Monday, July 8, 2013

Liberty, equality, and envy

From a review of Tocqueville by Lucien Jaume:
There were many books written about America by Europeans in the 19th century. But one book above all continues to command our attention: Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published as two volumes in 1835 and 1840. On both sides of the Atlantic it was immediately received as a masterpiece and this has largely remained the case to this day. ....

Alexis de Tocqueville
...[Pascal's] Pensées tell us that, as soon as we try to moor ourselves to a fixed point, it flees in eternal flight, the abyss reappearing beneath our feet. In a democracy, Tocqueville contends, that fixed point is seen as a condition of equality. However, no sooner does equality appear to be within our grasp than it too eludes us, the desire for equality only becoming more insatiable as we see it hovering in the near-distance. The more equal we are, the more the slightest inequality offends us.

Herein lies democracy's greatest peril. Democratic man would give up liberty in favour of equality and the promise of material plenty. Here too, according to Jaume, are found "the two great ideas that animated all of Tocqueville's thought": the resurgence of despotism and the advent of equality. And it is precisely the prominence given to these two themes by Tocqueville that explains why we still read Democracy in America and why we do so with such profit. Tocqueville, with greater clarity than anyone before him, saw that the equality of conditions typical of democratic society could give rise to a new form of despotism.

Tocqueville also saw that America had contrived ways to counter these tendencies: religion and the family as checks upon individualism; administrative decentralisation and the separation of powers: "self-interest properly understood". All served to maintain a flourishing local life and thus to preserve liberty. ....

Why then did Tocqueville write Democracy in America? No clearer answer is to be found than in a letter written by Tocqueville to Silvestre de Sacy in 1840, usefully printed as an appendix to this volume. It reads as follows: "My purpose in writing [my] book was to reveal the frightening prospects in store for our contemporaries . . . To show...that in order to prevent this equality, which we rightly hold dear, from becoming the leprosy of the human race, one must work tirelessly to sustain the flight of ideas, to lift souls toward — and — to show that in the democratic age that is just beginning, political liberty is not only beautiful but also necessary for nations to become great and even to remain civilised." .... [more]
At Manybooks.net, free to download for Kindle or other formats:
Democracy In America, vol 1
Democracy In America, vol 2
Motivation of a Masterpiece | Standpoint