Monday, May 18, 2009

Even God Quotes Tocqueville

Brogan’s expertise pays constant rewards to the reader. His knowledge of 19th-century French politics is comprehensive and his attention to context punctilious. Nor does he beat around the bush: Tocqueville’s cousin and confidant Louis de Kergorlay is “a young idiot” and the legitimist insurrectionist the Duchesse de Berry “one of the silliest princesses in all European history.” And although this book is rigorously chronological, it detours into mini-essays on pivotal topics — Tocqueville’s relationship with his invalid mother; Foucault’s reading of Tocqueville’s ideas of incarceration; and so forth. It is never dreary. Tocqueville’s life is always a pulsing intellectual and political drama.

But it is a drama in which Brogan is mostly at odds with his subject. Tocqueville’s goal as a deputy during the 1848 revolution was to protect both liberty and order. In Brogan’s view, he did a poor job of distinguishing between the two. Brogan blames conservative property owners for the excesses of the socialist revolutionaries. “The notables,” he writes, “Tocqueville among them, projected their own violent hatred and panic onto the urban workers, and in doing so created the very monster which they feared.” Brogan faults Tocqueville for “impudence,” “blindly prejudiced” views, an “obsessive cult of property” and a “ruthless hostility” to lower-class Parisians. That Tocqueville now considered himself a republican meant little. “Whatever he called himself,” Brogan writes, “the nobles knew that he was one of them.”

3 comments:

  1. Interesting. The Economist picked it as one of the best 100 books of 2006.

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  2. I bought myself a copy of Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and the French Revolution" today. Having said that I will now bow out until I have something more pertinent to say.

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  3. Here's another for you Chartres:

    It's another 2009 book, but from Cambridge University Press it's a pricey one:

    Alexis De Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist, by Jon Elster

    "This book proposes a new interpretation of Alexis de Tocqueville that views him first & foremost as a social scientist rather than as a political theorist. Drawing on his earlier work on the explanation of social behavior, Jon Elster argues that Tocqueville's main claim to our attention today rests on the large number of exportable causal mechanisms to be found in his work, many of which are still worthy of further exploration. He provides novel readings of both 'Democracy in America' & 'The Ancien Regime & the Revolution.'"

    And don't go too far away. Lincoln is just around the corner.

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