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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They are particularly prone to indulge the doctrines of democratic historians and pantheistic philosophers, which are likely to be systems of materialism. Such systems not only promote material pleasures at the expense of the requirements of political liberty, but also perversely insist that human beings are moved by vast, impersonal causes over which they have little or no control. The ideas most appreciated in democracies--the "course of history," the "theory of evolution," the "laws of economy"--are the very ones most harmful to them.

Although Tocqueville maintains that men need to accept certain "necessary truths" rather than simply doubt there are any higher truths, he believes that the necessary truths are religious ones that, like the "providential fact" of democracy, rescue men from subjection to chance, disorder, and impotence. So he says: "If [man] has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe."

The liberals Tocqueville opposes believe that man achieves liberty paradoxically by subjecting himself to his passions; Tocqueville believes that man must accept religion paradoxically for the sake of his power, his pride, and his liberty. He is more a political philosopher than he appears to be, and the reason is that he wants to save democracy from its own favorite bad ideas.

In this he offers testimony to the influence of ideas while avoiding them, and to the power of the democratic context of ideas while resisting it. One could say that he yields some ground to historicism as he decisively rejects it.

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard and a member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on Virtue and Liberty.