January 6, 2010


Pride and Prescience: Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide By Joseph Epstein (Larry Thornberry, 1.6.10, American Spectator)

Epstein has brought the erudite but accessible style of his essays and a deft treatment of political ideas to Tocqueville. He clearly knows his way around ideas as well as around poems and stories. He brings Tocqueville the political thinker and Tocqueville the complex and troubled man to life for readers. He gives us a look at a great mind at work. [...]

Tocqueville understood the constant conflict in democracies between liberty and equality, and the threat too much emphasis on the latter poses to the former. He recognized the emotion of envy behind much of the high-minded talk about equality, which he once described as "generally the wish that no one should be better off than oneself." [...]

Tocqueville is one of those Rorschach figures, like George Orwell, claimed both by the political right and left, as well as most of the niche positions in between. All sides, it seems, quote him to support their own enthusiasms. Conservatives probably have the best claim.

Though Tocqueville personally had periods of religious doubt, he always believed that for freedom to be exercised in enlightened and honorable ways, religious faith and moral character were required. In the introduction of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote, "Without morality freedom cannot reign, and without faith there is no morality. I would rather doubt my own sanity than God's justice."

Clear enough. Tocqueville understood the value and weight of tradition, and that political institutions are shaped more by a country's customs and mores than the other way round. Societies are not, as bright college sophomores and liberals believe, clay to be molded by new ideas and laws.

While the Frenchman Tocqueville could never consider democracy an unalloyed blessing, The Terror and the guillotine being too fresh in France's collective memory, he was, man and boy, a friend of liberty.

"I regard liberty as the prime good," he wrote, "as I have always seen in it one of the most fertile sources of manly virtues and of great actions."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2010 7:31 AM
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