Liberty Matters

Wisdom, Human Nature, and Political Science


Aurelian Craiutu has written an admirably clear and insightful reflection on Tocqueville’s “new political science … for a world entirely new.” In the course of his presentation it becomes evident that the great Frenchman’s political science is not entirely new and that democracy does not wholly transform human nature or the nature of society. Tocqueville thus deliberately overstates when he emphasizes the radical “newness” of the democratic dispensation that was in the process of transforming the European-Christian world, and that had already reached its “natural limits” in the New World. Tocqueville, too, cannot but help make reference to the sempiternal insights of classical political philosophy  and to human nature sub specie aeternitatis. Yet his emphasis lies elsewhere. 
John Stuart Mill was not wrong when he praised Tocqueville for changing the very face of political philosophy. [76] The author of Democracy in America had indeed taken the discussion of the “tendencies of modern society” into “a region of both height and depth” and illumined the great “democratic revolution” like no one before or after him. Tocqueville is the great phenomenologist of modern democracy -- he describes it with some fear and trembling but with hope that it can ultimately be made to coexist with the liberty and dignity of human beings. That hope depends on the salutary presence of “political science” in the new democratic world. Craiutu rightly differentiates Tocquevillean political science from every version of “literary politics,” the utopian illusion that one can draw on the “ingenious or new” in contradistinction to the hard realities that persist in any political and social order. Tocquevillean political science is above all a teacher of moderation and possibility -- it teaches restraint to democratic man even as it reminds him of a “greatness” that is occluded by the march of democratic equality. As Craiutu points out, the tension between human greatness and democratic justice is at the heart of Tocqueville’s “philosophical” reflection, his normative political science, and connects his work to the deepest themes of classical political philosophy. Tocqueville, the sincere and thoughtful partisan of democratic justice, is also a partisan of political greatness, a Gaullist avant la lettre. Aristocracy is dead as a “social whole,” as a full-fledged human and political possibility, but it lives in the souls of men  who love liberty as an end in itself and who hold on to honorable self-regard. The specter of the “last man,” devoid of concern for excellence and preoccupied with what Heidegger called “average everydayness,” haunted Tocqueville no less than Nietzsche. The difference lies in Tocqueville’s refusal to jettison common humanity, political freedom, and a theism that respected the moral law bequeathed by the Christian heritage of the West. 
In my view, Craiutu creates too much symmetry between the Left and Right appropriations of Tocqueville.  There are no doubt communitarians who draw upon the Tocquevillean critique of “individualism” and his accompanying defense of the “art of association.” But Tocqueville is too critical of individual autonomy, of the pantheistic denial of a transcendent God, and too ambivalent about equality and human leveling for him to be truly admired by the contemporary Left. An initially friendly critic like Sheldon Wolin finally denounced Tocqueville as a reactionary because of his sympathy for aristocracy and his opposition to socialism in all its forms. Tocqueville is indeed a “moderate,” but his moderation fits well within the purview of what we might call “conservative liberalism.” In the end, Tocqueville cannot appeal to those who wish to erode all the extra-democratic supports of our democratic dispensation, who wish to fully “democratize” democracy. 
I fully share Aurelian Craiutu’s admiration for Tocqueville’s great speech on political science that he delivered to the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Paris on April 3, 1852. The distinction he makes on that occasion between the “art” and “science” of government helps us understand that all practical political activity must be attentive to philosophy and history and to those features of enduring human experience that speak to “the general and permanent condition of humanity.” This is the science of government as opposed to the art of government, which addresses “the difficulties of the day.” The speech also admirably highlights the connections between political science, contemplation of truth, and a regime of political liberty. (Its Appendix could not be read under the semi-despotic conditions of Bonapartist rule.) But I differ from Aurelian in my estimation of how much this speech illumines the “new science of politics” that Tocqueville spoke about in the “Author’s Preface” to Democracy in America. In the 1852 speech, Tocqueville freely draws on the ancient “publicists” such as Plato and Aristotle; in 1835 he seems to suggest that they are more or less irrelevant to the political science necessary for the new democratic world. I would suggest that Tocqueville had gone too far in Democracy in emphasizing the new or original character of his political science. As Pierre Manent and Sheldon Wolin have both pointed out, the tensions between justice and greatness and the status of the “political” are central concerns of Western political philosophy dating back to Greek antiquity itself. Perhaps the April 1852 speech on political science is best seen as a self-correction, one that places Tocqueville’s political science into proper dialogue with some of its great predecessors and inspirations. 
I think that a better entrance into Tocqueville’s “new political science” lies in the distinction he makes in Democracy in America between the “nature” of equality and the “art” of liberty. As Tocqueville writes in Vol. II, Section IV, chapter 3 of Democracy in America, the “idea of intermediate powers” does not naturally come to the minds of people in an egalitarian age. Distrusting intermediate powers, democratic man succumbs to the “thought of a unique, uniform, and strong government.” (All quotes from the Liberty Fund Schleifer translation.) Tocqueville is quite insistent: “Centralization will be the natural government” in a democratic age (my emphasis). In democratic centuries, “individual independence and local liberties will always be a product of art.” (Again, my emphasis.) There is something Sisyphean about this constant effort to keep centralization at bay and to defend individual independence, intermediate institutions, and local liberties against the tendency toward concentration and centralization. This dialectic of nature and art is the key to Tocqueville’s new science of politics. 
There are many gems in Craiutu’s essay. He rightly emphasizes Tocqueville’s opposition to every form of historical determinism, to the effort to shear history and politics of the human element. No Churchill, no victory in the Battle of Britain. No Hitler, no Holocaust. As the historian John Lukacs has suggested, every sentence in Tocqueville’s chapter on historians in democratic centuries could be turned into a paragraph, and every paragraph into a chapter. The chapter is that discerning. Social scientists may be concerned with “dependent variables,” but they forget that human agency is itself a variable that is not reducible to things outside itself. 
Craiutu’s “thought experiment” about Tocqueville’s fate in a modern scientistic political science department speaks for itself. The bloodless and soulless advocates of scientism cannot understand “social wholes” or an action that is not determined by something outside itself. They have severed political science from a concern for the soul and the liberty and dignity of human beings. They want absolute precision where reality (such as the nature of democracy) demands a respect for the phenomenon in all its amplitude and variety. We should judge academic political science by the heights and depths to which Mill referred and not by a petty scientism that cannot understand things as they are. If Tocqueville could not be awarded a dissertation for Democracy in America, there is something deeply wrong with a profession that in its dominant parts has forgotten sagesse (wisdom) in both its theoretical and practical forms.
[76.] John Stuart Mill's reviews of the two volumes of Democracy in America can be found in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII – Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977): Volume 1 and Volume 2.