Magazine article The American Conservative

Ordered Liberty and the French Aristocrat

Magazine article The American Conservative

Ordered Liberty and the French Aristocrat

Article excerpt

[Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, Hugh Brogan, Yale University Press, 736 pages]

Ordered Liberty and the French Aristocrat

By Bruee Frohnen

TOCQUEVILLE'S POSTHUMOUS BOON -lus continuing relevance-is also his misfortune. He is known almost exclusively for his second-best work, Democracy in America (his masterpiece being The Old Regime and the French Revolution), and today Democracy is more mined for quotations either lauding or condemning "our" democracy than looked to for the important observations, analysis, and wisdom it provides.

A work has long been needed that would show the breadth and depth of Tocqueville's genius, the integrated nature of his character, and how his works, especially Democracy and The Old Regime, were products of the same mind and were shaped by the tragic circumstances of France's Long Revolution (or series of revolutions) of 17891870. A work has been needed to bring home to readers the difficulties and analytic opportunities of interpreting Tocqueville the man, born of the aristocracy but living in what he recognized as an age of increasing political, economic, and social equality.

This is not that book.

Brogan's biography of Tocqueville has been decades in the making, and Brogan seems to consider Tocqueville a kind of intimate friend. Unfortunately, the result is less an intimate portrait than a scolding, akin to what one might receive from an older brother disappointed that one has not lived up to one's potential. That outcome is doubly sad because Tocqueville's perspective far surpasses, in terms of wisdom, honor, and the enrichment of our civilization, the opinions Brogan chides him for not having.

Brogan alternately castigates Tocqueville for holding aristocratic views and delivers faint praise for his limited "progressivism"-urging us to see in him a hesitant precursor to Karl Marx. These ideologically inspired anachronisms are all the more frustrating because Brogan, on occasion, seems to recognize their artificiality, indeed incongruity with Tocqueville's actual positions and view of himself.

Tocqueville was one of the most self-aware of political philosophers. He wrote several documents laying out his beliefs and instincts. Brogan includes, for example, Tocqueville's self-declaration: "I like democratic institutions with my head, but I am aristocratic by instinct, that is to say I despise and fear the mob."

Tocqueville's standpoint is clear enough, and it has plenty of rational basis in his experience. He was born of an aristocracy that had been more than decimated by the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, and he was surrounded by revolutionary violence throughout his life. Beginning before Tocqueville's birth and extending past his death, France was shaken by a series of bloody revolutions he, with good reason, blamed largely on the sons culottes-elements of the urban underclass who joined street mobs by the thousands and inspired the murderous ideology of Jacobinism. The Reign of Terror had cost many of Tocqueville's relatives their lives and his mother her physical and mental well-being. It made Tocqueville's upbringing one of fervent loyalty to the old Bourbon monarchy as the sole legitimate protector of civilization in a time of chaos.

To his credit, Tocqueville came to recognize and condemn the brutal selfishness of France's former rulers and sought a means by which ordered liberty might flourish in egalitarian times. That he never shed his fear of the urban mob (though he developed respect and fondness for the rural peasantry) is hardly surprising or worthy of great censure.

None of this is to say that one should hold up for emulation all of Tbcqueville's aristocratic prejudices. He seems to have lacked much sympathy for the sufferings of the urban poor. The manners he valued are long gone-and probably more for the better than the worse. Moreover, as one can see from the behavior of our contemporary elites (even those professed "conservatives"), power corrupts classes as well as individuals. …

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