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.

Yet there are two difficulties that arise from treating Tocqueville as the heir of Montesquieu and Rousseau. The first is in the title of this book that identifies soft despotism as democracy's drift. Drift is unguided, unintentional movement that does not proceed from an idea but rather from inertia or from a slope in the terrain. Tocqueville certainly believes that democratic equality makes society more individualistic and leads to the danger he called "individualism," of which the consequence is likely to be soft despotism.

He calls this movement the "democratic revolution," and says that it began 700 years before, when the Church began to allow commoners to be clergy. That would put its beginning in the 12th century, long before the modern philosophers of democratic equality (among whom he surprisingly includes Descartes).

Tocqueville says further that the democratic revolution is not an idea but a "providential fact," implying that it is too strong to be resisted and also that it might be for our good. As well as tending toward soft despotism, democratic equality produces greater justice than the rival regime of aristocracy. In his discussion Rahe features the role Tocqueville assigned to rationalizing reformers of aristocracy--ministers of the French king such as Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, the 18th-century philosophes, Napoleon's bureaucrats, and in our day professional administrators inspired by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century--all of whom were more opposed to the irrationalities of aristocracy (or patronage) than favorable to democracy.

In this trend ideas serve democracy but do not originate it. Yet when democracy comes to America fully visible "in broad daylight," as Tocqueville says, it is in the democratic "idea," both political and religious, that the Puritans brought with them. It seems that, before the Puritans, democracy was working under cover of aristocracy--on its own, as it were--without benefit of advocates who were strong enough to speak openly on its behalf. In this way the democratic "social state" ("state" in the sense of condition), another of Tocqueville's concepts, could be the cause of democratic ideas rather than the reverse.

In sum, Tocqueville plays down, perhaps understates, the role of ideas in causing modern democracy. In Democracy in America he does not mention Rousseau, and he mentions Montesquieu only once, to criticize him. In the famous chapter in The Old Regime and the Revolution on the "men of letters" who helped to bring on the French Revolution, Rousseau--the most obvious influence--is omitted.

Another related difficulty in making Tocqueville the heir of Montesquieu and Rousseau is that Tocqueville does not appear to be a political philosopher, at least not one of their kind. He does not provide either a comprehensive survey of politics, as did Montesquieu, or an abstract foundation for politics, as did Rousseau. He calls for a "new science of politics," but does not supply it except in apparently unorganized fragments.

Instead, he presents the idea of democratic liberty in an account of the facts of American democracy, above all in the discussion of the New England township with which he begins his presentation of American government. Here one sees the natural, spontaneous association of free men to address a need before their eyes, such as laying a road, that cannot be satisfied by one individual alone. He goes on to describe and praise the complex, artificial, theoretical Constitution that presides over the more spontaneous "civil society" of American democracy. But he never mentions the Declaration whose fundamental principles inspired the Constitution. Rahe notes this fact and deplores it, declaring that his purpose was to instruct Frenchmen, not to "celebrate abstract principles."

Yet Tocqueville appears to have had an aversion to abstract principles and to have considered them a menace to democratic liberty. In a democracy, abstract principles, including the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal," will be democratic ones and will accelerate the democratic revolution rather than guide it. Democratic citizens, lacking any sense of hierarchy either in society or in their own souls, are likely to reject demanding ideals and to prefer immediate, material enjoyments that are easy, obvious, and palpable.

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.

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