Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mansfield on Rahe

Harvey Mansfield’s review of Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect brings forth much in its complexity.

Addition: Just noticed that our own William Voegeli reviews Rahe in the current issue of National Review. Compare at will!

Discussions - 6 Comments

The book, which I'm reviewing for Society, is not the killer Tocqueville book I had hoped for. Better introductions to Tocqueville are easily found--Cheryl Welch's little volume, or (especially) Mansfield's and Winthrop's 100 page introduction in their edition of D.A. come to mind. Moreover, I think more insightful analysis of the concept of soft despotism is needed than what we get here, although as an intellectual history of the concept's precursors the book is a breakthroug. Generally, the book seems stronger on (and really more about) Montesquieu, and in some ways serves as a teaser to a Rahe volume on the Baron's thought also coming out this year. Finally, there is a spirited (if comparatively breezy) argument at the end for why a) Europe now has soft despotism, and for why b) we're not far behind. The usual breathtaking Paul Rahe erudition is on display--the footnotes are a vertible primer on existing Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville scholarship, and no reader will come away not having learned something new about each, but be warned, it is not as enjoyable a read as his seminal Republics Ancient and Modern, and is too laborious at times.

Mansfield's short piece here usefully places Rahe's larger scholarly project in counterpoint with that of Quentin Skinner(i.e., he hints at why Rahe's three[!] books coming out this year are really quite devastating to the Skinner/Pocock school), but goes on to suggest why Rahe has gone too far in enlisting Tocqueville on his "ideas first" side in the "ideas v. conditions" chicken-and-egg debate. I speak most breezily myself here, but this be a blog.

Having listed perhaps the two best intros to Tocqueville's thought, what are the very best books on the man's thought, IMO?

So glad you asked!

1) Pierre Manent Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy The gold standard--theoretically challenging, but well worth the effort.

2) (supwise, supwise!) Peter Lawler The Restless Mind The Pascalian Tocqueville, definitive analysis of the too little-read-Souvenirs, and definitive refutation/moderation of the Tocqueville-as-Rousseauvian approach(see 5). Also on the challenging side, but one for the ages. Especially recommended for those Christians struggling to make sense of how their faith, their love of wisdom, and their love of politics might work out in relation to one another.

3) James Schleifer The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America Just what the title indicates, but also always solid on the basics of Tocqueville, which let me tell you, is no mean feat!

4)Jean-Claude Lamberti Tocqueville and the Two Democracies Also very tuned to the composition of the book (Rahe is strong on this, BTW) and the best so far at plausibly exploring what may be weak spots in Tocqueville's ideas and formulations amid their sometimes problematic 'development,' while at the same time conveying a fulsome sense of their greatness.

5) John Koritansky, Alexis de Tocqueville and the New Science of Politics The most pessimistic reading of D.A. The most obviously Straussian reading of D.A. The most Rousseuaian reading of D.A. And, most importantly, the closest reading of the first volume. It flags when it comes to the more important second volume, but blesses the reader with brevity thereby. A new edition is in the works, BTW.

These are all mostly D.A.-focused books, word on the scholarly street would indicate the best book on The Old Regime and the Revolution would be 6) Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, although I'm not familiar enough with the O.R.R. scholarship to judge that claim.

And we can't forget, 7) James Ceaser's Liberal Democracy and Political Science, both because its second chapter contains one of the best general introductions to Tocqueville's thought, and for its two later more scholarly chapters about it. At the bottom of the list, b/c not as Toc-focused on the others here, but had I to put one of these in an undergraduates' hands (with a copy of D.A. of course!), it would be Ceaser's.

Happy reading!

This is a great book in all the ways Carl mentions. But I think it overstates Tocqueville's fear that SOFT DESPOTISM would be the real culmination of democracy in America. And for that matter, it overstates a lot the claim that Tocqueville's description of the soft despotic lapse into subhumanity actually describes America tdoay. The intrusive despotism of meddlesome schoolmarms might might describe some of the intention of Obamaism or our bureaucratic experts. But it doesn't do as well with the very human lives people still live. Most of the evidence points to the Tocquevillian conclusion that the soul have needs that can be distorted and denied, but not destroyed and that people are, in some ways, moved more than ever by the democratic poetic perception that to be human is to exist for a moment between two abysses. Nobody can beat Paul Rahe as a scholar (and he does say nice things about me in a couple of his wonderful footnotes), but Carl, for example, provides a better sense of D in A in his neglected--because unpublished--dissertation. Because one of Tocqueville's amazing theoretical insights is his identification of the psychology of Pascal with the history of Rousseau, he can easily seem more historicist than he really is. It's Pascal, as Harvey and Delba remarked, who made him a DEEP liberal--but a liberal nonetheless (and so I'm against reducing him to Montesquieu and Rousseau--although Paul does a nice job of showing the deep influence of Pascal on the identification of human motion with uneasiness in Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau).

Didn't see Peter's comment till now. Peter and I can now mutually thank one another for the compliments! But nonetheless, Peter, thank you for mentioning my dissertation. Anyone interested in publication out there?

And I agree with Peter's judgments of the book. If, in one sense, soft despotism has arrived in Europe, then today it becomes imperative to think about a) why this isn't the full-scale soft-despotism of actual dehumanization that Toc. sketches, and b) about what modern democratic people "over there" but also hereabouts have to do to still live their lives. Politics, among other things, is not "over" in Europe. All the questions about the EU and democracy-deficit, about Muslim immigration, about the insustainability of the welfare state, about 'Western' or even 'Christian' identity remain in play. And newer, Tocqueville-influenced but not Tocqueville-bound, analyses, such as Dominique Schnapper
s Providential Democracy will have to be written to deal with that politics that is going to happen. When the last 68-er is put in her grave (or more likely, in her cremation-vase), perhaps right around the time of the worst Muslim "youth" riot, there will still be recognizably Frenchmen and women who have to pick up the pieces

Rahe's book isn't adequately aware of this dimension of the problem--when you read it's last chapters, you feel inspirited to fight like hell against the coming age of softness, but there is no guidance about how to live with, and get untangled from, the softness that's already arrived. But it seems to me that what we need now are rhetorical stances that do not simply pose liberty versus tyranny (Mark Levin) and America versus Europe, but ones that show how we can get entangled from our present messes.

I heartily "third" Carl & Peter's apprecations cum critical reservations about Rahe's fine but flawed book. I would add that Paul's discussion of the theological origins, then philosophical extractions and developments, of the key concept of uneasiness was quite good (he does acknowledge a debt here, though; I forget the scholar to whom he referred, not part of the usual suspects). We probably need to say that he expressly restricted himself to a "psychological" focus, thus he admitted limitations in his exegesis and analysis. But still the textual exegesis needed to be much supplement with contemporary philosophical/political analysis (of the sort Carl -- with Pierre Manent in mind? -- points to).

I want to highlight with Paul the importance of the uneasiness stuff, which, in my opinion, links the proto-historicism of early modern liberalism to Pascal's psychology (as Tocqueville at least sort of saw). That would be in agreement, I think, with Strauss's view that modern freedom or creativity is in some way basically Christian.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: