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Alexis de Tocqueville (landscape)I’m giving some comments in Boston in response to a great essay by Delba Winthrop and Harvey Mansfield entitled “Tocqueville’s Machiavellianism.”

I have no idea how open it is to the public or whether it’s sold out. But here’s a taste of what I’m going to say. Let me know if it stinks, because there’s still time for change you can believe in:

So Tocqueville wrote with the high ambition of replacing Machiavelli, and he deployed some—not all of them—Machiavellian means to achieve his end. He had no intention of returning to aristocracy, but of elevating democracy through the articulation of what Delba and Harvey call a “partisan whole” that is really a combination of democracy, Christianity, and ancient nobility. The source of the whole is Tocqueville’s mind, and he tries to align his thoughts with those of the mind of God.

Tocqueville’s partisanship isn’t to be confused with Machiavelli’s or even Aristotle’s. He doesn’t try to dispense with God or bring God under his rational control. He distinguishes his own personal view, his partisanship on behalf of greatness, his desire for a world simply worthy of his aristocratic pride, from that of God. God, unlike the man Tocqueville, chooses justice over greatness. And God doesn’t share the intellectual and moral weaknesses of the merely human partisans—such as even Plato and Aristotle—who choose the greatness of the few—beginning with one’s own greatness—at the expense of justice truly understood as the equal right of every human creature to liberty.

To choose for God, Tocqueville suggests, is to choose against himself or for a world in which he and other proud lovers of liberty for its own sake will have to struggle to find a place and will be insufficiently recognized for their magnanimity.

God’s own vision, of course, transcends the limitations and proud particularity of aristocratic partisanship and the pantheistic weakness of the democratic over-reliance on general ideas. God sees each of us as he or she really is in his or her similarity to and difference from others. And there is room in God’s unlimited or empirically perfect vision for comprehending both singular greatness and egalitarian justice.

A proud man who sees with the eyes of God chooses justice over greatness but, in the service of God, endeavors to see and work to sustain the real greatness of particular beings with souls in democratic times. That means, for example, seeing more greatness in ordinary life than Aristotle or Machiavelli could see, or even than Tocqueville himself could often see when he was engaged in middle-class French political life. It also means preserving both the greatness of political life and transpolitical or irreducibly personal religious life as indispensable displays of the truth about the free and relational human soul against democratic threats to its particular existence.

So we can say Tocqueville was a Deist insofar as we find no evidence that he believed in the Trinity or personal salvation through grace. But he was a different kind of Deist, insofar as his God was a living and seeing being who is a genuine respecter of persons. That means, for one thing, that Tocqueville’s most un-Machiavellian moments include his beliefs in the moral reality of both personal political greatness and egalitarian justice, and his beliefs having to do with free will, as well as his democratic appreciation of how impossible it is to free personal pride from any confrontation with the anxiety about one’s status in the absence of God.

It’s for that reason that Tocqueville was not a philosopher in the classic sense; he thought of himself as unfortunate not to believe in the promises of the personal God of the Bible. He didn’t think he, as a thinker, had a natural right not to believe.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © March 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Peter, this should set them to thinking.
    One suggestion: Maybe you could connect T’s rejection of pantheism, which you mention in passing, with his quasi-Deism? The (one?) good thing about Deism is that it separates Creator from creation, and thus avoids both the materialist forms of determinism (e. g. Gobineau) and the ‘idealist’ forms (e. g. Hegel). Pantheism opens the door for both; arguably, Hegelianism is a rationalist variation of pantheism. And of course he regards pantheism as antithetical to both liberty and “the natural greatness of man.”

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