Born in 1805 to a distinguished Catholic family, Tocqueville straddled the old world and the new. His great-grandfather Malesherbes defended King Louis XVI at his trial during the French Revolution, for which he lost his head (Tocqueville’s parents narrowly escaped the guillotine themselves during the Reign of Terror, and his father’s hair turned completely white in prison under the strain). His uncle Chateaubriand founded romanticism in French literature and remained a writerly inspiration throughout Tocqueville’s life. And yet Tocqueville’s lineage sat uneasily on his shoulders; he married the Englishwoman Mary Mottley, of no particular social status and a Protestant to boot, and spent his life, to the puzzlement of his noble relations, defending the new political movement known as “democracy.”
There is perhaps no greater theorist of democracy from whom we still need to learn. – Raymond Hain
The tensions in his life bore rich fruit in his thought. His greatest intellectual model was his fellow Frenchman and 17th century polymath Blaise Pascal, who wrote movingly in his Pensées about human nature: “What a chimera then is man! What a surprise, what a monster, what chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, weak earthworm; repository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error; glory and garbage of the universe!” Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America, embodies this complicated view of human nature and remains, for both left and right, a source of unending inspiration.
Published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Democracy in America was the fruit of nine months touring the United States with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. The two young men, using as their excuse a study of the US prison system for the benefit of the French government, traveled extensively, spoke with the leading intellectuals of the day, and sought everywhere the beating heart of this new country so that the world might learn what to imitate, and what to fear.
There are insights on every page and on every topic. Question: Why are Americans so slow to take offence in their country? Answer: “As distinctions of rank vanish and men of diverse education and birth mix and come together in the same places, agreement about the rules of proper behaviour is almost impossible. Since the law is uncertain, disobeying it is no crime even in the eyes of those who know what it is. People are at once less civil and less quarrelsome.” Side Effect: “In the United States it is not easy to make a man understand that his presence is unwelcome.”
Though one could be forgiven for suspecting it a haphazard collection of vignettes and bons mots, Democracy in America is organised around a deep unity and seriousness of purpose, and returns always to the tension, sometimes fruitful and sometimes destructive, between freedom and dependence. The past was marked by class division: the noble few free, educated, and accomplished, and the many poor downtrodden in mind as well as body, with little received and less to hope for. Like Marx, Tocqueville saw the arc of history bending towards equality—we could not and should not slow its movement, but instead must “educate democracy” so that we might enjoy its blessings and avoid its curses (he reserves the word “hate” for only one object: American slavery).
Whatever the complexities of his own convictions, he argued strenuously for the indispensable political value of religion. – Raymond Hain
The connection to Marx is important, for Tocqueville’s introduction to Democracy in America stands as a striking rival to The Communist Manifesto, published a decade later. Marx believed the triumph of democracy, in the form of communism, would do away with all class divisions. Tocqueville, Pascalian through and through, sought instead to internalise those divisions within the breast of every citizen.
Though Tocqueville was raised Catholic and remained outwardly practicing throughout his life, what evidence we have of his personal beliefs suggest he experienced a crisis of faith as a teenager that led him away from Christianity to a form of deism. He did not take the Sacrament for most of his adult life, though he did receive the last rites on his deathbed in 1859, to the permanent consternation of his biographers. But whatever the complexities of his own convictions, he argued strenuously for the indispensable political value of religion. Religion established the foundational moral dependence of our lives, without which our political freedom would overwhelm us: “Man’s true grandeur lies only in the harmony of the liberal sentiment and religious sentiment, both working simultaneously to animate and to restrain souls.”
Tocqueville’s insistence on the divided soul and the irreplaceable value of religious conviction for a free people have obvious implications for us in the twenty-first century. Religion, thought by many a steadily dwindling tangle of pre-Enlightenment superstitions, shows no sign of losing its political relevance. And the divided soul, the source of the greatest human grandeur as well as the greatest human failures, is a reminder that our true enemy in democracy is not outside us, but within. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn learned in the Soviet gulag, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts there remains an uprooted small corner of evil.”
This too is something for which we should be grateful to Tocqueville: politics is never simply about mastering the other side; it is most importantly always about mastering ourselves in the service of one another, and of Divine Providence. It is a lesson well worth remembering today, and always.
Raymond Hain is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of the Humanities Program at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. His essays have appeared most recently in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy and The Anthem Companion to Tocqueville, and he is the editor of Beyond the Self: Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Culture.
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