Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy
By Pierre Manent
Rowan & Littlefield, 148 pages, $40
To love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.” So concludes French philosopher Pierre Manent in Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, his meditation on the thought of the greatest political thinker of the nineteenth century. This elegant phrase carries the principal practical lesson of Tocqueville’s teaching, a lesson that should be ignored by no one concerned with the future of the democratic experiment. Manent’s book, the second of his major works to be translated into English, masterfully presents the story leading to that conclusion, showing how the great French aristocrat illumines three questions essential to our modern self-understanding: What is the nature of democracy? What are its effects on human nature? What must be done to preserve it, or mitigate its worst tendencies? Following the recent release of An Intellectual History of Liberalism as part of Princeton University Press’ “New French Thought” series, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy should underscore for an English-speaking audience Manent’s reputation as the most important political philosopher working in France today.
Tocqueville came to America in May of 1831 seeking intellectual clarity about the essence of democracy, obscured from view in Europe by the terrible violence of the French Revolution. The journey gave birth, of course, to Democracy in America, the remarkable book forming the centerpiece of Manent’s study. In America, Tocqueville could observe the democratic revolution working itself out in “a simple and easy manner.” He could see there the full extent of the democratic phenomenon, and discerned its “generative fact”: the equality of conditions.
The equality of conditions defines a social state where the influence of one man over another—central to the aristocratic regime—has been replaced with the egalitarian idea of individual consent. As Manent tersely puts it, “In such a society, the acts of each have only two legitimate sources: personal will or the general will.” The victory of consent over influence, and the elevation of human autonomy closely linked to it, has dramatic social and political effects, leaving nothing as it was. Tocqueville felt “religious dread” when he contemplated the sublime force of this historical mutation, which he saw as Providential and in conformity with human nature. His exploration of the democratic universe was in part an attempt to master his fear.
Manent carefully reconstructs Tocqueville’s description of the democratic universe. Intellectual life would be substantially modified by democracy, as would the passions of men. Under pressure from individual autonomy, opinions would be relativized, mores softened. Public opinion becomes the sole authoritative voice. While individual rights govern the lives of men, the ends of man fall into neglect. The “moral contents of life” are emptied from the democratic vessel. The passion for equality, natural to democracy, trumps every other concern, and begins its endless struggle to eradicate the natural inequalities of men. It is not difficult to recognize ourselves in Tocqueville’s mirror. What Manent stresses in Tocqueville is the tragic, and indeed paradoxical, realization that democracy is both natural to man and, if not moderated, destructive of human nature.
Allowed free reign, this passion for equality—a democratic “instinct”—undermines democracy itself. It does this, as Manent deftly relates, in several ways: by paradoxically recreating the state of nature, originally elaborated by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau as a pre-civilized condition, at the heart of democratic civilization; by spreading envy, corrosive of any regime; and by crowding out the “natural superiorities of reason and virtue.” Although Tocqueville understood the aristocratic regime to be unjust, based as it was on an unnatural convention of familial superiority, its hierarchical order still preserved room for standards transcending the individual will. The excellences of human nature were, at least potentially, and for the few, given room to breathe. The democratic regime threatens to obscure every reference point that transcends the sovereign individual. When this occurs, Tocqueville suspected, democracy is doomed. We will no longer fathom the true, the good, or the beautiful, and our institutions will crumble.
The “democratic man” who tends to inhabit the regime is, as captured by Tocqueville, a strange creature: clamoring for rights, uncertain of his beliefs, obsessed with material gain (the only thing he can be certain of), anxious, solitary, and mediocre. His defects make him prey for the “soft” despotism Tocqueville so dreaded, a despotism of enervation, where liberty is abandoned and a bloated central power administers to the needs of an infantalized population. C.S. Lewis’ “men without chests” are the natural denizens of the democratic regime.
Central to Tocqueville’s purpose was to avoid a future where this soft despotism would reign triumphant, where human nature would be “domesticated.” As Manent beautifully narrates, in accomplishing this purpose there could be no simple return to aristocracy:
On the one hand, democracy’s project is unrealizable, because it is contrary to nature. On the other, it is impossible to stop short of this democracy and go back to aristocracy. This is because democratic equality also conforms to nature. It follows that we can only moderate democracy; we cannot stop short of democracy, because it fulfils nature. We cannot attain the end of this movement, for it would mean subjecting nature completely and dehumanizing man. We cannot escape democracy. We can never make democracy completely “real,” and we must not try. We can and must moderate democracy, limit it, temper its hostility to nature, all the while benefiting from its conformity to nature. To affirm and will democracy insofar as it is in conformity with nature, to limit it insofar as it is contrary to it, such is the sovereign art on which depend the prosperity and morality of democracies.
What is necessary to the preservation and flourishing of democracy—and we are all democrats now—is the prudential application of political artifice in order to tame and channel the natural instincts of democracy.
There is, then, Tocqueville reveals, a tragic aspect to democracy: its defects are generated by its very principles. The spectre of nihilism haunts the democratic mansion. But with the “propitious ruins of aristocracy,” which had preserved the last deposits of premodern spiritual capital, now demolished, how are the destructive impulses of democracy to be moderated? From “whence will democracy draw the resources of reason and prudence that will rule its instincts?” Tocqueville’s answer is well known: through the vitality of religious and other associations—what are today commonly referred to as “mediating institutions”—that occupy the region between the central power and the isolated individual. These associations may be religious, political, familial, or commercial, but they all serve to remove the individual from his isolation, and, at least ideally, teach him the meaning of democratic citizenship. The laws and institutions of democracy must respect and, where possible, brace the life of associations.
It is this practical teaching of Tocqueville that today finds resonance in Western democracies weary of the omnivorous state. But as Manent correctly emphasizes, Tocqueville was far less optimistic than many contemporary Tocquevillians about the possibility of “solving” the problem of democracy. It is recognized by most sensible observers that if our societies are to be renewed amidst the dislocations of late-twentieth-century life, it will be through a revivified civil society. But what is to insure that civil society will not, in turn, be affected by the rage for equality? What if religion is reconstituted on a democratic basis? How could such a reconstituted religion, sharing the same motivating principle as the regime surrounding it, hold at bay the excesses logically entailed by that regime? Tocqueville acutely perceived the Sisyphean nature of moderating democracy in order to preserve the “prosperity and morality” of the democratic regime.
The aftershocks of the historical earthquake registered by Tocqueville are still being felt, as many of our recent cultural and political struggles illustrate. These conflicts oppose those who desire the complete democratization of existence, pushing an egalitarian individualism to the Promethean lengths of controlling the processes of life itself, to others upholding criteria of truth, good and evil, and beauty based on a transcendent ontological order. As Manent argues, in this work and elsewhere, democracy is silent on the most important question facing us-Quid sit homo—what is man? It therefore can provide no coherent answer to the question of the limitation of human will. It can provide no answer to those who, for reasons of efficiency or malevolence, want to dispose of society’s weakest members—the aged and the unborn. It can provide no fertile source for the creation of beauty. It can provide, at best, only a pragmatic response to questions of truth or falsity. Thus we must love democracy moderately, since it does not deserve our absolute devotion.
In 1968 Manent’s teacher and friend Raymond Aron published the remarkable book Progress and Disillusion. Tocquevillian in inspiration, Aron’s argument ran against the libertine spirit of the age. It exhibited a rare wisdom about the limits of human perfectibility. Our modern societies are both more just and more dissatisfied than any yet known to man, Aron believed, and they were likely to be driven by a “ceaseless agitation”—for they both fulfill human nature and work against it—until they pass from existence. Manent’s study of Tocqueville, ably translated by John Waggoner, is indeed, as Harvey Mansfield writes in his introduction, a “showpiece of political philosophy,” for it reminds us of this wisdom. It also shows us how a nineteenth-century aristocrat may understand us better than we understand ourselves.
Brian C. Anderson is Research Associate in Social and Political Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.