values like independence, spiritedness, love of honor and insistence on merit. Tocqueville highlights the threats to liberty (for him, liberty is linked to grandeur) in the modern world in order to reinvigorate the natural tension between aristocracy and democracy. The health of both the order of the city and the order of the soul depends on it. Manent concludes:
By instituting the confrontation between ‘aristocracy’ and ‘democracy’ in his work and declaring that the debate between these two forms of humanity—between justice and grandeur—cannot be resolved, he reopens the question that our dogmatic passion declared to have been settled in advance. How can we deny the name ‘philosopher’ to the liberal sociologist who leads us out of the social cave?
In their essay “Tocqueville’s New Political Science”, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop explore what this reinvigoration means concretely—how Tocqueville intends “to restore politics, and therewith greatness, to the political science of liberalism.” Intriguingly, they claim that religion (understood as the doctrine of the immortality of the soul) is “the first premise of Tocqueville’s new political science.” Religion is the source of both pride and moderation. Individuals regard themselves as significant because immortal, but remain moderate because under God. Thus, religion
grounds the proud freedom that makes self-government possible. It opposes the rationalist, materialist political science of the modern state that attempted to replace religion; it is an anti-materialist religion, an anti-anti-religion.
In rejecting Voltairean irreligion, Tocqueville was not the captive of his “cradle Catholicism”, as Brogan mockingly says. Rather, he was profoundly inventive in his quest for new modes of refining and high-toning the democratic soul. He recasts religion (not generically Christian even) “in the spirit of American enterprise” for the sake of political liberty and future-oriented action.
This Tocquevillean cure for the soul may or may not be a route to heaven, but along with Tocqueville’s other inspired cures (self-interest rightly understood, the art of association, a reinterpretation of rights, and the special status of women), it may be a route to our political salvation.
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security; foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Kors, “Voltaire’s England”, The American Interest (July/August 2007).