Mansfield on Tocqueville, Aristocracy, and Democracy

As a complement to Robert’s ongoing series of learned posts on Tocqueville and religion, do see this decidedly mixed review (which I am late in noting) by eminent political theorist (and Tocqueville translator) Harvey Mansfield, “The Aristocracy in Democracy,” of Lucien Jaume’s Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty (2013). The subject of the book, according to Mansfield: “Can a democracy sustain itself without the help of its rival, apparently its enemy, aristocracy?” And here is an interesting bit:

Yet 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) . . . .

M. Jaume refers to Tocqueville’s use of classical style in writing as opposed to democratic floridity, but he does not discuss the two most prominent themes in Democracy in America: political liberty (or self-government) and greatness. Tocqueville ends his book by looking at politics from the standpoint of God, in which democracy and aristocracy appear as two aspects of one whole. This standpoint is available at least dimly to a legislator or political scientist like Tocqueville, because it uncovers God’s intellect rather than piously accepting God’s mysteries (for Tocqueville, God’s providence in bringing democracy is not hidden, as M. Jaume has it, but apparent in history). But God’s standpoint is not available to most human beings, because their partisanship prevents them from seeing the whole impartially, thus forcing them to construct their own partial wholes, typically democracy and aristocracy as Tocqueville contrasts them. That is why he says that there are almost—don’t forget the “almost”—two humanities in the two regimes and that a mixed regime is a chimera—though a necessary one in his own mind! Paradoxically, the desire of partisans to make their favorite part, the few or the many, into a whole makes compromise with the opposing part seem unnecessary as well as unwelcome.

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