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Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
It is often the case that we need to rely outsiders for the most honest and insightful views of ourselves. In the 1830s, America was a young country, and yet it was the oldest continuously running democracy in the world. As such it was a source of a lot of fascination for philosophers and social thinkers. Aside from homegrown thinkers, who had a lot of vested interest in presenting the young democracy in the best light possible and justifying its merits, a handful of foreigners took keen interest in this young country as well. Among these the most famous one has remained Alexis de Tocqueville. He was a young Frenchman from an aristocratic family who journeyed widely throughout America and wrote about his observations and insight in "Democracy in America." The book has been considered a classic ever since, and has been used and quoted by intellectuals and politicians of all sorts of ideological persuasions.

Tocqueville was an ideal observer of American society and political life. Although from an aristocratic family, he was extremely sympathetic to democracy in all of its forms. Nonetheless, he was keenly aware of the limitations that democracy places on the political process and the fragility of democracies in their early incipient years. This very short introduction explores some of the ways that Tocqueville formed his conclusions, and the political and social circumstances that shaped his worldview.

Harvey Mansfield is a brilliant writer and intellectual. It is such a pleasure to read anything by him, and this book is no exception. His breath of knowledge and highly refined sensibilities make this book in a class of its own within this "Very Short Introduction" series. This is a very enlightening, insightful and illuminating read about one of the most famous public intellectuals of all time. I highly recommend it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Harvey Mansfield's 2010 study of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 -- 1859) offers a provocative interpretation of this thinker and his continued importance rather than a mere summary. The book is part of Oxford University Press' "Very Short Introductions" series which aims to introduce readers to subjects and persons of importance in brief volumes. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has written extensively about political philosophy and in 2011 published an acclaimed translation of Tocqueville's "Democracy in America".

Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who achieved greatness for his thoughts about democracy. Mansfield offers a short consideration of Tocqueville's life and of his endeavors in politics, but he spends most of the book discussing the writings. He concentrates of Tocqueville's most famous work, "Democracy in America" published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. The book includes Tocqueville's reflections on the United States based upon a nine-month visit in 1831-32 with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont. Almost everyone who writes about or seeks to understand the United States studies and refers to "Democracy in America". Mansfield also considers Tocqueville's two other important books and their relationship to "Democracy": "The Old Regime and the Revolution" (1856), a book left unfinished which explores the background of the French Revolution, and the "Recollections", a personal account of the Revolution of 1848 which remained unpublished, at Tocqueville's request, until 1893.

In a letter to a friend, Tocqueville described himself as a "new kind of liberal". Mansfield tries to show how this description was justified. Mansfield distinguishes Tocqueville from the older kind of liberalism of Hobbes and Locke which was based upon a social contract theory and a view of human beings and their rights in a state of nature before social organization. Mansfield argues that Tocqueville rejects this individualistic, pre-social analysis of the human condition and accepts instead an Aristotelian view of man as a "political animal". Human beings must be understood, in this view, in a social context at the outset rather than as disconnected individuals.

Mansfield also argues that Tocqueville distrusted philosophy or ideology of any stripe as a basis for understanding political liberalism. Instead, Tocqueville developed his thinking about democracy, its merits and its dangers, from a consideration of the ways in which people work with and get along with one another. This approach gives his study of American democracy a descriptive, empirical cast. For Mansfield, Tocqueville begins with the American democratic experience in the self-governance of small towns and local courts rather than in large-scale government or in philosophical abstractions.

Another way in which Tocqueville's liberalism was "new", Mansfield argues, was in its friendliness to religion and in its critique of materialism. As a liberal, Tocqueville insisted upon the separation of religion from governance. But he found religion performed a critical role in reminding individuals in a democracy on the importance of virtue and of spiritual values as opposed simply to making money and to pursuing short-term satisfactions.

Finally, for Mansfield, Tocqueville's liberalism differed from its predecessors in recognizing the importance of individual human greatness and achievement. Perhaps as a result of his aristocratic background, Tocqueville thought that the goal of democracy was to allow individuals to achieve and excel and develop their gifts rather than to produce a state of leveling and mass mediocrity.

In his study, Mansfield develops the nature of Tocqueville's liberalism by focusing on five subjects: his description of democratic politics, thoughts on democratic self-government, his fears for democracy, his discussion of the rational administrative state and its virtues and limitations, and, lastly, Tocqueville's understanding of human greatness and its realization in a democracy. This is a great deal of material to cover in a "Very Short Introduction". Mansfield's discussion is dense, concentrated, and pithy.

Mansfield's view offers a short, insightful overview of Tocqueville's thought. It made me want to revisit Tocqueville for myself. The book reminded me of, for some, the importance of thought and study in understanding the United States and its experiment in democratic government.

Robin Friedman
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
A good introduction to Tocqueville in English. An excellent first read to understand the original version in French. A touchstone of political philosophy to judge our drift from Federalism to broken Democracy to Oligarchy. Where we began. How and why we are losing our freedoms. Place this next to "The Road to Serfdom".
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I purchased it and Democracy in America and Ancien Regime and the French Revolution at the same time. It really helped prepare me for reading the other two books by setting the time and place of the events....
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I would definitely not consider myself a Tocqueville expert. Mansfield's intro has really helped me better understand and appreciate his masterful writing.
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