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The Prophet

Mark Lilla reviews "Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life", by Hugh Brogan

Courtesy Yale University Press

The best prophet is the best guesser. So said Hobbes, who was alluding to Cicero, who was quoting some unknown Greek sage. Prophecy first arose in the archaic religions and remained an exclusively religious phenomenon in the West until the eighteenth century, when it transmigrated into political thought. The cause was revolution—not the American Revolution, which was politely received by Enlightenment thinkers confident of steady human progress, but the French Revolution, which brought out the augur in every man. The next half-century became, in the title of Paul Bénichou’s memorable study, “les temps des prophètes,” the time of the prophets. Revolutionary partisans such as the Saint-Simonians heralded the coming of a new industrial order, while Fourierists drew up manically precise blueprints for the passionate phalansteries of the future. On the counter-revolutionary right, Bonald predicted a return to the Mother Church, and Maistre foresaw a bloody apocalypse that would cleanse the European soul of the modern bacillus. And then there was the amusing Felicité de Lamennais, who first thundered against enlightened indifference toward religion and divine right, then thundered against both church and state in the name of a future worker’s republic. The best prophets are also flexible.

It is strange to think of Alexis de Tocqueville in this florid company, but that is where he belongs. America’s small towns, vast forests, commercial ports, churches, and even prisons were his mountaintop. And when he descended to address the French nation in the introduction to the first tablet of Democracy in America (1835), his prophetic voice was inspired. What had he seen? That the principle of equality was the “generating fact” of modern history, and that it was about to produce a “universal leveling” of social life throughout the West. Nothing could stop it, because the fingerprints of God—or some such force—were upon it. “The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact,” he wrote, “having all the principal characteristics of one: it is universal, it is durable, it always escapes human power; all events, like all men, serve its development.”

No wonder Tocqueville confessed to feeling “religious terror” when he contemplated the approaching egalitarian tsunami. He was wholly indifferent to the Roman Catholicism in which he had been raised, and his invocation of providence should not be taken as a profession of religious faith. Instead, it reflected rational faith in his “new political science” of modern life, which earns him a place alongside Vico, Hegel, and Marx, the other modern scientific prophets. If we still read Tocqueville to understand ourselves today, when those rival systems lie rusted and disused beneath history’s overpass, it is for two principal reasons. The first is that he was simply a much better guesser. The other is that he had such mixed feelings about the tidings he delivered. 

Religious prophets are working for the man; even when they call down fire and brimstone, they seem to be enjoying themselves. And secular prophets are also a cheery bunch, since lurking behind their dire predictions is always some magic elixir they are promoting. But it is Tocqueville’s serene disinterestedness, his impartiality in viewing the Western prospect, that disarms us. He has some good news and some bad news. Democracy is coming, but it will bring social leveling and atomization with it. This will unlock hidden stores of human potential, but also snuff out the douceur of a settled, hierarchical life. People will feel more free and equal, but consequently will be more anxious and “lacking in self-esteem.” Fear of the majority will replace the fear of God; love of children will replace respect for parents; newspapers will replace the morning rosary.

And that is if we’re lucky, like the Americans. The problem, Tocqueville warned, is that most countries lack America’s natural suitability for an egalitarian society: the open landscape, the absence of a landed aristocracy, the ethnic homogeneity, the liberal religion, the new and flexible political institutions. And when the passion for equality is unleashed in a less welcoming environment, as in France under the Old Regime, tyranny will result. And so countries hoping to ease their transition into the inevitably democratic future are advised to consult the manual before trying it at home: “The past no longer illuminates the future, the mind wanders in shadows.”

The introduction to Democracy in America is something of an embarrassment to the legions of academic appropriators who have measured Tocqueville by the standards of their narrow guilds. The historians complain that he missed some important documents about the early settlers, the sociologists complain that he ignored the class divisions already present in nineteenth-century America, the political theorists complain that his concept of democracy was vague. Yet vagueness is an important prophetic tool, and Tocqueville knew how to use it. To describe democracy as a new spirit moving over the face of the deep, at once an idea, a passion, a new kind of society, a system of government: that is the kind of fruitful ambiguity that sharpens vision and stimulates reflection. Anyone who reads Tocqueville without appreciating the virtues of the augur will be in a poor position to appreciate his achievement.

Hugh Brogan’s life of Tocqueville is the fruit of more than forty years’ labor, and it must have been difficult to write. The appearance of André Jardin’s exhaustive French biography in 1984 provided new resources to scholars but made it hard for them to claim originality. What Brogan, an English historian, brings to the task is a deep knowledge of America (his specialty) and a lively pen sharpened by early journalistic experience. He is a splendid writer with an eye for telling examples and dramatic vignettes. Tocqueville’s plan to visit America, hatched with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont, appears in a different light when set against the example of his uncle, the grand romantic Chateaubriand, who had visited the United States in 1791 and had just published his own Voyage en Amérique, along with his Native American saga, Les Natchez.

Unlike American scholars, who tend to focus single-mindedly on the text of Democracy in America and perhaps The Old Regime and the Revolution, Brogan sets all Tocqueville’s writings against the backdrop of his engaged political life as deputy, minister, and fixture of le tout Paris. Here we find Tocqueville in a police station in June 1848, checking the papers of suspicious characters—among them Alexander Herzen, who was caught in a round-up. We are there when he is arrested and led off to prison during Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851, spending the nights with his fellow parliamentary deputies sitting on the bare floor, eating with their hands, and telling jokes (“The gayest time … that I ever passed”). And we follow him to his painful death from tuberculosis in 1859 at the age of fifty-three, broken and depressed that his great work on the French Revolution would remain unfinished.

The closer Brogan sticks to the ground, describing the ins and outs of French politics or the state of Tocqueville’s health, the better his book is. It is when he takes up Tocqueville’s ideas, particularly the cascade of ideas gushing out of Democracy in America, that the troubles begin. Several reviewers have complained that Brogan does not much like Tocqueville, which may be true but is also beside the point: some of the best lives are written by biographers skeptical of their subjects. No, the real problem is that Brogan just cannot seem to make out what kind of thinker Tocqueville was—the class he belongs to, and to whom he should be compared. There is, tellingly, very little about the French intellectual milieu of Tocqueville’s Paris to be found here. The huge divide between radical pro-revolutionary utopians and the principled counter-revolutionary thinkers, which is the intellectual backdrop to all Tocqueville’s writings, is never explored. Names like Maistre, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Lamennais, and Comte appear only in passing. We learn virtually nothing about what Tocqueville read or who (apart from François Guizot and John Stuart Mill) his intellectual interlocutors were. 

A person relying only on Brogan’s book would never guess that there was a fierce battle going on over the Enlightenment legacy, and that liberal thinkers such as Tocqueville were trying to help France adapt to the post-revolutionary situation without succumbing to nostalgia for the world that the Enlightenment had allegedly destroyed, or to fantasies about an ideal society that it would never produce. Madame de Staël’s beautiful portrait, hanging in an elegant Parisian salon, gets due mention—but not her political essays, which were genuinely significant. And Tocqueville’s extraordinary near-contemporary Benjamin Constant, whose ideas and political stances most closely match Tocqueville’s own, is not mentioned at all.

Instead, for reasons known only to himself, Brogan tries to cut Tocqueville down to size by portraying him as a stubborn, narrow-minded product of the dispossessed minor aristocracy. “He was one of a defeated class,” Brogan writes, “and could not forget the defeat. He yearned for his birthright.” We are repeatedly told that Tocqueville was an elitist, a man incapable of transcending “the cultural limitations of his cradle Catholicism.” He was also something of a head case, “neurotically unable to re-read his books,” with a “neurotic craving to seem original” (see: kettles, black), and allowed Democracy in America to be “shaped as much by personal neurosis as by logic and observation.”

The thrust of all this unpersuasive speculation is that Tocqueville was a lousy scholar of his times whose reputation has been inexplicably inflated by later readers, who use his lapidary pronouncements to advance their own political agendas. How, Brogan wonders, can we take seriously a book on America by a tourist in his twenties who made a short trip, spoke to few women, avoided the poor, and wrote about prisons without having read Foucault? As anyone can plainly see, “Delacroix’s energetic picture Liberty Leading the People is more profoundly wise than anything which Tocqueville wrote on the subject.” Anything? This is a biography that only a valet could love.

The Old Regime and the Revolution is a work of history, the Souvenirs a cunning memoir of revolutionary sublimity and banality. But the key to it all, Democracy in America, is an epiphanic work. Little wonder, then, that Tocqueville’s reputation has risen and fallen depending on the epiphanies his readers experience as they compare his predictions to their own historical moment. This has nothing to do with inflated reputations, as Brogan seems to think; it is the common lot of prophets. Consider, for example, the unexpected revival of interest in Tocqueville in France over the past quarter-century. 

With the weakening of the Third Republic due to World War I, and the subsequent collapse of liberal political thought, Tocqueville, one of France’s greatest nineteenth-century thinkers, became the forgotten man. For the next half-century, the French sought out their auguries in Marx and the minor figures who eventually gave us “French theory.” Raymond Aron was virtually alone in defending Tocqueville’s insights into modern industrial society, but Aron wrote for Le Figaro, so he didn’t count. It was only with the general turn away from the marxisant tradition in the late 1970s that the French started reading Tocqueville seriously again, and with different eyes.

A key figure in preparing this rediscovery, besides Aron, was the anthropologist Louis Dumont, who in 1966, in Homo Hierarchicus, his classic study of India, shocked his colleagues by claiming that Tocqueville provided more insight into caste society than structuralism did. But it was actually younger thinkers—those who came of age in the 1980s, after thirty years of uninterrupted economic growth, the birth of a consumer society, the decline of church affiliation and class  identification, and the relaxation of old social mores—who latched on to Tocqueville, and especially to his concept of “individualism,” which seemed to explain more about contemporary life than the collected volumes of Marx and Engels, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, et les autres. Even the momentous revolution of May 1968 (which Aron, in a rare moment of cluelessness, dismissed as a mere psychodrama) seemed to them a profound expression of modern individualism, not a phase in the old class struggle.

In part, the Tocqueville revival was promoted by political centrists hoping to develop a modern liberal politics for France, free from the legacy of the Revolution. But at a deeper level it was inspired by the collapse of the Marxian prophetic tradition, and by the corollary desire to explore the paradoxes of modernity with the same disinterested impartiality that Tocqueville himself had displayed. Countless French books have now appeared on individualism and religion, individualism and ethics, individualism and the welfare state, individualism and fashion, individualism and sports. (Even the title of the most important French novel of the past decades, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, tips its hat in Tocqueville’s direction.) The historians and thinkers who mattered most during this period—Louis Dumont, François Furet, Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, Pierre Rosanvallon, Gilles Lipovetsky—were troubled by many aspects of the new individualistic age, though they, like Tocqueville, assumed it was a fait accompli.

But was it? That is the question we find ourselves asking today. Though Tocqueville’s prophecy was cast in universal terms, its reach did not extend beyond Christendom. When he spoke of le monde, he meant the part of it that had been shaped by Christian spirituality and, more recently, by the Protestant ideal community of equal believers standing in an unmediated relation to God. Tocqueville made several trips to Algeria, which he enjoyed, and had brief contact with Native Americans during his famous voyage, but for him, as for most of his contemporaries, these peoples were not part of the same world. So when he speaks in Democracy in America about the universal taste for liberty and the even stronger passion for equality, the reader is left to wonder whether he thought this deep political psychology operated outside the West—and, if it did, whether it could ever find expression in democratic life.

If Tocqueville seems less central at the present moment in France and the United States, it is because we need a new prophecy regarding democracy outside the West. Still, one can only hope that when the new prophet arrives, he will have read a little Tocqueville. For in fact there is much in Democracy in America—especially in the less-loved first volume—that he would find useful. That is the volume with all the dull early chapters on American geography, the English settlers, feudalism, political parties, and the like. Though dry, these pages force us to think hard about the prospects for democratic life elsewhere. 

Take, for example, geography. Tocqueville makes much of the open American landscape and the creative destruction of its forests, which for him mirrored the dynamics of American society. His deeper point, though, was that Americans were unusual in not being particularly invested in sacred places. Here I stand, we seem to say—but I could also stand over there. Most peoples, in most other places, are deeply rooted in their landscape, no matter how rough and unforgiving it may be, because this is where the historic battles were fought, where the miracles happened, where the patriarchs are buried. Apart from nomads, Americans are the most mobile people on earth; we find it hard to understand societies where people drive cars and surf the Web but are willing to die for infertile plots of earth. The prophet will explain this. 

He should also have a look at Tocqueville’s early chapters on the Anglo-Americans. Tocqueville was neither a racist nor a chauvinist; Brogan tells us that he broke with his trusted aide Gobineau when the latter began publishing his bizarre theories about racial inequality. But Tocqueville did believe that every civilization begins at what he called a point de départ, out of which its prejudices, habits, and characteristic passions grow. The American point de départ was ethnic-religious: our country was first populated by Puritans, who shared what we today call a common culture, and whose theology wed the spirit of religion to the spirit of liberty. Whether or not Tocqueville was right about Puritanism, the deeper insight concerns the social preconditions of democratic life. 

Tocqueville attributed no superior racial characteristics to the Anglo-Saxons (he was French, after all), but he did notice that the potential for toleration implicit in Protestantism could be realized only in a context in which people looked roughly similar, spoke the same language, and cooked the same food—in short, where equality was already a social and psychological fact. Many societies in the past practiced toleration without assuming equality: every group got its own quarter of the city, paid its taxes, and (ideally at least) was left alone. This was multiculturalism, but it was not democratic multiculturalism, which tolerates individuals as individuals. Paradoxically, ethnic and confessional homogeneity may be the historical precondition of democratic multiculturalism, which can later dissolve that homogeneity. Only once the principle of toleration exists as a social fact among similar people can it be conceived as an abstract principle and extended to others. 

With a slightly different focus, Hugh Brogan might have used his biography as an occasion to unpack some of these ideas buried in Tocqueville’s works and get us thinking about what we can, and cannot, learn from him today. For however prescient he was about the tensions and paradoxes in modern Western democracies, we are in desperate need of fresh ideas for understanding the world beyond our own little island. There is a new spirit moving over the face of the deep, and it is not democratic. This is ideal weather for a prophet who understands that “the past no longer illuminates the future, the mind wanders in shadows.”