Skip to comments.The Conservative Mind: Tocqueville Part I (Excerpt of chapter "Macaulay, Cooper, and Tocqueville")
Posted on 10/28/2002 5:21:47 PM PST by William McKinleyEdited on 10/28/2002 5:32:05 PM PST by Admin Moderator. [history]
It is believed by some that modern society will be always changing its aspect; for myself, I fear that it will ultimately be too invariably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same manners, so that mankind will be stopped and circumscribed; that the mind will swing backwards and forwards forever without begetting fresh ideas; that man will waste his strength in bootless and solitary trifling, and, though in continual motion, that humanity will cease to advance. -- Tocqueville, Democracy in America
That facility of the French for generalization, which turned the world upside down, reached its apex in Alexis de Tocqueville. He employed the methods and the style of the philosophes and the Encyclopedists to alleviate, more than a half-century later, the consequences of their books. In some respects, the pupil, Tocqueville, excels his philosophical master, Burke: certainly his Democracy contains an impartial examination of the new order which Buurke never had time or patience to undertake. Tocqueville is a writer who should be read not in abridgement, but wholly; for every sentence has significance, every observation sagacity. The two big volumes of Democracy are a mine of aphorisms, his Old Regime is the germ of a hundred books, his Souvenir is packed with a terse brilliance of narrative that few memoirs possess. Some people besides professors still read Tocqueville. They ought to, because he was the best friend democracy ever has had, and democracy's most candid and judicious critic.
Although he was judge and legislator and foreign minister, and enjoyed a great literary success, Tocqueville felt himself to be nearly a failure. In Macaulay's essay on Machiavelli is a passage which struck the fancy of that omniverous reader John Randolph, though he did not know the author's name when he came upon the article in the Edinburgh Review; Randolph applied this description to his own situation; and certainly Tocqueville's sentiments were similar. "It is difficult to conceive any situation more painful than that of a great man condemned to watch the lingering agony of an exhaused country, to tend it during the alternate fits of stupefaction and raving which precede its dissolution, and to see the symptoms of vitality disappear one by one, till nothing is left but coldness, darkness, and corruption." The spirit of a gentleman and the high talents of remarkable individuals, Tocqueville thought, were sliding into an engulfing mediocrity, and society was confronted with the prospect of a life-in-death. The futility of crying against the monstrous deaf and blind tendency of the times made Tocqueville painfully conscious of his impotence and insignificance. But he was no mere railer against circumstance; he never lost hope of ameliorating those problems which resulted from the levelling inclination of society; and his influence upon posterity has been more considerable than he hoped.
Democratic despotism: in this phrase, which the hesitating Tocqueville adpoted only for lack of a better, he described the conundrum of modern society. The analysis of democratic despotism is his supreme achievement as a political theorist, a sociologist, a liberal, and a conservative. "I am not opposed to democracies," he wrote to M. Freslon in 1857. "They may be great, they may be in accordance with the will of God, if they be free. What saddens me is, not that our society is democratic, but that the vices which we have inherited and acquired make it so difficult for us to obtain or to keep well-regulated liberty." Harold Laski remarks that Tocqueville, essentially an aristocrat, was "unable to accept without pain the collectivist discipline" toward which centralized democratic polities remorselessly tend. Legislative power, once it is wholly in the hands of the mass of men, is applied to purposes of economic levelling. Quite so; the collectivist discipline was more repugnant to Tocqueville -- and to any liberal or conservative, of whatever origins-- than the worst stupidities of the old regime. Like Aristotle (and some reputable writers have declared that Tocqueville was the greatest political thinker since Aristotle, although Tocqueville himself found little in Aristotle's Politics which he thought applicable to modern problems), Tocqueville was always searching for ends. A political system which forgets ends and worships averages, a "collectivist discipline," for Tocqueville was bondage worse than slavery of the old sort. Society ought to be designed to encourage the highest moral and intellectual qualities in man; the worst threat of the new democratic system is that mediocrity will not only be encouraged, but may be enforced. Tocqueville dreads the reduction of human society to an insect-like arrangement, the real gravitation toward which condition has been described by Wyndham Lewis in his stories of Rotting Hill and by C.E.M. Joad in Decadence. Variety, individuality, progress: these Tocqueville struggles to conserve.
Whenever social conditions are equal, public opinion presses with enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him; and this arises from the very constitution of society much more than from its political laws. As men grow more alike, each man feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest; as he discerns nothing by which he is considerably raised above them or distinguished from them, he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him. Not only does he mistrust his strength, but he even doubts of his right, and he is very enar acknowledging that he is in the wrong, when the great number of his countrymen assert that he is so. The majority do not need to force him; they convince him. In whatever way the powers of a democratic community may be organized and balanced, then, it will always be extremely difficult to believe what the bulk of the people reject or to profess what they condemn.Such generalizations, though bold as those of the philosophes, were far better founded upon particular knowledge than had been the speculations on a priori assumptions which characterized the eighteenth-century social ideas. By his extensive investigations into American life, by his acquaintance with England, by his political career, and by his unassuming erudition, Tocqueville was prepared to pronounce with authority upon human and social nature. He wrote with care, eager to be just. "Of all writers, he is the most widely acceptable, and the hardest to find fault with. He is always wise, always right, and as just as Aristides." This is the opinion of Lord Acton. Tocqueville was determined to escape self-delusion, at whatever cost to peace of mind. Believing with Burke that Providence paves the way for enormous changes in the world, and that to oppose such changes when their direction is manifest amounts to impiety, he was willing to surrender much to the new democracy-- even, to a considerable extent, elevation of mind. "In the democratic society of which you are so proud," said that courageous genius Royer-COllard to Tocqueville, "there will not be ten persons who will thoroughly enter into the spirit of your book." But Tocqueville was not willing to let democracy become a cannibal; he would resist, so far as he could, the sacrifice of democracy's virtues upon the altar of democracy's lusts.
The insidious vice of democracy, Tocqueville discerned, is that democracy preys upon itself, and presently exists only corrupt and hideous-- still, perhaps, preserving its essential characteristic of equality, but devoid of all those aspirations toward liberty and progress which inspired its early triumph. Most critics of democracy had declared that political egalitarianism must end in anarchy-- or, barring that, tyranny. Alexis de Tocqueville was not in bondage to the past, although he had a strong respect for historical knowledge: the future need not always be like what went before, he wrote, and neither of these hoary alternatives is the probable consummation of modern egalitarianism. What menaces democratic society in this age is not a simple collapse of order, nor yet usurpation by a single powerful individual, but a tyranny of mediocrity, a standardization of mind and spirit and condition enforced by the central government, precisely what Laski calls "the collectivist discipline." He foresaw the coming of the "social welfare state," which agrees to provide all for its subjects, and in turn exacts rigid conformity. The name democracy remains; but government is exerted from the top downward, as in the Old Regime, but not from the masses. This is a planners' society, dominated by bureaucratic elite; but the governors do not form an aristocracy, for all the old liberties and privileges and individuality which aristocracy cherishes have been eradicated to make way for a monotonous equality that managers of society share.
Part II of this chapter tomorrow.
Sometimes he reminds me of Polonius.
Did he recognize its antidote? That would have royalized him.
And how true it is. The first initial reaction to any serious consideration of theoretical analysis is an adolescent confidence against making a fuss where there is no need for one. This is usually followed by a corny joke and thumbing one's nose at the pressure that seriousness brings. But hey! This is America. Chill out.
The deepest intellectual weakiness of democracy is its lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life. All our Nobel prizes and the like do nothing to gainsay Tocqueville's appraisal in this regard. The issue is not whether we possess intelligence but whether we are adept at reflection fo the broadest and deepest kind. We need constant reminders of our deficiency, now more than in the past. --Allan Bloom The Closing of the American Mind. How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students
AMEN..is that you, Ron?
Only to the extent that governance remains localized. As long as the Federal government forces a sea-to-sea monoculture, liberty is under assault in the cities or the country.
Maybe Cities should evolve into city-states in a Republic as their localized population exceeds the rest of the state?
Why should the preponderance of New York City wag the senators representing upstate?
The thinking was that the House would effectively represent the population...but since states are no longer viably able to secede, then representation of the States on their historical boundaries seems arbitrary.
WHERE have you been? LOL!
Is that so? Well you might as well jump on in there and get your feet wet!
We would LOVE to have your wise council!
Is that so? Well you might as well jump on in there and get your feet wet!
We would LOVE to have your wise council!
I love it.
America was the great home of the natural leveller, which was the land itself. Anyone could go and get the land they needed to use to raise themself up, and all of the poorest had the same opportunity to take it.Emphasis mine. I think that most every conservative would lose most of their objections to any sort of levelling that involves raising up rather than tearing down (knowing, of course, that absolute levelling could never occur with that constriction).
Agreed. What I meant by my extension of the argument was that levelling of oppty or wealth by the goverment was not possible...because of the land.
If I felt repressed back then, I could move to Texas!!! NOW WHERE DO I GO!!!! :-(
I did not find the greatness of America in her farms, her natural resources, her vast land, her political system, but in the thundering righteouness that sounded from the pulpits of her churches'
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests; and it was not there.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce; and it was not there.
I sought for the greatness of America in her public schools and institutions of learning; and it was not there.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic congress and her matchless constitution; and it was not there.
Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pupits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.
America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. P. 34
Sounds good -- but I don't think it is authentic. See THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD The Weekly Standard November 13, 1995 By John J. Pitney, Jr. for a more detailed explanation.