The Tenth Anniversary number of The Claremont Review of Books arrives propitiously for readers of What’s Wrong with the World. The auguries are with us this time. Not only have we a just tribute to the best journal of political philosophy and statesmanship in America; it is our true fortune to have, among many fine essays and reviews, a brilliant and challenging treatment of none other than Alexis de Tocqueville himself, by America’s best political philosopher, Harvey Mansfield of Harvard.
Professor Mansfield gives us a fascinating picture of the great Frenchman. Mansfield’s Tocqueville had a definite and positive teaching on religion in public life. Why it should be left a man who did not himself believe, or at least who struggled profoundly with agnostic indecision, to compose a theory of democracy that owed so much to the private action of religion on public mores, is an example of the caliber of question that Mansfield raises.
Private action: mark that distinction. Mischievous commenters here have of late adduced claims of Tocqueville secret allegiance to the ancien regime, which is how they interpret his steady caution about modern democracy’s capacity for justice; but certainly on this point only a really brassbound fool would insist on contrarianism, and present Tocqueville as pining for the old regime’s iron unity of church and state. He was fully persuaded by Americans on this point. Tocqueville privileged liberty, of conscience above all.
So Tocqueville embraced the modern liberal separation of church and state; but this by no means meant, for him, that religion was out of the game. Far from it. He reproached the Puritans for their theocracy; but he praised their remarkable capacity, in earthy practice, to give religion influence without coercion; in word, their capacity to inculcate voluntary civic virtue. As Mansfield puts it, “They not merely offered an idea but also were able to live it, transforming it into the mores of a social state that could be considered the ‘first cause’ of American democracy.”
So I cannot recommend Prof. Mansfield’s essay more enthusiastically. That I disagree with him on certain points does not detract of the overall impress of the argument. I should feel myself duped or misled for sure if I found myself agreeing with everything in one of these Straussians’ essays.
The rest of this CRB issues is similarly packed with quality writing, sharp analysis, rich review, grounded challenge. Sign up for this one now. Make sure they understand you want this double issue.