March 25, 2007

National Review Review of Tocqueville Bio

But it was precisely one of Tocqueville’s greatest insights that although human beings are not determined creatures, we are conditioned ones. The astonishing intellectual-moral achievement of Tocqueville, as Jacques Barzun has pointed out, was to understand the human person as having not only a conditioned free will but a conditional one. (Dostoevsky’s depiction of this moral-epistemological fact in fiction puts him in a class of genius far beyond any 19th-century French novelist.) Tocqueville’s love of liberty, like that of Burke, the Federalists, and Lincoln, asserts the existence of human liberty in a moral universe, within a providential, theistic framework. Tocqueville avoids the extremes of both determinism/fatalism (Islam, Spinoza, Cabanis, Gobineau, and their many modern successors, especially Marxist and Darwinian) and a radical, post-moral libertinism or self-will that was growing in his age and was promoted intellectually by such post-Christian thinkers as Carlyle, Emerson, Whitman, and Nietzsche, as well as by the gross, unregenerate class and individual selfishness for which the French use the phrase “l’homme moyen sensuel.” His profound insight on these issues makes him a permanent treasure of civic wisdom and self-knowledge, one of the great orthodox writers of the modern era.

As André Jardin correctly and luminously says in his biography, Tocqueville’s conception of liberty “was something more sacred than Benjamin Constant’s individualism and much closer to the Pauline freedom of the children of God.” As Tocqueville’s mentor Burke put it in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils.” In Tocqueville’s own words, “Freedom is, in truth, a sacred thing. There is only one thing else that better deserves the name: That is virtue. But what is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?” (Emphases in the original.)

If this long-time reader of Tocqueville has any quarrel with Brogan’s painstakingly detailed depiction of Tocqueville’s life and thought, it is with his condescending dismissal of Tocqueville’s discussion of the tendency for democracy to breed pantheism in Part II of Democracy in America: “What Makes the Mind of Democratic Peoples Lean Toward Pantheism.” Scholars of Romanticism and popular culture from Irving Babbitt to Jacques Barzun, Quentin Anderson, E. D. Hirsch, Daniel Bell, and Allan Bloom have remarked upon the promiscuous, pantheistic spirituality whose forefathers were Rousseau and Whitman and whose progeny is our ubiquitous “rock culture.” Very much in Tocqueville’s manner, Anderson saw Whitman’s demotic cultural campaign as “a rejection of Christianity on behalf of an emotional egalitarianism” that was rooted in Whitman’s “rejection of the idea that the self is internally structured by conscience.” In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom discerned the key pantheistic-spiritual role that rock music pervasively plays in the sensibility of our young. Bell sees an anarchic aesthetic paganism undermining the otherwise successful operation of the American polity and economy. Barzun has noted the increasing vulgarity of our culture, and quoted Tocqueville’s comments on the dark side of egalitarianism: “Low emotions and ignoble instincts . . . are the products of equality.” Writing in 1986, Barzun argued that “leveling down” may take us far below “comfortable mediocrity” and reduce our “social surface to the plane of the deliberately sordid.”

That Burke and Tocqueville were profoundly concerned with manners and mores is a sign of their wisdom, and Tocqueville’s worries about egalitarianism, democratic culture, and pantheism are far from misplaced or irrelevant to our condition and that of our current cultural effluvia. The pantheistic, democratic sensibility from Rousseau and Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Madonna is a lethal toxin, a form of cultural bacteria that may rot from within a prosperous civilization that has defeated its most dangerous external foes.

Plato expressed such suspicions long ago. Tocqueville had over 2,000 more years of historical experience on which to draw to make his case against the pantheistic perversions of democracy and equality, and in favor of their noble and positive features. As Hugh Brogan’s fine biography shows, Tocqueville was a rare thing: an aristocrat who was really noble, in thought, word, and deed, and whose liberality was never libertine.

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