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Tocqueville’s Consideration of Aristocracy and Democracy

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

In the New Criterion, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield reviews Lucien Jaume’s 2008 book Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty (recently translated by Arthur Goldhammer). In his review, he asks if a democracy can sustain itself without the help of its rival, aristocracy?

Mansfield continues:

Democracy in America has certain features that date from aristocracy but are now democratized: the notion of rights that originated in the willingness of feudal nobles to stand up against the monarchy; juries of one’s peers, once fellow nobles, now fellow citizens; democratic associations that arise through the “art of association” rather than, but in imitation of, the feudal responsibilities of a single aristocrat; the devotion of lawyers to the traditions of the law; religion that restrains human excess while connecting heaven and earth. Moreover, these inheritances from aristocracy are grounded in the intractable nature of democratic peoples that makes them desire to rule themselves rather than be ruled by others. This is an assertive impulse contrary to aristocracy that resembles the very desire to rule that constitutes an aristocracy. Intractability is the untaught basis on which democrats build the constructions of self-government—in America ranging from the spontaneous cooperation of the township to the theoretical artifices of the American Constitution (whose Federalist framers Tocqueville praised as a party of aristocrats).

On top of these aristocratic sources of liberty Tocqueville points to the possibility of greatness in democracy (mentioned but not developed by M. Jaume). The desire for greatness, with the disdain for the people that accompanies it, is the overall character of aristocracy in Tocqueville’s description, while honest, comfortable democracy suffers from its own normal defect of mediocrity. But in the practices of self-government Tocqueville finds in America, democracy achieves the character of “political liberty” that constitutes its greatness and gives Tocqueville’s liberalism its special flavor.