Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

Paul A. Rahe
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift
    Book Description:

    In 1989, the Cold War abruptly ended and it seemed as if the world was at last safe for democracy. But a spirit of uneasiness, discontent, and world-weariness soon arose and has persisted in Europe, in America, and elsewhere for two decades. To discern the meaning of this malaise we must investigate the nature of liberal democracy, says the author of this provocative book, and he undertakes to do so through a detailed investigation of the thinking of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville.

    Paul A. Rahe argues that these political thinkers anticipated the modern liberal republic's propensity to drift in the direction of "soft despotism"-a condition that arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power expands and gradually undermines the spirit of self-government. Such an eventuality, feared by Tocqueville in the nineteenth century, has now become a reality throughout the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. So Rahe asserts, and he explains what must be done to reverse this unfortunate trend.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15610-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Fortunately for all of us, the Cold War ended not with a bang but with a whimper. It is surprising, however, that its cessation inspired so little elation. Of course, there was a moment of euphoria and rejoicing when the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to be a barrier. It seemed a miracle, and in a sense it was. But that moment quickly passed; and where one might have expected opinion leaders in the West to celebrate what was, after all, an astonishing and historically unprecedented victory, involving the utter defeat and ultimate dissolution of a powerful and threatening adversary...

  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  6. Book One. The Modern Republic Examined
    • Preface
      (pp. 3-10)
    • One Principles
      (pp. 11-31)

      The first eight books of the work that Montesquieu entitledDe l’Esprit des loishave one distinctive feature.¹ It was there—after a brief introduction dealing with the problematic character of man’s place in the universe and with the foundations of man-made law (EL1.1.1–3)—that the French philosophe first introduced his novel typology of political forms. His stated purpose for doing so was to trace theesprit—the spirit, the mindset, the motive, the impetus, the purpose, the intention, the object, as well as the logic—behind the “infinite diversity of laws & mores” which are to be found...

    • Two Uneasiness
      (pp. 32-60)

      In Part Two ofThe Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu makes freedom, rather than virtue, his focus;¹ and there he suggests that, while monarchies may give rise to political liberty, they do not do so in the course of pursuing it. Liberty is, as he demonstrates, an accidental by-product of their pursuit of that polity’s “direct object,” which is “the glory of the citizens, of the state, & of the prince” (EL2.11.7). In similar fashion, monarchies may achieve moderation by combining, regulating, and tempering powers so that one power possesses the ballast to resist another—but moderation is not that at...

  7. Book Two. The Modern Republic Revisited
    • Preface
      (pp. 63-74)
    • One The Enlightenment Indicted
      (pp. 75-95)

      At 7:30 a.m. on 24 July 1749, a young writer of great ambition and promise was arrested at his apartment in Paris. Subsequently, he was interrogated, and—after having perjured himself by denying under oath that he was the author of various incendiary works that, everyone knew, he had in fact composed—he was imprisoned in the dungeons at the château of Vincennes outside Paris. A month later, apparently at the instigation of Voltaire’s mistress, who happened to be the sister of his jailer, he was released from his cell, given comfortable quarters in the château, and allowed to roam...

    • Chapter Two Sociability as a Malady
      (pp. 96-115)

      Nowhere did Rousseau lodge a charge against Montesquieu similar to the one he leveled at Voltaire and the philosophes. Instead, in later years, he persistently expressed for the author ofDe l’Esprit des loisa profound, even exaggerated respect,¹ speaking of him as “an illustrious philosopher” (DOI136), as “a celebrated author” and “noble genius [beau génie]” (CS3.4), as a “great man,” and even as an “immortal.”² That he greatly admired Montesquieu there can be no doubt. In one passage, he treats him as a peer of Plato (DEP273); in another, he implies that he is the equal...

    • Three Citizenship as a Remedy
      (pp. 116-140)

      It is, of course, one thing to diagnose and another to cure. The former Rousseau could, at least to his own satisfaction, claim to have accomplished in his first two discourses; the latter, even by his own lights, he arguably never achieved (D3.934–35).¹ To be sure, he tried. InJulie, or The New Heloise, he explored the possibility that one could attain a measure of unity and happiness on the level of political society by way of a withdrawal from the corruptions of the city into a rustic retreat and an immersion in a species of romantic and...

  8. Book Three. The Democratic Republic Considered
    • Preface
      (pp. 143-153)
    • One Democratic Despotism
      (pp. 154-189)

      In early November 1836, when Tocqueville wrote to Louis de Kergorlay to voice his frustration and his worries, he complained that “a multitude of ideas remains obscure in my mind,” and he lamented that, in the absence of his childhood friend, he had no one residing nearby suitable for serving as a touchstone on which to test the validity of his intuitions. He was not, however, entirely bereft of intellectual companionship. He did have company of a sort, and it was, he confessed, very valuable company indeed. “There are,” he remarked, “three men with whom I live a little bit...

    • Two American Exceptionalism
      (pp. 190-220)

      In the letter of admonition (avertissement) that he placed at the head of the second great section ofDemocracy in Americapublished in 1840, Tocqueville warned his readers that they might find what he had to say in his new book surprising. He was firmly of the opinion “that the democratic revolution, of which we are the witnesses, is an irresistible fact—against which it would be neither desirable nor wise to struggle.” This those who had perused the firstDemocracyno doubt knew. But in the secondDemocracy, which they were about to read, he had often addressed “to...

    • Three The French Disease
      (pp. 221-241)

      Tocqueville’s account of democracy as a way of life in the United States needs to be put in the proper perspective, and, to do so, one must attend to two crucial facts. The first is that as a writer Tocqueville preferred indirection. At the time that he composedDemocracy in America, it was his conviction, as it had been Montesquieu’s, that “the books that have occasioned the most reflection on the part of men and that have had on their opinions and acts the greatest influence are those in which the author has not sought to tell them dogmatically that...

    • Four A Despotism of Administrators
      (pp. 242-270)

      In the face of Europe’s decline, Americans should not gloat or be smug—for, unless something dramatic is done in the near future, the odds are good that we will follow our European cousins on the path that leads to servitude. After all, in the course of the last century, we, too, contracted the French disease;¹ and among us today, under Democrats and Republicans alike, the malady advances at a quickening pace.²

      This development Alexis de Tocqueville did not foresee. His worries concerning the United States were of another sort. He was a great proponent of administrative decentralization and local...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 271-280)

    As should by now be evident, the danger that the world’s liberal democracies face today was long ago foreseen. Three hundred years ago, by decisively defeating Louis XIV’s France in a series of battles, John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, announced the presence on the world stage of a new species of government, capable of demonstrating that under modern circumstances, Carthage is apt to outpace Rome. In the aftermath, Voltaire, then Montesquieu, visited Great Britain and drew the attention of their compatriots to the virtues of its commercial republican regime. InThe Spirit of Laws, the latter even intimated that monarchy...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 281-350)
  11. Index
    (pp. 351-374)