You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The prophet

Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life

By Hugh Brogan

(Yale University Press, 724 pp., $35)

The best prophet is the best guesser. So said Hobbes, who wasalluding to Cicero, who was quoting some unknown Greek sage.Prophecy first arose in the archaic religions and remained anexclusively religious phenomenon in the West until the eighteenthcentury, when it transmigrated into political thought. The causewas revolution--not the American Revolution, which was politelyreceived by Enlightenment thinkers confident of steady humanprogress, but the French Revolution, which brought out the augur inevery man. The next half-century became, in the title of PaulBenichou's memorable study, "les temps des prophetes," the time ofthe prophets. Revolutionary partisans such as the Saint- Simoniansheralded the coming of a new industrial order, while Fourieristsdrew up manically precise blueprints for the passionatephalansteries of the future. On the counter-revolutionary right,Bonald predicted a return to the Mother Church, and Maistre foresawa bloody apocalypse that would cleanse the European soul of themodern bacillus. And then there was the amusing Felicite deLamennais, who first thundered against enlightened indifferencetoward religion and divine right, then thundered against bothchurch and state in the name of a future worker's republic. Thebest prophets are also flexible.

It is strange to think of Alexis de Tocqueville in this floridcompany, but that is where he belongs. America's small towns, vastforests, commercial ports, churches, and even prisons were hismountaintop. And when he descended to address the French nation inthe introduction to the first tablet of Democracy in America(1835), his prophetic voice was inspired. What had he seen? Thatthe principle of equality was the "generating fact" of modernhistory, and that it was about to produce a "universal leveling" ofsocial life throughout the West. Nothing could stop it, because thefingerprints of God--or some such force-- were upon it. "Thegradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore aprovidential fact," he wrote, "having all the principalcharacteristics of one: it is universal, it is durable, it alwaysescapes human power; all events, like all men, serve itsdevelopment."

No wonder Tocqueville confessed to feeling "religious terror" whenhe contemplated the approaching egalitarian tsunami. He was whollyindifferent to the Roman Catholicism in which he had been raised,and his invocation of providence should not be taken as aprofession of religious faith. Instead, it reflected rational faithin his "new political science" of modern life, which earns him aplace alongside Vico, Hegel, and Marx, the other modern scientificprophets. If we still read Tocqueville to understand ourselvestoday, when those rival systems lie rusted and disused beneathhistory's overpass, it is for two principal reasons. The first isthat he was simply a much better guesser. The other is that he hadsuch mixed feelings about the tidings he delivered.

Religious prophets are working for the man; even when they call downfire and brimstone, they seem to be enjoying themselves. Andsecular prophets are also a cheery bunch, since lurking behindtheir dire predictions is always some magic elixir they arepromoting. But it is Tocqueville's serene disinterestedness, hisimpartiality in viewing the Western prospect, that disarms us. Hehas some good news and some bad news. Democracy is coming, but itwill bring social leveling and atomization with it. This will unlockhidden stores of human potential, but also snuff out the douceur ofa 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 childrenwill replace respect for parents; newspapers will replace themorning rosary.

And that is if we're lucky, like the Americans. The problem,Tocqueville warned, is that most countries lack America's naturalsuitability for an egalitarian society: the open landscape, theabsence of a landed aristocracy, the ethnic homogeneity, theliberal religion, the new and flexible political institutions. Andwhen the passion for equality is unleashed in a less welcomingenvironment, as in France under the Old Regime, tyranny willresult. And so countries hoping to ease their transition into theinevitably democratic future are advised to consult the manualbefore trying it at home: "The past no longer illuminates thefuture, the mind wanders in shadows."

The introduction to Democracy in America is something of anembarrassment to the legions of academic appropriators who havemeasured Tocqueville by the standards of their narrow guilds. Thehistorians complain that he missed some important documents aboutthe early settlers, the sociologists complain that he ignored theclass divisions already present in nineteenth-century America, thepolitical theorists complain that his concept of democracy wasvague. Yet vagueness is an important prophetic tool, andTocqueville knew how to use it. To describe democracy as a newspirit moving over the face of the deep, at once an idea, apassion, a new kind of society, a system of government: that is thekind of fruitful ambiguity that sharpens vision and stimulatesreflection. Anyone who reads Tocqueville without appreciating thevirtues of the augur will be in a poor position to appreciate hisachievement.

Hugh Brogan's life of Tocqueville is the fruit of more than fortyyears' labor, and it must have been difficult to write. Theappearance of Andre Jardin's exhaustive French biography in 1984provided new resources to scholars but made it hard for them toclaim originality. What Brogan, an English historian, brings to thetask is a deep knowledge of America (his specialty) and a livelypen sharpened by early journalistic experience. He is a splendidwriter with an eye for telling examples and dramatic vignettes.Tocqueville's plan to visit America, hatched with his lifelongfriend Gustave de Beaumont, appears in a different light when setagainst the example of his uncle, the grand romantic Chateaubriand,who had visited the United States in 1791 and had just publishedhis own Voyage en Amerique, along with his Native American saga,Les Natchez.

Unlike American scholars, who tend to focus single-mindedly on thetext of Democracy in America and perhaps The Old Regime and theRevolution, Brogan sets all Tocqueville's writings against thebackdrop of his engaged political life as deputy, minister, andfixture of le tout Paris. Here we find Tocqueville in a policestation in June 1848, checking the papers of suspiciouscharacters-- among them Alexander Herzen, who was caught in around-up. We are there when he is arrested and led off to prisonduring Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1851, spending the nightswith his fellow parliamentary deputies sitting on the bare floor,eating with their hands, and telling jokes ("The gayest time ? thatI ever passed"). And we follow him to his painful death fromtuberculosis in 1859 at the age of fifty-three, broken anddepressed that his great work on the French Revolution would remainunfinished.

The closer Brogan sticks to the ground, describing the ins and outsof French politics or the state of Tocqueville's health, the betterhis book is. It is when he takes up Tocqueville's ideas,particularly the cascade of ideas gushing out of Democracy inAmerica, that the troubles begin. Several reviewers have complainedthat Brogan does not much like Tocqueville, which may be true butis also beside the point: some of the best lives are written bybiographers skeptical of their subjects. No, the real problem isthat Brogan just cannot seem to make out what kind of thinkerTocqueville was--the class he belongs to, and to whom he should becompared. There is, tellingly, very little about the Frenchintellectual milieu of Tocqueville's Paris to be found here. Thehuge divide between radical prorevolutionary utopians and theprincipled counter- revolutionary thinkers, which is theintellectual backdrop to all Tocqueville's writings, is neverexplored. Names like Maistre, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Lamennais, andComte appear only in passing. We learn virtually nothing about whatTocqueville read or who (apart from Francois Guizot and John StuartMill) his intellectual interlocutors were.

A person relying only on Brogan's book would never guess that therewas a fierce battle going on over the Enlightenment legacy, andthat liberal thinkers such as Tocqueville were trying to helpFrance adapt to the post-revolutionary situation without succumbingto nostalgia for the world that the Enlightenment had allegedlydestroyed, or to fantasies about an ideal society that it wouldnever produce. Madame de Stael's beautiful portrait, hanging in anelegant Parisian salon, gets due mention--but not her politicalessays, which were genuinely significant. And Tocqueville'sextraordinary nearcontemporary Benjamin Constant, whose ideas andpolitical stances most closely match Tocqueville's own, is notmentioned at all.

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

The thrust of all this unpersuasive speculation is that Tocquevillewas a lousy scholar of his times whose reputation has beeninexplicably inflated by later readers, who use his lapidarypronouncements to advance their own political agendas. How, Broganwonders, can we take seriously a book on America by a tourist inhis twenties who made a short trip, spoke to few women, avoided thepoor, and wrote about prisons without having read Foucault? Asanyone can plainly see, "Delacroix's energetic picture LibertyLeading the People is more profoundly wise than anything whichTocqueville wrote on the subject." Anything? This is a biographythat only a valet could love.

The Old Regime and the Revolution is a work of history, theSouvenirs 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 andfallen depending on the epiphanies his readers experience as theycompare his predictions to their own historical moment. This hasnothing to do with inflated reputations, as Brogan seems to think;it is the common lot of prophets. Consider, for example, theunexpected revival of interest in Tocqueville in France over thepast quarter-century.

With the weakening of the Third Republic due to World War I, and thesubsequent collapse of liberal political thought, Tocqueville, oneof France's greatest nineteenth-century thinkers, became theforgotten man. For the next half-century, the French sought outtheir auguries in Marx and the minor figures who eventually gave us"French theory." Raymond Aron was virtually alone in defendingTocqueville's insights into modern industrial society, but Aronwrote for Le Figaro, so he didn't count. It was only with thegeneral turn away from the marxisant tradition in the late 1970sthat the French started reading Tocqueville seriously again, andwith different eyes.

A key figure in preparing this rediscovery, besides Aron, was theanthropologist Louis Dumont, who in 1966, in Homo Hierarchicus, hisclassic study of India, shocked his colleagues by claiming thatTocqueville provided more insight into caste society thanstructuralism did. But it was actually younger thinkers--those whocame of age in the 1980s, after thirty years of uninterruptedeconomic growth, the birth of a consumer society, the decline ofchurch affiliation and class identification, and the relaxation ofold social mores--who latched on to Tocqueville, and especially tohis concept of "individualism," which seemed to explain more aboutcontemporary life than the collected volumes of Marx and Engels,Sartre, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, et les autres. Even themomentous revolution of May 1968 (which Aron, in a rare moment ofcluelessness, dismissed as a mere psychodrama) seemed to them aprofound expression of modern individualism, not a phase in the oldclass struggle.

In part, the Tocqueville revival was promoted by political centristshoping to develop a modern liberal politics for France, free fromthe legacy of the Revolution. But at a deeper level it was inspiredby the collapse of the Marxian prophetic tradition, and by thecorollary desire to explore the paradoxes of modernity with thesame disinterested impartiality that Tocqueville himself haddisplayed. Countless French books have now appeared onindividualism and religion, individualism and ethics, individualismand the welfare state, individualism and fashion, individualism andsports. (Even the title of the most important French novel of thepast decades, Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles, tipsits hat in Tocqueville's direction. ) The historians and thinkerswho mattered most during this period--Louis Dumont, Francois Furet,Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, Pierre Rosanvallon, GillesLipovetsky--were troubled by many aspects of the new individualisticage, though they, like Tocqueville, assumed it was a faitaccompli.

But was it? That is the question we find ourselves asking today.Though Tocqueville's prophecy was cast in universal terms, itsreach did not extend beyond Christendom. When he spoke of le monde,he meant the part of it that had been shaped by Christianspirituality and, more recently, by the Protestant ideal communityof equal believers standing in an unmediated relation to God.Tocqueville made several trips to Algeria, which he enjoyed, and hadbrief contact with Native Americans during his famous voyage, butfor him, as for most of his contemporaries, these peoples were notpart of the same world. So when he speaks in Democracy in Americaabout the universal taste for liberty and the even stronger passionfor equality, the reader is left to wonder whether he thought thisdeep political psychology operated outside the West-- and, if itdid, whether it could ever find expression in democratic life.

If Tocqueville seems less central at the present moment in Franceand the United States, it is because we need a new prophecyregarding democracy outside the West. Still, one can only hope thatwhen the new prophet arrives, he will have read a littleTocqueville. For in fact there is much in Democracy inAmerica--especially in the less-loved first volume--that he wouldfind useful. That is the volume with all the dull early chapters onAmerican geography, the English settlers, feudalism, politicalparties, and the like. Though dry, these pages force us to thinkhard about the prospects for democratic life elsewhere.

Take, for example, geography. Tocqueville makes much of the openAmerican landscape and the creative destruction of its forests,which for him mirrored the dynamics of American society. His deeperpoint, though, was that Americans were unusual in not beingparticularly invested in sacred places. Here I stand, we seem tosay--but I could also stand over there. Most peoples, in most otherplaces, are deeply rooted in their landscape, no matter how roughand unforgiving it may be, because this is where the historicbattles were fought, where the miracles happened, where thepatriarchs are buried. Apart from nomads, Americans are the mostmobile people on earth; we find it hard to understand societieswhere people drive cars and surf the Web but are willing to die forinfertile plots of earth. The prophet will explain this.

He should also have a look at Tocqueville's early chapters on theAngloAmericans. Tocqueville was neither a racist nor a chauvinist;Brogan tells us that he broke with his trusted aide Gobineau whenthe latter began publishing his bizarre theories about racialinequality. But Tocqueville did believe that every civilizationbegins at what he called a point de depart, out of which itsprejudices, habits, and characteristic passions grow. The Americanpoint de depart was ethnic-religious: our country was firstpopulated by Puritans, who shared what we today call a commonculture, and whose theology wed the spirit of religion to thespirit of liberty. Whether or not Tocqueville was right aboutPuritanism, the deeper insight concerns the social preconditions ofdemocratic life.

Tocqueville attributed no superior racial characteristics to theAngloSaxons (he was French, after all), but he did notice that thepotential for toleration implicit in Protestantism could berealized only in a context in which people looked roughly similar,spoke the same language, and cooked the same food--in short, whereequality was already a social and psychological fact. Manysocieties in the past practiced toleration without assumingequality: every group got its own quarter of the city, paid itstaxes, and (ideally at least) was left alone. This wasmulticulturalism, but it was not democratic multiculturalism, whichtolerates individuals as individuals. Paradoxically, ethnic andconfessional homogeneity may be the historical precondition ofdemocratic multiculturalism, which can later dissolve thathomogeneity. Only once the principle of toleration exists as asocial fact among similar people can it be conceived as an abstractprinciple and extended to others.

With a slightly different focus, Hugh Brogan might have used hisbiography as an occasion to unpack some of these ideas buried inTocqueville's works and get us thinking about what we can, andcannot, learn from him today. For however prescient he was aboutthe tensions and paradoxes in modern Western democracies, we are indesperate need of fresh ideas for understanding the world beyondour own little island. There is a new spirit moving over the faceof the deep, and it is not democratic. This is ideal weather for aprophet who understands that "the past no longer illuminates thefuture, the mind wanders in shadows."

Mark Lilla is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at theUniversity of Chicago. His new book, The Stillborn God: Religion,Politics, and the Modern West, will be published by Knopf inSeptember.

By Mark Lilla