Brief review by British Tocqueville scholar Jeremy Jennings at Standpoint of this book . Can’t get the link for the review to work, so search for it yourself.

The Good: Tocqueville as Pascalian

Most intriguing of all is Jaume’s examination of Tocqueville’s relation to Pascal and the broader tradition of Jansenism. . . . What Pascal portrayed as characteristic of the human condition, Jaume argues, was transposed by Tocqueville into a description of democratic society condemned to permanent agitation and restless anxiety.

It actually goes further than a “transposition.” Tocqueville is saying that the truth about humanity’s inherent restlessness, only vividly apparent to aristocrats in aristocratic times, becomes felt by all in democratic ones.

And Jaume is onto how Pascal is applied to democratic desire for equality:

[Pascal teaches that] . . . as soon as we try to moor ourselves to a fixed point, it flees in eternal flight, the abyss reappearing beneath our feet. In a democracy, Tocqueville contends, that fixed point is seen as a condition of equality. However, no sooner does equality appear to be within our grasp than it too eludes us, the desire for equality only becoming more insatiable as we see it hovering in the near-distance. The more equal we are, the more the slightest inequality offends us.

The Bad: Tocqueville as Unoriginal

“All the themes that Tocqueville developed,” Jaume writes, “were being debated, and had already been debated, at the time he published his book.” In particular, Tocqueville’s contemporaries shared a passionate interest in the nature and future of democracy; and all observers agreed that here was a subject on which America had much to teach the old world. In short, Tocqueville reworked ideas that were long familiar, without adding anything that was truly new.

I haven’t read Jaume, and so I don’t know the specific intellectual history spadework he’s referring to here beyond the big names like Chateaubriand and Guizot, but this is almost certainly wrong. As wrong as Paul Rahe was when he tried to argue that Tocqueville is basically reworked Montesquieu. I would apply the spirit of my reply to Rahe’s claim to Juame’s:  “ . . . if we make a list of key Tocquevillian concepts, such as the social state, the dogma of popular sovereignty, the rule of common opinion, individualism, equality versus liberty, and hard versus soft despotism, it is hard to see that these had preceding Montesquieuan equivalents whose differences were mainly ones of terminology. Were these not, as developed, new ideas?”

The perennialist, like yours truly, believes that strictly speaking there is no “truly new” idea under the sun, but in any case, the gist of what Juame is saying here is off.

The Ugly: Equality Is Like Leprosy

Jaume translates a letter from Tocqueville to Silvestre de Sacy in 1840:

“My purpose in writing [my] book was to reveal the frightening prospects in store for our contemporaries . . . To show . . . that in order to prevent this equality, which we rightly hold dear, from becoming the leprosy of the human race, one must work tirelessly to sustain the flight of ideas, to lift souls toward — and — to show that in the democratic age that is just beginning, political liberty is not only beautiful but also necessary for nations to become great and even to remain civilised.”

Well, I’m glad that metaphor didn’t make it into Democracy in America !

P.S. If anyone has read the Jaume book, whose subtitle “The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty,” is pretty promising, please let us know what you think.

blog comments powered by Disqus