November 6, 2016


Tocqueville's English correspondence : On the French statesman's English language letters. (S. J. D. Green, November 2016, New Criterion)
It is reasonable but unremarkable to observe that the private writings of any public thinker ordinarily command our attention. There must be exceptions even to that unexceptionable rule. Gladstone's Diaries spring to mind. But of the intellectual significance of Tocqueville's correspondence there can be no doubt. In some cases, this was obvious from the start. The historical importance of Tocqueville's intimate communications with his lifelong companion, Gustave de Beaumont, and long-standing intellectual and political allies, such as Louis de Kergorlay or Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, was and is self-evident. In other instances, remarkable things emerged from largely unplanned academic legwork. For instance, Tome Nine of the Oeuvres compl├Ętes is devoted entirely to Tocqueville's Correspondance with Count Arthur de Gobineau. That so close a connection existed between these two men was once relatively little known. It remains intriguing. Of course, Gobineau wrote about many subjects. He was as well traveled in the East as Tocqueville in the West. His exquisite appreciation of all things Asiatic is, however, now largely forgotten. Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Races, first published in 1853, instantly and irrevocably secured for him the dubious distinction as a pioneer of pseudo-scientific racism. Tocqueville was not a racist. He attributed little or no intellectual or moral significance to ethnicity qua ethnicity. This is made clear in all his relevant work on the subject. But that he was aboriginally and unrelentingly opposed to so-called "racial science" from its very beginnings is made manifest only in these previously unpublished writings on the topic. That the two men nonetheless maintained a perfectly civil exchange of views, over so many years, about a matter that so deeply divided them, also says something about nineteenth-century social science that its successors might wish to ponder upon.

More generally, Tocqueville's correspondence completes our understanding of his work to a degree greater than does the personal writings of almost any other comparably significant nineteenth-century intellectual. This was not least because Tocqueville did not think of himself primarily as an intellectual: certainly not according to the post-Dreyfusard definition of that term. Though a member of innumerable learned societies, he was never an academic, unlike Guizot. He seldom wished to be conceived as a philosophe, in contrast to Constant. He planned no general oeuvre, wrote no self-consciously abstract treatise--whether on politics or society--and made absolutely no attempt to assault the psychological possibilities of the modern novel. Tocqueville was a serious thinker. But he always insisted upon a close relationship between thoughts and deeds. And, for the greater part of his adulthood, Tocqueville strove to be a man of action.

Posted by at November 6, 2016 8:43 AM