Russell Kirk on Alexis De Tocqueville, 1953


“Tocqueville is a writer who should be read not in abridgment, but wholly; for every sentence has significance, every observation sagacity. The two big volumes of Democracy in America are a mine of aphorisms, his Old Regime is the germ of a hundred books, his Recollections have a terse brilliance of narrative that few memoirs possess.” (342)

“The spirit of the gentleman and the high talents of remarkable individuals, Tocqueville thought, were sliding into an engulfing mediocrity, and the society of his day was confronted with the prospect of a life-in-death. The futility of crying agains the monstrous deaf and blind tendency of the times made Tocqueville painfully conscious of his impotent insignificance.” (343)

“’I’m not opposed to democracies,’ he wrote to M. de Freslon, in 1857. ‘They may be great, they may be in accordance with the will of God, if they be free. What saddens me is, not that our society is democratic, but that the vices which we have inherited and acquired make is to difficult for us to obtain or to keep well-regulated liberty. And I know nothing so miserable as a democracy without limits.” (343)

“What menaces democratic society in this age is not a simple collapse of order, nor yet usurpation by a single powerful man, but a tyranny of mediocrity, a standardization of mind and spirit and condition enforced by the central government.” (345)

“That men are kept in perpetual childhood—that, in spirit, they never become full human beings—seems no great loss to a generation of thinkers accustomed to compulsory schooling, compulsory insurance, compulsory military service, and even compulsory voting. A world of uniform compulsion is death to variety and the life of the mind; knowing this, Tocqueville felt that the materialism which democracy encourages may so far obsess the public consciousness as to stifle, in all but a few independent souls, the notions of freedom and variety.” (346)

“Materialism, as a governing force in society, is open to two overpowering objections: first, it enervates the higher faculties of man; second, it undoes itself.” (347)

“Moral decay first hampers and then strangles honest government, regular commerce, and even the ability to take genuine pleasure in the goods of the world. Compulsion is applied from above as self-discipline relaxes below, and the last liberties expire under the weight of the unitary state. Once a society has slipped so far, almost no barrier remains to withstand absolutism.” (348)

SOURCE: Kirk, “The Prescience of Tocqueville,” University of Toronto Quarterly 22 (1953): 342-353.

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