Readers Note: Commenter Cliff picked up my misspelling of "pedantic" as "pedentic."
I corrected it and said, "Thank you, Cliff."
Then, a few hours later I received from TombZ this:
Umm, now it's 'padantic'.
I wish it was gremlins; but it was me.
Thanks, TombZ, for having the kindness to offer me an "escape route."
DA Mike Nifong needs someone like you.
And thanks for your many comments here (or is it "hear?”) at JinC. I always appreciate them.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Sure
But don’t judge a book review unless you’ve read the book? That’s not the same thing.
Yes, you really need to read the book to decide if the reviewer “got it right,” at least from your perspective.
But a book review can be a well-written essay that conveys a good deal of information with ease and grace.
And that’s what Thomas Pavel does in his excellent Mar. 29 WSJ review of Hugh Brogan’s just released biography, Alexis de Tocqueville (Yale University Press). Pavel begins:
In France, people on both sides of the political spectrum generally agree that a strong central government is the best means of achieving two lofty purposes: national grandeur and job security. True, French politicians, often just before elections, talk about the need for drastic change, yet few of them are ever willing to oppose the state's long habit of intervening everywhere in France's economy and culture.Are you struck by how easily and concisely Pavel conveys information without seeming at all pedantic?
As it happens, the greatest French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), had no great sympathy for this statist mind-set. He was a passionate champion of freedom -- society's freedom from state control, the citizen's freedom from government interference.
Little surprise, then, that Tocqueville's work, although well known and tirelessly quoted in America, is less influential in his own country. Hugh Brogan's superb biography helps to explain why.
The reality of French politics, throughout Tocqueville's career, seemed almost willfully at odds with his ideals.
The French Revolution turned upside-down the life of his father's and mother's families, both aristocratic and sympathetic to Louis XVI. Several close relatives were guillotined. Alexis' father was given a reprieve from his own death sentence only because Robespierre was beheaded a few days before, stemming the Terror's blood tide.
Napoleon's dictatorial empire, a few years later, wasn't much more hospitable to the members of Tocqueville's family. They vainly hoped that constitutional monarchy, established in 1815 with the restoration of the Bourbons, would solve France's problems. The young Alexis, in the meantime, read the Enlightenment philosophers, studied law and served, in the 1820s, as a legal apprentice at Versailles.
At another time, Tocqueville might well have gone on to become a politician of some influence, but his class was rapidly losing relevance. Ultimately, he had more opportunities to think about public life than to participate in it. He was lucid enough to see that the world was changing irreversibly -- that the aristocracy of which he was a part could no longer presume its supremacy -- but he was too proud to join in any of the groups that were seizing on these changes for their own advantage.I admire that last sentence: “He made the decision, fateful in politics, to keep himself independent of a particular sect or party.”
The violent July Revolution of 1830, ending Bourbon rule, left him with divided feelings. He made the decision, fateful in politics, to keep himself independent of a particular sect or party.
There’s not a needless word in it; and Pavel uses just the right word, “fateful,” to describe Tocqueville’s decision to remain free of sect or party.
Here’s the rest of Pavel’s review:
In the early 1830s, Tocqueville traveled to America, discovering there a stable and peaceful democracy unlike anything that he had seen in France. The U.S. hadn't experienced revolutionary terror, military adventurism, monarchic restorations and a sequence of turbulent regime changes.The tag identifies Pavel as a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Tocqueville attributed this happy situation to the American form of political liberty: From town meetings to federal elections, it dispersed power. Citizens had a wealth of opportunities to participate in their own democracy and to check those who might abuse it.
Tocqueville's admiration for America was nevertheless qualified by his suspicion of equality. For Tocqueville, human diversity is always present and always desirable, but it is also vulnerable, especially in democratic societies, to a withering quest for uniformity.
The future belonged to democracy, he concluded, but it was unclear whether it would evolve toward liberty or a new kind of despotism.
When in 1848 France overthrew the July Monarchy and became a republic once again, Tocqueville did all he could to help his country create a lasting democratic regime. His career as an independent deputy in the National Assembly, and his short stint as a minister of foreign affairs, came to an end, however, when the republic's new president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, abolished parliamentary rule and appointed himself emperor.
Mr. Brogan narrates with great verve this stormy period, which forms the principal subject of Tocqueville's "Memoirs" (published posthumously), probably the smartest, cruelest and most accessible description of French political mores.
The Second Empire turned out to be less oppressive than the first. Nonetheless, in Tocque-ville's eyes, Napoleon III's coup d'état was a criminal act. Shockingly, the new emperor, who put an end to democratic representation, enjoyed wide popular support. To Tocqueville's grief, France seemed to like being ruled from above and to care little about freedom.
How could this be the case, he wondered, in a country that had risen up so spectacularly against monarchy in 1789, 1830 and 1848? What if, in fact, the French Revolution was less a fight for liberty than an appeal for a powerful centralized state? From this angle, the Revolution could be seen as an effort to continue rather than challenge monarchy's long struggle to bring France under full control.
Tocqueville's last (unfinished) book, "The Old Regime and the Revolution," is the work of a disappointed man who had hoped that liberal democracy could make its way in France during his lifetime but now had to admit that the urge to control from the center had prevailed.
It did so, he argued, because the monarchy had created a set of political habits that permeated the French mind. Although Tocqueville still believed that democracy would win out in the end, he realized that the centralizing impulse was not going to vanish soon.
Mr. Brogan's book is wonderfully learned and intelligent. He emphasizes Tocqueville's humanity, his attachment to his family, his lifelong friendships and, in particular, his love for his wife, Mary Mottley, an Englishwoman and a commoner who did not enjoy the approval of Alexis' family when he first met her in his 20s. Since according to French law at the time a man before the age of 30 could not marry without the consent of his parents, the story of their romance is a moving example of patience and mutual devotion.
By contrast, Mr. Brogan shows only limited sympathy for Tocqueville's political thought, too often missing its depth and prophetic character.
The strength of the book comes from Mr. Brogan's narrative talent and remarkable knowledge of Tocqueville's life and times.
The biography reads like a novel, combining humor and urbanity with erudition and insight. It should be translated into French.