Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America (LOA #147): A new translation by Arthur Goldhammer (Library of America) (英語) ハードカバー – 2004/2/1
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Alexis de Tocqueville, a young aristocratic French lawyer, came to the United States in 1831 to study its penitentiary systems. His nine-month visit and subsequent reading and reflection resulted in Democracy in America (1835–40), a landmark masterpiece of political observation and analysis. Tocqueville vividly describes the unprecedented social equality he found in America and explores its implications for European society in the emerging modern era. His book provides enduring insight into the political consequences of widespread property ownership, the potential dangers to liberty inherent in majority rule, the importance of civil institutions in an individualistic culture dominated by the pursuit of material self-interest, and the vital role of religion in American life, while prophetically probing the deep differences between the free and slave states. The clear, fluid, and vigorous translation by Arthur Goldhammer is the first to fully capture Tocqueville’s achievements both as an accomplished literary stylist and as a profound political thinker.
"Tocqueville enjoys a unique position in the history of literature and thought: a philosopher also notable as a literary stylist, he is the only Frenchman who can claim to be part of the American canon as well as the French."
Tocqueville enjoys a unique position in the history of literature and thought: a philosopher also notable as a literary stylist, he is the only Frenchman who can claim to be part of the American canon as well as the French. (Arthur Goldhammer, translator)
aTocqueville enjoys a unique position in the history of literature and thought: a philosopher also notable as a literary stylist, he is the only Frenchman who can claim to be part of the American canon as well as the French.a (Arthur Goldhammer, translator)
?Tocqueville enjoys a unique position in the history of literature and thought: a philosopher also notable as a literary stylist, he is the only Frenchman who can claim to be part of the American canon as well as the French.? (Arthur Goldhammer, translator)
What has happened to us? Where did this disintegration into hate and violence, this contempt for our institutions begin and where is it taking us? From all of my early studies, the work that keeps coming to mind, as I look for answers is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who hated tyranny and feared that democracy would disintegrate into tyranny of the majority. He understood, however that democracy was the future, so in 1831 he came to America in order to see it in action. To my mind, no student should graduate from high school in the United States without reading his observations and reflections on the American people, for we desperately need to renew our sense of not only the hope but the challenges of being an American and a commitment to support its survival as a democracy.
De Tocqueville feared individualism and the abolition of the class system that, he believed, gave order and stability to the European nations. He believed that without that order, people would be forever anxious about where they belonged and would end up forever comparing themselves to each other. Forever insecure, their individualism would devolve into selfishness and each would end up alone. We should take a good look at ourselves in light of this fear. Has our insecurity, our need to know where we belong splintered us into rival groups where each gains stature by debunking the other?
However, De Tocqueville also found in the Americans, an equality unknown in Europe and with a deep sense of community and civil order. He found a people committed to building a new world, to resolving together the problems that confronted them. He believed that the multitude of civic organizations would counter the dangers of individualism. The men, he thought, would forever strive to power and acquisition of wealth, but the mores, the “habits of the heart” carried by the women, would provide the civilizing force.
He has a great deal to say about the role of religion in the New World and many other subjects, but this gives a taste of a perspective different enough to shake up the all-to-stale ideologies that have broken us into enemy camps. We have indeed joined civil action groups, but we have, since Trump’s election, discovered the importance of unwritten mores, that undergird our common culture. That gives us the opportunity to regain our sense of belonging to a whole.
His views on the role of women should spark lively conversations on individualism versus commitment for both genders as well as on the effect of the rampant greed of the eighties and nineties. De Tocqueville believed it is the “habits of the heart” that give the Americans strength. We need to rediscover those together.
Apart from this specific translation/edition, I don't think that I can add much that isn't already out there about Democracy in America other than perhaps to point out that you are much less likely to find it interesting if you are not at least somewhat familiar with 18th and 19th century French history. If this is the case, I would recommend at least reading "Revolutionary France 1770-1880" by François Furet prior to starting Democracy in America.
"This civilization is best described by the renowned French sociologist Alexi de Toqueville who spent some two years in the U.S. in the 19th century and wrote the valuable book entitled Democracy in America, which I am sure most Americans have read."
Well, I don't think that's the case. I've taken this book around with me for the last few years and have asked many Americans... and have yet to meet one.
"Everywhere I go I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." -- Flannery O'Connor