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Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect Hardcover – April 16, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Rahe (history & political science, Hillsdale Coll.; Republics Ancient and Modern) has actually written two books in one: the first three quarters are a detailed reading of the great 18th- and 19th-century political and social theorists Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville on the nature of government, the glue that holds the polity together, and the difficulty maintaining political virtue and, with it, individual freedom, in a democratic republic. The threat to liberty and civic virtue, as Tocqueville saw it, lay in the elimination of intermediate bodies (like townships) that directly involved citizens in governing. Without such intermediate bodies, democracy would drift into soft despotism, with a central government regulating the smallest details of the citizen's life. This part of the book is tightly reasoned, relying on a thoughtful reading of texts that still have great merit for our own age. The final section of the book is an impassioned, occasionally intemperate, but largely successful attempt to describe the malaise gripping democratic governments today, combined with a plea to limit government's intrusion into our lives. (The author quite evidently holds libertarian views.) Many scholars and serious readers will find this essential reading.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Acute analysts of emergent commercial republicanism found much to praise, even while foreseeing (and showing how one might avert) its slide into mindless self-absorption. With this expert, engrossing account, Paul Rahe joins that honorable company who resist the further degradation of democratic souls."—Ralph Lerner, The University of Chicago

(Ralph Lerner)

"This is an exemplary deployment of great past thinkers in an intensely provocative, deliberately controversial meditation on the profound strengths and weaknesses or dangers in our political culture."—Thomas L. Pangle, author of Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws

(Thomas L. Pange)

"A remarkable book."—Kenneth Minogue, Times Literary Supplement
(Kenneth Minogue Times Literary Supplement)

“Valuable. . . impressive and provocative. . . deserves to be widely read. . . a fine book.”—William Voegeli, National Review
(William Voegeli National Review)

“Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees.”—Harvey Mansfield, Weekly Standard
(Harvey Mansfield Weekly Standard)

“Intelligent [and] well-reasoned.”—Cynthia Grenier, Human Events
(Cynthia Grenier Human Events)

"Outstanding."—David Gordon, The Mises Review
(David Gordon The Mises Review)

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine
(Choice 2010-01-01)

"Rahe's volume does the further service...of exposing this dilemma regarding how to break through the amnesia of the late-modern liberal era without reinforcing its disdain for those backward minds that have not yet caught the wave of egalitarian and perpetually self-constructed liberation."--Paul O. Carrese, Journal of the Review of Politics
(Paul O. Carrese Journal of the Review of Politics)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (April 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030014492X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300144925
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #618,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

After reading Litterae Humaniores at Wadham College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship from 1971-1974, Paul A. Rahe completed a Ph.D. in ancient history at Yale University under the direction of Donald Kagan in 1977. In subsequent years, he taught at Cornell University, Franklin and Marshall College, and the University of Tulsa, where he spent twenty-four years before accepting a position at Hillsdale College, where he is Professor of History and holds The Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage.

Professor Rahe's entire scholarly career has been focused on studying the origins and evolution of self-government within the West. His range is considerable. His first book, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992), was 1200 pages in length and surveyed the origins and development of self-government in ancient Greece and Rome, its re-emergence in a new form in the Middle Ages, the transformation it underwent at the hands of the political philosophers of early modernity, and the statesmanship of the American Founding Fathers. Within the first thirteen months of publication, the hardback edition sold out. Thereafter, it reappeared as an alternative selection of the History Book Club. In 1994, it was reissued in a three-volume paperback edition by the University of North Carolina Press, and it remains in print.

In the course of his career, Professor Rahe has published dozens of chapters on related subjects in edited books and scholarly articles in journals such as The American Journal of Philology, Historia, The American Journal of Archaeology, The American Historical Review, The Review of Politics, The American Journal of Business and Professional Ethics, The Journal of the Historical Society, The National Interest, The Woodrow Wilson Quarterly, and History of Political Thought. He spent two years in Istanbul, Turkey in the mid-1980s as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs; he has been awarded research fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Earhart Foundation; and he has held research fellowships at the Center for Hellenic Study, the National Humanities Center, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D. C. , Clare College at Cambridge University, All Souls College at Oxford University, and the American Academy in Berlin; and he has given a host of public lectures at universities in the United States and abroad--most recently at the Hebrew University and at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, at the Sorbonne in Paris, at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and the Free University in Berlin. In 1997-98, he was named to the Templeton Honor Rolls for Education in a Free Society by The John M. Templeton Foundation, and in 2006 the Society for French Historical Studies awarded him the Koren Prize for the Best Article Published in French History the preceding year.

Professor Rahe co-edited Montesquieu's Science of Politics: Essays on the Spirit of Laws (2001) with David W. Carrithers and Michael A. Mosher, and he edited Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy (2006). His second book, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic, which examines the political thought inspired by the abortive republican experiment that took place in England in the period stretching from 1649 to 1660, was published by Cambridge University Press in April, 2008. His third and fourth books, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville on the Modern Prospect, were published by Yale University Press in 2009. For his fifth book, The Spartan Way of War, which he hopes to finish in 2011 or 2012, Professor Rahe has received a contract from Yale University Press.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

86 of 87 people found the following review helpful By George Greene VINE VOICE on April 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Rahe has written an exceptionally fine book. As a historian, he places Montesquieu's, Rousseau's and Tocqueville's writings within context. Furthermore, he reads these thinkers closely as they weigh both the strengths and weaknesses of modern democracies as they drift toward soft despotism--the administrative state. He demonstrates how Rousseau and Tocqueville draw from the peculiar modern political science that Montesquieu developed. For students of "classic" political thought, it is a must read as Rahe demonstrates how these thinkers draw from Pascal's psychology which is separated from its theological roots in order to develop institutions that guarentee individual liberty.

There is also a polemical part to Rahe's book. Paul Rahe is more than concerned about the administrative state here in the United States which he believes erodes our liberties as a result of bureaucrats exercise greater control of our daily lives. He finds that this shift occurred as a result of the Progressive Era's devaluation of our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Although that may be a part of the analysis, it would appear to be somewhat incomplete. As I understand the Progressive Era, it was a reaction to political corruption in which it was believed that the political system could not be trusted. Instead, it was believed that solutions to political problems could only be solved outside of this corrupt system through neutral expertise. The failure of the Progressive Era was that it did not see that the neutral expert would become vested in the system or bureaucracy that he or she created.

In his conclusion, Paul Rahe somewhat softens his rhetoric against the administrative state.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Prof. Paul Anthony Rahe does service to the cause of freedom by producing a profoundly useful work entitled _Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, de Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect_. The author attempts to explain what de Tocqueville called many years ago, "democracy's drift." Meaning its descent into a "soft despotism" of centralized administration, barely perceptible over time. Rahe seeks serious philosophical support for his libertarian conclusions by appealing to the works of three great French thinkers. Montesquieu, whose work _The Spirit of the Laws_ reflected his study of the English national constitution and first suggested the efficacy of separation of powers. Rousseau, who was voluminous works, including the _Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men_, provided for an attack on individual liberty as the safeguard of societal progress, and argued that societies need to trade liberty for equality. And of course, the great de Tocqueville, in whose magnum opus, _Democracy in America_ astutely observed the habits of the early 19th century American population and through which he developed a theory of how societies can avoid democratic drift.

It is useful to review a quote from de Tocqueville that the author puts in his conclusion:

"Certain peoples pursue liberty obstinately in the face of all sorts of perils and misfortunes. It is not the material goods that it offers them that these peoples then love in it; they consider it itself as a good so precious and so necessary that no other good console them for its loss and that they find, in tasting it, consolation for everything that occurs.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Busy Executive TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dr. Rahe, a Rhodes scholar, is a well-respected political historian and professor of history at Hillsdale College, an institution noted for its fierce independence and unbiased stance on many of today's key issues. This, his seventh book, is perhaps his most significant.

Although it is a scholarly work, it effectively demonstrates the slippery slope the US and other Western democracies have been on as they've slid semi-consciously towards depotism and tyranny at the hands of an ever more powerful nanny state. While this is clearly be the author's personal belief, the most compelling testimony comes from the likes of Alexis de Tocqueville, who anticipated today's trends over a century ago. Seeing today's reality as the manifestation of the worst fears of yesterday's best minds proves to be a powerful message.

The book is full of wonderful quotations from Tocquevill and others, including one of my favorites: "...finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd". If you've never been exposed to the likes of Montesquie or Rousseau, their thoughts will prove haunting when you think about them in today's context.

Unfortunately, while Dr. Rahe's work is well-written and no doubt meticulously researched, it's not likely to be subject matter for some mass-market TV series. His important message is therefore likely to remain unheard, until perhaps it becomes too late to reverse the trends he speaks about. That is the real tragedy of our times.

Recommended without reservation.
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