TOCQUEVILLE: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Harvey C. Mansfield
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 124 pages
Harvard political scientist Harvey C. Mansfield begins this thematic survey with a question: “What sort of man was Alexis de Tocqueville?” He toys with several answers before fastening onto Tocqueville’s own self-description as “a new kind of liberal.”
Mr. Mansfield explains, “Today Tocqueville is not known as a liberal, as is his friend John Stuart Mill, who wrote ‘On Liberty’ to explain and advocate liberal principles. Tocqueville seems to be more descriptive and analytical, like a sociologist, except he writes so well.” But that only seems to be the case, dear reader. Mr. Mansfield sets out to “rescue [Tocqueville’s] own label for himself and show that he deserves the highest rank among liberals just because he is not as theoretical as liberals want to be.”
The task is not an easy one. Tocqueville, the author of “Democracy in America” and other works, disdained certain liberal abstractions. Several liberal thinkers just before and during his time (born 1805, died 1859) theorized about a “state of nature” in which man was “free to consent to the society he might join and to its politics.”
Tocqueville didn’t see things that way at all. In his writings, Tocqueville “seems rather to agree with Aristotle, the pre-modern philosopher opposed by these modern theorists, who said that ‘man is by nature a political animal.’ ” “Seems to” is necessary because Tocqueville does not clearly lay his cards out on the table, face up. Mr. Mansfield notes that the French aristocrat-cum-democrat does not bother to argue with philosophers and rarely mentions them - “when he does, it is usually to disparage them.”
But what emerges from a careful reading of Tocqueville’s works is a definite point of view. That point of view, Mr. Mansfield argues, is a kind of liberalism that might be more useful to us than the liberalism of Mill or John Locke. More useful precisely because it is grounded in actual democratic experience.
A way this could be doubly true is Tocqueville’s approach to religion. Liberals have never known quite what to do with religion because lived faith does not fit into their theoretical framework. (Locke argued for religious toleration for all - except, of course, for us Catholics.) There are no martyrs or cathedrals in a state of nature. And in the countries we actually inhabit, conflicts between religious believers and civil authorities are quite common.
One reason for these conflicts is the triumph of what is called toleration. Lockean liberal assumptions about religion form a part of the shared consensus of modern technocrats. They see religion as something to be managed and mitigated - put up with within its own tightly defined, slowly shrinking sphere.
This “Very Short Introduction” counters with Tocqueville’s “new liberalism in which freedom is the friend of religion and infused with pride as well as impelled by self-interest.” “For Tocqueville,” Mr. Mansfield writes, “despotism can do without religion, but freedom cannot.” Indeed, he considered religion to be “the first of [Americans’] political institutions” and asserted that “if [man] has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.”
You could argue that what mattered to Tocqueville was not so much the divine truth of religion as its social utility. President Eisenhower was thought to be striking a Tocquevillian note when he said America “is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
However, that misses an important nuance in Tocqueville’s thinking that our Harvard prof teases out. “Americans believe religion to be useful, but it would appear to be useful only if they believe in it because it is true, rather than a political institution,” Mr. Mansfield writes.
But true in what sense? Tocqueville believed that religion enabled the intellect by placing a “salutary yoke” upon our doubts, thus preventing paralysis. “Religion,” Mr. Mansfield explains, “reassures us that chance does not rule and confirms that human intentions can succeed, human actions make sense.” In Tocqueville’s telling, it’s this leap of faith that makes democracy possible.
Jeremy Lott is an editor for Real Clear Politics and author of “William F. Buckley” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).