Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life

by Hugh Brogan

Yale University Press, 736 pages, $35

Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville is a masterful work, the fruit of nearly a half-century of labor on “an old friend,” as Brogan calls Tocque-ville. Throughout his book, Brogan provides a riveting account of the events in France before and after the revolution, the manner in which Tocqueville’s family and friends responded to those events, and the psychological machinations within Tocqueville himself as he faced the agonizing transformation of his beloved France.

As comprehensive as Brogan’s account may be, however, his book is at its weakest where the convergence of the historical narrative ought to illuminate the great work of Tocque-ville’s that authorizes a grand biography of this sort in the first place” Democracy in America . The quarrel between philosophers, on one side, and biographers and historians, on the other, is of long standing, and Tocqueville himself once seemed to take the historians’ side by remarking that “there is nothing as sterile as an abstract idea.” But he remains an “old friend” to political philosophers as well as to historians, and if a study is to make sense of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the work that Tocqueville undertook must be understood in all its depth and breadth”beyond what the historian, or even the psychologist, may say.

Do the circumstances of Tocque-ville’s life bear on the development of his thought? Of course. But to attempt to comprehend his ideas as the work of such circumstances alone”as merely the heat thrown off by his life”will not do. Indeed, it is all the more dangerous because it is an easy temptation, and it releases its practitioners from the hard work of understanding the ideas.

Take, for example, Brogan’s claim that what Tocqueville writes about women and marriage in America amounts to “self-justification.” Tocqueville is, in effect, projecting the personal circumstances of his marriage to Marie onto the historical narrative he offers in Democracy in America . No generous reader can fail to notice both how much significance Tocqueville bestows on women in America and how little he writes about them.

This is a puzzle. And yet knowledge of Tocqueville’s own marriage will not resolve it. Indeed, Tocque-ville’s writings about marriage in America must be understood in light of the larger distinction he makes between the nodal points, as it were, of aristocracy and democracy. With respect to marriage, Tocqueville’s insight is that, in the aristocratic age, men and women are seen as completely different , while in the democratic age men and women will be seen as completely similar .

I say “will be seen” because, on Tocqueville’s reading, we are still in the age of transition between the aristocratic age and the democratic age. True, we may well be approaching the democratic age, for in that social state the idea that men and women have different natures is replaced by the claim that differences between men and women are socialized. We cease to be sexed creatures and become gendered creatures.

Tocqueville’s worry, of course, is that, while in the aristocratic age the differences between men and women are highlighted more than they should be, in the democratic age they will be denied altogether. The healthy state, Tocqueville thought, was somewhere in between. The problem with the relations between the sexes is that there are respects in which men and women are completely different and respects in which they are completely similar. In the aristocratic age, he thought we had emphasized the former; in the democratic age, he thought we would emphasize the latter.

Talk to your children, watch television, go to the movies”everywhere you turn Tocqueville’s prophecy about the future is slowly coming to pass. How does his marriage to Marie help us fully understand this amazing insight into the future? Tocqueville’s celebration of marriage in America surely calls out for an explanation”but not for an apology. What he saw in American marriage in the 1830s was a point of equilibrium between too much difference and too much equality. Whatever our assessment of that point of equilibrium may be, we cannot lose sight of why Tocqueville thought a social state that at once recognized difference and similarity had such appeal.

In the past decade or so, young men and young women have meekly asked if they could talk with me after I have delivered my lectures on the relations between the sexes in Democracy in America . Both sexes tell me they are fearful to speak out against the sexual androgenization that is occurring all around them; that, while they are happy and content about some of the inroads that equality has produced, it has also led them to intimate that something has been horribly disfigured or lost along the way; that the denial of the legitimacy of their longing to discover what it means to be a man or a woman has served to elicit caricatured and destructive expressions of what those might be but not to erase them, etc., etc.

All this follows from the ideas that Tocqueville presented in Democracy in America , which the fact of his marriage to Marie fails not only to exhaust but also to comprehend.

The allusions that Brogan makes to Tocqueville’s “cyclo-mythic” mood swings are important, but”again”they are not brought to bear on Tocqueville’s ideas in Democracy in America . Tocqueville is an important thinker not least because he understands that human beings are not born rational. The social sciences today assume the adequacy of the “rational-actor model” of human agency. Tocqueville did not. To exaggerate only somewhat, human beings are born to a life of “melancholy and delight,” as Rousseau would say. That is, our initial disposition is to swing wildly between “highs” and “lows.” Tocqueville himself suffered in this way. But it will not do simply to say that he projected his own psychological affliction onto the canvas of Democracy in America .

Tocqueville thought that the unlinking of persons in the democratic age invited the malaise that today goes under the more hygienic name of bipolarity. Madness, Tocqueville says, increases in the democratic age. Medicine can attend to its symptoms but not to its causes. Isolated and alone, democratic man shifts back and forth between an excessive, ecstatic understanding of what he can do and a deep despair that he can accomplish nothing. Hovering over the world, unwilling and unable to make a purchase that would hold him fast, he oscillates back and forth between “melancholy and delight.”

Much was made in the 1990s about the civic institutions that held such a prominent place in Democracy in America . Both the left and the right could agree about their importance. What was mostly lost in the discussion, however, was Tocqueville’s understanding that all these institutions dampened (but did not wholly eliminate) the oscillation between “melancholy and delight” from which democratic man suffers. That is the real reason they are necessary. Tocqueville’s understanding of the peculiar power women have in the family plays a role here. The many letters he wrote to and about Marie point in the direction of the answer: Men delight too easily in the temptations of the world, then broodingly withdraw.

Women, Tocqueville thought, can temper those excesses. Today we call this the “male socialization problem.” Marriage does not always go well, to be sure, but by and large the alternative would yield an even greater peril. Men may be beasts, but without the institution of marriage they would be worse. So, too, with religion: Men might be violent, but without religion they would be worse. So, too, with civic institutions: Men might be self-interested, but without civic institutions they would be worse. In short, institutions do not solve the problem of melancholy and delight, but they can ameliorate it. Man is born “cyclo-mythic.” Family, religion, and civic institutions are needed to temper his oscillations, to bring that measure of health that man can have in a modern world that would otherwise amplify his instability.

In the central idea of mediation in Democracy in America , Brogan sees only a “rationalization” for “a régime of privilege.” Since when is an idea disqualified by virtue of its impure origin? More to the point, mediation as an idea serves a function in Democracy in America . As we approach the democratic age, Tocqueville says, human experience will bifurcate: On the one hand, man will become more and more isolated; on the other hand, he will look to the one visible power that remains”the state”for his security and sustenance. The more isolated he becomes, the more he will look to the state to compensate for his weakness and to fill the void in his soul. The more the state succeeds in doing that, the weaker man will become and the more his emptiness will grow.

Surely, this is Alexis de Tocqueville’s most prophetic insight, one that makes him a theorist of the highest order. How is this idea brought to the dust by virtue of the mixed motives Tocqueville the aristocrat may have had for supporting mediating bodies?

In spite of serious reservations about Brogan’s treatment of Tocqueville’s ideas, I nevertheless recommend Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life . Political philosophers for whom Tocqueville is “an old friend” will be able to see beyond the dubious connections between Tocqueville’s life and his ideas and learn a great deal about a figure who it now appears will guide us well into the twenty-first century.

Joshua Mitchell is chair of the government department at Georgetown University and author of Plato’s Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times.