Posts tagged with: alexis de tocqueville

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, March 27, 2013

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

What does the Victorian era have to do with contemporary culture and society? Quite a bit, in the mind and work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian who called her own work “the history of ideas.” Himmelfarb has been criticized for her call to the return of traditional values (like shame, personal responsibility and self-reliance) by an academic community that prefers what they believe is a “value-neutral” method of teaching and research.

courtesy of www.superscholar.org

courtesy of www.superscholar.org


Himmelfarb wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton, which she later published as Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Himmelfarb found Lord Acton’s ambivalent blend of liberalism and pessimism, ideas of progress, and notions of human sinfulness, as well as his advocacy of a “judicious mix of authority, tradition, and experience, to be highly relevant for the post World War II world.” Even in this early work, she discerned a connection between the modern neglect of personal moral character and the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, including the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.  (Gertrude Himmelfarb: Jewish Women’s Archive)

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Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, March 25, 2013

In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg turns to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to show how democratic systems can be used to strike a Faustian bargain. “Citizens use their votes to prop up the political class, in return for which the state uses its power to try and provide the citizens with perpetual economic security,” Gregg explains. This, of course, speaks to the current catastrophe that is the European welfare state. French workers, for example, “clearly expect the government to protect them from the economic consequences of their curious work habits,” he adds.

Some 180 years ago, Tocqueville predicted in his magnum opus “Democracy in America” that something similar would be one of democracy’s long-term challenges. Though Tocqueville never used the expression “welfare state,” he worried about the potentially corrosive effects of democratically elected governments that tried to use their powers to guarantee economic security for as many people as possible.

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit of the “soft” variety. He spoke of “an immense protective power” that took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness—just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville projected, would “resemble parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

But here’s the catch. Many people today forget that Tocqueville wasn’t writing for an American audience. His book was for French readers and therefore, by extension, much of Europe’s 19th-century political elite. What would some of those elites today—such as a career-politician and confirmed statist like Arnaud Montebourg—make of his compatriot’s warnings?

Read “What Tocqueville Knew” in the Wall Street Journal.

And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)

Is Christianity and the Christian worldview the path to a free society? Chinese bloggers are asking that question. Many believe the fascination with American politics and democracy is at an all time high in China. Technology and internet access is surely responsible for much of the trend. From one report,

Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:

‘Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.’

Undeniably, there has been and continues to be a systematic attack upon the Christian roots of the West and this nation. Marcello Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Council in Rome, sums it up well:

“With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”

There is a level of irony in Chinese bloggers recognizing the significance of the religious foundations of democracy, while many Western scholars have abandoned or even attacked such notions. America’s religious heritage is vibrant and was a unifying factor promoting shared values and purpose throughout its history. The American framers knew religious vibrancy was required for ordered liberty and virtue to reign and prosper throughout society. Alexis de Tocqueville praised these characteristics and noted it was the foundations of America’s freedom and strength of its people. When it comes to the basis of our rights and foundations of government, Jefferson asked,

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In the Washington Times, Nile Gardiner praises Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future, the new book by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Gardiner, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation and a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst for The Telegraph, says Becoming Europe “should be on the desk of every member of the House and Senate who cares about the future of America as a prosperous and free nation.” Gardiner recommends the book for its “rich detail describing the economic and social ‘Europeanization’ of America, from the rise of vast welfare systems to growing skepticism of the merits of the free-enterprise system.” Excerpt from the review:

“Becoming Europe” is a meticulously researched and well-argued thesis that lays out what is at stake for the world’s superpower, as it faces a stark choice between European-style decline or a return to the original vision of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as the classical liberal teachings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith. Mr. Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute, paints a grim picture of the direction America is taking but, nevertheless, conveys a positive message to his readers. Mr. Gregg argues that while America is indeed on the path to the European model, it can still turn back and avoid the fate that Europe looks doomed to suffer. In many respects, this is an optimistic book based upon faith in America’s ability to renew itself through rediscovering the principles of economic liberty.

I agree with Mr. Gregg’s assessment. As Gallup polling consistently shows, America is still at its core a conservative nation, one that cherishes the foundations of individual liberty. The fire of freedom still burns brighter on this side of the Atlantic than it does in the Old World, where the suffocating supranationalism of the European Union marches on, with the EU heading toward ever-greater political and economic centralization. The European nightmare can be avoided here, however, only if America’s leaders, at both a national and state level, are willing to stand up for economic freedom and reject the destructive ideology of big government. Washington is already on the path to Brussels, Paris and Athens, but it still has an opportunity to reverse course and avoid the road to economic ruin.

Read Nile Gardiner’s full review of Becoming Europe in the Washington Times.

Matthew Feeney, assistant editor at Reason Magazine’s 24/7 blog, today reviews Samuel Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. In his article titled “Europe: America’s Crystal Ball?” Feeney notes the similarity between Gregg’s views and many in the tea party movement who worry that “the U.S. is adopting similar norms and institutions [to Europe's current economic culture,] thereby losing what Tocqueville called Americans’ “spirit of enterprise.”

Feeney states that:

It is frustrating to many Europeans that Americans refer to “Europeanization” or a “European culture.” Europe, after all, is a continent of many countries and hundreds of languages; any attempt to generalize its people or culture will inevitably fall short. Thankfully, Gregg doesn’t fall into this trap. While acknowledging those differences, he also explains what enables commentators to discuss a common European culture, from the presence of an established lingua franca (be it Latin, French, or English) to the centuries of trade between its different peoples to the ongoing influence of Christianity. And it surely makes sense to speak of a “European economic culture” given the existence of the European Union, whose bloated bureaucracies regulate 27 of the continent’s states.

While Americans should be reassured that their political and economic culture is broadly pro-enterprise and pro-market, Gregg’s book is a healthy reminder that the United States has indeed been moving toward a more European economic culture. At the same time, Gregg makes sure to point out that the U.S. is not there yet. It remains to be seen how much Americans will push for free markets, transparency, and property rights in the years ahead. But thanks to Gregg’s book, they cannot claim to have not been warned.

Read the full article here. Learn more about or purchase a copy of Becoming Europe here.

National Review Online asked Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg to weigh in on President Barack Obama’s second term inaugural address.

Gregg points to “our president’s worldview that the government is the primary way in which we address our common problems and realize our responsibilities and obligations to each other as citizens and as human beings.” He wonders if it has occurred to Obama that “many such responsibilities and obligations might be realized outside the realm of politics … ”

Gregg goes on to suggest, for the presidential reading list, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Jacques Maritain’s writings on civil society in the United States.

Read “Why Barack Obama Needs to Read Alexis de Tocqueville” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013).

Acton’s Director of Media, Michael Matheson Miller, discusses the current state of American thought on state, Church, family and liberty in Legatus Magazine. He focuses on the work of two Frenchmen: Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Many of the differences can be boiled down to what we mean by community. Rousseau’s vision of community is what the sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “political community.” For Rousseau, the two main elements of society are the individual and the state. All other groups — including the Church — are viewed as inhibiting individual freedom and detracting from political community that is found in the state.

Tocqueville’s vision of community, on the other hand, is not reduced to the “political community” but instead means a wide variety of associations, different levels of groups, and layers of authority. Society is not made up of autonomous individuals and an omnicompetent state, but is a diverse group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.

Read “Community, liberty and freedom” in Legatus here.

Rome contributor to ZENIT, Stefanie DeAngelo, recently interviewed the Acton Institute’s 2012 Novak Award winner, Professor Giovanni Patriarca. During the interview Prof. Patriarca speaks candidly about some of his academic influences, including Michael Novak and Benedict XVI. He also offers his reasons for hope in overcoming the prolonged global economic crisis.

Some Contemporary Reflections: An Itinerary from Novak to Benedict XVI

by Stefanie DeAngelo

2012 Novak Award Winner Prof. Giovanni Patriarca

ZENIT: You have recently received the Novak Award. What are some of the major contributions of the American philosopher and theologian to our thinking about the current state of the world?

Patriarca: The work of Dr. Michael Novak is so rich that it is not easy to summarize it in a few thoughts. In addition to his famous works on economics, a number of his articles published in the last few years, especially in the journal First Things, explores some of modernity’s contradictions regarding individual and social responsibility and the demise of traditional values that were held by previous generations. As Alexis de Tocqueville also warned, the loss of a metaphysical perspective, leads to materialism and the absurdity of nihilism. (more…)