Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty

The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty
Lucien Jaume, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Princeton University Press   347pp   £24.95

Alexis de Tocqueville was an author of conspicuous eloquence and vivacity, full of stimulating ideas. However, on the basis of the translated evidence presented here, Professor Lucien Jaume does not share Tocqueville’s fluency of expression. Tocqueville’s tremendous reputation as an interpreter of history, democracy and the United States, neither as a socialist nor a fascist, but as an anxious liberal, means he is held up as a corrective to all the progressive tendencies which reactionaries deplore. Professor Jaume’s writing suggests he is of the traditional Roman Catholic party, though he makes very little of Tocqueville’s complex relations with the Church. His critique of Tocqueville is essentially familiar: ever since the first publication of De la Democratie en Amerique in 1835 attempts have been made to assimilate Tocqueville to the French Right, since a sort of legitimist underpainting to his thought has always been perceptible. But Jaume’s exposition is just as unconvincing as those of his predecessors.  Further, for reasons unfathomable to this reviewer, why has he nothing to say about the bulk of Tocqueville’s writings, most noticeably the first two volumes of the Democratie?

However, my objection to Jaume’s work is less the mustiness of the ideas espoused or the fact that he makes Tocqueville seem just as musty, than the appalling tedium of the writing. Jaume’s book seems so immersed in the opinions and assumptions of its coterie of antecedents that it is not properly organised as a book, be it chapters or even paragraphs. Alas, Professor Jaume’s style has the hollow loftiness of a papal encyclical and is quite indifferent to readability, which insults the memory of Tocqueville, an immensely engaging writer. Reviewers elsewhere have praised Jaume’s Tocqueville, but it is my opinion that this is one book with which you need not bother.

Hugh Brogan is a research professor at the University of Essex and author of Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution (Profile Books, 2009).

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