Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide
By Joseph Epstein
(Harper Perennial, 208 pages, $13.99)
Now that Joseph Epstein's finely-written portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville is available in paperback, there's no longer any reason to pass up this contribution to understanding one of the most insightful, not to mention early, explicators of democracy's charms and pitfalls.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide is part of the Eminent Lives series, brief biographies of the world's most important figures. The series includes, to name a few, Paul Johnson on George Washington, Bill Bryson on Shakespeare, Edmund Morris on Beethoven, and Francine Prose on Caravaggio. No footnotes. No indexes. No scholarly hedging and pettifogging. Just compact portraits of historical figures worth knowing about.
Whoever promoted Epstein to write the Tocqueville entry deserves a promotion. To some extent the choice is counter-intuitive. Epstein is a graceful short-story writer and, no-contest, the finest essayist on active duty today. In fact, he likely single-handedly resuscitated this form, which has too often been the favorite vehicle of prigs, drudges, and casuists. But he's more of a literary man than a political writer. Appropriate for a guy who taught writing and literature for 30 years at Northwestern.
In his stories and essays, which have graced the pages of such as Commentary, the New Criterion, Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the American Scholar, et al., Epstein has ignored the daily grub of politics and has shown his distrust of Big Ideas and the people who try to retail them at our expense. Partisans of "isms" find no ally in our Joe.
But then Tocqueville shared Epstein's prejudice against systematic political thinkers, who too often come up with, well, systems. And systems have a way of leading to death by the millions, gulags, firing squads, and guys in ill-fitting suits who knock down your door in the middle of the night.
Epstein has brought the erudite but accessible style of his essays and a deft treatment of political ideas to Tocqueville. He clearly knows his way around ideas as well as around poems and stories. He brings Tocqueville the political thinker and Tocqueville the complex and troubled man to life for readers. He gives us a look at a great mind at work.
Tocqueville and his two volumes of Democracy in America have retained a claim on our attention for more than a century and a half because of the trenchancy of Tocqueville's analysis of American society and the prescience of his predictions regarding where America and democracy were headed, many of which are well known. His insights are the more remarkable as they were made by an aloof, French aristocrat who at age 26 spent a mere 271 days in America, a fair fraction of those days in arduous and dangerous travel as there were no business-class flights in 1831.
Further, the two books on America, the first published in 1835, were written not with an American audience in mind but a French one. Democracy in America was about democracy more than about America, despite the spot-on predictions. (In addition to nailing so much about America, Tocqueville also predicted the 1848 Revolution in Europe a month before it took place. But he wasn't always right. He predicted the federal government in America would wither away as the country got larger geographically.)
Less than two decades before Tocqueville's birth in 1805, his country, burdened with a parasitic aristocracy and a peasantry and middle class with a long list of grievances, had taken a bloody run at liberté, egalité, and fraternité, only to wind up with the Reign of Terror and Napoleon instead. Members of Tocqueville's family were executed during the period of Robespierre's change you can believe in. Tocqueville can be forgiven for being more than a little suspicious of democracy, even though he saw it as the inevitable future, as aristocracy was the past.
Tocqueville understood the constant conflict in democracies between liberty and equality, and the threat too much emphasis on the latter poses to the former. He recognized the emotion of envy behind much of the high-minded talk about equality, which he once described as "generally the wish that no one should be better off than oneself."
Tocqueville saw the soft tyranny of the smothering paternalism that democracies can impose, and the bureaucracies they can build. He understood that too much centralization of government is a one-way street to despotism.
The proud and ambitious Tocqueville learned first-hand the discrepancies between democracy's lofty promises and its actual practice during his own frustrating and almost achievement-free, 13-year political career that spanned a couple of republics.
Politics was almost a comically mischosen career for the cool, cerebral, and ethical Count de Tocqueville. On the basis of his research, Epstein describes him as "a tightly-wound man of volatile nature." He was a man with a talent for friendship, but a backslapper he was not. Not a guy who could work a room. He was totally free of what Epstein calls the "cozening familiarity needed to form strong political groups." His integrity was forever getting in the way.
Tocqueville was crushed to learn that hardly any of his colleagues in the French Chamber of Deputies gave a rat's patootie about the general interest, but were tireless, often ruthless, in pursuing their own. They were, in effect, in business for themselves. He learned that the most important political questions had little to do with shades of difference in democracy versus dictatorship, or the centrality of an independent judiciary. No, the most important political question, on the evidence of the behavior of his colleagues, seemed to be, "What's in it for me?"
In a letter to a friend Tocqueville wrote, "Truly, the world of politics is a foul pit." To coin a phrase, "There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this." But even really smart guys like Tocqueville often require bitter experience to learn this. Better wisdom should come late than never. And wisdom was about all Tocqueville took from active politics.
After a thoroughly disillusioning political career, Tocqueville reluctantly concluded he was not a man of action after all, and returned to writing, where he produced a fine work on the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.
Tocqueville is one of those Rorschach figures, like George Orwell, claimed both by the political right and left, as well as most of the niche positions in between. All sides, it seems, quote him to support their own enthusiasms. Conservatives probably have the best claim.
Though Tocqueville personally had periods of religious doubt, he always believed that for freedom to be exercised in enlightened and honorable ways, religious faith and moral character were required. In the introduction of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote, "Without morality freedom cannot reign, and without faith there is no morality. I would rather doubt my own sanity than God's justice."
Clear enough. Tocqueville understood the value and weight of tradition, and that political institutions are shaped more by a country's customs and mores than the other way round. Societies are not, as bright college sophomores and liberals believe, clay to be molded by new ideas and laws.
While the Frenchman Tocqueville could never consider democracy an unalloyed blessing, The Terror and the guillotine being too fresh in France's collective memory, he was, man and boy, a friend of liberty.
"I regard liberty as the prime good," he wrote, "as I have always seen in it one of the most fertile sources of manly virtues and of great actions."
Clearly a contemporary Tocqueville would not be a candidate for a post in the current administration (not just because there's every reason to believe Tocqueville remained current on his taxes). Talk today of "manly virtues" sends liberals to their fainting couches. A check of the latest penumbras to the U.S. Constitution might identify them as hate crimes. And OSHA would almost certainly find "great actions" unsafe. So I'm happy enough to claim Tocqueville for the conservative side. And I'm more than happy to recommend this fine biography to conservative TAS readers.
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