Alexis de Tocqueville is an ines capable presence in the contemporary debate about the nature of the democratic dispensation. His work is used to validate almost every theoretical and partisan current and is appealed to by politicians who wish to establish their intellectual credentials. For many, Tocqueville is primarily the French observer who traveled to America in 1830–31 and recognized the superiority of our institutions and way of life. In this view, Tocque ville is a philo–American who praised us for our robust local institutions, our prodigious “art of association,” and our ability to make the Christian religion and “self–interest well understood” cohere in a livable human world. This is a reassuring Tocqueville who informs and elevates, but does not challenge, our democratic self–confidence. There is a great deal of truth to this interpretation.
But a wide range of commentators have brought another, deeper, and more disconcerting Tocqueville to our attention. This Tocqueville is much more ambivalent about democratic modernity. His writings are infused by a worry about an emerging “democratic” world where such goods as the disinterested search for truth, a proud regard for political liberty, and fidelity to an “objective” moral order are threatened by a democratic “individualism” that erodes human connectedness and denies the very principle of authority in the political, intellectual, and spiritual worlds. As the distinguished political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin suggests, in his impressive if flawed new study, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Theoretical and Political Life, Tocqueville was an observer and practitioner of politics who tried to mediate between two sets of oppositions—on the one hand, theory and practice, and on the other, democracy and what he somewhat capaciously called “aristocracy” (encompassing all the worlds that came before the New World of democratic consent). For Tocqueville, the world of inequality, of authoritative command, was dead and beyond all hope of revival. From the far side of the democratic triumph, it was possible to see that the antiquated world of aristocracy had never sufficiently appreciated the “common humanity” of man, the profound similarities among human beings. And yet, for all its imperfections, the old regime provided an image of human grandeur that was one crucial ingredient for judging the emerging democratic order. The old regime lived on in Tocque ville’s soul even if it did not completely form his mind.
As Wolin demonstrates, Tocque ville self–consciously tried to adopt the perspective of God, whom he claimed could appreciate both the justice of democratic equality and the goodness of those particular excellences that were threatened by the “democratic revolution.” Wolin’s Tocque ville is a theorist who observed and judged the “spectacle” of the democratic revolution from a perspective that is neither democratic nor aristocratic but informed by a solicitude for the liberty and dignity of human beings. A sometime parliamentarian and political official (he was briefly foreign minister of France), Tocque ville’s own political experience was crucial to his reflections on the theory and practice of democracy. He cared deeply about politics and was a player in the ideological drama of his time. In between political engagements he wrote three classic works of political reflection, Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840), his Recollections (written in 1850 and 1851 and published posthumously over forty years later), and The Old Regime and the French Revolution (published in 1856).
Wolin’s book rather remarkably combines generally accurate and sometimes profound readings of Tocque ville’s wide–ranging corpus with a profound resistance to Tocque ville’s deepest spiritual and intellectual insights. Tocqueville is filled with what he calls “religious terror” before the emerging march of equality and he firmly resists every form of democratic dogmatism. Wolin, in contrast, is a passionate partisan of democratic “inclusivity” and a critic of any hierarchical conception of human life or foundational notion of truth. Why the attraction of this aging New Leftist for the Norman aristocrat whose endorsement of the emerging democratic order was tempered by a sober ambivalence? What allure can Tocque ville hold for a deeply committed man of the left?
Wolin is above all attracted to Tocque ville’s effort to revive the political sphere of human life, to theorize and reinvigorate la chose publique. He suggestively remarks that Tocque ville “might be the last influential theorist who can be said to have truly cared about political life.” Tocque ville’s conception of the political was by no means narrowly institutional. It incorporated both the practice of self–government and the traditions, customs, and moeurs that gave support to a vigorous democratic social order. Tocque ville’s theme was the political culture of freedom and his enemy was an individualism that eroded social attachments and any vibrant expression of public–spiritedness.
The presentation of political life in volume one of Democracy in America elicits Wolin’s most unequivocal appreciation. There Tocqueville pays tribute to the vigorous practice of local self–government in both Puritan and post–revolutionary America. But Wolin wants to separate Tocqueville’s defense of political participation from his emphasis on its salutary moral effects. He does not share the ambition of Tocqueville’s political science to educate and elevate the souls of men. In a decidedly postmodern spirit (the author is an admirer of Foucault), Wolin opposes any external imposition or restriction on the self–expression of a democratic people. For Wolin, democratic politics begins as a protest against exclusionary politics. It is inseparable from revolution since revolution “shatters or rejects many of the established forms of politics.” Where Tocqueville wanted to firmly distinguish the democratic and revolutionary spirits, Wolin longs to combine them, despite (or perhaps because of) the likely incendiary results of doing so. For Tocqueville, participation in political life is an intrinsic good because it allows one to pursue a good in common with one’s fellow citizens. His case for “the political” has important classical or Aristotelian resonances. Political liberty provides a “light” by which one can judge the virtues and vices of men. For his part, Wolin explicitly denies that there is any standard for judging the choices of human beings apart from or above their own wills. For Tocqueville self–government constrains the will; for Wolin self–government emancipates that will.
Wolin is sympathetic to Tocque ville’s defense of “difference” against the homogenizing effects of democracy. He ably presents Tocque ville’s critique of the tyrannical propensities of “general ideas” that deny the dignity of the particular or the rare. Wolin’s account of Tocqueville’s critique of Cartesianism, with its dangerous validation of “private judgment, doubt, abstraction” and its narrow conception of “method,” is particularly good. He highlights Tocqueville’s desire to balance a democratic emphasis on generality and equality with an aristocratic emphasis on the need to respect the integrity of the rare and exceptional. And he is sensitive to the Pascalian “moment” in Tocque ville’s thought. As Wolin recounts, Pascal provided a modern Christian approach for overcoming both the tyranny of rationalistic method and the debilitating effects of radical doubt. Tocqueville learned from Pascal that certain truths about the human soul could be reasonably articulated even if they were not rationally demonstrable.
And yet, for all that, Wolin is very much the democratic intellectual in thrall to the “general idea” of equality. Time and again Wolin the partisan of emancipatory democracy forgets the insights so nicely limned by Wolin the exegete. For him, revealed religion is not a salutary reminder of the differentiated character of the world, a protection against materialism and pantheism, but rather a pernicious instrument of “social control.” He is tone deaf to Tocqueville’s arguments about both the truth and the utility of biblical religion.
As the volume proceeds, Wolin increasingly displays the voice of a democratic intellectual. His analysis of Tocqueville becomes less generous, more defensive. The profound critique of the arid rationalism of democratic intellectual life in volume two of Democracy in America is said to have “an aroma of reaction” about it. But surely Wolin must appreciate that the antiquity of ideas is not necessarily an argument against their truth. Wolin likewise emphatically denies that there is any necessary connection between democracy and centralization and remains adamantly committed to his vision of democracy as a participatory utopia. His notion of freedom is essentially antinomian and resists any recognition of the need for self–limitation or the regulation of human passions. In the spirit of Foucault, “power” is always presented as an instrument of oppressive authority and never seen as serving legitimate social purposes. And the role of “the people” is by definition liberating and never the source of new oppressions. Tocqueville, the penetrating critic of majority tyranny, knew better than to romanticize the collective will of the people.
The same bias can be seen at work in Wolin’s confrontation with Tocque ville’s analysis of the next “democratic” revolution, the socialist one. In the Recollections, his remarkable autobiographical reflection on the revolution of 1848, Tocqueville presented socialism as an unprecedented threat to human and political liberty. He had no confidence that socialist revolution would inaugurate a democratic utopia; instead, he feared the onset of a soul–destroying despotism. Wolin castigates this judgment as an example of Tocqueville’s “mean–spiritedness” and “aristocratic resentment” and thereby ignores the overwhelming historical evidence that revolutionary euphoria almost inevitably gives rise to stifling conformity and a rigid centralization of power. The rise of socialism led Tocque ville to forcefully reiterate his conviction that a balanced and regulated liberty de pended upon such “aristocratic inheritances” as family, property, and patriotism. In Tocque ville’s view, true human liberty is “liberty under God and the law.” Amidst the whirlwind of democratic transformation, it is necessary to defend the “natural limits” at the foundation of any human order.
I have emphasized the remarkable tension between Wolin the exegete and theorist. In fairness, I should also note that this book is largely an effort to delineate Tocqueville’s thought and only secondarily a critical evaluation of it. As a broad presentation of the Tocquevillian project it is an impressive achievement. But it lacks the solidity and depth of the writings on Tocqueville by Peter Lawler, Pierre Manent, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, and others.
Despite its not inconsiderable strengths, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds unintentionally reveals the tremendous spiritual deficit at the heart of the postmodern project. Seeing no real enemies to the left, Wolin awaits ever more democratic cures to the spiritual discontents that accompany modernity. He is overwhelmed with contempt for the bourgeois world that far surpasses the measured distaste that Tocqueville sometimes expressed for merely bourgeois existence. Since Wolin dismisses aristocratic grandeur and traditional religion as forms of repression, he has no resort except to what Aurel Kolnai called “the idol of the common man.” Now, one can certainly admire and support the effort to bring all of the excluded into the human city. But what is one to do with one’s freedom? What are the moral truths, if any, that ought to guide human choice? To these vital questions, Wolin responds with a thunderous silence.
Daniel J. Mahoney teaches politics at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on French political thought. His most recent book is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).