Arthur Goldhammer, Constraints of Classicism - Page 17

Translating Tocqueville: The Constraints of Classicism

Arthur Goldhammer

Talk prepared for University of Virginia, October 30, 2003

Draft; please don’t quote without permission.

Translating Tocqueville: The Constraints of Classicism

The Classic

Nearly everyone will grant that Tocqueville’s Democracy in America deserves to be called a “classic.” Does the work’s classic status constrain its translator? Should it? And if so how? These are the questions I want to address.

What is a “classic?” According to the Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius, the classical writer is one who is “not proletarian.”1 Classic thus has to do with class, with classification, with hierarchy, but the hierarchy in question is social, not literary or philosophical. The classic is a work by an author of rank. Le comte Alexis de Tocqueville certainly qualifies on that count. But this would be a rather literal reading.

Subsequently, however, the hierarchical connotations of the word were transferred from author to work. In its primary definition classic means “of the first class, of the highest rank or importance, approved as a model; standard, leading.” Of course there is often contamination between one form of superiority and another: already in the Politics Aristotle works hard to keep superiority by virtue of excellence apart from superiority by virtue of wealth or social distinction, but he admits that the lines can easily blur, the categories coalesce. Littré, the great French lexicographer of the nineteenth century who was also a leading Positivist, perhaps betrays his philosophical allegiance by giving positive concreteness to the judgment of superiority: the leading works approved as models are those “used in or belonging to the classes of colleges or schools.” Democracy in America certainly qualifies as a classic in this respect as well. There is probably no work about its subject more widely assigned in schools.

The OED also notes a “transference of the epithet from the first-class or standard writers in Greek and Latin to these languages themselves,” which it attributes in part “to the notion that the latter are intrinsically excellent or of the first order, in comparison with the modern tongues.” Tocqueville of course did not write in the classical tongues, but we know that between 1835 and 1840 he consulted not only Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch but “classic” writers of the post-classical tradition such as Aquinas, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.2 We also know how much his early education owed to his tutor, the abbé Lesueur. Lesueur, who had also been his father’s tutor, was a man who belonged more to the eighteenth century than to the nineteenth and who wrote an elegant French in the manner of that earlier time. When the young Tocqueville won a prize in rhetoric at the Metz lycée, he credited the preparation received from his tutor. The good abbé, moreover, was an ecclesiastic with Jansenist leanings, who probably imparted the values of that austerely cerebral sect to his pupil, and we know that Pascal, the most sparkling of Jansenist writers, remained an important influence on Tocqueville’s thinking.3 Thus from his earliest upbringing Tocqueville had his attention turned from his own time to that earlier period to which the French refer as l’âge classique: classic because its authors were the first, in the opinion of many, to fashion from French an instrument supple enough to convey ideas and images with the vigor and subtlety of Latin and Greek, and classic, too, in the sense of classicizing, harking back to ancient models as exemplars of the best that had been thought and known.

Unlike his uncle Chateaubriand, the proto-Romantic prosateur par excellence, Tocqueville felt no need to forge a new style in order to render new things. If he followed his older relative into the American wilderness, it was not to register the palpitations of his soul before the grandeur and immensity of the new world, even if he does, in the odd passage, take on an almost Chateaubriandesque tone of lugubrious delectation:

As in forests under man’s dominion, death here worked its ceaseless ravages, but no one took it upon himself to remove the debris it left behind. Dead wood therefore piled up faster than it could decay to make way for new growth. Yet even in the midst of all this debris, the work of reproduction continued without letup. Climbing vines and other plants crept among fallen trees and worked their way into decaying remains; they lifted and broke the shriveled bark that still clung to the dead wood, thereby clearing the way for young shoots. Thus death in a way served life. Each looked the other in the face, seemingly keen to mingle and confound their works.

But Tocqueville was far too conscious of Pascal’s strictures against what a recent editor has dubbed “ego-history” to have followed his cousin down the road to Romanticism. While he admired Montaigne, whom he quotes once in Democracy in America, he of course knew what Pascal thought of the Bordeaux magistrate’s “sot projet … de se peindre.” Even in this brief Romanticizing prose poem, we feel the continued presence of the classical armature. Note the balance and equipoise of the periods. One doesn’t have to count syllables to sense how the sentence that begins with “Climbing vines” rises to its pinnacle in “decaying remains” only to race down the back slope where “young shoots” are poking up through the soil. A quick seven-word haymaker follows hard upon this undulating and almost Proustian left hook, a short, sharp sentence built around the antithesis between death and life, which stuns you with the observation that death serves rather than curtails its double. (In French there are twelve words; I flatter myself that the greater concision of the English would have pleased Tocqueville and made up for the slight slippage from aider to serve.4) Thus even this Romantic thrust is mere drapery over the firmly planted pillars of the classical temple that Tocqueville is constructing sentence by sentence.

Translating the Classic

With respect to stature, substance, and style, Tocqueville’s work can thus fairly be called a classic. How does this special status affect the translator’s handling of the text? A classic bears a special relation to other texts as well as a special relation to the language in which it is written. There is a passage in which Tocqueville speaks of the ease with which the leading men in aristocratic societies can recognize one another. They stand above the rest, he says, and easily spot each other from one hilltop fortress to the next, as it were. Classics, too, are like this, and Tocqueville clearly recognized certain prominent predecessors as peers with whom he wished to enter into conversation. His is not the way of the modern scholar, however. He does not adorn his text with frequent footnotes to indicate where he has borrowed or with whom he agrees or disagrees. He does not dissect the arguments of others in detail as proof that he has understood and weighed them, not merely dismissed them blindly or out of hand. He wants to influence his contemporaries, and, knowing that many of them will be impatient of any hint of pedantry, he does not wish to burden his prose with exegesis. Often he merely alludes. To the wise a word is enough to indicate what he is up to, an ironic reference sufficient to indicate what he thinks. He will speak, for instance, of “philosophers and historians” who assert that distance from the equator determines the mores of women, and one knows that behind the “materialist doctrines” he thus stigmatizes in passing, he is indicating his distaste for Helvétius, d’Holbach, and Diderot and his disagreement with a tendency in the thinking of Montesquieu, for whom he elsewhere professes respect (II.3.11). A certain delicacy is required in dealing with such a text lest subtle references—hints contained in a lexical wisp or syntactic murmur—be obscured.

There is a contemporary school of textual interpretation which takes this intertextual subtlety a good deal further. Leo Strauss was its founder. Strauss believed that the classics pose a special kind of interpretive problem. The very fact that they are so widely studied can obscure or falsify their deliberately cryptic messages. Incessant commentary softens or edulcorates the most shocking insights of fundamental works. The temptation to make classic texts “relevant” to contemporary problems dilutes the vigor of their original language and buries their hidden secrets even deeper. For Strauss, lulling commentary on the great works diverts attention from what he calls permanent problems: “Many of our contemporaries are of the opinion that there are no permanent problems and hence no permanent alternatives.”5 The proper way to read the classics, he suggests, is in relation to one another, for at bottom they are engaged in a durable contest, a fundamentally agonistic confrontation between alternative values.

Since these fundamental texts are written in different languages, translation poses a special problem for exponents of Straussian interpretation. The permanent problems were first posed in Greek and Latin, then translated into modern tongues. One thus gains insight into the clash of agonistic values by paying close attention to the way in which modern antagonists inflect certain terms of classical discourse. Reading Machiavelli against Aristotle teaches us more about our own modernity, say Straussians, than contemplating, as Tocqueville does in one of his rare dilations upon a topical theme of actual American politics, Andrew Jackson’s opposition to the creation of a national bank. And to be sure, Tocqueville is not so much diverted by the circumstantial detail such an event provides as he is grateful for the opportunity to expound classical topoi such as the susceptibility of democracy to demagogy and the conversion of military prowess into popular appeal. Since what the great philosophers say is often veiled, Straussians contend, because it is dangerous or offensive to established ways of thinking, it is important that the translator refrain from disturbing signs that may be the keys to recovering these encrypted meanings. Similarly, contradictions must not be glossed over, nor should inconsistencies be “harmonized,” lest clues to what was unassimilable or contested or overlooked in the appropriation of ancient texts be brushed aside.6

If I devote attention to these Straussian dogmas, to which I do not subscribe, it is in part because Straussian scholars have done important work on Tocqueville.7 It is also because the most recent translation of Democracy in America, by Professors Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, explicitly places itself in the Straussian tradition. Before Mansfield and Winthrop, however, other translators had labored to make the text a classic in the United States even as it lapsed in France from popularity into neglect.8 Tocqueville himself read and commented on the first translation of his work, by Henry Reeve. He had this to say: “Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions, you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.”9 Note well Tocqueville’s use of the word instinct. We’ll encounter it again. In any case, defective or not, Reeve’s translation, revised first by Francis Bowen and again by Phillips Bradley, has remained in print. I have not studied the original version to see if it merited Tocqueville’s disapproval, which seems to credit translation with more damage than it can do if it is at all faithful. Perhaps Tocqueville was merely startled by a reasonably accurate transcription of his own voice, as we often are when we listen to a recording. In any case, we know that Tocqueville’s work has become a classic of the English language, and surely it owes that status in part to the quality of the joint effort of Reeve, Bowen, and Bradley, whose inexpensive Modern Library edition, which I have studied, filled the need for a text that made a case for democracy in America in the early years of the Cold War, when Tocqueville’s all too famous prediction that the world would one day be divided between America and Russia seemed to be coming true. Then, in the 1960s, George Lawrence published a new translation, which, though it owed a great deal to its predecessor, nevertheless spoke with a distinctly more contemporary voice. Perhaps it was the clarity of that voice, or perhaps it was the changed climate of the Sixties, but commentators seemed to become more aware of certain of Tocqueville’s doubts about the democracy to which he had attempted to reconcile himself and his fellow Frenchmen: his concern with corrosive individualism, mediocre conformity, the tyranny of the majority, and similar themes now commanded attention.

In any case, the Mansfield-Winthrop translation appeared shortly after I began work on my own version of the text, taking its place after the well-established Reeve-Bowen-Bradley and Lawrence versions. If Tocqueville’s book was widely studied and admired in American schools, and therefore a classic in Littré’s primary sense, the credit was due largely to Reeve, Bradley, Bowen, and Lawrence. Whatever deficiencies their translations possessed, they were not so debilitating as to rob the text of its claim to be a work “of the highest rank or importance, approved as a model”—a classic, in short. Whatever precedents my predecessors had established therefore had to be weighed carefully—not necessarily accepted merely because they were established but not necessarily rejected solely for the sake of difference or novelty either. In addition, I was now reminded by Mansfield and Winthrop of the possibility that the text might be read in ways that made special demands on the translator, whom they admonished to show “reverence.”10

L’Intérêt bien entendu

Genuflection is one thing, however; translation is another. Take a case in point: one finds in Tocqueville the important concept of “l’intérêt bien entendu.” Reeve translated this phrase as “self-interest rightly understood,” while Lawrence preferred “properly understood.” I myself, in translating, some years ago, Tocqueville’s Two Democracies by the late Jean-Claude Lamberti, adopted Lawrence’s usage. Schleifer glosses the phrase as “enlightened self-interest.”11 But Mansfield and Winthrop, professing a general preference for literalism, for “staying as close as possible to the original,” prefer “self-interest well understood.”

Now, much discussion of translation revolves around quibbles of this sort, which can be tedious and unilluminating. How, precisely, is one to adjudicate between “interest well understood” or “properly understood” or “rightly understood” or “enlightened”? It’s a question of “ear,” some will say, but of course the argument is perfectly circular: if “self-interest properly understood” sounds right to you, it may be that your ear, like mine, has already been shaped by prior experience. Or maybe my ear is just off. There are scholars who say that el Greco painted the human figure as he did because he suffered from severe astigmatism; perhaps it is possible to suffer from an astigmatism of the ear and consequently to prefer the misshapen to the well-formed. Yet sharing el Greco’s affliction is no guarantee of sharing his genius.

On the other hand, not sharing el Greco’s affliction is no guarantee of sharing his genius either. The argument from literalism seems to me no more persuasive than the argument from instinct. Must “bien” be translated as “well” rather than “properly” simply because it may be translated that way in some contexts? Can one really say that “well understood” is “closer to the original” than “properly understood?” After all, there are many contexts in which it would not be at all natural to translate bien as well. What about c’est bien bon, c’est bien simple, or c’est bien bizarre? What about the formulaic bien entendu, which of course means “of course”? Or the closing of a letter, bien à vous. Or, to confine attention to bien as adverbial modifier of a past participle, il est bien venu que …, il est bien entendu que …? Or the formula c’est bien trouvé? The semantic range of the French morpheme bien only partially overlaps the semantic range of the English morpheme well: consider le bien et le mal, le bien national, or est-ce bien le train pour Paris? The student who receives une mention bien may regret that she didn’t receive a très bien, mais quand bien même elle s’est acquittée tant bien que mal, et bien qu’elle ne soit pas trop brillante. Consider, too, the difference between je veux and je veux bien, je t’aime and je t’aime bien. In none of the foregoing instances can bien be translated as well, hence the defense of such a translation as “literal” seems more a premise than a proof. To complete the proof, one would presumably have to say why l’intérêt bien entendu has more in common with bien fait or bien joué than with bien venu or bien trouvé.

And that is not all: I haven’t yet touched on all that is left out (or smuggled in) when we translate intérêt by its simple English cognate interest, for in French one says il y a intérêt à faire quelque chose without hinting at a utilitarian doctrine of motivation. As Jon Elster pertinently remarks, La Rochefoucauld denies that the word intérêt always refers to “a material interest” (un intérêt de bien); more often—in l’âge classique, at any rate—it refers to “an interest of honor or of glory.”12 In any event, the footsteps of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham dog the Anglo-Saxon writer on political theory far more than they do the French writer, who is likely to think of Helvétius and the rather different philosophical tradition conjured up by his name. For if Helvétius and not Bentham was, as Isaiah Berlin persuasively argues, the true father of utilitarianism, he was also the true heir of materialist mechanism, and it was as such that Tocqueville combated his legacy even as he reached a compact of understanding with Bentham’s heir John Stuart Mill.13 What Tocqueville meant by l’intérêt bien entendu is therefore something that must emerge from his text as a whole, and this fact tends to diminish the importance of the merely local choices that one makes in translating this or that word.

So where does this rapid survey leave us? Is there simply no rational basis for choosing? Here is a modest proposal. Let us toy with the hypothesis that “properly understood” is preferable to “well understood” because the latter formulation suggests that there is an unambiguous notion of interest which the actor is well advised to grasp well, or thoroughly, whereas the former suggests that interest is really a rather slippery concept, that what we take to be in our interest depends crucially on how we view the world and in particular on where we take time’s horizon to be situated, and therefore it behooves us to understand our interest not merely well but properly, that is, to choose among the many possible definitions of interest the one that is truly the self’s, or that is the true self’s.14 As for “rightly,” one might see this as a compromise solution, more ambiguous as to the nature of interest. Is “properly” then a legitimate translation or an illegitimate substitution of the translator’s understanding or unconscious preference or opinion for the author’s? Does yet another option suggest itself? Or is there perhaps no significant difference at all among the alternatives? Am I imagining the nuance?

To pursue this point a little farther, let me make a Straussian move to clarify the grounds for my objection to the Straussian contention that, in the absence of complete knowledge of a text, it is better to translate as literally as possible—whatever “literally” might mean, and I think I have shown already that there is a certain incoherence to the notion. My Straussian move is to cite a writer whom Tocqueville never mentions in Democracy in America but is known to have studied closely, namely, Edmund Burke, and to strengthen my belief that I am correctly reading what he does say by contrasting it with what he doesn’t say, but Burke does. Let me mention first that Mansfield and Winthrop state in a footnote that the “the actual phrase ‘self-interest well understood’ was apparently first used by Etienne de Condillac in 1798.”15 Of course what they mean to say is, “the actual phrase ‘intérêt bien entendu.’” Attributing responsibility for their translation to a French author is a slip, as is the date 1798, since the Traité des animaux, which they cite as the source, was actually published in 1755 (Condillac died in 1780). In any case, we find the following passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1799:

These enthusiasts do not scruple to avow their opinion, that a state can subsist without any religion better than with one and that they are able to supply the place of any good which may be in it, by a project of their own—namely, by a sort of education they have imagined, founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us, will identify with an interest more enlarged and public.16

It is striking to find in Burke the phrase “enlightened self-interest” coupled with the phrase “well understood.” Does this rule out “properly understood?” On the contrary, I believe it makes my case. To be sure, Burke’s expression here is not sparklingly pellucid. It is not altogether clear who is meant to understand self-interest well, the enthusiastic educators or the men they educate. Is the argument of the “invisible hand” sort—that men so educated work blindly to satisfy themselves but can nevertheless be seen, by those who understand well, to contribute to the “enlarged and public” interest? Or is it that men can be educated to understand that certain kinds of apparent self-sacrifice in fact redound to one’s own benefit, hence that it makes sense for self-interested reasons to consider, or, more cynically, to calculate, how one might “do well by doing good?” It is not clear, either, whether Burke’s phrase “progressively carried” means that the doctrine of interest is enlarged beyond “physical wants” or confined within the sphere of the material.

Tocqueville in any case appears to share the concern that motivates the reformers whom Burke disparages, for he says that in revolutionary times it is essential “to make the case that the interests of individuals and of the nation are inextricably intertwined, because disinterested love of country has vanished forever” (I.2.6). But he also says that while “it is to be expected … that individual interest will become more than ever the principal if not the sole motive of human action, … it remains to be seen how each person will interpret his individual interest” (II.2.8), leaving to the individual a freedom to interpret the lessons he is taught that Burke seems to deny to the manipulated pupils of his cunningly coercive educators. And far from seeing self-interest as merely an enlargement of the sphere of physical wants and a substitute for religion, Tocqueville believes that in America it has become an essential prop of religion: “Hence I see no clear reason why the doctrine of self-interest properly understood should turn men away from religious beliefs. On the contrary, I can make out ways in which it might draw them toward religion.”

That Tocqueville is perfectly conversant with Burke’s “enthusiasts” is clear from the following passage, in which he calls them, collectively, “moralists”:

But as … people began to concentrate on themselves, moralists became alarmed by the idea of sacrifice and no longer dared hold it up for the human mind to contemplate. They were accordingly reduced to asking whether citizens might not find it to their individual advantage to work for the good of all, and whenever they happened upon one of the points where the particular interest intersects and converges with the general interest, they were quick to call attention to it. Little by little, such observations proliferated. What was once just an isolated remark became a general doctrine, and ultimately it came to seem as if man, in serving his fellow man, served himself. (II.2.8)

But Tocqueville, as I shall show in a moment when I turn to a discussion of the word instinct, sees this development in a more generous spirit than Burke. He emphasizes the variety of ways in which interest can be not only understood but acquired. For him, self-interest is not always material and is not determined in advance by man’s biological nature. Nor is it a direct consequence of his position in society: it is not true that the rich or the poor or the few or the many have certain unalterably opposed interests simply because they are rich or poor or more or less numerous. Their interests can be “enlarged” and made more “public” by granting them rights, by involving them in politics:

It is not within the power of the law to revive dying beliefs, but it is within the power of the law to instill in people an interest in the fate of their country. It is within the power of the law to awaken and guide the vague patriotic instinct that dwells permanently in the heart of man and, by linking that instinct to everyday thoughts, passions, and habits, to turn it into a conscious and durable emotion. Let it not be said that it is too late to try: nations do not grow old in the same way as men. Each new generation born among them is fresh material for the lawmaker to mold. (I.1.5)

Tocqueville, in other words, sees interests as plastic and their shaping as an art, indeed, the political art par excellence: the “new political art,” if you will, which must be conjoined to his “new political science” if the latter is to have any useful effect. And Tocqueville wanted more than anything to have useful effect; his theory was intended to be a tool, for as he put it in his introduction, “science [is] a means of government and intelligence a social force.” Clearly he had made his own what Stephen Holmes calls a “pivotal, but largely negelected, liberal idea” first formulated by Locke: “Law, in its true Notion, is not so much the Limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper Interest, and prescribes no further than is for the general Good of those under the Law.”17 And here, mirabile dictu, we have an English-language precedent for coupling the adjective “proper” to the idea of “interest” in a thoroughly enlarged and anti-materialist, hence plausibly Tocquevillean, sense.

So that is my case for believing that “self-interest properly understood” is a better translation than “self-interest well understood.” Does my argument carry absolute conviction? Surely not. Call it a hunch. Or, to use a Tocquevillean word, an instinct. But an instinct based on a long experience of turning French into English. Not that this argument, trumped up after the fact, reflects the actual thought process of the translator at work. I’m afraid that he often is swayed by the instincts not of his “opinions,” for which Tocqueville reproached Reeve, but of his intellect and aesthetic, that is, by the promptings not of his nature but of his second nature, as Pascal styled culture. I had read Holmes’ book after translating Lamberti and before undertaking Democracy in America but did not in fact remember Locke’s use of the phrase “proper interest” until I refreshed my memory in writing this paper. My argument, such as it is, is not a proper argument so much as a description of the inner landscape that forms the background to the translator’s judgment. Why, at this or that juncture, one prompting of his nature should outweigh another is a bit of a mystery, but surely no less mysterious than the defense of one possible translation on the grounds that it is “closer” than some other to the original. Closer by what measure? The belief that literal translation can get us closer to the text than an honest, if inevitably partial, effort to grapple with its meaning strikes me as a kind of scientistic fallacy, in that it seeks to atomize the complexity of language the better to dominate it. It is odd to find such a view of language associated with the name of Strauss, who denounced what he called “the ‘scientific’ approach to society” as an “abstraction from the moral distinctions by which we take our bearings as citizens and as men. The indispensable condition of ‘scientific’ analysis is then moral obtuseness.”18 Literal translation, when it defies the instincts of the translator’s ear for his own as well as the foreign tongue, seems to me to suffer from a comparable aural obtuseness. But perhaps I have said enough on this point and should leave it at that.

Does it matter if I’m wrong in this choice? Probably not much, or at least I hope not. Unless one happens to be a scholar for whom some argument hinges crucially on this or that word choice, it’s usually a mistake to fetishize the lexical dimension of a text. Translation, though practiced as an art of small choices, of relatively delicate, almost imperceptible individual touches and brush strokes, is also, like any art, subordinate to a larger order, to a principle of the whole. In order to achieve that whole, the copyist must be allowed a certain freedom to blend this detail with that. Slavish imitation, being mechanical, saps the work’s soul. A translation, like a painting, must make an overall impression if the reader is to care enough to follow its internal gradations and impastos, its subtle or startling effects, its sfumati and pentimenti.19


So instinct is essential in translation, but the instinct I’ve been talking about is not the brutish kind; it’s a rather sophisticated sort of instinct, a cultivated spontaneity. I’ve tried, moreover, to contrast the instinctive approach to translating to the overly rational one, which would impose either a rule—translate literally—or a method: translate as though your text were in conversation with the classics and concerned ultimately if not exclusively with the “permanent problems.” Now these are matters about which Tocqueville had things to say. “Instinct” is a word that occurs frequently in his work. The right relation of rationality to instinct is a matter that concerns him deeply, as we shall see in a moment. And he explicitly warns against believing that classical thought is the best guide to the present: “A world that is totally new demands a new political science.”

The old political science that Tocqueville deemed no longer adequate was presumably both the Enlightenment’s and Aristotle’s, more or less, and Tocqueville certainly knew of Aristotle’s dictum that there is no science but of the general. If he aimed at science, he aimed at the general, but generalities were also the occasion of his deepest misgivings. In his very interesting chapter on language, he says:

Generic and abstract terms are the basis of all language. Hence I am not claiming that such words are found only in democratic languages. All I am saying is that men in ages of equality tend to increase the number of words of this type in particular; they tend to take them always in isolation, in their most abstract sense, and to use them incessantly, even when the occasion does not require it. (II.1.16)

Thus the virtuous use of language requires striking a just mean in the employment of general terms, hence in the application of science. Tocqueville’s wariness of the theoretical and preference for the practical are well known. Pragmatism is one quality for which he praises Americans, the lack of it one vice for which he chastises revolutionaries in France. In aristocratic societies language can be more concrete than abstract or theoretical, moreover, because it “inevitably partakes of the general ambience of repose. Few new words are created, because few new things come to pass. If anyone did anything new, moreover, he would try to describe it using familiar words whose meaning had been fixed by tradition.” By contrast, “the perpetual fluidity that is so prominent a feature of democracy is forever reshaping the face of language as well as of business.”

If the real is so fluid that language cannot fix it in words, cannot literally transcribe things as they are, then science must be supplemented by art. This was of course true for the old Aristotelian political science as well, but Tocqueville’s doubts about the guidance that reason can offer man were unknown to Aristotle. They are informed by a Pascalian pessimism as to man’s nature. “Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît pas,” Pascal wrote; the heart has its reasons, which reason knows not. For Pascal, who believed that the divide between head and heart was an abyss, the asceticism of Port Royal was the only possible life. But Tocqueville chose an active life in politics. Clearly he held out hope—did he take it from Rousseau?—that the head might yet heed the heart and the heart be instructed by the head.

For Tocqueville as for Pascal, excessive faith in reason was associated with a name: Descartes. “Cartesianism,” Tocqueville tells us, is the “common philosophical method” of the Americans, even though they “do not read Descartes, because their social state discourages speculative studies” (II.1.1). He gives several reasons why this should come as no surprise. Equality of conditions is corrosive of authority:

As for the possibility of one intelligence influencing another, it is necessarily quite limited in a country whose citizens, having become more or less identical, can observe each other at close range. Seeing that no one possesses any incontestable mark of greatness or superiority, each person is forced back on the most obvious and accessible source of truth, his own reason. What is destroyed as a result is not only confidence in any particular individual but also the readiness to believe anyone solely on the basis of his word. Each person therefore retreats within the limits of the self and from that vantage ventures to judge the world.

Not only is intellectual authority thus destroyed; so, too, is the authority of classes, of a seemingly natural and settled order of things.20 Intergenerational authority is also undermined, for “in the constant state of flux that prevails in a democratic society, the bond that ties generation to generation is loosened or broken. People easily lose track of the ideas of their ancestors or cease to care about them.”

The upshot of these several blows to authority is that “in most activities of the mind the American relies solely on the unaided effort of his own individual reason.” Democratic societies are thus led naturally to adopt a philosophy that Descartes derived from inspection of his own cogito. The consequence of this, for Tocqueville, is an ominous democratic hubris: “Equality of conditions fosters a … very high and often quite exaggerated idea of human reason.” (II.1.2)

This is a perfectly Pascalian thought. It owes nothing to skepticism. The skeptic doubts the power of reason to know anything. Tocqueville, like Pascal, had nothing but the highest respect for reason; witness his frequent remarks on the indispensability of les lumières, of enlightenment, as a sine qua non of democracy. “All our dignity consists in thought,” he could have said with the Jansenist philosopher (P348). Yet if thought constitutes man’s nobility, man is still as nothing before the unfathomable depths of the universe: “A vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him,” said Pascal. “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature. But he is a thinking reed.”

For Pascal, it was the immensity and variability of the universe and of the individual soul that inspired humility and warned against undue confidence in the powers of reason.

I spent much of my life believing that some kind of justice existed, and in that I was not mistaken, for justice does exist, insofar as God has willed that it be revealed to us. But I did not take it that way, and there I was mistaken, for I believed that our justice was essentially just and that I possessed the means to know and to judge it. Yet I found myself so often wanting right judgment that in the end I became wary of myself and then of others. I have seen changes in all countries and all men, and I understood that our nature was one of constant change. (P378)

For Tocqueville, the providential increase in the equality of conditions signaled the kind of justice that God intended but did nothing to bolster man’s feeble reason in the face of the immensity of the unknowable, including what was unknowable or at the very least unavowable within himself. Indeed, the passage to a democratic social state entailed debilities in the faculties of reason not contemplated by Pascal. Man now found himself alone, isolated, helpless, and weak vis-à-vis not just the multitudinous universe but also the multitudes of his fellow men. With the transfer of intellectual authority to the mass, opinion gains a power it had not previously possessed (II.1.2). The end of studious idleness owing to the universal injunction to work means that the few who have a taste for higher studies may lack the opportunity for it, while those who acquire the opportunity may have lost the taste. The restless mobility of the democratic social state forsakes fixed ideas for the bewildering swirl of amorphous opinion, which Tocqueville compares in a fine metaphor to “intellectual dust, blown about by every wind and unable to coalesce into any fixed shape.” (II.1.1)

What, then, was the point of a new political science, if ideas commanded so little authority, if their imprecision led to error rather than insight, and if reason in the best of cases was dwarfed by immense and dimly understood forces and combated within the bosom of man himself by the power of the passions? Let me say in advance where I am headed: the new political science, I believe, was intended to direct the new political art, whose purpose was to shape man’s instincts, for when the light of reason fails and circumstances are unprecedented, instinct is all that man possesses to set himself on the right course.

Several passages from Pascal bear on this point. Let me enumerate them first, then gloss them in an effort to suggest how Tocqueville transformed Pascal’s thoughts. Pascal tells us that “two things instruct man by way of his entire nature: instinct and experience. Instinct seems to be aspiration to the good, memory of our primitive perfection; experience is knowledge of our misery and our fall” (P404). There is, Pascal says, “intestine warfare in man between reason and the passions;” as a result of this war, those “who wanted peace divided into two sects. Some sought to renounce the passions and become gods; others sought to renounce reason and become brute beasts.” “But they were unable to do so. Reason persists always, accusing the baseness and injustice of the passions and disturbing the repose of those who yield to them; and the passions live on in those who would renounce them.”

Now, how did Tocqueville read this account of a tragic and inexpugnable doubleness in the soul of man? First, he did not believe that men could purge themselves of their passions and become gods. His contemporary Hegel held that history had carried out such a purification by setting man’s reason over against man himself in the form of the bureaucratic state, a human construct that nevertheless presented itself as the embodiment of suprahuman rationality. Marx assigned a similar role to a different actor, the working class, whose interests he assumed to be identical with the interests of man as species. Tocqueville’s realism on this point set his thinking on a radically different course that established him for posterity as the principal theoretical adversary of the Hegelian-Marxist understanding, a circumstance that undoubtedly played a part in securing his present classic status.

Second, Tocqueville agreed with Pascal about the instructive value of instinct and experience. Pay particular attention to the former word, instinct. It occurs in no fewer than 49 of the 83 chapters of Democracy in America. Tocqueville uses it in its etymological sense, meaning “instigation, impulse, or prompting.” There was originally no connotation of innateness, and in fact Tocqueville speaks in some places of instincts as things that can be acquired or that depend on society for their nurturing, so clearly he does not assume that instincts are inborn and immutable.21 This original meaning was still current in Tocqueville’s French. He shared it, in fact, with those “materialist philosophers” whose hostility to religion made them his enemies. Pierre Naville, a student of the writings of the baron d’Holbach, remarks that “d’Holbach emphasizes above all the acquired character of what is called instinct (physical or moral).”22 Furthermore, he is keen to show that “moral instincts–what we would call penchants, dispositions, attitudes, behaviors—are no more ‘innate’ than physical instincts.”23

Now, I’ve compiled a long list of passages in which Tocqueville uses the word instinct. Time is too short to read them all. Instead I’ll summarize the varied and even contradictory ways in which Tocqueville uses the word. Several themes stand out. They are not consistent with one another, and in certain places Tocqueville will emphasize one connotation of the term and suppress others.

First, he sometimes sets instinct in opposition to reason, just as Pascal does. Reason is light; it sees. Instinct is blind. Reason reflects upon itself and is cold or calculating, instinct warm and passionate and immediate. Thus the purpose of Democracy in America is to “substitute … understanding of true interests for blind instinct” (Intro.) “Egoism is born of blind instinct” (II.2.2). Yet he can also say that “what was calculation becomes instinct” (II.2.4).24 This last quote suggests a narrowing or bridging of the gap between instinct and reason such as we find already in d’Holbach, who wrote that “to have instinct (avoir de l’instinct) means simply to judge promptly and without need of lengthy argument.”25

Second, instinct, as for the materialists, is associated with an array of other unreflective motivations such as taste, thirst, passion, character, tendency, predilection, proclivity. All are forms of what Aristotle would call disposition, consequences of the way a thing is constituted, of the nature or arrangement of its parts. “The majority … often has the tastes and instincts of a despot” (I.2.8). Students of the law acquire “a taste for forms and a sort of instinctive love of regular sequence in ideas” (I.2.8). “A taste for the tangible and the real … as well as contempt for traditions and forms” are “general instincts” of individuals living in conditions of equality (II.1.10).26

Third, when it comes to indicating the strength of instincts relative to other motives for action such as reason, interest, or opinion, Tocqueville speaks in two distinctly different registers. Sometimes an instinct is a weak form of desire, an attenuated passion. These are the passages in which he associates instinct with taste and its cousins. At other times, however, instinct is an all but irresistible force, a drive not unlike the drives or instincts in Freud or concupiscence in Aristotle. Tocqueville doesn’t speak of subconscious drives but he does attach great importance to “secret instincts.”27 “All bodies … harbor a secret instinct that impels them toward independence” (I.2.10). Nothing is “more contrary to nature and to the secret instincts of the human heart” than the subjection of a people to a noble caste (I.2.10).

Fourth, instinct is a force that reason or spirit or cunning may choose either to resist or to enlist. “Religion, by respecting all democratic instincts not hostile to it and by enlisting some of them in its own behalf, successfully struggles against the spirit of individual independence, which is for it the most dangerous” (II.1.5). “Suppose that a man … resists instinct at every turn and coldly calculates all the actions of his life” (II.2.9). There can be “constant tension” between “the instincts to which equality gives rise and the means it provides for their satisfaction,” and this tension “torments and tires the soul” (II.2.13).

Fifth, man is part brute, part angel, and in the contest between the two the instincts are ambivalent: “The instinct and taste of the human race support this doctrine” of spiritualism and “often save it from men themselves” (II.2.15), yet men also “lapse easily into that state of complete and brutish indifference to the future that is only too consistent with certain instincts of the human species” (II.2.17).

Finally, we must consider the temporal nature of instincts. Are they durable dispositions, properties of a thing’s nature, intrinsic qualities, as Tocqueville’s language sometimes suggests? Or are they, as he implies elsewhere, like certain passions: products of circumstance, transitory, inconstant? “Democratic instincts were awakened” (I.1.3). “Parties are an evil inherent in free governments, but their character and instincts are not always the same” (I.2.2). “The periodical press seems to me to have instincts and passions of its own, independent of the circumstances in which it operates” (I.2.3). “When opinions are in doubt, people end up relying on instinct and material interest to guide them” (I.2.3). But it is difficult to judge the “permanent instincts of democracy” (I.2.5). As often as not, instinct occupies a middle position: it is like love, at once circumstantial and durable. Indeed, “instinctive love” of one’s country “stems primarily from the immediate, disinterested, indefinable sentiment that ties a man’s heart to the place where he was born.” It is a “habit” and “attached to memories.” As such it links up with another key term in Tocqueville, mores, whose definition he says he takes from the Ancients: “I apply [the term] not only to mores in the strict sense, what one might call habits of the heart, but also to the various notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the whole range of ideas that shape habits of the mind.” Instincts, then, are in this guise like mores in the strict sense, “habits of the heart,” quasi-durable and unreflective dispositions to act in certain ways, yet subject to modification by a range of notions, opinions, and ideas, which together determine “habits of the mind” (I.2.9).

Instinct and Art

So the new political art, we might say, comes down to winning hearts and minds. How is this to be done? Tocqueville’s answers are characteristically nuanced and frustratingly scattered throughout his text. He envisions for society times of stability and times of instability. Instinct is likely to be tenacious, opinions and ideas more volatile but by the same token more supple and adaptable. Hence one might be well advised to place confidence in instincts during times of stability and in ideas in times of flux. But flux can be so rapid as to cloud the mind and discourage the heart. In such dark times, neither instinct nor reason can be counted on, but the legislator instructed in the new political science may seek to order the parts of a polity in such a way that its instincts in the face of unforeseen circumstance offer it the best chance of survival. Here I must allow myself to quote Tocqueville at greater length:

In the life of a nation … there may come a time when ancient customs are transformed, mores decay, faiths are shaken, memories lose their prestige, but enlightenment has yet to complete its work and political rights remain insecure or limited. At such times the only light in which men can see their country is a feeble and dubious one. Patriotic feeling no longer attaches to the soil, which to the people who live on it has become mere inanimate earth; or to ancestral customs, which they have learned to see as confining; or to religion, of which they are skeptical; or to the laws, which they do not make; or to the lawmaker, whom they fear and despise. Hence they cannot see their country anywhere, in either its proper guise or any other, and they withdraw into narrow, unenlightened selfishness. They have escaped prejudice but not yet embraced the empire of reason. Lacking both the instinctive patriotism of monarchy and the considered patriotism of a republic, they find themselves stuck somewhere between the two, surrounded by confusion and misery. (I.2.6)

Deprived of the guidance of both instinct and enlightenment, man is rudderless. In such a predicament, a conservative might be expected to appeal to traditional values, to invoke the need for order, to rely on prescriptive authority. Tocqueville’s proposal may therefore surprise those who think of him as a conservative:

What to do in such a situation? Retreat. But nations no more revert to the sentiments of their youth than do men to the innocent desires of childhood. Though they may long to feel such feelings again, nothing can revive them. So there is no choice but to proceed forthrightly and with all deliberate speed to make the case that the interests of individuals and of the nation are inextricably intertwined, because disinterested love of country has vanished forever.

Far be it from me to suggest that in order to achieve this end, full political rights must immediately be granted to all men. Nevertheless, the most powerful way of persuading men that they have a stake in their country’s fate, and perhaps the only way still available to us, is to see to it that they participate in its government. The civic spirit today seems to me intimately intertwined with the exercise of political rights, and I think that from now on the number of citizens in Europe will rise and fall in proportion to the extension of such rights. (I.2.6)

If instinct fails in a crisis that unfolds more rapidly than reason can grasp it, disaster follows. It is therefore prudent for political science to nurture healthy instincts in the citizenry before crisis strikes. To accomplish this, interest must be properly understood, by which I mean, and I think Tocqueville meant, that the way in which interests arise out of instincts, and hence the link between the core of the self and its rational expressions, is central to the art of politics. Tocqueville wants no part of Burke’s contempt for reform, even if he shares Burke’s scorn for those reformers who think they can lead the herd by feeding its appetites. He believes that men can be educated not by a direct application of reason—not by abstract argument or manipulative calculation—but by participation in a polity contrived by reason to nurture true instincts. Once confronted with the practical problems of government, men will see, concretely, that “they have a stake in their country’s fate.” Their instincts will be modified accordingly—instincts in the sense of tastes. In the language of neoclassical economics—the intellectual heir of that materialist utilitarianism which Tocqueville greeted initially not with Burkean sarcasm but with the irony of the moralists of l’âge classique—their schedule of preferences will change, and hence their interests. So interest, an abstract word which in Tocqueville’s lexicon starts out on the side of calculation and Cartesian reason, is drawn by the art of politics to the side of virtue, to the idea of a conscious and deliberate fashioning of the self. It is not simply that the sphere of private interest is “enlarged” to encompass the public interest. At the same time the public spirit is compressed and concentrated in the individual mind. The soul of democratic man undergoes modification through his participation in government. Just as, in the democratic family, “habit and need” foster “intimacy” between father and sons which “makes the father’s authority less absolute” (II.3.8) but develops a new and vital family instinct unknown in aristocratic society, so, too, can the legislator craft laws intended to develop new instincts in the citizens of a democracy.

Let me return now to translation. The transition may seem abrupt, but there is, I believe, a connection between the art of politics and the art of translation. Tocqueville wrote that “the legislator is like a navigator on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the ocean from swelling beneath his feet” (I.1.8). The translator finds himself in a similar predicament. Whatever his preparation for his task may be, he cannot bring to the text precisely the same presuppositions as the author. He cannot alter the construction of the work, but he can study its most minute details. He can prepare himself as well by exploring many other texts before facing the challenge. In confronting a classic, he will also need to take account of the winds of conflicting interpretation that blow from every quarter of the compass. But in the moment, with the blank page before him and all his prior reading and translating stretched out behind him like a wake on the surface of the sea, and all the swirling maelstrom of commentary set to one side, he has only his instinct to rely on. He is, if I may presume to make a rather grandiose comparison, like the statesman in a moment of crisis. Argument, explication, criticism, comparison—the tools of reason—all these are occupations for dry land. Instinct is not much of a defense for his spur-of-the-moment decisions unless he arrives safely in port. And that, ultimately, is not in his power to decide, any more than it is in the power of the legislator to divine what fate holds in store for the people whose instincts he has tried to shape, to make ready for every contingency.

So I have spoken for nearly an hour only to tell you that in the end I translated one phrase, “self-interest properly understood,” exactly as one of my predecessors did, and that despite the complex web of meanings and allusions that Tocqueville wove around the word instinct, I felt I had no choice but to translate it by its misleading English cognate. Here you see what is so humbling about the work of the translator. He has to wear his learning so lightly that he is likely to appear naked, and in the end he must rely on his own instincts to do the right thing and on the instincts of his readers to divine when he has done so. Translation is thus an act of faith, or at any rate the simulation of faith. For unless one has faith that in translating it is possible to do better than literal transcription, one won’t do better. Recall Tocqueville’s own words, which echo the wager of Pascal:

What I am about to say will do me no good in the eyes of politicians. I believe that the only effective way for governments to honor the dogma of the immortality of the soul is to act every day as though they believed in it themselves. And I believe that it is only by conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great affairs that they can boast of teaching citizens to know it, love it, and respect it in small ones. (II.2.15)

Similarly, what I am about to say will do me no good in the eyes of my critics, but if the translator truly wishes to honor the notion that the work before him is a classic, that it has the power to instruct, to inspire, to command respect, he must translate as though he believed it. He must not, while professing humility, imperiously strip the work of the mystique from which it derives its immortality. If, as Pascal says, “instinct seems to be aspiration to the good,” the denial of instinct is wrong, the insistence on method a trap, and the repudiation of freedom a betrayal that would leave mastery exclusively to the masters of a method sanctioned only by themselves. Classicism properly understood isn’t a constraint; it’s a liberation.


1 See the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “classic”: “Gellius has ‘classicus … scriptor, non proletarius’, where the word means ‘high-class’, as opposed to ‘low.’”

2 James Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 26.

3 André Jardin, Alexis de Tocqueville (Paris: Hachette, 1984), p. 44.

4 The French is: “Ainsi la mort venait en quelque sorte y aider à la vie.” Bradley has: “Thus decay gave its assistance to life.” Lawrence: “Thus death in some way helped life forward.” Mansfield and Winthrop: “Thus death came in a way to the aid of life.”

5 Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 14.

6 See, in the Mansfield-Winthrop translation of Democracy in America, “A Note on the Translation,” pp. xci-xciii, and especially Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “Translating Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” The Tocqueville Review 21(1)2000:155. Cf. my “Remarks on the Mansfield-Winthrop Translation,” French Politics, Culture & Society 21(1)2003:110 (available on-line at ~agoldham/articles/Mansfield.htm), and Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “Reply to Our Critics”, ibid., p. 139.

7 Cheryl Welch, De Tocqueville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 245: “Some of the most penetrating American scholarship … on Tocquevile’s thought has been produced by political theorists who identify with Strauss’s approach to the study of political philosophy.”

8 Françoise Mélonio, Tocqueville et les Français (Paris: Aubier, 1993).

9 Letter from Tocqueville to Henry Reeve, October 15, 1839; OC 6.1, p. 48.

10 Mansfield and Winthrop, p. xci: “A book as great as Tocqueville’s should inspire a certain reverence in translators.”

11 Schleifer, Making, p. 237.

12 Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 91.

13 Isaiah Berlin, Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 20: “Bentham was a complete disciple of Helvétius, and although the word ‘utilitarianism’ is normally associated with him, I think it is fair to say that there is little—among the cardinal ideas, at least—in Bentham which does not stem directly from Helvétius.”

14 Interesting comments on the topics discussed in the rest of this essay can be found, with somewhat different emphases, in the influential work of Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), and Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraints: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 42-68.

15 Mansfield-Winthrop translation, p. 501 n.

16 Burke, Reflections, par. 271.

17 Holmes, Passions, p. 66.

18 Strauss, Thoughts, p. 11.

19 Of course we tend to talk about the lexical rather than other aspects of that overall impression precisely because we can talk about them: it’s easy to point to a word and to a dictionary definition and say, See, that’s what it means. In doing so we take toward prose an attitude rather like that which Dr. Johnson took toward matter when he kicked the rock and said, “I refute Berkeley thus.” But Johnson, though a lexicographer, was no literalist: he described his dictionary as ”the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer” and is remembered as much for his extracurricular and poetically licentious glosses on the meaning of words such as “patriotism” as for his efforts to regiment the unruliness of Shakespeare’s tongue. Even formal prose is rather more ragtag than regimented. In translating the word bien, it’s not as if the translator passes in review the whole army of possibilities that I evoked above. The point is precisely that one doesn’t recite the rosary in this way. To one who knows the language, the potential alternative uses of bien and the conceivable implications of each permissible choice of a translation hover as silent as ghosts around the actual embodiment not only of the author’s palpable intent but of possibilities latent in his language that deserve to be preserved for the reader without access to the original. These ghosts influence the translation, as do other unarticulated elements such as the rhythm of the text’s sentences, the balance of its periods, the grace or gruffness of its tone, the hint that the author was smiling when he stabbed at his paper with particular vigor in bringing to a full stop a particularly well-turned phrase. In the translator’s ear these mute voices run like a counterpoint to the text’s main line, influencing his song even if he would be hard pressed to say precisely how. If he doesn’t hear those voices, he isn’t likely to achieve the proper overall effect.

20 Also: “Nor can the inhabitants of such a society derive their beliefs from the opinions of the class to which they belong, because in a sense there are no longer classes, and those that do still exist are so variable in their composition that the body can never exert any real power over its members.”

21 The suggestion of innateness probably grew out of the use of the word as a verb. The OED, for example, cites this sentence from 1549: “The good simple people of the olde golden worlde … lived onely as Nature taught and instincted them.” Hence it was the idea that nature prompts people to act in certain ways that gave rise to the notion of instinct as an innate prompting, an instigation by nature. The original sense vanished from English some time after 1730, the date of the last example given in this sense by the OED.

22 Pierre Naville, D’Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), p. 285.

23 Ibid., p. 289.

24 Other examples: The American revolution stemmed from “a mature, reflective preference for liberty and not a vague, indefinite instinct for independence” (I.1.5). “Instinctive love” of country is an “unreflective passion” that can be contrasted with “another, more rational form of patriotism” (I.2.6).

25 Ibid., p. 289, quoting d’Holbach, Système de la Nature, vol. 2, p. 38.

26 Other examples: Man exhibits “both a natural disgust for existence and an overwhelming desire to exist. … These divergent instincts constantly compel his soul to contemplate the other world” (I.2.9). Men in aristocratic societies “feel an instinctive distaste” for general ideas. (II.1.3)

27 Other examples: “The patriotic instinct” is “a powerful force in the heart of man” (I.1.8). Instinctive love of country “inspires great but transitory efforts rather than persistent ones” (I.2.6). “As long as a religion draws its strength from sentiments, instincts, and passions … it can resist the work of time” (I.2.9). “What keeps large numbers of citizens subject to the same government is much less the rational determination to remain united than the instinctive and in some sense involuntary accord that results from similarity of feeling and likeness of opinion” (I.2.10). The President is “encouraged in his vendetta … by his sense that the majority with its secret instincts supports him” (I.2.10). Jackson obeys the “half-divulged instincts” of the majority, “anticipating its desires before it knows what they are” (I.2.10).