Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine
SORRENTO AND THE RETURN TO THINKING

Our soul is made for thinking.
—MONTESQUIEU, Essai sur le goût

THE 1848 revolution shook Tocqueville up in his ideas about politics and society; it also made him rethink his life and what he wanted to accomplish.1 After the revolution he began to sense that politics, instead of helping him realize his ideals, might be preventing him from doing so. Perhaps he was “trop engagé,” as Raymond Aron has put it.2 In addition, his everyday life as a politician made it next to impossible for him to engage in effective thinking and writing. He had little time for these activities, which were extremely demanding as he knew from his years of working on Democracy in America. As a politician, he also had to spend his energy on topics that had often been selected or conceptualized by others. Politics, finally, had its own set of goals and values that did not coincide with those of thinking.

This problematic affected Tocqueville's analysis of economic topics just as much as it affected his analysis as a whole. His solution to it—no doubt facilitated by Louis-Napoleon's coup d'état in 1851—was to withdraw from professional politics. Having plenty of time on his hands, he decided that he would return one last time to scholarship and the daily routine of studying, thinking, and writing. How this new resolve evolved and how it resulted in The Old Regime and the Revolution is the topic of this chapter.

In devoting a whole chapter to Tocqueville's return to thinking, instead of to his writings, it may seem that the thread of this study of Tocqueville's political economy is lost. The reader should therefore be reassured that this is not the case. It is rather that thinking follows its own route, which does not always coincide with that of published writings. Or to put it differently, to understand Tocqueville's writings, you need to follow his thought.

Tocqueville's life from 1851, when he retired from political life in protest to Louis-Napoleon's coup d'état, to 1859, when he died from tuberculosis, can be briefly told. After his decision to refuse to take part in French politics, he continued the questioning of his life that had begun in 1848. He eventually decided to return to thinking and scholarship, and

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