Lacking Elevation

"Lacking Elevation," review of Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, New Criterion, May 2007, pp. 64-67.


To write the biography of a thinker is a difficult thing. His thought claims our attention at a level above the doings and deeds of his life, the latter irrelevant to the truth of his thought.  “Aristotle was born, philosophized, and died.”That’s all you need to know when reading Aristotle (perhaps close to all you can know).  Yet Alexis de Tocqueville had a life more significant to his thought than Aristotle’s.  He was in the first place preoccupied with his time, the time when democracy came out of the shadows in which it had been gathering force for centuries to emerge “in broad daylight”(one of Tocqueville’s favorite phrases), visible in form and loud of voice.  His time was no mere context surrounding or enveloping his thought but rather the center of his intent. In his Souvenirs and The Old Regime, as well as inDemocracy in America, the nature of modern democracy is the main object of his thought.

Together with this fact, perhaps a consequence of it, is Tocqueville’s life-long absorption in the politics of his country.  He ran for office in the National Assembly under the monarchy of Louis-Philippe instead of finishing the second volume of Democracy in America, thus postponing its completion for four years. After being elected he took a leading part in its affairs and suffered through the Revolution of 1848, on which he secretly wrote his memorableSouvenirs, not for publication.  In 1849 he held office briefly as foreign minister under the presidency of Louis Napoleon, who dismissed the government of which Tocqueville was a member in order to clear the way for his coup d’état in 1851.  Then, passionately detesting the new regime and hampered by illness, he turned as if to console himself for political defeat to the writing of The Old Regime, his last work, unfinished (though in part published) when he died.

Thought in Tocqueville’s case seems to take its turn when action is suspended.  Yet might there not be a reason in his thought for his engagement in politics?  He seems to have a respect for politics unusual in a man of thought.  His respect includes respect for political motives such as the“reputation” that he avows he sought for himself in politics.  It extends to the study of actual politics as opposed to immersing himself in works of political theory. He came to America to seek “the image of democracy,” an object of theory, not in democratic theorists but in American politics.

Hugh Brogan’s new biography of Tocqueville does not wrestle with the coherence of his thinking and his actions.[1]Brogan’s biography joins André Jardin’s (1984), and it is a welcome addition.  Brogan writes with intelligence and style entertaining to a serious reader, and instructive to students of biography.  I do not know any biographer simultaneously so admiring and so critical of his subject. He does not stint his praise, for example agreeing that Tocqueville’s two masterpieces, Democracy in America andThe Old Regime, are indeed masterpieces (and theSouvenirs not far behind), but he is even more generous with blame and denigration.  On one page he calls The Old Regime “a medley of fiction and wishful thinking,” and on the next “the work of a great historian.” Tocqueville was“too intelligent and too honest intellectually to surrender to his prejudices.” Was he then too stupid and dishonest not to abandon them?

New Criterion