Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Tocqueville biography valuable contribution to our understanding of Democracy's Guide

3. Alexis De Tocqueville Democracy’s Guide, Joseph Epstein. Biography, 1-10, p. 205

“In the United States, religious zeal never ceases to warm itself at patriotism’s hearth.”

“There are two things that will always be difficult for a democratic people to do: to start a war and to finish it.”

“The passion for material well-being is essentially a middle-class passion.”

“I believe that the Indian race in North America is doomed.”

Alexis De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who earned lasting fame by writing about democracy. Tocqueville, who left behind a small body of work, is principally read and regarded today because of a single title – his two-volume Democracy in America.

Democracy in America continues to be read (and regarded) because more than 160 years after it first appeared (volume one in 1835, volume two in 1840), Tocqueville’s observations – such as those above – are still trenchant. Tocqueville would have scorned to wear the crown of visionary, but it is evident he was an unusually perceptive and clear-sighted man. As Seinfeld might have said, a deep thinker.

Joseph Epstein, author of Alexis De Tocqueville Democracy’s Guide, the newest entry in HarperCollin’s Eminent Lives series, doesn’t hesitate to label his subject a genius. He also considers him among the greatest political writers ever.

When considering Tocqueville’s work, Epstein says, “The point to keep in mind is that Democracy in America is only secondarily about America. The accent in the title needs to be placed on its first word, “democracy,” which is the book’s true subject . . . “ Tocqueville, says Epstein, “was less concerned about the fate of democracy across the ocean in the United States than he was about its consequences at home in France” where revolution had a tendency to break out with all the ugly frequency of acne on a teenager.

Tocqueville, who was always given to a melancholy disposition, seems to have suffered from depression in the final years of his life. His mental state may have stemmed, in part, from his disappointment that he did not have a more accomplished political career, despite being singularly ill-suited for public life. A poor public speaker with a thin voice, Tocqueville lacked charisma, was held back by his ironic manner and was, evidently, too thoughtful for the politicos of his era. Yet despite these obstacles, Tocqueville did serve a brief, yet successful, five-month stint as minister of foreign affairs to President of the Republic Louis-Napoleon.

Ultimately, Tocqueville was as prescient about his place in history as he was the fate of the American Indian: “It seems to me that my true worth is above all works of the mind; that I am worth more in thought than in action; and that, if there remains anything of me in this world, it will be much more the trace of what I have written than the recollection of what I will have done.”

What Tocqueville has done and written is admirably captured in this slim volume by Joseph Epstein. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Democracy’s Guide.

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