Disclaimer: these notes are just that, notes. They are not heavily edited but should provide a summary of the book’s ideas. The goal is to get the reader to recognize their need to read the book, not be dependent on the commentary alone. Please share your thoughts in the comments!
In our previous post, we discussed how Tocqueville was a prophet and philosopher: not in the revelatory sense we find in scripture, but in the sense that he is a student of the causes and natures of things. My goal in this post is to present a summary of three of his observations:
- Rational people are required for our government to work.
- Great men are a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for a great nation.
- The evils of freedom of speech are a check on evil governments.
Intelligence is a Prerequisite for Governance
Tocqueville makes the observation that Americans are a sophisticated political people. From the lowest rungs of society to the highest classes of American life, Tocqueville recognized that Americans’ knowledge of their government permeated everyone’s life
“The federal system rests therefore, whatever one does, upon a complicated theory which, in application, demands a daily exercise of rationality from its citizens. . .The Constitution of the United States[sic], the most complete of all known federal constitutions, it is frightening to note how many differences of knowledge and discernment it assumes in those governed. The government of the Union rests almost entirely upon legal fictions. The Union is an idealized nation which exists, as it were, only in men’s imagination and whose scope and limitations are revealed by understanding alone.”Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 193.
This statement implies that uneducated nations cannot be afforded the same privileges as educated nations. It is a bit disturbing when you consider that our country is unsure of the meaning of pronouns, let alone the distinction between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. As we will see, these other nations will revert to military despotism or tribalism.
Tocqueville continues the point that rationality and understanding of the people is necessary for the society to function by comparing young America with their neighboring country, Mexico.
The Constitution of the United States is akin to those fine creations of human endeavor which crown their inventors with renown and wealth but remain sterile in other hands. Contemporary Mexico has illustrated this very thing. The Mexicans, aiming for a federal system, took the federal constitution of their neighbors, the Anglo-Americans, as their model and copied it almost exactly. But although they transported the letter of the law, they failed to transfer at the same time the spirit which gave it life. As a result, [Mexico] became tangled endlessly in the machinery of their double system of government. The sovereignty of states and Union entered into a collision course as they exceeded the sphere of influence assigned to them by the constitution. Even today Mexico veers constantly from anarchy to military despotism and back again.Ibid, 194.
It is difficult to argue with Tocqueville’s analysis. Thus far, I agree with the implication: a complex political system requires a people that behave rationally and are capable of nuanced political thought. To be clear, this is not political in the sense of “stumping for issues”. Tocqueville is not suggesting that a person who can outline their party’s over-simplified talking points is politically sophisticated. He is observing that the responsibilities of the federal government and the state governments were understood by every citizen. This provided a necessary stability to what he describes throughout the book as a chaotic system of politics.
The Gift of Isolation
There is a concept in the Bible of a “refuge”. A bible translator friend of mine provided a devotional in which he discussed how the Jewish people would understand a “refuge” in the psalms. They would not consider it a castle, but rather a “natural” fortress or defensive point, or in other words a place of protection that is not man-made. This is what America was for the post-revolutionary citizens. Being a 6-month journey from any credible military threat, the Americans were afforded the incredible privilege of a “natural fortress” where her defensive structures were not merely stone walls and forts, but included the walls of the ocean and the cloak of open spaces.
How does it come about that the American Union, protected as it is by the comparative perfection of its laws, does not collapse in the middle of a great war? It is simply that it has no great wars to fear.
Situated at the center of a huge continent in which human industry can enjoy limitless expansion, the Union is almost as isolated from the world as if it were surrounded on all sides by the ocean.Ibid, 199.
There is a tendency for Americans, especially conservatives, to believe that America’s success is owed solely to the brilliance of the founding fathers. Tocqueville would disagree. While great men are a necessary ingredient for a great country, they are not sufficient on their own to establish a great country (you must have sugar to make cookies, but you can’t make cookies with sugar alone). There have been many great men and women, correct as they may have been, who died and whose ideas never became the guiding light of the people.
This unfortunate fact is due to the ever-present threat of neighboring nations encroaching on each other’s sovereignty. It was not too long ago that Russia and Germany began expanding their borders and forcefully occupying neighboring countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine etc). Threats like this cloud out the sun that freedom requires to grow.
Talking to my fellow Americans, they have a bit of implied hubris when they discuss other countries and their restrictions. “How could they not figure it out? Just take what we did and implement it in your country and you’ll be like America.” This is a naïve and ignorant position that neglects to understand the role that providence played in establishing our country. Unfortunately, these privileges were not afforded to other nations. We must not take for granted the additional conditions that are outside our control, the non-man-made conditions, that set the stage for the birth of a great nation. In order for freedom to be obtained, it requires great men, freedom from the world, and as Tocqueville points out, freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is a counterintuitive idea. A society that protects the right to speak requires a resilient and tolerant people that are willing to sacrifice their own well-being for the rights of someone with whom they disagree. This includes speech that may promote ideas you judge as evil.
In order to enjoy the priceless advantages guaranteed by press freedom, one must submit to the unavoidable evils it produces. The wish to achieve the former while escaping the latter means submission to one of those illusions which normally sick nations use to soothe themselves when, tired of struggling and exhausted by their efforts, they seek the means of combining hostile opinions and opposing principles at the same time, in the same land.Ibid, 211.
Freedom of any kind is a scary thing. Freedom is a combination of activity and responsibility: activity in that those who don’t exercise their freedoms will lose them, and the responsibility to ensure that we use our freedoms, not the government, to destroy false ideas and claims. As a consequence, we create the potential for evil because freedom must be applied to all, based not on our political positions but on our shared humanity. A man is free to believe that he is a woman, but he does not have the right to dictate to the world that they affirm his belief any more than an atheist can dictate that all Christians, Muslims, and Jews must now recant their faith.
Tocqueville ties freedom of speech, like others in our founding (e.g. George Washington), to despotism. While evil may find its ways into the cracks of freedom of speech, without it a greater evil, mainly totalitarianism, will find its way to the levers of power within society and it will crush your freedoms and with them your soul.
“I confess that I do not accord to press freedom that entire and instantaneous affection which one grants to things which are supremely good by their very nature. My affection for it stems from my regard for the evils it prevents rather than for the benefits it produces.”Ibid, 210.
We find ourselves in a difficult time as a society; we no longer understand how precious nor how fragile our freedoms are. More discouraging than the moving targets of politics is the sliding scale of men’s convictions. Today a person will be outraged at a vaccine mandate and the suppression of scientific inquiry; tomorrow he is showing his passport to eat at his favorite restaurant. The rage only last for a moment. Tocqueville has something to say about this as well:
A great man has said that ignorance lies at both ends of knowledge. Perhaps it would have been truer to state that deep convictions lie at the two ends, with doubt in the middle. In fact, human understanding may be considered as having three distinct states which frequently follow one another.
Man has strong beliefs because he adopts them without looking deeply into them. Doubt arises when he is faced with objections. He often succeeds in resolving these doubts and thereupon he believes once again. This time he no longer seizes truth by accident or in the dark; he sees it face to face and walks straight toward the light. . .
It may be guaranteed that most men will halt in one or other of these two states, either believing without knowing why or ignorant of what precisely they ought to believe. Only a very small number of men will ever be blessed with the attainment of this other kind of deliberate self-confident conviction born of knowledge and arising from the very heart of agitation and doubt.Ibid, 218.
Today, we do not appreciate the freedom to speak our minds. In fact, we are terrified of it so much that we will literally go along with the idea that a man can be a woman. Sure, you may think in your mind that it is bogus, but when HR hosts a gender appreciation month, you will find yourself applauding the progress your workplace as made. The belief of lies comes first from the suppression of the truth. Tocqueville recognizes the evils of freedom, but he also knows that they prevent a far worse evil: the transformation of citizens into subjects.
I am convinced, after reading Solzhenitsyn and Tocqueville, that they would look at our society and predict our demise—not that we would be overrun or conquered, but that we would become the very nation we had revolted against. Men have no conscience anymore, not because they lack principles but because they possess the wrong ones.
A good friend of mine asked, “What happens to a man’s soul when he is coerced to affirm a lie?” My best attempt at an answer is this: he severs his bonds of friendship and enslaves himself to those dark souls known as “comrades”. Should we lose our freedom to speak our mind, we will find ourselves in a dark place. But we must never forget, even in the darkness there is one for whom darkness and light are the same.