At the heart of Alexis de Tocqueville’s thought lies the “restless mind”—a mind that sees the essence of humanity in the realization that each of us “dies alone” and that life is but a fleeting moment hedged in between the abysses of the pre-born and the dead.

The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty by Peter Augustine Lawler (210 pages, Rowman & Littlefield, 1993)

Peter Lawler has written a provocative study of Tocqueville’s thought. This is no mean feat given the plethora of Tocqueville interpreters and interpretations. And perhaps this book’s greatest achievement is that of showing the dominant interpretations of Tocqueville—as “civic republican,” as sociologist of democracy, as theorist of calculating self-interest, and even as critic of capitalist alienation—to be incomplete at best.

Focusing on the often overlooked second volume of Democracy in America and on the self-revelatory Souvenirs, Lawler paints a picture that is significantly more interesting, complete, and accurate than that presented by the bulk of the Tocqueville literature. Much of this literature, in fact, reduces Tocqueville to a king of “super-tourists,” whose observations are useful in furthering one’s own arguments, but hardly capable of showing us how to live good lives. Thus Robert Bellah and his co-authors of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society actually “use” Tocqueville (or at least his criticism of “individualism”) to argue for socialism, and against economic and social liberty in America. In doing so, Bellah and company ignore Tocqueville’s very explicit argument that it is the politicization of public life—the mistaken and selfish view that the state should tend to matters of economics and of social status—that breeds the withdrawal from public life and public associations that is individualism. Lawler shows such distortions for what they are, and shows that Tocqueville was no mere sociological tourist, outlining the customs making up a given way of life. Rather, he was a seer. He sought to understand and explain how we must deal with man’s limited capacity for reason and affection and with our changing circumstances if we are to maintain our ability to participate meaningfully in public life.

Of course, Tocqueville was no mere philosopher. As Lawler shows, he knew not only the value but also the limits of reason. Emphasizing Tocqueville’s debt to Pascal, Lawler points out Tocqueville’s opposition to the abstract philosophers’ belief that “human life can be well constituted by ‘a pure desire to know.’” There is a certain grandeur to this prideful delusion, but it soon “decays first with reasonable doubt and then with denial of the soul’s immortality, with the thought that the soul exists nowhere but in the imagination and might not even need to exist there.” Thus decayed, modern philosophy denies the spark of the divine in man and so reduces him to the level of the brutes.

Ironically, these philosophers deny our (and their own) humanity because they are blinded by their own reason. Because he cannot fully account for the soul in logical (or “scientific”) terms, the abstract philosopher denies its existence. Such denial is understandable, given human pride, because his only other choice is to admit the limits of his chosen vocation. Yet, as Lawler points out, for Tocqueville the soul’s glory (as well as its misery) lies in the impossibility of its reduction to purely material categories or elements. Given this, it is mistaken at best to view Tocqueville as a supporter of “civil religion,” or the reduction of religious faith to a common commitment to a given, “sacred” political order. As Lawler shows, Tocqueville recognized that religion cannot be reduced to politics. Such an attempt in fact destroys religion’s heart—the belief in transcendent standards of right and wrong—and, by destroying religion’s spiritual authority, actually heightens the spiritual unrest of a people divorced from God. The true purpose of religion is to bring man closer to God, to provide the standards (and habits) necessary for him to order his life as he ought. And this purpose cannot be served unless the people believe that it is God, and not merely the state, who commands obedience.

Society also exists in order to bring man closer to God. As Lawler points out, Tocqueville distanced himself from the liberal (and fundamentally Rousseauean) view that men by nature spontaneously would form lives of blissful contentment, were they not “corrupted” by political society. Liberalism would free us from social and political constraints, leaving us without common standards, goals, and humanity.

Nonetheless, Lawler maintains the orthodox view that Tocqueville was a kind of (if “strange”) liberal. At the heart of this liberal Tocqueville lies the “restless mind”—a mind that sees the essence of humanity in the realization that each of us “dies alone” and that life is but a fleeting moment hedged in between the abysses of the pre-born and the dead. Knowledge of our own mortality, for Lawler’s Tocqueville (much as for Rousseau) renders us miserable, and so truly human. Ironically, then, Lawler’s Tocqueville must argue against both traditional local life and democratic philosophy, because each would destroy our restless, miserable humanity.

Traditional life leads to an unreflecting contentment, and revolutionary democracy leads first to socialism and then to pantheism—the belief that all of creation is divine. Both would destroy our humanity, on this view, by sparing us the miserable experience of individually confronting the infinite. It was precisely this experience which led Pascal to his strange, melancholic (and ultimately fatal) form of Christianity. Corrupted by rationalistic skepticism, this experience degenerated into self-involved “existentialism.” For Lawler this experience is the key to understanding Tocqueville’s own often melancholic thought.

It certainly is true that Tocqueville, particularly in the second volume of Democracy and in the Souvenirs, had melancholic tendencies. His crises of faith apparently were numerous, and as an adult he never was a comfortable, practicing Catholic, despite his desire in that direction. Yet, if Lawler concentrated less on Tocqueville’s introspective and more abstract works and more on his analysis, in both Democracy and The Old Regime and the French Revolution, of the makings of a good life, he might have seen a much more hopeful and helpful picture.

Tocqueville was no Pollyanna. Indeed, his debt to Pascal and Rousseau, and his recognition of the power of Descartes, may be seen as the source of religious doubt and great misery for him. But Tocqueville’s was not a hopeless misery, suffered for its own sake. His discussion of intervening institutions in America and in medieval France (almost completely overlooked by Lawler) shows a concern to fill in the space between man and the state, and between man and God, with intervening institutions. The family, church, class structure, and neighborhoods of traditional (and fragile, early American) society helped men enter public life and participate virtuously in it. There was contentment in these societies. But it was not the contentment of Tocqueville’s ignorant valet. Lawler makes much of Tocqueville’s disdain for this valet. Yet the contentment of an unreflective, disfranchised servant who lives only to do his master’s bidding is far different from the contentment of free men who see to their own affairs, both in public and in private, and who live for their families, neighbors, and communities as well as for themselves.

It is in this context that Tocqueville’s self-interest is rightly understood. Lawler correctly points out that self-interest is materialistic and of itself incapable of producing virtue. But for Tocqueville this did not make self-interest useless or even tragic. Men’s concentration on their own interests kept them from questioning (as had the Jacobins) the existence of God and the goodness of society’s fundamental institutions. Further, because man is a social being, his self-interest will lead him to become sociable. And, where nurtured properly by free institutions and the consequent need for common action in local affairs, man’s self-interest may flower into virtue. As Tocqueville put it: “Having no particular reason to hate others since he is neither their slave nor their master, the American’s heart easily inclines toward benevolence. At first it is of necessity that men attend to the public interest, afterward by choice. What had been calculation becomes instinct. By dint of working for the good of his fellow citizens, he in the end acquires a habit and taste for serving them.”

Lawler does well to point out the tensions and the tragedy in Tocqueville’s life and thought. But Lawler’s Tocqueville can provide no reason why we should choose to be self-conscious other than mere pride—other than a senseless, baseless belief that it is more glorious to be miserable that to be content. Greatness may involve misery. But to say this is not to say that greatness and misery are the same. Tocqueville sought to nurture that spark of the divine within each of us. It would seem, then, that we should call great that part of us which seeks salvation through adherence to the golden rule. Such a life is not one of mere contentment, but it nonetheless involves a kind of contentment arising from the glimpse we can catch of the design that exists in human life—the continuity, and not merely the contradictions, made necessary by our character as “the brute with the angel in him.”

Reprinted with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1995).

This essay first appeared here in April 2020.

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The featured image is a sketch of Alexis de Tocqueville by an unknown artist, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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