Monday, September 26, 2016

De Tocqueville's Historical Fragments

Review of:
Oeuvres completes de Alexis de Tocqueville (1865).

Madame De Tocqueville has just given to the world the eighth volume of her late husband's works, containing a great variety of fragments never before published on the different topics on which his mind was habitually working. Nearly half the volume is composed of notes, more or less complete and elaborate, of chapters of the book which he proposed to write on the French Revolution. The remaining half consists of notes of journeys in the United States, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, and Algeria. The volume concludes with a few pages of “detached thoughts” which do not appear to us very valuable. The most important parts of the book are the incomplete chapters on the French Revolution, but many of the remarks contained in the notes of the journeys to America, England, and Ireland are highly interesting, especially to ourselves.

The chapters on the French Revolution have the great and almost unique merit, so far at least as our experience of histories of that event goes, of being written by a man who had had the patience to study with minute care the whole mechanism of the old Government, and who had the fairness to do so with an impression on his mind that it had principles and a meaning, and was not a mere heap of corruption. A very large proportion of the writers who have handled this subject treat the old Constitution of France as if it had been a mere, mass , of rottenness, so fundamentally bad that it both invited and rendered necessary total and immediate destruction. There is nothing of this in De Tocqueville's view of the matter. On the contrary, he had a very considerable sympathy with the old régime, and he at all events took the pains to understand its practical working and real character with a degree of minute accuracy which is almost entirely peculiar to himself. Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution show, as we pointed out some time ago (Saturday Review, September 19, 1863), a genuine and deep acquaintance with the old French Constitution. Sir James Stephen's Lectures on the History of France display, as M. de Tocqueville himself observed, a rare knowledge of the steps by which a system of centralized administration had been spread over the whole of France long before the time of Napoleon; but Burke was utterly unjust to the revolution, and the plan of Sir James Stephen's work left it unnoticed. M. de Tocqueville, so far as we know, is the only, or nearly the only, writer who, without oratory or exaggeration, applied a sound and fair judgment of the old French Government to the purpose of interpreting and estimating the revolution. In the fragmentary chapters which form the first half of the present work we get, not indeed the vivid picture of the French Revolution which, if De Tocqueville's life had been spared, would probably have formed far the best history of that event, but a skeleton which would have been the basis of it. The first portion consists of an essay on the social and political condition of France before and after 1789, first published in the Westminster Review in 1836, as a translation by Mr. Mill. The general outline of this remarkable essay is already well known to most readers of De Tocqueville's works. It describes the manner in which the French noblesse had become a mere caste, invidious by reason of its privileges and social distinctions, but destitute of all political power whatever, and distinguished from the bulk of the nation only by marks which rend: it the natural object of every kind of enmity, whilst they afforded it no sort of protection. It points out, on the other hand, how the state of equality which is often supposed to have been the effect of the French Revolution in reality preceded and caused it. “It would,” he says, “be a mistake to suppose that an entirely new French people proceeded from the revolution, and that it raised an edifice of which the foundation had not been laid before.” The division of the land of which so much has been said in our own days was of older date than the revolution, so far at least as related to that immense proportion of it which did not belong to the aristocracy, The Church had come to be isolated from the rest of the nation, and its moral and intellectual hold upon some important classes had been greatly weakened long before the revolution. On the other hand, that convulsion destroyed only its endowments and its connection with the State, and left it in possession of a share of moral and spiritual influence which have certainly been lessened by the subsequent course of thought, but which were considerably less affected than might have been expected by the mere violence of the revolution itself. Such are the main propositions of the essay in the Westminster Review in 1836.

The notes for the history of the French Revolution develop and complete these views. M. de Tocqueville begins by pointing out, with a vigour which upon this particular point he does not always display, the great intellectual movement which pervaded the whole of Europe, before the revolution. He has often a way of writing which leads one to think that the whole history of human affairs may be resolved into a struggle between aristocracy and democracy, and that there is nothing in life much worth thinking about except the reasons which make one form of government develop itself into or supersede another. This impression, however, is by no means just, Politics proper occupied perhaps a disproportionate space in De Tocqueville's thoughts, but he was far from being enslaved to them. He recognised quite as strongly the importance of other considerations. Thus, for instance, the first page of his first chapter contains the following paragraph:
‘The idea of the greatness of man in general, and of the omnipotence of his reason, of the immeasurable extent of his lights, had penetrated into and filled all minds, and, at the same time, an unbounded contempt for the particular time in which men were living, and the particular societies to which they belonged, was mixed with this proud notion of humanity in general.’
De Tocqueville had collected many curious instances of this general excitement of temper from German and other books, which certainly go far to illustrate, if it is too much to say that they prove, the fact that the French Revolution was looked on throughout Europe as the dawn of a new era. Probably the most conspicuous and picturesque of them all is the fact of the immense popularity of the secret societies which spread themselves over Europe, and which exercised a wonderful fascination over the minds of men in all classes of society, more especially in the very highest class of all. The Assembly of the Notables, and the singular way in which they connected all their recommendations with abstract principles of the most sweeping democratic kind, were the first positive manifestation in France of this vague general feeling.

On the early steps of the revolution it was very difficult even for such a writer as De Tocqueville to be original, but he appears to have found something to say even upon that subject which, if not actually new, was, at all events, invested by him with new importance. He points out the great importance of the resistance which the local parliaments offered to the measures of the King, and in particular he describes the effect of a sort of States-General on a small scale assembled at Vizille in Dauphiné, without any authority from the Crown, but in assertion of a right which had been suspended ever since 1618. He attributes the recall of the edicts by which the Parliaments were suppressed to this assembly, and describes it as “the last time that a fact happening elsewhere than at Paris exercised a great influence over the general destinies of the country.” In connection with this and some other events, De Tocqueville describes with greater force than most writers the importance of the changes which were made before the convocation of the States-General. “It is astonishing, in reading the writings of the time, to hear before 1789 of a great revolution already accomplished.” The great revolution consisted, according to De Tocqueville, in the renunciation by the King of absolute power; for, in his opinion, the recall of the Parliaments amounted to nothing less than an admission of this principle. The way in which the Parliaments themselves vanished when they were no longer the representatives of opposition to the King, but only of their own personal privileges, is already so well known that even De Tocqueville adds little to our information on this head.

Of the facts and incidents of the revolution itself there was, of course, little more to be said than was known already, and it was perhaps barely possible to add much to the speculations which we been published in endless profusion on the spirit which animated those who took a leading part in it. It is, however, curious to see how very warmly De Tocqueville himself, with all his appreciation of the faults of democracy, dwells on its noble side. The passage to which we refer is the most remarkable in the volume:–
‘I do not think that at any epoch in history there has been seen in any part of the world so many men so sincerely enthusiastic for the public good, so really forgetful of themselves, so absorbed in the contemplation of the common interest, so resolute in risking their dearest interests in life. This made the incomparable grandeur of the first days of 1789. All the great actions which fill the revolution rise out of this common foundation of passion, courage, and devotion. The spectacle was short, but it will never be forgotten by mankind. It is not merely the distance at which we stand from it which makes it seem great to us. It seemed so to all contemporaries. All foreign nations saw and applauded it. All were moved by it. . . . In all the crowd of contemporary memoirs which the revolution has left I have never found one on which the sight of these first days of 1789 has not left an ineffaceable mark. Everywhere it communicates the clearness, vivacity, and freshness of the emotions of youth. I venture to say that there is only one country in the world which could produce such a spectacle. I know my country. I see only too well its errors, its faults, its weaknesses, and its miseries. But I know also of what it is capable. There are enterprises which the French nation alone is able to accomplish, magnanimous resolutions which it alone is able to conceive. It only can at a given day take up the common cause and fight for it. And if it is subject to deep falls, it has sublime impulses which carry it at once to a point which no other people will ever attain.’
This, on the whole, appears to us the most remarkable passage in that part of the present volume which relates to France. To know what points in the character of his nation a man of De Tocqueville's powers was really proud of is equivalent to knowing what is really the best side of the national character; and the passage which we have quoted may be accepted as something like conclusive evidence that the great excellence of the French character consists in its power of being exceedingly charmed for a short time by a brilliant prospect, and of making a sudden and violent effort to realize the prospect which it sees. There must be something exceedingly attractive in this, because in point of fact there are a great many people whom it attracts; but it certainly is not attractive to an Englishman, and we think that the English nation might say a good deal in its own behalf if called upon to show cause why it is not attracted by such a quality. The reasons are mainly two. Such a temperament implies great ignorance and great weakness. Those who can suppose, even for a moment, that so intricate a matter as the political and social relations of human nature can be summed up in a few phrases must be grossly ignorant. Those who concentrate all their force in a single desperate effort must be very weak during every part of their lives except the short time in which the force is being accumulated and the effort is being made. Moreover, it is impossible to guide and apply in any precise or accurate manner great accumulations of power suddenly expended. Each individual stroke of a pickaxe may be applied to the particular point where it is wanted. There is always a vast deal of chance about firing a cannon, and the slightest degree of deviation makes the whole explosive power of the gunpowder useless. The truth is that the ideals which the French propose to themselves are so vague and imperfect when you come to examine them, that admiration of them shows nothing but a mixture of folly and susceptibility. “Liberty,” for instance, when you ask what it really means, is only the absence of restraint. It is a purely negative word, and if it be applied accurately and impartially there can be no doubt that it would involve the absence of all laws whatever. A perfectly free man is a man altogether unrestrained by any consideration, threatened by no pains and solicited by no pleasures. Such a being, as far as we can, judge, would be simply inert. Restraint in the moral world is like friction in matter. Force cannot act without it. Hence neither liberty nor restraint is good in itself, but each is good or bad according to circumstances. To get enthusiastic about liberty, therefore, is like being charmed with the hole through which the steam goes in an engine. It is a necessary part of a large machine, but it is good or bad only because it is of such or such a size and shape, and is connected with other things subjected to the same conditions. Such views seem to be too complicated to enter into the ordinary French head. To see one thing at a time, to see that one thing in a strong light, and to make frantic efforts after it without the slightest regard to consequences, do not appear to us very noble characteristics in a nation.

The part of De Tocqueville's work which relates to England and America does not add very much to the observations on those countries which he had already made in other works. His speculations turn throughout on the working of the aristocratic and democratic principles, and on the way in which they explain pretty nearly every peculiarity which is to be found either in the three Kingdoms or in the United States. The most interesting parts of the book are reports of conversations which De Tocqueville held with every one who came in his way, and there are also many curious observations made at first hand upon the different institutions of the country. For instance, there are many shrewd remarks about the course of business at the assizes, and there are various accounts of particular towns, such as Manchester, of public meetings, and of other matters, which show that De Tocqueville was a keen observer.  There are, however, several defects in the book which, to an English eye, considerably diminish its value. Of these we will notice three.

In the first place, De Tocqueville's intense desire to arrive on all occasions at general principles, and to throw everything into as abstract a form as possible, led him into a good many errors of detail, and made those errors more important than they otherwise would have been. One of these errors is an odd one. He is demonstrating the proposition that English society is founded on the privileges of wealth, and he observes on this:—“A man must be rich to be a justice of the peace, lord-lieutenant, high sheriff, overseer of the poor, since these places are not paid.” To transform an overseer of the poor into an aristocrat is a pretty strong measure, and the mistake is an important one, for it prevented De Tocqueville from learning the fact that it is often worth the while of quite poor men to hold petty unpaid offices in parishes on account of their interest in the rates. In the same way, he was misled by some one who told him that surveyors of highways are paid because “ceux-là sont des industriels qui consacrent leur temps au service du public.” They belong to the very same class as the overseers, and are not paid at all. These are small enough mistakes in one respect, but in another respect they are by no means small, for statements of this kind form the foundations of very broad inferences constantly insisted on. In like manner the Bar is represented as one of the “débouchés” for the aristocracy. De Tocqueville was told, and seems to have believed, that no one without “great resources” could be a barrister, and that hence the “competition was of necessity limited.” Any one who had any practical acquaintance with the subject could have told him that the Bar is expensive only as all liberal professions in all times and countries must be expensive. A man has to wait for practice, and to support himself till it comes in, but there is very little artificial expense in the matter. So, too, he was told, and seems to have thought, that India was “la grande ressource” for the aristocracy. It would probably be difficult to find in the Indian Civil Service any considerable number of aristocratic names, and now that the service is open to competition it is notorious that no one will try to get a place in it who can command moderate professional prospects at home. The truth is that the service was an outlet, not for the aristocracy, but for a particular Indian connection.

A second defect, which strikes one disagreeably in reading De Tocqueville remarks upon different countries, and especially upon England, is a sort of sentimentality which runs through all that he says, and which is hardly worthy of so great a man. It is easier to make this remark than to prove it, for its justification is to be found, not in isolated passages, but in the style of whole chapters, or long letters, and extracts from journals. There is in much that he writes a tone of something like lamentation and repining over what is inevitable, and over what his own principles show to be inevitable, which jars on the English reader. For instance, throughout every part of the book which relates to England we have continual lamentations, not exactly expressed, but conveyed and hinted at by turns of expression and the choice of illustrations, over the power of wealth in England, and the unfortunate lot of the poor in comparison with the rich. To regret, or even to commiserate to any great extent, the results of a state of things which, in a given nation at all events, is fundamental and unalterable, is like regretting and commiserating the state of the climate or the character of the productions of the soil. England being what it is, the problem set before every English man, woman, and child is just to make the best of it on the conditions prescribed to him or her. No doubt our social position is such that wealth has amongst us a degree of political and social importance which it has nowhere else. Therefore, if an Englishman wants to be important, politically or socially, he must begin by being rich; but why need he be pitied for that?" In other states of society he would have had to begin by being strong and brave, or by being clever, or something else, which would have given him a good deal of the same sort of trouble as being rich; but what does it really matter whether one form of energy or another is demanded of a man who wants to gratify his ambition ? It comes to much the same in the end whether your competitive examination gives marks for one subject or another. De Tocqueville ought also to have remembered that, though the road to social importance in England lies through riches, a man may be very happy without social importance. Almost any artisan — a journeyman shoemaker, for instance — if healthy, temperate, frugal, and moderately self-denying, may hope to marry at thirty, to educate his family in his own position in life, to read a good many books and newspapers, and to save enough to be independent in his old age. Why should such a man be pitied because the odds against his sitting in Parliament are immensely great? With the agricultural labourer it is indeed another matter, but his misfortunes arise, not from the general condition of society, but from other causes which we do not think' De Tocqueville, with all his shrewdness, understood very clearly.

The last defect which suggests itself to readers of De Tocqueville's works in general, and in particular to readers of his observations on America, has reference to his religious belief. In many parts of his writings, and also in his life and correspondence, it is asserted that he was a sincere Roman Catholic, but it is simply impossible to believe that he can have held the Roman Catholic creed fully and looked at human affairs from the point of view which it prescribes. The whole tone of his writings is opposed to such an opinion. He appears indeed to have resolutely divided human life into two distinct halves, the temporal and the spiritual, and, taking the spiritual half for granted, to have insisted principally on the temporal half, its duties and principles.  So thoroughly was this principle settled in his mind that he thought that every one else did the same, and accordingly, in criticizing the state of society in England and the United States, he constantly conveys the impression that both in England and America religion and common life form two distinct spheres, mutually supporting each other, but each resting on its own principles. The result of this is that he seems to think that in common life there is no necessity to consider the question whether your religion is true or not. He treats the matter entirely as one of expediency. For instance, he had a conversation with Dr. Channing, of Boston, in which the following curious passage occurs:--
“Are you not afraid,” I said frankly, “that by purifying Christianity you will at last destroy its substance? I confess I am frightened at the course taken by the human mind since Catholicism. I am afraid it will arrive at last at natural religion.”
“I think,” said Mr. Channing, “such a result is little to be feared. The human mind needs a positive religion, and why should it abandon the Christian religion? Its proofs fear nothing from the most serious examination of reason.”
“Allow me,” said I, “to make an objection. It applies not only to Unitarianism, but to all the Protestant sects, and has even an important bearing in the political world. Do you not think that human nature is so constituted that, whatever improvements may be made by education and the state of society, there will always be a great number of men incapable, from the nature of their position, to employ their reason on theoretical and abstract questions, and who, if they have not a dogmatic faith, will not precisely believe anything?” - - - -
Mr. Channing answered, “The objection which you have just made is in effect the most serious of all those which can be raised against the principle of Protestantism.” 
Channing then went on to say, first, that religious questions were not really difficult; and next, that a Roman Catholic had to believe in the infallibility of the Church on the strength of arguments of some sort. This, says De Tocqueville, “appeared to me more specious than solid.”

We do not think that Channing gave the true answer to De Tocqueville's objection, which surely is a very feeble one for so powerful a man. The answer is, that the Protestant theory no more requires that each individual for himself should “employ his reason on abstract and theoretical questions" connected with religion than a belief in astronomy implies that the person who holds it has read for himself Newton or Laplace. The difference between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic lies in the degree of confidence which they give to their guides. The Protestant says, “I will trust you as far and as long as I see cause to do so.” The Roman Catholic says, “I trust you unreservedly and irrevocably.” Besides this, the alternative which frightened De Tocqueville is not shown to be really disastrous. Men incapable of reasoning on abstract and theoretical questions will, it appears, “not precisely believe anything,”i.e. on the questions which they cannot understand. Why should they not be contented to be ignorant? Even if they had what De Tocqueville calls a “dogmatic faith,” it would come to the same thing. They would believe that Abracadabra was true, whatever Abracadabra might mean, but as to the truth asserted by Abracadabra, they “would not precisely believe anything” any more than if they were Protestants. Why, too, should not a Protestant believe that Abracadabra, whatever it meant, was true, if a person whom he believed to be better instructed than himself told him so? The remarkable point, however, about the conversation certainly is, that it sinks altogether the question of truth; yet surely there must be some true view on the subject, even if the true view is purely negative, and consists in the conclusion that nothing can be known or reasonably conjectured respecting it. Whatever the true view may be, it ought to be recognised and acted on. In politics, De Tocqueville recognised facts with surpassing honesty. Indeed, his determination to do so, even when he did not like the fact he recognised, is one of his principal claims to greatness. There is no trace, so far as we know, of a similar spirit on his part in the matter of religion. He leaves the question of truth quite out of consideration. His way of treating it constantly suggests that he really viewed positive creeds of all kinds only as more or less useful, and that he took a very narrow view of utility, neglecting the supreme importance of truth to all honesty, consistency, and freedom of conduct. This is, in our opinion, the great blot on his fame as a philosopher.

Saturday Review, July 22, 1865.

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