Tocqueville: Democracy in Americaby Alexis de Tocqueville, Olivier Zunz, Arthur Goldhammer
Pub. Date: 02/09/2004
Publisher: Library of America
Alexis de Tocqueville, a young aristocratic French lawyer, came to the United States in 1831 to study its penitentiary systems. His nine-month visit and subsequent reading and reflection resulted in Democracy in America (1835–40), a landmark masterpiece of political observation and analysis. Tocqueville vividly describes the unprecedented social equality he found in America and explores its implications for European society in the emerging modern era. His book provides enduring insight into the political consequences of widespread property ownership, the potential dangers to liberty inherent in majority rule, the importance of civil institutions in an individualistic culture dominated by the pursuit of material self-interest, and the vital role of religion in American life, while prophetically probing the deep differences between the free and slave states. The clear, fluid, and vigorous translation by Arthur Goldhammer is the first to fully capture Tocqueville’s achievements both as an accomplished literary stylist and as a profound political thinker.
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I don't mind admitting that Alexis de Toqueville's DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA is quite possible the most demanding piece of exposition I've read since Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY OF MIND. I suspect it's one of those books -- analogous, if you will, to Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE, Melville's MOBY DICK, Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME or Musil's MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES -- that avid readers want to have read, but never have. I finally did. If you can find the time (and the quiet) to read fifty pages of this book a day, you can accomplish it in under three weeks. If you can devote yourself to more than fifty pages a day -- and have the concentration necessary to make sense of what you're reading -- you're a better (wo)man than I am. I couldn't. In spite of my best efforts and virtually ideal conditions (most often in some secluded spot in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden), I found myself having to read many sentences two and three times over. DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA is no doubt more worthy of a dissertation than of a review. And I suspect that thousands of dissertations have been written on this oeuvre. The book is dense -- with a capital "D" -- and any sort of commentary on it could rival exegesis of the Torah. Dense it is. But also prescient--with a capital "P." If you can't find the time or the circumstances to devote yourself to a reading of the entire work, read just Chapter 10 of Part II, Volume One ("Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States"). And keep in mind that Volume One was published in 1835; the "Trail of Tears" (the expulsion of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to a circumscribed territory in Oklahoma) happened only three years later; and the Civil War was still relatively far off! But what of de Tocqueville's observation at the conclusion of Volume One concerning Americans and Russians -- ions before the start of the Cold War? Allow me to quote at length from pp. 475-476, as I don't want to shortchange the man: "There are today two great peoples on earth, who, though they started from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both grew in obscurity, and while humanity's gaze was focused elsewhere, they abruptly vaulted to the first rank among nations: the world learned almost simultaneously of their birth and of their grandeur. All other peoples seem close to achieving the limits traced for them by nature and henceforth need only to preserve what they already have; but these two are still growing. All the others have stopped, or move forward only with the greatest of effort. Only these two march with an easy and rapid stride down a road whose end no eye can yet perceive. The American does battle with the obstacles that nature has placed before him; the Russian grapples with men. One combats wilderness and barbarity; the other, civilization with all its arms. The American makes his conquests with the farmer's ploughshare, the Russian with the soldier's sword. To achieve his goal, the American relies on personal interest and allows individuals to exercise their strength and reason without guidance. The Russian in a sense concentrates all of society in the power of one man. The American's principal means of action is liberty; the Russian's, servitude. Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe." Just as prescient are de Tocqueville's observations in Volume Two, Part II, Chapter 20 (pp. 649 - 652 in the Arthur Goldhammer/Literary Classics of the United States, © 2004 edition I've just read). In these four pages (titled "How Industry Could Give Rise to an Aristocracy"), de Tocqueville not only foresees the dangers of the industrial process known as "Taylorism" introduced decades later by the Ford Motor Company, but also adumbrates the condition of alienation between worker and owner/manager, haves and have-nots, into which we in the U. S. are now inexorably slipping. (Should you have any interest in understanding more about this latter development, I would respectfully refer you to Naomi Klein's book, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, which I reviewed here at Amazon at the end of last month.) And what of this concluding observation 150 years before the deluge of widgets and gadgets in which most of the current generation of digital addicts would appear to be drowning? "Habitual inattention must be regarded as the greatest defect of the democratic mind (last sentence on p. 718)." There are no doubt other good reasons for the seemingly constant state of distraction of so many young minds -- and de Tocqueville carefully lays out his argument in the pages leading up to his conclusion. And yet, one has to wonder whether the "democratic mind" as it has come to be in these United States and elsewhere in the Western World at the beginning of the twenty-first century was the incubator or the egg in our so-called "high-tech (r)evolution." Please allow me to return to p. 198 to conclude with one last citation, even if I could go on and on with others worth their aphoristic weight in gold. "Time no more stops for nations than it does for individuals. Both advance daily toward a future of which they know nothing." "...(A) future of which they know nothing." Scary stuff -- but worthwhile (to say the least!) reading. RRB 6/14/13 Brooklyn, NY