The Aristocracy in Democracy

By Mansfield, Harvey C. | New Criterion, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Aristocracy in Democracy


Mansfield, Harvey C., New Criterion


In 2008, The French critic Lucien Jaume published an interpretation of Alexis de Tocqueville that won a prize from the Academie Francaise. An English version by the eminent translator Arthur Goldhammer has now appeared, which is a second recommendation. (1) The book's subtitle, "The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty" reveals that it takes up a worthy and understudied topic in today's theorizing about democracy-which amounts to a third recommendation. To put it more plainly and aggressively: Can a democracy sustain itself without the help of its rival, apparently its enemy, aristocracy?

M. Jaume does not raise this question directly. His book studies Tocqueville through Tocqueville's French contemporaries. On the basis of a letter in which Tocqueville says that, in writing Democracy in America, he always had his own country in mind, M. Jaume concludes that he was not writing about America except as a way of addressing the French. M. Jaume therefore studies what he calls the "intellectual and ideological landscape of French liberalism," also including anti-liberals, combining Tocqueville's context with an "internal reading" of his book to show how he addresses French critics even if he does not name them. M. Jaume's internal analysis selects important passages but does not follow the movement of Tocqueville's argument as it unfolds. It divides the "new political science" that Tocqueville says is needed for a new world into the roles of Tocqueville as publicist, sociologist, and moralist. For M. Jaume, democracy is not the new world, encompassing everything, that it was for Tocqueville. Nor was America the location of the new world that Tocqueville thought to be the future of France and Europe, and not their obstreperous, backward cousin.

In the same spirit of confidence, M. Jaume criticizes Tocqueville for trying to "grasp too many things at once" and says further that he was "partial," "unfair," held a "myth" carried "intellectual baggage" "contradicted himself" and other such disparagements. M. Jaume's book excels in the introduction of figures in Tocqueville's lifetime, now forgotten, such as Frederic Le Play, Silvestre de Sacy, Abel-Francois Villemain, Louis-Francois Villeneuve-Bargemont, and Alexandre Vinet. He also considers the more familiar names--reactionaries such as Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, eminent monarchists such as Guillaume-Chretien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, as well as the stalwarts of nineteenth-century French liberalism Benjamin Constant and Francois Guizot. Acting from afar and through intermediaries are the great figures of Pascal, Montesquicu, and Rousseau--whom Tocqueville mentions as having read from every day without intermediaries and in rather naughty violation of the protocol of M. Jaume's intellectual history.

Tocqueville too did not raise the question of democracy's relationship to aristocracy directly, but he treated it in several ways in his masterpiece Democracy in America. M. Jaume is right that the book is not simply about America, but it is, as the title says, about democracy in America, where Tocqueville found an "image of democracy." Democracy has its own logic, its own penchants--for example, that it "naturally" prefers equality, for which it has a "passion" to liberty, for which it has a "taste." America, too, has its own features, for example its township government and its two races of blacks, made slaves, and reds, excluded and oppressed but left free. The first is an advantage for democracy, the second not. Tocqueville wanted to discuss democracy as a practical whole, not just its principles; he also wanted to discuss America in the light of its universal significance, not only for France, as the vanguard of the democratic revolution. So he wrote about democracy as it is in America, as America is.

To be a practical whole and not just a principle or set of principles, democracy must deal with those aspects of human nature that are not or do not seem to be democratic. …

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