The “Regime” of the Global Callipolis and its relation to Justice(Commentary and Critique of Prof Smith’s Yale lecture series on”Political Science”): Lectures 21,22, and 23: De Tocqueville

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“De Tocqueville’s work “Democracy in America” is the work of a man watching the demise of “the ancien regime” and keen to observe what will replace it in the future. Professor Smith introduces this political thinker in the following terms:

“What is the problem with which de Tocqueville’s book is concerned? Is it the 17th and 18th-century ideas of freedom and equality?. As long as the enemy appeared to be the entrenched hierarchies of power and privilege of the old regime, freedom and equality were mutually reinforcing aspects of the emerging democratic order. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century with the emergence of the proto-democracies in the New World and Europe that political philosophers began to wonder whether freedom and equality did not, in fact, pull in different directions. Tocqueville saw the new democratic societies as creating new forms of social power–new types of rule that presented threats to liberty, e.g. the new middle-class democracies in France England and the USA and the problem was how to mitigate the effects of political power. Locke’s answer to this was to divide and separate the powers. Tocqueville was less certain that this type of institutional device of separated powers, checks and balances could be an effective check in a democratic age where the people as a whole had become king.”

Professor Smith then claims that “The problem of politics” is the problem of how to control the sovereignty of the people”. There would seem to me to be at least one good reason to reject this formulation and that reason lies in the Political Philosophy of Kant, in particular in Kant’s idea that the teleological structure of politics lays in an idea of the final end of politics residing in the idea of a cosmopolitan kingdom of ends. Sovereignty, that is, for Kant, is merely a stage in the developmental process of our political activity and its terminating point in a political unit transcending the sovereign state. The nation-state was born in Westphalia in 1648. Could it be that what Kant was witnessing and reasoning about was a transitional organic form destined for transformation? Hannah Arendt, after all, in her seminal work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” claimed that the nation-state proved its failure as a political unit in the 20th century with the rise of totalitarianism. Was this a phenomenon that Tocqueville was also fearing. He writes: “I do not like democracy and am severe toward it.” and “In the future, all the world will be like America”. What exactly was it that concerned de Tocqueville? Smith suggests the following:

“What attracted my attention during my visit was the equality of conditions for everyone.”(Democracy in America) He is speaking here of the equality of social conditions. Equality of conditions precedes democratic government–It is the cause from which democratic governments arise. These conditions were planted in America and Europe long before there were democratic governments which are only as old as the French and American Revolutions—but equality of social conditions had been prepared for a long time by deep-rooted historical processes that began long before the dawn of the modern age…Tocqueville provides us with a history of equality that takes us back to the heart of the medieval world. He does not go back to a state of nature but argues against Hobbes and Locke and their claim that we are by nature free and equal and he also argues that hierarchies were introduced over time. These hierarchical processes have been moving away from inequality and toward greater and greater equality of social conditions…. Equality is something like a historical force..which has been working itself out in history over a vast stretch of time.”

De Tocqueville claims that the Americans do not have a taste for Philosophy and in this spirit, one wonders why Smith does not wish to return to the original form of democracy which was rule by the many and poor in Ancient Greece who were revolting and reacting against …? What exactly? The rich ruling in their interest? Or were they reacting against the lack of the equality of social conditions. Was this what was meant by the Socratic and Aristotelian references to the common good? The difference between this ancient form of democracy and its more modern counterpart would presumably be the putative absence of unnecessary desires in the latter form of rule. This absence would on philosophical theory be replaced by areté, the virtue or excellence of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Plato we know objected vehemently to the rule of the many with unnecessary desires but Aristotle could see the many rule in the spirit of the common good and areté and indeed thought it to be the best alternative of three possibilities: rule by the one, the few and the many. So the combination of the common good and areté seems to have been the philosophical foundation of our modern democracies and sovereignty seems to, on this account, have been an accidental inessential characteristic of the political unit. The question that then arises is whether social conditions aiming at equality were a cause or consequence of the several interacting processes which were in the process of forming our modern democracies. From the philosophical point of view, one wonders whether doing the right things at the right time in the right way requires social conditions or helps to produce the social conditions of equality. On Kant’s view it appears as if a consciousness of equality is tied up with a consciousness of freedom and its consequences, i.e. that one treats people as ends in themselves irrespective of the social conditions they find themselves in or represent. Doing this, it is argued is a recognition of their humanity and this is far more important than any attempt to consider other extraneous social conditions which might be affecting how they are represented to us. Smith maintains that “Equality is not just one fact among others but is a generational fact from which everything else derives.” It was this generational fact Smith argues that was motivating de Tocqueville’s reductional analysis. But what in particular did de Tocqueville envisage when he was talking about these social conditions which are contrary to freedom and “elude the efforts and control of man”?

Three forms of activity are referred to in this context: firstly, local government in the spirit of the Greek city polis( the organization of legislation and deliberation over common interest), secondly, civil associations such as the PTA, charitable and sporting organizations(where one learns to care for the interests of others through learning to care for the interests of one’s association) and thirdly the spirit and institutions of Religion. It was this latter form of activity that most impressed de Tocqueville on his journeys. Smith comments upon this in the following manner:

“Democracy and religion walk hand in hand in America and this is precisely the opposite of what has happened in Europe. America is primarily a puritan’s democracy,i.e. the American experience was determined in certain crucial ways by the early Puritans who brought to the New World strong religious beliefs, a suspicion of government, and a strong desire for independence. De Tocqueville drew two consequences from these observations: Firstly, the thesis proposed by many Enlightenment thinkers that religion will disappear with the advance of modernity is false. Secondly that it is a mistake to eliminate religion and totally secularize society. Free societies rest on morality and morality cannot be effective without religion. It may be true that individuals can achieve moral guidance from reason alone but societies cannot. The need and desire to believe will only be transferred to other more dangerous outlets: “Despotism can do without faith our freedom cannot.”

De Tocqueville appeals to Pascal to justify the above two points and constructs an epistemological argument which maintains that knowledge without faith is empty. he claims that there is something in the desire that only faith can satisfy. “An invisible inclination leads man back to religion”. “There is a metaphysical dimension to religion”

Although he sees this promising relation between politics and religion de Tocqueville is not happy with what he is seeing. He seems to sense an underlying possible tyranny in the system: the tyranny of the majority. He can see the rule of the mob lingering beneath the appearances of things: he senses the rule of the poor to secure their own interests. He even questioned whether the separation of powers would suffice to stem the tide of this tyranny. The key remark in this constellation of observations is perhaps the following which takes us back to the issue of freedom in the Kantian sense:

“I know of no country in which less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reigned than in America.

Kantian freedom is obviously related to the virtues that a man ought to possess and therefore to reasoning in the ought system of concepts and Kant too believes that knowledge must make space for faith because morality requires religion as a teleological argument if what he called the “summum bonum” was to be achieved(the flourishing life, eudaimonia). He does not subscribe to the separation between the individual and society in this context, insisting that the individual is in need of a belief that the ought system requires, namely that the end be good, that is, that my life be flourishing as a consequence of the costs of forming and executing good intentions. So for Kant belief in religion is not a Pascallian wager but rather a necessity required to regulate the ethical system of ought concepts. Religion supplements the formal material and efficient causes with a teleological final cause that provides the motivation for the ethical form of life. Kant too will have shared the fear of de Tocqueville for the removal of the motivational pin of our ethical system. He too would have seen the dangers of secularization. Professor Smith talks as if the project of secularization is a European phenomenon and given the collapse of the ethical system in Germany and the rapid capitulation of the French in the last world war he may have a point. There is however an argument for the position that Europe still has faith in its philosophical foundations and that this is embodied in its educational and political institutions. Granted that religion no longer rules the realm of value absolutely, no one wishes to see a return of religious absolutism but neither do they wish to see religion disappear as an institution given the fact that it embodies important metaphysical and ethical dimensions important to man. If this is the case then it would seem to fit in with de Tocqueville’s claim that the Americans have little taste for Philosophy because they do not quite believe in the power of reasoning as the Europeans do. We believe in the Aristotelian account of the soul as a principle organizing the body rather than the Platonic soul that is tortured by the body and its unnecessary appetites. The Aristotelian soul is the true democratic soul capable of discourse and reasoning in the Agora about all manner of things including God who mirrors his nature more in the texture of our thinking processes than in the constitution of physical things or physical processes. The essence of the common good for Aristotle was partially divine.

De Tocqueville’s second volume of “Democracy in America” focuses less on the social and political aspects of democracy and more on the democratic soul:

“It focuses on the internal, on the democratic soul and is therefore philosophically richer focussing on what the democratic social state has done to us, how it has shaped us as individuals.”

This formulation is indeed illuminating. It suggests that we are conditioned by the state rather than freely forming the contours of the state with our individual virtues where we will do the right thing in the right way at the right time. This is more of a Platonic thesis: the needs of the city can override the interests and concerns of the individuals in the sense that a democratic state gives rise to democratic personalities. De Tocqueville iscusses three aspects of the democratic soul. Firstly “Democracy has a tendency to make us gentler towards one another”. We are more compassionate: softer. The problem according to De Tocqueville is that we have become too soft:

“ ability to feel your pain does not require me to do much about it. Compassion turns out to be an easy virtue, implies a caring without judgment”


“the democratic soul is a restless anxious soul and “always seems to be a work in progress tied to the desire for material well being(happiness). Democracy means a middle-class way of life made up of people constantly in pursuit of some absent object of their own desires.

According to Plato the three different parts of the soul have three different kinds of desires. Reason desires theoretical understanding and practical excellence. If the democratic soul is a reasonable soul there does not seem to be any problem with an individual pursuing these goals in any city state.

Thirdly, the soul is self-interested not in the sense of amour-propre but rather is an antidote to amour propre:

“It is not in itself a virtue but comes from people who are regulated, independent, far-sighted, moderate, masters of themselves”

This is not quite what de Tocqueville thought he saw in America.

This sketch of moral psychology naturally has consequences for the profile of the statesman who has been shaped by compassion, restlessness and self-interest:

“the legislator for de Tocqueville is hemmed in by the conditions of social factors, customs, morality over which he has little power. The legislator is more like a ship’s captain dependent on external circumstances that control the fate of the ship. The legislator resembles a man who plots his course in the middle of an ocean. Thus he can direct the vessel that carries him but he cannot change its structure, create winds or prevent the ocean from rising under his feet. All of this seems to be on the side of the historical forces that limit what we can do.”

Smith claims that de Tocqueville opposes all systems of historical determinism but at the same time writes “as if it is a peculiarity of democratic times that all people are considered equal: everyone is equally powerless to effect or change anything”.

This is the democracy that de Tocqueville sees and fears but it is not a Kantian or an Aristotelian olde worlde construction.