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Book Review: Tocqueville – The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty

By (May 3, 2013) No Comment

Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Libertytocqueville

By Lucien Jaume

Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer

Princeton University Press

Why, at one point in Alexis de Tocqueville’s walloping masterpiece Democracy in America, why, he asks, do Americans seem so restless in the midst of all their well-being? And as usual, the young aristocrat has a ready answer to his own question: “Having destroyed the obstructing privileges enjoyed by some of their fellow men, they run up against universal competition. The form of obstacle has changed, but the obstacle remains. When men are nearly all alike and all follow the same route, it is quite difficult for any of them to move ahead quickly and break through the uniform crowd that surrounds them and presses in on them.”

It’s a classic Tocqueville passage, the kind of recurring moment that makes Democracy in America so merrily mesmerizing, and its same inquisitive charm animates Lucien Jaume’s fantastic 2008 study Tocqueville: les sources aristocratiques de la liberte, now given an English translation by Arthur Goldhammer (a true artist of his craft) as Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty. This detailed meditation was the 2008 winner of the Academie Francaise’s Prix Francois Guizot.

Guizot wrote masterpieces himself, dense and beautifully shaped works such as Historie de la civilisation en Europe and Historie de la civilisation en France, works which dominated the imagination of the young Tocqueville and all his intellectual circle in France (they flocked to Guizot’s lectures and bought his annotated anthologies the minute they hit the bookshops). Guizot crops up often in Jaume’s book as a kind of philosophical counterweight to Tocqueville, because the crux of their eventual disagreements – and the central investigation of Jaume’s book – is the question of authority, its nature, its origins, its justifications, and the two men fundamentally split on what they thought of it.

Jaume is encyclopedic on everything connected with Tocqueville’s world; he’s read every letter, every annotation, and all with appreciative but stern attention. He’s searched out every note and thought Tocqueville ever expressed on the question of authority, including a letter he wrote to his cousin:

I cannot believe that God has for centuries been pushing two or three hundred million men toward equality of conditions in order to bring them to the despotism of a Claudius or Tiberius … Why is he taking us toward Democracy? I do not know; but, embarked on a vessel that I did not build, I am at least trying to make the best of it in order to reach the nearest port.

Tocqueville was curious about America specifically because he was fascinated with that ‘equality of conditions’ and the things it might endanger, and one of Jaume’s many strokes of genius is to situate Democracy in America firmly in its original intellectual setting, the better to let its odd brilliance shine. A good deal of that original setting involves Guizot (and Tocqueville’s great philosophical forebear, Montesquieu) and the uneven debate between the two thinkers – a debate that Jaume moderates with refreshing even-handedness:

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it might seem that Guizot lost the match (property-limited suffrage is today a forgotten antique), while Tocqueville “saw the future.” Yet if Guizot was fairly clear about what he wanted (power to the bourgeoisie, which needed to be improved by better education and strict discipline), Tocqueville was less certain because his thinking was imbued with a certain nostalgia for a moral aristocracy genuinely concerned with the welfare of the people.

Guizot is now almost entirely unknown outside France, whereas Tocqueville is reprinted, re-translated, re-debated, and re-capitulated and always will be, mainly because he was lucky enough to write a book about a country that would later dominate the West and like few things more than the attention of the rest of the world. But Jaume masterfully underlines the fact that America was never really Tocqueville’s point, however well he understood the competitive conflicts in the American heart. Lucien Jaume has written a hugely authoritative book (although, maddeningly, presented here without a bibliography) that might just as well have been called – as Tocqueville’s book might have been – Democracy in France. It’s a thoroughly absorbing work of textual criticism – everybody who’s ever enjoyed Tocqueville will enjoy this bristling celebration.

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