PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 23

 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America


Professor Smith discusses the moral and psychological components of the democratic state in the context of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He goes on to explore the institutional development of the democratic state, the qualities of the democratic individual, and the psychological determinants of the democratic character. The ethic of self-interest is addressed, understood as an antidote to an ethic of fame and glory. Finally, Tocqueville is presented as a political educator and his views on the role of statesmen in a democratic age are expounded.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 23 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Chapter 1. Moral and Psychological Features of the Democratic State [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Well, today I’m going to finish Tocqueville or, to put it a different way, I’m going to say what I can about Tocqueville in 50 minutes, which is hardly finishing him. In fact, we’ve hardly begun but I want to talk about two things, two aspects of the book today, again, which will again only scratch the surface, and those two topics are the following. I want to talk about–a little bit about the moral and psychological components or features of the democratic state, which is largely the subject matter of Volume 2 of the Democracy and I also want to speak about the role of statesmanship. I mentioned earlier the issue of Tocqueville as educator, as a kind of political educator, and I want to talk today, end up today by talking a little bit about how he understands the role of the democratic statesman.

But the first part–first subject is largely, again, the subject matter of Volume 2. Volume 1 of the Democracy, as you’ve probably noticed, focuses mainly, not exclusively to be sure but mainly on what I suppose we would call “the social and political institutions of democratic society,” the institutional development of the democratic state. Volume 2 focuses much more on, so to call it, the moral and psychological components of the democratic individual. Tocqueville here shows himself more concerned with the internal develops, again, the moral and psychological determinants of democratic character, what is it to have a democratic soul, so to speak. That, I think, is Tocqueville’s concern in the second volume, which in many ways, at least to my way of reading it, makes Volume 2 a sort of philosophically richer discussion than Volume 1, precisely because it focuses on what has the democratic social state done to us, how has it transformed us as individuals, how has it shaped us as individuals. These were, in many ways, Tocqueville’s deepest problems and in this part of the book he shows himself to be a kind of moral psychologist of the democratic soul, very much along the same lines as we saw in Plato for example in Volume 8 of the Republic where Plato speaks about the different kinds of individuals, the different kinds of souls that are appropriate and have been shaped by different kinds of regimes.

But I’d like to start with–I want to focus on three aspects, spend a little time on three of the components, aspects, psychological components of the democratic individual, and those in no particular order I want to discuss as compassion, what this translation has as restiveness, and self-interest. Taken together, I think, these three terms or these three concepts constitute, as it were, the sort of moral scope of the democratic state. In describing these character traits, Tocqueville is providing us with a kind of moral phenomenology, and excuse please a rather pretentious term, kind of moral phenomenology of democratic life, one in which we are invited to look and ask whether we see ourselves in this description and whether we like what it is we see.

Chapter 2. Moral and Psychological Features of the Democratic State: Compassion [00:04:32]

The first of these features that I want to focus on, the most important moral effect in some respects the democracy has had on its citizen, is for Tocqueville the constant tendency to make us gentler towards one another. This is an old eighteenth-century theme, to make us more compassionate, to make us gentler in our manners, habits, morals with one another. This is an old problem. Montesquieu, Tocqueville’s great eighteenth-century precursor–Montesquieu had argued in the Spirit of the LawsL’esprit des Lois, that it was commerce that instituted a kind of softening effects on manners and morals, moving us or taking us from a kind of warlike, aristocratic ethic to one of gentler manners and morals, and Montesquieu had attributed this largely to the influence of commerce. Rousseau, you will remember, in theSecond Discourse, the Discourse on Inequality, made pitié or compassion, a repugnance to view the suffering of others, as a fundamental feature of natural man. Compassion, for Rousseau, remained a kind of remnant of our natural goodness, the fact that we can still cry or sympathize or empathize, as we might say, with the plight of others even with the growth of noisier and more powerful passions. This sort of capacity for sympathy or compassion remains even in civilized life a kind of remnant of our natural goodness.

But for Tocqueville, this feature of compassion is not so much a feature of natural man as it was for Rousseau but it is for democratic life, a democratic social life. It is not nature but democracy that has rendered us gentler and led to the softening of morals and manners. What does Tocqueville mean by that, when he says, “life in democracy has become gentler”? In a very powerful chapter called “How Mores Become Milder as Conditions are Equalized,” here he describes some of the moral and psychological consequences of the transition from the age of aristocracy to one of democracy. Under aristocratic times, he says, in aristocratic ages, individuals inhabited a world apart where members of one class or one tribe may have been similar to one another but they regarded themselves as being fundamentally different from the members of all other social classes or tribes. This did not so much render people cruel but it did render them indifferent to the pain and suffering of others outside their group. Under democracy, however, he says, where all are equal, all of us tend to think and feel in nearly the same manner. We no longer make or imagine these kinds of distinctions. The moral imagination, so called, of the democratic citizen, is able to transport itself into the positions of others more easily than individuals living in aristocratic times. All become alike or at least all are projected or perceived as being alike in our range of emotions, sensibilities, capacities for moral sympathies. As people become more like one another, Tocqueville says, they show themselves reciprocally compassionate regarding their miseries and the laws of nations become milder, the laws of nations become milder, they show themselves reciprocally compassionate to one another.

That transformation of one of the key ethics of social life for Tocqueville has had profound effects on us. It has certainly made people gentler and more civil to one another. Such things, he tells us, as torture, deliberate cruelty, sort of spectacles of pain and humiliation that were once so much a part of everyday life have largely been eliminated from the world. I say largely, not entirely to be sure. We more readily identify ourselves with the pain or suffering of people possibly in very different parts of the world, world parts that we’ve never seen and may never visit. Consider, for example, our response to the victims of the tsunami in Indonesia or the genocide in Darfur. All of these events affecting people in places, again, where we may never go nevertheless seem to have a claim on our moral sympathies. President Bill Clinton profoundly captured this sense of enlarged moral sympathy when he told his audiences, “I feel your pain.” Remember? I don’t know. You probably won’t remember that but you’ve probably heard the expression. It seems to show a kind of enlargement of the moral sympathies, being able to put oneself in the position of others who one doesn’t know and may never meet. This is all a part of what Tocqueville understands, the softening of morals under a democratic way of life.

And Tocqueville clearly regards this, in many ways, as a moral progress of sorts in our unwillingness to tolerate policies of deliberate cruelty in his statement, perhaps premature, that Americans of all the people in the world have succeeded or almost succeeded in abolishing the death penalty, not quite true but nevertheless maybe more truer than it is now. In democratic centuries, he says, men–but all of this compassion–here is–but here is the problem. All of this compassion comes still at a price. In democratic centuries, he writes, men rarely devote themselves to one another but they show a general compassion for all members of the human species. They rarely, he says, devote themselves to one another. This sort of generalized sympathy is genuine but soft. My ability to feel your pain does not really require me to do much about it. Compassion, you might say, turns out to be a rather easy virtue. It suggests sensitivity and openness. It implies caring without being judgmental. It is not entirely relativistic but it certainly refrains from imposing one’s own moral judgments and way of life upon others.

Does Tocqueville believe that democratic peoples are in dangers of becoming too soft, too morally sensitive, too incapable of exhibiting the kind of harsher, what we might call more aristocratic virtues of nobility, of self-sacrifice, of love of honor that formed the moral code of previous times? Well, the answer to that question is yes, he surely did believe that was becoming the case. Compassion is for Tocqueville in many ways an admirable sentiment and again it is one likely to expand our rage of moral sympathies but there is something called a kind of misplaced compassion that Tocqueville is very fearful about. Compassion is a virtue but it carries with us–with it, like every virtue, its own particular forms of misuse, for example, when compassion becomes a standard by which to express our forms of moral superiority to others. Consider the following. To be accused today, particularly in places like college campuses, to be accused of insensitivity to others, to some kind of moral insensitivity, is among many of us considered one of the worst moral crimes imaginable. We must all care or at least we must all pretend as if we care, yes, or must be seen to care about the plight of others much worse off than ourselves and the result of this, and I think this is Tocqueville’s point, seems to be to create new moral hierarchies of compassion where one’s superiority is demonstrated by our heightened sensitivity and feeling for others.

And it is precisely this kind of misplaced compassion, asking the question who is the most sensitive among us, a very Rousseauian type question, this kind of misplaced compassion that is, I think, one of the psychological determinants of what we would call today “political correctness,” obviously a term Tocqueville does not use, but you might think of the way in which the language of pity, compassion, sensitivity, has so much shaped our moral vocabulary, ways of thinking about ourselves and judging others. If you don’t believe me, watch almost any daytime afternoon show like Oprah or any of these other shows and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about and of course you’ve all seen these shows, I think many more times than I have but nevertheless–compassion. This is the first or one feature of democratic social life but it is not the only one. It is connected or at least it exists alongside another.

Chapter 3. Moral and Psychological Features of the Democratic State: Anxiety [00:15:17]

And at the core also of the psychological life of modern democratic citizens, Tocqueville writes, is a profound sense of uneasiness, of anxiety, that Tocqueville calls by the French term inquietude, a word that maybe is difficult to translate into English, inquietude, anxiety. In earlier translation, this was called restlessness. In this particular translation, you have restiveness to indicate the sort of perpetually dissatisfied character of the democratic soul. In many ways, the democratic soul, like democracy itself, is never complete. It is always a work in progress. And this feeling of perpetual restlessness for Tocqueville is tied to the desire for well-being and by that he means particularly material well-being. It is the desire for happiness measured largely in terms of material happiness that is the dominant drive of the democratic soul. In many ways, Tocqueville brings to his analysis of democratic restiveness–you can see in it something of the aristocrat’s disdain for the acquisition of you might say mere material goods for which most of us have to work so hard to acquire.

Perhaps more than anything else this is what perplexes Tocqueville about democracy. Democracy meant for him predominantly a kind of middle class way of life, bourgeois life made up of people who are constantly in pursuit of some obscure object of their own desires. Consider the following passage, one of my favorite from the entire book, from a chapter entitled, “Why the Americans Show Themselves so Restive in the Midst of their Well-Being.” Let me read it at some length. “In the United States,” he says, “a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years and sells it while the roof is being laid. He plants a garden and he rents it out just as he was going to taste its fruits. He clears a field and he leaves it to others to care for the harvesting. He embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere. Should his private affairs give him some respite, he immediately plunges into the whirlwind of politics and when, toward the end of a year filled with some leisure still remains to him, he carries his restive curiosity here and there within the vast limits of the United States, carrying his restive curiosity wherever he may go. He will thus go 500 leagues in a day in order better to distract himself from his happiness.” What a wonderful phrase, “to distract himself from his happiness. Death finally comes and it stops him before he has grown weary of this useless pursuit of complete felicity that always flees from him.”

Does that passage sound like anything we may have read here? Does it not sound as if it is modeled almost exactly after Plato’s description of the democratic soul in Book VIII of the Republic, a person who is constantly moving, constantly restless, constantly unable to concentrate or to bear down on the one or very few things that give life a sense of wholeness and meaning and integrity? Here is the democratic man, restive in the midst of well-being, constantly moving ahead or moving to, as he says, distract himself from his own happiness. Tocqueville writes here, it seems, with a kind of disdain for a life understood as a constant and, in his view, self-defeating pursuit of happiness. The desire for well-being you might say becomes the right–almost the right of the democrat and the more one desires happiness the more it eludes our grasp. In the sentence just after the passage I just read, Tocqueville says, “One is at first astonished to contemplate the singular agitation displayed by so many happy men in the midst of their abundance.”

And you can sense Tocqueville’s irony in his use of the term “so many happy,” the distractions, the agitation, complete agitation displayed, he says, by so many happy individuals in the midst of their abundance. There’s a world of social commentary condensed into those sentences. His combination of words like “agitation” and “abundance” in the same–again in the same context as the pursuit of happiness indicates for him that this way of life is more likely to bring frustration and anxiety than it is to bring us satisfaction and repose. And he traces this continual restlessness back to what seems to be for the democratic social–for the democratic individual the virtual obligation to be happy. I would ask you in this context if you have some time to read Darrin McMahon’s wonderful new book on A History of Happiness to give you a little bit of an indication of the way this term has been used throughout its history and the way in which in many ways the obligation to pursue happiness, to restiveness, that kind of restiveness, is the source of so much, as he puts it, singular–the singular melancholy, he says, that the inhabitants of democratic lands often display amid their abundance. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness have become what one person once called a kind of joyless quest for joy and this is the second feature, this restless or restive character of democracy.

Chapter 4. Moral and Psychological Features of the Democratic State: Self-Interest [00:22:19]

And finally, the third feature of democratic psychology that I want to focus on is this idea of self-interest or self-interest well understood as Tocqueville calls it. This is a doctrine with which everybody is familiar from courses on moral psychology, on utilitarianism, to modern courses on–from–in economics and game theory and other things where the term “self-interest” is regarded almost as sort of a talismanic–has almost talismanic properties of explaining all kinds of human behavior. But Tocqueville means something very specific by self-interest or self-interest well understood. It is in one sense the kind of, you might say, everyday utilitarianism, not in any strict of the term, with which we are instinctively familiar when we hear or are told things like honesty is the best policy and things like this. It seems simple and obvious enough but it in fact is a very complex and difficult history.

By the time that Tocqueville wrote these chapters in the Democracy, theories of self-interest had long been a kind of staple of European moral philosophy going back to the seventeenth century at least, going back to people like Hobbes and others. The question is what work does this idea, this concept, of self-interest rightly understood do for Tocqueville? In the first place, he understands it somewhat differently than, I think, we would. When we hear the term “self-interest,” we are likely to think of it as opposed to or to think of its antonym as indicating some kind of altruism. While interest or self-interest is thought of as inherently self-regarding, altruism or something like that is an other regarded–an other regarding disposition, regarding the welfare, well-being of others. But when Tocqueville talks about self-interest, self-interested behavior was put forward by him as a kind of comprehensive antonym to behavior motivated by vanity, by honor and, above all, by the concept of glory, terms, remember, thinking–going back to Hobbes in some way and Hobbes’s concern to replace ideas of vanity, vainglory and pride with a notion of fear of death, a kind of self-interested behavior.

While glory was for Tocqueville and others associated with war and warlike pursuits, interest, self-interest, was invariably associated with commerce and peaceful competition. In contrast, in other words, to the aristocratic concern with fame and honor, interest was regarded–self-interest was regarded as a relatively peaceful or harmless disposition leading us to cooperate with one another for the sake of common ends. The pursuit of self-interest has a kind of unmistakably democratic and egalitarian impulse behind. The pursuit of self-interest is something literally everyone is able to follow even while such things as honor and glory seem to be by nature unequally available to different people. And into this debate between an ethic of honor and glory and an ethic of self-interest or self-interest rightly understood enters Tocqueville and his Democracy in America. He begins his chapter called, “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Doctrine of Self-Interest Rightly Understood,” with the following sentence, with the following observation.

He writes, “When the world was led by a few wealthy and powerful individuals, these liked to form for themselves. They liked to form for themselves a sublime idea of the duties of man. They were pleased to profess that it is glorious to forget oneself and that it is fitting to do good without self-interest like God Himself. This was the official doctrine of the time in matters of morality, speaking of aristocratic ages. I doubt that men,” he says, “were more virtuous in aristocratic centuries than in others but it is certain that the beauties of virtue were constantly spoken of. Only in secret,” he concludes, “did men study its utility.” You might think about that passage perhaps in section but note that Tocqueville adds to the concept of self-interest this idea or this modifier of well understood. What does this add? What is he intending that to say? Self-interest well understood is not the same thing as egoism or what Rousseau called amour-proper, for example. It is not the desire simply to be talked about, to be looked at, to be first in the race of life in that way. Rather, self-interest is connected, and self-interest well understood is connected to this passion for well-being and the desire to improve one’s conditions that remained for Tocqueville a very important wellspring of human actions. But it is important to remember that these are not the only desires or these are not the only motives for action.

Tocqueville probably is distinguished from many social scientists today by suggesting that self-interest well understood is not some kind of universal determinant of human behavior. It is not something universal. It is a product of a particular social state, a particular, we might say, the democratic social state. He is not in this sense a kind of moral or psychological reductionist who wants to see one cause of human behavior across all centuries and all climates. He is not saying that all behavior is self-interested. In fact, in that very chapter on self-interest rightly understood you will remember–you may remember, you probably don’t remember, that he quotes in a footnote an essay by Montaigne, a name that I’ve mentioned before, an essay by Montaigne called Of Glory to remind the reader that the desire for fame and honor will always contend with the desire for well-being and happiness. And in many ways, these are two conflicting motives of human behavior.

What did he believe that this ethic of self-interest well understood would bring about? Again, like compassion, the doctrine of self-interest has done much to sort of soften the harsher features of the aristocratic ethics, of warlike–of the warlike nobility. Self-interest well understood is a kind of antidote to an ethic of fame and glory and yet you can see throughout Volume 2 especially how Tocqueville laments the decline of this older aristocratic codes of honor and chivalry. By contrast, the doctrine of self-interest well understood is not lofty, he says, but it is clear and sure. It has characteristics of reliability and predictability. It is not itself a virtue, he says, but it can form people who are, and these are this terms, regulated, temperate, moderate, foresighted, masters of themselves, regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted. What does that sound like? Think about that. What kind of person is this and what has it created? These are the virtues of the democratic republic. Again, these may not be heroic or extraordinary qualities but they do have the virtue of being within the range of everyone. But is such a code or is such a moral code desirable for itself? That’s something that Tocqueville leaves a little bit up in the air. Of all philosophical theories, as he calls it, the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood is, he says, the most appropriate to the needs of men in our time. Think about that judgment: It is the most appropriate to the needs of men in our time. It doesn’t seem to suggest that this is either universal or necessarily that it is the best. It is simply the best adapted to the needs of our time, to our level of humanity, to where we are now, and again there is a implicit- to be sure an implicit kind of critique suggested in those–in that phrase that you might think about as you read or as you go back to that important chapter on self-interest and its role in, again, the shaping of the modern democratic individual.

So these three characteristics, compassion–What was the other one? What? Restlessness, yes. Well, good. I’m– Yes. Yeah. I can’t even remember what I’m talking about. Restlessness and self-interest. I was just–I was quizzing you. I was just checking. It doesn’t have anything to do with short-term memory loss. These are what has shaped us and Tocqueville holds this up as a kind of portrait in a democratic individual and also of course primarily to–not so much to the democratic individual but to his readers back in France and saying this seems to be the future shape of humanity, of democratic humanity. We need both to adapt to it in some ways. We have to both recognize that this is what’s coming and adapt to it but we also have to be to some degree wary of what is coming and what kind of people we may create out of ourselves, what may be created.

Chapter 5. Democratic Statecraft [00:33:44]

And this brings me to the theme that I mentioned at the beginning about democratic statecraft, democratic education. What is the role of the statesman in a democratic age? How should one adapt as well as try to guide these features?Democracy in America is a work of political education, a supreme work of political education addressed to leaders or potential leaders not only for Tocqueville’s time, but for the future. The possibilities of statecraft are, as they are always, dependent on what we understand politics and political science to be. What is it? In the introduction to the book, in one of those characteristically epigrammatic sentences and you should be attuned to these, Tocqueville often likes to give these one sentence paragraphs to highlight an idea, to really make it stand out. I don’t recommend it for you but for him he takes one sentence and can make it–turns it into a paragraph. He talks about this book. He says, “Is a new political science for a world altogether new.” That statement has to jump out at you off the page. What is this new political science? A new political science, again, in some ways following Machiavelli who departs from the ancients but perhaps also from his modern predecessors too like Machiavelli and Hobbes or Locke and Rousseau. What is the distinguishing feature of the political science for a new democratic age, for a world altogether new?

Tocqueville’s new political science, let me suggest to you, is based on a novel and profound understanding of the relationship between history or historical forces and human agency, between individual power- individual powers or agency and historical forces. Let me try to explain what I mean by that. As any reader of the Democracy quickly notes, even from the opening pages of the book, Tocqueville attributes a kind of providential power to history. The immense, centuries-long progress or transition from the aristocratic to the democratic era seems to be, as he describes it, almost an act of divine providence, almost of divine will. He warns his readers that it is a mistake, it is self-defeating to try to resist or to turn back this movement. This would be futile. It would not only be futile. He even suggests it would be impious, it would be in some ways to go against the will of God, as if the hand of God were behind this immense historical progress or process. Tocqueville no doubt deliberately overstates that argument but he does so, I think, in order to make a serious and profound point.

Our politics are deeply embedded within long structures of human history that we can do little to alter and escape. We seem to be deeply embedded, we as individuals, deeply embedded within these structures. This is, to use a term that modern political scientists often use to describe this, it is an argument from what is often called path dependency, that we are again deeply embedded within historical processes, tendencies, paths of development that we can do little to resist or control. And in many ways Tocqueville often–you will find Tocqueville often writing as if he is some kind of historical or sociological determinist allowing little room for individual initiative or agency. Words like “fate,” “destiny,” “tendency” are frequently used throughout the book to underscore the limits of political action. It would even be an interesting experiment to go through the book, page by page, and find how many examples of those kinds of words, “tendency,” “fate,” “destiny,” these kind of deterministic words that suggest irresistible movements, movement of history, how many times he uses these and in what context.

And he frequently offers predictions throughout the book on the basis of what he regards to be underlying historical and social trends. You can hardly read a page of the book, sometimes not even a paragraph, without finding in it some kind of prediction based on these trends. Again, I would ask you if you have time go through the book. You don’t have time this semester. Maybe it’ll be a great senior essay later on, to go through the book and find examples, as many as you can of again predictions that Tocqueville makes on the basis of these historical–these–this claim about historical forces. And much of this seems to deny, taken literally, much of this would seem to deny the role of independent human initiative or statecraft in history. Consider the following passage from pages 154 and 155 of your translation. Here is what Tocqueville writes about the statesman. He says, “Sometimes after a thousand efforts the legislator succeeds in exerting an indirect influence on the destiny of nations and then one celebrates his genius whereas often the geographical position of the country about which he can do nothing, a social state that was created without his concurrence, mores and ideas of whose origin he is ignorant, a point of departure unknown to him, in part irresistible movements to society against which he struggles in vain and which carry him along in turn.”

There you go. He gives us a list of all of the different determinants of human surrounding conditions, geography, mores, social position. These, he says, impart an irresistible movements to society. There is that kind of deterministic language again against which he, the statesman, can do nothing and yet he begins this–he begins that little statement by saying that after a thousand efforts he succeeds in exerting an indirect influence on the destiny of nations and then he is celebrated as a great genius. You can see Tocqueville’s irony and what appears to be downplaying the abilities or the role of the legislator, the statesman, to effect change of any significant kind. I don’t like to be political but one might wonder what our President would have made of that had he read that passage or thought about it or those around him had thought about it a couple of years ago before our current miseries began.

Anyway, this passage almost seems to be mocking the claims of Machiavelli or Rousseau who saw the ability of a new prince or a legislator to found peoples and institutions. Tocqueville seems to regard that the legislator can do relatively little on his own but is strongly hemmed in by a host of factors, geography, social customs, morality, again, over which one can do little. The legislator is more like a ship’s captain dependent on the external circumstances that control the fate of the ship and he even goes on to say the legislator resembles a man who plots his course in the middle of the ocean. Thus, he can direct the vessel that carries him but he cannot change its structure, create winds or prevent the ocean from rising under his feet. All of this seems to be on the side of those historical features that limit what we can do. Yet, if Tocqueville often writes as if the statesman is hemmed in by these kinds of circumstances, he also, and you see this especially throughout Volume 2, strongly opposes all systems, all intellectual or philosophical systems of historical determinism, that deny to us the power of human agency. While he sometimes writes to shame or to humble the pretensions of human greatness, he is just as concerned about the tendency, in fact the very dangerous tendency toward self-abnegation that denies the role of the individual in politics and history.

He often writes as if it is the peculiarity of democratic times when all peoples are considered equal and therefore all of us considered equally powerless to effect or change anything. And again, I would ask who has not felt this way at some time, maybe all the time, that with all of us being, again, more or less equal no one seems to have the power, a kind of singular power, to effect any great social change. There is one wonderful chapter among others but I’ll just mention one. Look at the chapter, and I can’t recall offhand the exact number of the chapter, but the one called “On Historians,” on the role of historians in democratic and aristocratic times, and how he shows us that in aristocratic ages–he’s thinking particularly of the ancient world–historians attributed to extraordinary individuals all the power to affect nations and change nations but in democratic times, in modern times, we tend to think of historians, one might also take his term “historian” to include social science as well. We tend to project systems which deny the power, the unique power of the individual. We are all products of vast, you might say, historical or causal circumstances over which the individual has no control. Think of the way in which Marxism, again, denies the power of the individual, Freudian analysis sees all of our desires and motives as determined by forces over which we have little control, all kinds of economic theories of development, again, which see us all acting under certain kind of uniform rules of human behavior. Where is the room for the individual? That chapter is a wonderful illustration of Tocqueville’s general point.

So what is then his teaching and, more specifically, what is his advice for the statecraft of the future? And it seems by the end of the book Tocqueville is walking on a very narrow tightrope. He wishes to convince his contemporaries that the democratic age is upon us, that the transition from aristocracy to democracy is irreversible, that it cannot be resisted, and that what he calls the democratic revolution is an accomplished fact, and yet at the same time he wants to instruct us that what form democracy will take in the future will very much depend on will, on intelligence, on what he sometimes calls enlightenment, and especially on individual human agency, what form democracy will take. Democracy may be inevitable. Equality, the age of equality, may be inevitable but democracy is not of all one piece. It depends not just on impersonal historical forces but on what you might call “the active virtue and intelligence of individuals” ranging from self-interest rightly understood to honor and ambition.

Democracy can still take many forms and whether it will favor liberty or be favorable to liberty or to some kind of collectivism is for him very much an open question, what form democracy will take. And Tocqueville returns to this theme, his very, very important theme, in the last, very last paragraph of his book. “I am not unaware,” he tells his readers, “that several of my contemporaries have thought that peoples are never masters of themselves here below. There is little we can do. And that they necessarily obey I do not know which insurmountable and unintelligent force born of previous events, the race, the soil or the climate.” “Those,” he says, “are false and cowardly doctrines that can never produce anything but weak men and pusillanimous nations.” That is to say, these doctrines of historical determinism have an actual effect on people. It makes us weak. It makes us cowardly. It makes us–it makes entire societies and it enervates entire society and yet he continues, “Providence has not created the entire race entirely independent or perfectly enslaved. It traces it is true,” he is speaking about providence. “It traces, it is true, a fatal circle around each man that he cannot leave but within this vast limits man is powerful and free, so too, he says, with people.

Tocqueville leaves us, in other words, not with a solution but rather with a paradox or I would say a challenge for us to consider. We are determined but not altogether so. The statesman must know how to navigate the shoals between historical, social and cultural forces over which we have no say and those matters of institutional design and moral suasion that are still within our power to effect. Politics, as intelligent people have always known, which is not to say all people to be sure but as intelligent people have known, is a medium that takes place within language. It is a matter of providing people with the linguistic and the rhetorical abilities both to construct their pasts and to imagine their futures. It is language, going back to Aristotle, it is logos, it is language that gives us a latitude, an ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to create new ones. Tocqueville provides us living in a democratic age with the language to shape the future of democratic societies. What we do with that language, how we apply it to new circumstances and conditions that Tocqueville could never have imagined, will be of course entirely up to us. And on that note I have to end Tocqueville and Wednesday I’ll see you for our last class and I’m going to talk about where we go from there.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]