The Magazine

Consequential Ideas

Exploring the subtle dangers of 'soft despotism' in democracies.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect

by Paul A. Rahe

Yale, 400 pp., $38

Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees. His territory is republicanism, ancient and modern, and he shares it with two other historians, also distinguished and prolific, also in political philosophy as well as history, Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. These two professors at Cambridge and Johns Hopkins are somewhat better placed, as academics say, than Rahe, a follower of Leo Strauss and a professor at Hillsdale College.

Rahe's work can be said to be an extended critique of the work of Skinner and Pocock, which has never resulted in a debate among the principals because Skinner and Pocock have never deigned to answer him. The issue between him and them is whether and how ideas influence history. Rahe believes that "ideas have consequences," that they have the power to guide and even make events, and therefore that they are not mainly caused by the conditions of their time or context but are, on the contrary, mainly the cause of these conditions.

In a previous book, Republics Ancient and Modern (1992), an impressive work of three volumes loaded with historical fact, philosophical analysis, and bibliography, he argued that republics are fundamentally divided between ancient and modern on the basis of a new, modern idea. This was that a republic can become so perfected through remedies for its weaknesses as to be no longer subject to misfortune, thus perpetual--an idea first propounded by Machiavelli.

Skinner and Pocock, however, in seminal works of theirs (Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought and Pocock's Machiavellian Moment), maintain that there is no such distinction between ancient and modern republics, and that republicanism is a theme or set of ideas found useful in various times and contexts, and neither an essential truth nor a project for the future. In their view, often called "historicism," ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests. Ideas are essentially defensive; they justify, defend, and protect the established interests of various regimes and of their opponents, for example the defense of the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.

Ideas cannot cause events because they themselves are caused; so the colonists were not moved to act by the ideas in the Declaration, but those ideas merely expressed what they thought to say after the fact. Ideas are no different from ideology in which you say what you are forced to say in your situation, or your "context," like a defendant speaking through a clever lawyer.

Rahe's book on soft despotism, one of three substantial volumes he is publishing this year, studies a concept of Alexis de Tocqueville's set forth in his magisterial work, Democracy in America. Soft despotism (despotisme doux), according to him, is a new despotism found only in democracy. It is not based on making the people tremble with fear, as Montesquieu said of the usual despot, but on providing benefits and offering good will to the people as individuals.

"It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them," says Tocqueville. It even teaches you how to improve your life. But the price of the benefits is to hinder and discourage all political or associational activity in the people, leaving democracy in the condition of a mass of dissociated individuals governed by an "immense being" known today as Big Government. This new democratic despotism, rather than any direct enemy of democracy, is the greatest danger in our democratic age.

Rahe shows the ideas behind Tocqueville's concept from two philosophers who were dear to him. He explains how the ideas of Montesquieu helped to create the "modern republic" of individual commercial interests, and how the ideas of Rousseau countered with a deep critique of the modern republic for its failure to promote citizenship among dissociated individuals and its misunderstanding of liberty as the expression and cultivation of uneasy, divided souls.

Rahe goes beyond this generality in his thorough and accurate elaboration of the subtleties of these two philosophers, each of whom was a great thinker demanding the closest attention, yet also the bestselling author of his portion of the 18th century. If ever ideas have influence, it would seem to be when they are expressed at the highest level and in the same books conveyed directly to the largest multitude.