Under my byline

Future perfect

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 25 April 2009

Alexis de TocquevilleOVERLEAF 26

Once you begin reading Tocqueville — and I have only just begun — you can’t get away from him. Open a newspaper to any page, flick to any channel on the TV, have any sort of discussion on the world as it is or ought to be, and you also ask yourself, “Wonder what Tocqueville would have made of that?” Or you think, “Hey, I can guess where this is going in the big picture, thanks to Tocqueville.”

The thing is, Alexis de Tocqueville was only in his mid-twenties when he made the trip that resulted in his most famous work, Democracy in America. Certainly in times past people attained adulthood — of life and mind — earlier, yet even so, for a young man to be able to compose such a durable book on such a daunting subject as America, at a time when travel and information-gathering were neither easy nor speedy, suggests that something apart from genius was at work.

With the recklessness of imperfect ignorance, allow me to hazard a guess or two.

In the first place, Tocqueville’s dominant interest was not America. It was France, first and always. Already by the time the two volumes of Democracy were published, in 1835 and 1840, France had gone through half a century of political and social tumult. Ferdinand Mount writes in the Times Literary Supplement that “Tocqueville was seized with one unquenchable, lifelong curiosity: to find out the causes of France’s political agonies, false starts, ghastly endings, brief brilliances and recurring disappointments, all of which had begun before his birth in 1805 and were to continue far beyond his death in 1859.”

As a young aristocrat, and reluctant member of parliament and local government under the so-called Citizen King, Louis-Philippe (1830-48), Tocqueville saw that he stood at the cusp of the old world and the new — indeed, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is the title of his last work; he wrote only the first half before he died, thus granting extra ammunition to those modern critics who dismiss him as an unregenerate conservative.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830But Tocqueville was certain that the old world was going, and that the future would be democratic. And the most democratic country at the time was the USA. So that’s where Tocqueville went in 1831, along with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, another youthful aristocrat. Ostensibly they went to study the prison system (in which Beaumont was deeply interested), but they took nine months about it, and Tocqueville used the time to study America and the Americans.

The trip cemented Tocqueville’s notion that history since the 12th century had been directed towards growing equality. He connected this with the rise of strong, centralised government. With this insight, Tocqueville was able to examine how equality affected human relations, culture, thought and imagination. The results, he believed, would not all be good, but were inevitable. It remained only to learn the right lessons so that democracy could be perfected and made most rational, most human.

Tocqueville worked by observation and inference — by noting the particular and divining the principle. Democracy, although rooted in 1830s America, is actually about the future, which is why even today, 150 years after Tocqueville’s death, many of his judgements hold true.

What was it, other than genius, that allowed him to be so bold, to see so clearly? Perhaps after all it was that he was an aristocrat, with the necessary leisure and the classical education, and without the limited horizons of the professional. Equality and democracy did win, and now, as Tocqueville suspected, we face a near-universal mediocrity of ambition — worldly as well as intellectual.


Before writing this, I searched the online archive of every major Indian newspaper and magazine in English, and a couple in Hindi — it’s not yet convenient to search sites in most Indian languages, nor do I know the languages — for the word “Tocqueville”. Allowing that most of the archives were ill designed and probably incomplete, the paucity of results was still shocking.

None in the Hindustan Times, four in the Times of India, six in the Indian Express… and so on. Predictably, perhaps, the Telegraph, the Hindu and Outlook managed a few more (maximum Hindu, 42). In some cases several of the results were in imported agency copy, which hardly counts. This column that you’ve just finished reading is the first time Tocqueville has ever figured in the Business Standard.

Compare that with 4,970 results since 1981 in the NYT (6,400 in the IHT), roughly 700 in the Times of London, 668 in the Corriere della Sera of Italy, and 776 in France’s own Le Monde.

The other interesting fact-let from this offhand Web search was how Tocqueville’s name is taken. Usually it is a lone instance in an article on some unrelated subject: “As Alexis de Tocqueville said…” Not often do you see the same pithy Tocquevillian insight repeated; the spring of “quotes” has not run dry, and the pool of situations to which they can be applied is only growing.

A salute to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the columnist, author and CPR think-tanker, who calls upon Tocqueville more frequently (so my search suggests) than does any other Indian op-edifier. It’s a sure sign of someone who takes the long view.


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