DE GAULLE'S GREATNESS
12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
De Gaulle devoted himself and France to "a certain conception of man." Mahoney shows that he understood this European view of human liberty to be medieval in origin. It was the basis for his criticism of the modern, Lockean, anti-spiritual view of rights as not doing justice to human individuality. Individualism and the attendant isolation of the individual, carried to excess in this century produced their extreme antidote, collectivism. The deepest modern tendency is to make human beings increasingly indistinguishable. De Gaulle wrote that against that tendency "only a tremendous effort can preserve the individual as such." But he also recognized that the "spiritual sickness resulting from a civilization dominated by materialism could not be cured by any form of government."
This deep and elusive account of human liberty as partly aristocratic, partly democratic, and partly Christian, Mahoney explains, is very close to that of the Frenchman who wrote what everyone considers the best book on America, Alexis de Tocqueville. My own bias against de Gaulle virtually disappeared once I began to see that he really might be the most Tocquevillean of contemporary writers.
Tocqueville and de Gaulle agree that "perhaps the key antidote to the petty selfishness and apathy of democratic individualism is a conception of political greatness. The leader must ennoble the people by uniting them politically through dedication to a high national purpose. De Gaulle thought that France must be a great nation for the French people really to flourish in their common political life. He summoned them to accept responsibility for their political destiny, to serve the cause of a great civilization. Mahoney wonders, with de Gaulle, whether such an effort can overcome the corrosive forces of modern individualism in the long run, and he reports that de Gaulle's final reflections included the irony and melancholy of failure. De Gaulle, like Tocqueville, could not always resist the fatalistic thought that, despite the best efforts of statesmen, political greatness and human excellence may have no future today.
Peter Augustine Lawler is professor of political science at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia.