Revisiting Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville

Paul Rahe, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, is seriously concerned about the political malaise that has been gnawing away at our institutions here and in Europe since the Cold War ended in 1989. His concern has led him to write this intelligent, well-reasoned book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift on the ideas of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville and what they mean for us today.

Fittingly enough, Yale University Press timed its publication of Rahe’s book to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death on April 16. Soft despotism, as the professor views it, is what arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power progressively undermines the spirit of self-government. This condition, feared by Tocqueville in his day when he was viewing first-hand the early baby steps of the new democracy, have now largely come to pass throughout the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, under President Obama, our own country.

Writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rahe is singularly vivid, not to say downright passionate, in summing up what he feels is the man from Geneva’s contribution to our thinking. This is not to say that he doesn’t speak most highly indeed of Montesquieu, calling his “great work” The Spirit of Laws “the political bible of learned men and would-be statesmen everywhere in Europe, and beyond” at the beginning of the second half of the 18th century. He goes on to claim, “In France, it was the starting point for all subsequent political thought,” and concludes that “its influence can hardly be overestimated.”

Nonetheless, consider the following passage on how he judges Rousseau’s contribution to our society and culture: “Through thick and thin, Rousseau’s diagnosis of our plight and the various palliatives he suggested somehow retain their purchase.… Rousseau’s panoramic vision may seem preposterous and outlandish, but it cannot be ignored. It speaks to the felt needs of untold millions, many of whom have never even read a line of Rousseau. It exercises a profound and largely uncharted influence within the culture at large, shaping attitudes toward religion, the environment, the family, child rearing, education, gardening, music, art, literature, romantic love, politics, and the good life more generally.”

Just a paragraph further on, Rahe commences thus his Book Three, The Democratic Republic Considered with a remarkably prescient passage from Rousseau (although the good professor gives his readers 68 pages of copious footnotes, he does not identify the source of this admirable quotation):

“Today, whatever people say, there are no longer Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards or even Englishmen: There are only Europeans. All possess the same tastes, the same passions, the same mores, because no people has received a national form impressed upon it by an institution particular to it. In the same circumstances, all carry out the same undertakings; all will say that they are disinterested and behave as rogues; all will speak of the public good and think only of themselves; all will boast of moderation and wish to be as rich as Croesus. They have ambition, but only for luxury; they have passion, but only for gold. Confident that, with this last, they will be able to get everything that tempts them, they will sell themselves to the first bidder willing to pay. What matters it to them what master they obey, which state’s laws guide their conduct? Provided that they find money to steal and women to corrupt, they are in their own country wherever they may be.”

Tocqueville Visits America

Although Rahe is primarily concerned with Tocqueville’s political thinking, he does give us intriguing details about the people the young, 27, Frenchman met in 1831 on his first trip to the new democracy: Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, President Andrew Jackson and, en route to New Orleans, Sam Houston, future president of the Republic of Texas. His time in the states coincided with Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia and the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma (part of which he actually witnessed).

But basically, Rahe finds that Tocqueville was interested in the influence of democracy on the human soul. He often contrasts the difference between the people of the Old World with those of the New, finding Americans “dream constantly of the goods they do not have.” On occasion, the professor steps away from his evaluation of the political thinking of Tocqueville to make a judgment call of his own regarding our current form of democracy: “Democratic societies tend to think push-pin as good as poetry, and the novels, plays, music, and art which they celebrate and embrace are for the most part dreck.”

Towards the end of this serious work, Rahe pauses for an interesting and useful digression into the state of France today, where he has hopes of seeing Nicolas Sarkozy succeed “gloriously.” He concludes with a damning sentence about the future of all of Europe: “On a continent that a short time ago dominated the world, history actually appears to have come to an end — not, however, with a bang, as once seemed likely, but with a whimper, a belch, and a self-satisfied sigh.”

The professor’s temper rises as he comes to the close of this grim work as he refers to “adult bookstores” that no genuine adult would visit,” and says that, thanks to the Supreme Court’s handing down its decision in Roe v. Wade, “we have put a violent end to nearly 50 million lives.” And he refers to “the modern-day slaughter of the innocents legislated for us by an intellectually bankrupt and morally corrupt Supreme Court.” He reproves in his last pages Franklin D. Roosevelt for knowing perfectly well that the New Deal owed a great deal to the Fascist example.

He saves a touch of hope for the last paragraph of this book: “Tyrannical ambition and servile temptation will always be with us, as they are most emphatically now. The choice is, nonetheless, ours. We can be what once we were, or we can settle for a gradual, gentle descent into servitude. It is high time that we reclaim what is, after all, our legacy as Americans, for genuine self-government that we once enjoyed in plenitude is a possession wholly consonant with our dignity as human beings and with our rights as women and men. Let our motto be, as once it was, ‘Don’t tread on me!’ And let our virtue be individual responsibility.”