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Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (Eminent Lives) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 7, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to recognize and trumpet the grandness of the American project. His two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835, not only offered a vivid account of what was then a new nation but famously predicted what that nation would become. His startling prescience, as well as the endurance of his political ideas, has firmly established Tocqueville's place in American history; his chronicle of our infancy is a fixture on every American history syllabus. Nearly all of his clairvoyant predictions about American political life, from the influence of Evangelical Christianity to the advent of our "consumer society," have come true—and on the schedule he set.

Yet in his own time, Tocqueville had little evidence for the truth of his ideas. Introspective, sickly, prone to self-doubt, he was an unlikely visionary. Joseph Epstein, America's most versatile essayist, proves an ideal guide to his predecessor. In wry, elegant prose, he engages Tocqueville's intellectual contributions, illuminates the development of his thought, and provides a referendum on his various prophecies. (His record was far from perfect—he thought the federal government would wither away as the states rose in power.) Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide is an altogether human portrait of the Frenchman who would become an American icon.

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From Publishers Weekly

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), whose Democracy in America is more quoted than read, is the subject of the latest installment in the excellent Eminent Lives series. Tocqueville is fortunate enough to have Epstein (Snobbery: The American Version), another man of letters lighting the way. Epstein provides a penetrating examination of the man, his works, his influence, his times and what we can learn from Democracy in America. Epstein performs sterling service in marshaling the vast amount of material available on this enigmatic 19th-century Frenchman, and gives readers a clear understanding of the immense complexities involved: Tocqueville is much more than a source of useful epigrams and half-remembered misquotes. Was he a conservative, a liberal, a Christian, an agnostic, a historian, a sociologist, a reactionary aristocrat or a radical bourgeois? The answer, Epstein concludes, was that he was all and none; each era has its own understanding of the man, refracted through the particular concerns of the time, lending Tocqueville an aura of timelessness. His exquisite literary sensibility also helps to keep him fresh for each new generation. As an introduction to the man and a primer for his works, Epstein's book is admirable. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • Series: Eminent Lives
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Eminent Lives; First edition (November 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060598980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060598983
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 7.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #814,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on March 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Joseph Epstein has written a very useful brief (205 pages) biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of "Democracy in America" (1835). This is one of two new Tocqueville biographies--the other being the long-germinating volume by Denis Brogan. The author strikes a very nice balance between covering Tocqueville's life, while also devoting some attention to his major writings. So while there is a discussion of "Democracy in America" it is not as extensive as if the book were a commentary on it alone. Other Tocqueville writing efforts, especially his book on the causes of the French revolution and uncompleted second volume on the actual revolution itself, are discussed as well. But basically, the book is a fast paced review of Tocqueville's life, political career, and relationship to various French governments (including his service for a brief time as foreign minister). Several times the author touches upon Tocqueville's central dilemma--the relationship between democracy, liberty and equality. The discussion of Tocqueville as an aristocrat commenting on democracy and equality is quite interesting. The book has no notes, bibliograpy or index--but does have a brief note at the end regarding the most valuable sources the author found on the topic. The author's writing style is quite pleasant and enjoyable. Quite a lot of info packed into a relatively short book--enough of a taste to let the reader know whether it is worthwhile to invest in one of the longer treatments of Tocqueville's life.
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Format: Hardcover
Tocqueville has fame. He is more often quoted than read. Tocqueville sought to analyze all social arrangements. He was born in 1805 in Paris. Alexis's father's hair turned white in the Terror. His mother never regained her emotional equilibrium after being imprisoned. The family atmosphere was filled with talk of books and ideas. Alexis became a philosophical historian. As a young man Alexis was seized with doubt upon reading Buffon and Voltaire. As a juge auditeur Alexis formed a life-long friendship with Gustave de Beaumont. Alexis gave allegiance to Louis-Philippe but withdrew from government service to travel with Beaumont in North America. The two came up with the idea to study American penal systems. The book resulting from the journey, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, was a classic in political science and political philosophy.

When Tocqueville faced his notes on American politics he had writer's block. Beaumont wrote the report on prisons. To create comparisons, Tocqueville traveled to England. He discovered that in England governmental functions were decentralized. The aristocracy was less unitary than the French aristocracy. Tocqueville spent a little less than s year on the first volume of DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. It was published in 1835 and was a smashing success. Tocqueville's ambition crippled his haoppiness. He became a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1839. Tocqueville had trouble talking to voters, he had little vocation for politics. Tocqueville wrote Volume Two of DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. He feared a loss of liberty. He thought equality a danger. The second part was published in 1840. It was not as successful as the first.

Epstein's work is an intellectual portrait of Tocqueville. He has read DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA three times.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This short work is not so much of an attempt to chronicle de Tocqueville's life and works, as it is an attempt to understand his mind, character, and personality. How can it be that this obscure, aristocratic Frenchmen, in his late twenties, could produce perhaps the most insightful book ever written on democracy and without doubt the most read and quoted? Born in 1805 during Napoleon's reign, the French Revolution and its connection to aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, and dictatorship was, according to the author, the most significant event in de Tocqueville's life. Beyond the family nightmare of his parents being only days away from being guillotined, the Revolution reverberated throughout French society for decades. De Tocqueville, given his fixation on fundamental ideas, sought to understand for himself and his fellow Frenchmen what underlay the social and political developments of his time, including the experiment in democracy in the US that so fascinated Europeans.

As the author notes, de Tocqueville has resisted definitive classification through the years in terms of his profession, his political leanings, and his ranking as a profound philosopher. The biggest debate concerns his being a conservative or a liberal. The contention that he was a Christian conservative is countered by the crisis in religious belief that he underwent in his late teens that affected him the rest of his life and the fact that he was no lover of monarchy or aristocracy, seeing the spread of equality and democracy, not without their own shortcomings, as inevitable. Perhaps de Tocqueville was not of the intellectual stature of a Marx or Stuart Mill, but he was a keen observer and organizer of political and social phenomena, able to offer profound, often prophetic, insights concerning their bases.
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I have spent quite a bit of time reading Tocqueville. It truly is one of the seminal works for understanding America. Epstein does a brilliant job in this short, but satisfying biography.
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