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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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