The Limits of Modern Cosmopolitanism

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Cosmopolitanism Today

The word cosmopolitan implies that the world itself can be regarded as a polis or political community and that it is possible for the human being to live as a citizen (polites) of the world. For its proponents, this ideal of universal citizenship is associated with enlightenment and sophistica­tion, the liberation of the heart and mind from parochial prejudice and attachments–which liberation is thought to clear the way for a politics of universal benevolence and the brotherhood of man.

Yet this ideal is fraught with tension. If cosmopolitanism requires the transcendence of local ways or their rejection as comprehensive constraints on human life, does it not therefore entail the rejection of ordinary polites as the equals, and there­fore as the “brothers,” of the world citizen? Must not the cosmopolitan consider himself superior to the place-bound masses? If so, and if this al­leged superiority is to contribute to the progress of civilization, does it not become necessary to subordinate each particular political order (politeia) to one universal regime (cosmopoliteia) ruled by the cosmopolitan himself?

Even if all men are potentially cosmopolitan, the realization of this human potential would still require a radical transformation of political orders, and of society as we know it. The horrors perpetrated in furtherance of cosmopolitan ideologies by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, among others in recent memory, cannot permit us to dismiss this problem lightly.

The same tension is evident even closer to home, in the self-doubts increasingly plaguing the conscience of contemporary liberal democracy. Whether we look to the Declaration of Independence or to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, we find that modern liberalism as a practical political project is rooted in the notion that political authority is subordinate to a set of principles that are self-evident and universally binding because they derive from the very nature of humankind.

The Cosmopolitan Aspirations of Liberalism

From their earliest stages, the American and French revolutions understood themselves–and were regarded by others—to be experiments in liberty applicable to all the world. They were not only far from being the affairs of isolated political com­munities, they were in fact nothing less than harbingers of a novus ordo seclorum. Little surprise, then, that many whose way of life is threatened by this new order–from the heirs of feudal monarchy to the Islamic ex­tremists of today–have exhibited a mortal hatred of this “experiment” in self-government.

Although early modern liberals were willing to take on their opponents at all costs, latter-day liberals are far less comfortable with the hegemonic implications of their cosmopolitan heritage.1 Repug­nance at the injustices of Western imperialism has fueled the desire not only to tolerate but even to embrace the “other,” hostile as that other may be to the principles of liberalism itself.

Moral relativism and multiculturalism would seem to have rendered a confident universalism impossible in the postmodern West. Yet liberalism cannot deny its cosmopolitan origins or destiny. The very discomfort of contemporary liberals with the struggle for empire reflects a belief that all peoples of the world can and must coexist in harmony.

Whatever its proximate application may demand, acceptance of the other is intended to promote this mutual accord and must therefore assume that the “other” al­ready accepts, or will one day be brought to accept, the fundamental–cosmopolitan–principles of liberalism. Liberalism is and cannot help being hegemonic, and yet it has become all too painfully aware of the question of how such hegemony could be justified.

Rather than hypocritically deny­ing the necessity of imperial ambitions, or thoughtlessly embracing this imperialism as an unmitigated good, contemporary liberalism can best re­spond to its dilemma by seeking to reflect more profoundly on the reasons underlying its claim to universality as well as on the methods appropriate for advancing this claim and the measure of its prospects for realizing the world order it envisions.

Where must such reflection begin?

Tocqueville’s Balanced Views of Democracy

Although several options present themselves, this essay will focus on what we can learn from the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, especially in his master work Democracy in America. This point of departure is auspicious for several reasons.

Fore­most among them is Tocqueville’s consistent concern with democracy and its justification. Although he ultimately accepted the cosmopolitan revolutionary force of modern liberal democracy as both inevitable and in many respects just, and although he even supported instances of liberal imperialism,2 Tocqueville admits to regarding the ad­vance of democracy with a “religious terror” born of the consciousness that its fundamental tenet–human equality–can be destructive as well as constructive, tyrannical as well as liberating.3

Tocqueville is keenly aware of the evils democracy threatens to impose as well as the benefits it promises to provide, and he frequently reminds us of the goods being lost as well as the injustices being remedied in the transition to an enlightened liberal democratic order. In the final analysis, Tocqueville is a friend to modern democracy and to that cosmopolitanism upon which it is founded, but he is never a flatterer (400).

Tocqueville’s Classical and Christian Instruments

Another of Tocqueville’s virtues–less noted by commentators and less trumpeted by Tocqueville himself–is his profound engagement with the history of political thought. We know of the classical education Tocque­ville received and of the stack of great texts he consulted while composing Democracy.4 This essay attempts to contribute to the awareness of just how subtly and crucially Tocqueville addressed the ideas of major political philosophers in his writing–alluding to, building upon, criticizing, and modifying these ideas in the development of his own analysis of modern democracy.5

Beginning with Tocqueville’s misgivings about the cosmopoli­tan trajectory of modernity, we shall turn to Tocqueville’s theory of natural right and the means for its realization in politics. We shall then examine the insights Tocqueville drew from the classical and Christian accounts of cosmopolitanism–represented by Cicero and Saint Augustine, respectively–in light of which he sought to correct, however gently, the modern cosmopolitanism whose dominion he accepted.

This study will further show that, in Tocqueville’s qualifiedly classical-Christian view, the very thing that justifies cosmopolitanism–human nature, whose universal claims cosmopolitanism seeks to further–also places significant limits on cosmopolitanism’s influence over human affairs. The common basis of classical, Christian, and early modern cosmopolitan­ism is the concept of human nature, a set of faculties and ends proper to all human beings regardless of temporal and spatial variations in customs, habits, and laws. For Tocqueville, understanding human nature–both in itself and in relation to the variables of political life–is the core task of political science, its actual application to particular circumstances being the job of political art.

Although Tocqueville is adamant that the political scientist as such must not deviate from his theoretical mission and become mixed up in partisan political disputes, he also insists that political science can and must set the stage for genuinely artful politics. If practice is to be informed by theory, the gap between universal needs and particular deeds must be bridged, on the part of political science, by clarifying not only the universal demands of human nature, but also the ways in which the peculiar situations of particular political communities promote or impede the realization of those universal claims.6

It is in this sense that Tocqueville declares, in the introduction to Democracy in America, that “a new politi­cal science is needed for a world altogether new.” The “mother thought” holding together the parts of this master work is therefore nothing less than the defense of humanity and its universal claims–of what we can accurately call “natural right”7–in the context of modern democracy (7, 13-14).8

At first glance it may seem that Tocqueville regards the circumstances of democracy (by which he means a condition of social equality and not a form of government) as favoring, at long last, the vindication of human nature. Tocqueville’s introduction proclaims what his subsequent analysis confirms: the “providential” force with which equality is sweeping over all of Christendom is due to its basis in nature (6ff.).

This is not to say that natural inequalities do not exist among men or that they are insignificant. Tocqueville believes that human greatness is possible but rare and that the good of political society requires the leadership of the “natural aristoc­racy” in its midst, and hence a certain degree of hierarchical order (50).

Yet natural aristocracy is not the same as conventional aristocracy, and the political inequalities of old did not consistently reflect natural inequali­ties, which “Heaven distribute[s] haphazardly”(5). Nothing could be more unnatural, Tocqueville observes, than the rigidity with which feudal Eu­rope sought to separate human beings into classes of perpetual rulers and perpetually ruled (328).

Growing recognition of this discrepancy between nature and convention is what rendered the democratic revolution far more than a passing or localized phenomenon and made it instead a permanent and global transformation of political and social life.

The Recognition of a Universal Human Nature

In contrast to conventionally aristocratic societies, which falsely treat different classes of men as if they were members of different species, demo­cratic society seems to be founded on a genuine insight into the natural similarity of human beings. This apparent enlightenment makes modern democracy a promising candidate for the realization of the cosmopolitan dream.

Tocqueville explores this promise in a chapter of Democracy con­cerning “honor in . . . democratic societies” (589ff.). Honor, in Tocqueville’s usage, is “the sum of rules with the aid of which one obtains” the esteem of one’s fellows; honor exercises a powerful influence over the will of man even when it conflicts with his beliefs about right and wrong.

The basis of honor, in Tocqueville’s analysis, is the perception by a social group of its fundamental needs or interests. In “aristocratic times,” when men are divided into distinct and seemingly dissimilar communities and classes, the peculiar interests of these insular groups easily overshadow those common interests of humankind that Tocqueville regards as the basis of genuine morality.

By contrast, the confusion of classes and leveling of conditions in democratic societies renders the formation of clear and distinct codes of honor next to impossible. In the short term, “the particular needs of the nation” replace caste-based codes of honor in developing democracies; but as nations democratize and draw closer to nature, they too lose much of their distinctness, raising the possibility that “all the peoples of the world should come to the point of having the same interests and the same needs.”

Were this to happen, “one would cease entirely to attribute conventional value to human actions,” and “the general needs of humanity that con­science reveals to each man would be the common measure” (599). The final replacement of political right by natural right would correspond to the achievement of a cosmopolitan social order.

It is important to note that this scenario is hypothetical.

Does Tocque­ville in fact regard such an achievement as possible or good? Closer at­tention to the details of the chapter in question raises doubts about both points. The Americans, partly due to their democratic social state, are “unceasingly impelled toward commerce and industry” and have developed a code of honor no less “arbitrary” and “condemnable in the eyes of gen­eral reason and the universal conscience of the human race” than were the former honor codes (594). If, per impossible, all the world were to become America, peoples would still be united under conventions far friendlier to avarice than the “moral laws adopted by common humanity” would allow (596).

Honor, like dogma (407), seems to be a permanent and necessary feature of human society. Nonetheless, Tocqueville clearly believes that the decline of particular authorities in democratic times will lead to the loss or weakening of detailed and rigid honor codes (598). Since honor is defined by factionalism–placing the needs of a part above the needs of the whole community–this weakening would appear to be unabashedly good, freeing democratic man to act in greater accordance with “the natu­ral order of conscience” (591).

Yet this conclusion falsely assumes that the decline of one motivating factor will be met by the rise of another, healthier one. From the beginning of his discussion of democratic mores, however, Tocqueville makes clear that the replacement of political (or conventional) right with natural right as the proximate standard for human action leads to a weakening and distortion of the notion of right in itself (535-45).

The Gap Between Is and Ought

Democratic man, regarding all his fellows as similar to himself, easily sympathizes with their sufferings and comes to their aid in small matters. Yet the feudal lord and vassal, regarding one another as members of almost separate species, were far more likely to risk life and limb in fulfilling their mutual duties. Democratic man, by contrast, is less inclined to make great sacrifices for any reason (8, 675, 545).

Instead, he is in danger of losing all sense of ambition, becoming wrapped up in his individual affairs, nar­rowly defined, and sinking into apathy concerning all matters of public or universal concern. This danger–which Tocqueville simply calls “individualism”–is the central threat against which he marshals the forces of his new political science (599-604, 606-17, 643-73).

In order to understand this threat, we must consider the complex political psychology informing Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy. Tocqueville’s reference to the possible realization of cosmopolitan morality comes in the section of Democracy devoted to “mores properly so-called,” or “habits of the heart.” Far earlier in the work, Tocqueville had expressed the centrality to his thinking of mores (moeurs) taken in a broader and more ancient sense, including the habits of the mind as well as of the heart (275).

Volume 2 of Democracy contains separate parts de­voted to the intellectual, sentimental, and moral life of democracies, yet Tocqueville does not believe that these distinct elements of life can or ought to be separated completely. Rather, Tocqueville is at pains in Democracy to see and explain the inevitable causal intertwining of thought and passion in human life, as well as to identify the most beneficial ordering of the three: idea, sentiment, and action (compare 10-11).

The failure of demo­cratic society, or any other society for that matter, to achieve this ideal ordering–good mores in the broadest and truest sense–explains both the need to treat these elements separately and the impossibility of a simply cosmopolitan (or natural) moral order.

What is the ideal ordering of thoughts, passions, and actions, ac­cording to Tocqueville?

Tocqueville Denies Purely Instrumental Reason

It is no accident that, in speaking of universal or natural morality, Tocqueville always refers to its basis in reason as well as in humanity. Justice, for Tocqueville, is a “general law” “made or at least adopted” by the “universal society” of the “human race” (240). Since the human race cannot meet to legislate, justice cannot be positive law. Rather, it must be akin to the classical notion of natural law: rooted in the natural good of man and apprehended by practical reason.

Tocqueville accepts the premise of classical natural right that man is fundamentally rational in a particular sense and that human society is es­sentially “a union of rational and intelligent beings” (227). His articulation of natural right subtly but forcefully defies the modern variant according to which reason is instrumental in the pursuit of material self-interest.

In an empirical sense, Tocqueville considers man rational in that almost all of his actions–and at least some of his strongest sentiments–flow from the “general idea” he forms of the order of the universe (417). This order, to which man is drawn by his intellect, is both informative and prescriptive; it consists in the general idea of God, His relations with the human race, the nature of the human soul, and the duties consequent upon these facts. Hu­man behavior is influenced by beliefs about these subjects, whether those beliefs are true or false, and whether or not particular men are always true to their beliefs (589).

Recognizing the Sublime Desire for Truth

In a normative sense, man is rational for two reasons. First, his soul is degraded by actions that conflict with his beliefs about the moral or­der (8). Although certain sentiments may tempt a man to act against his conscience, the inner discord he feels upon giving in to such sentiments reveals his own perception of the superiority of intellect to passion in the healthy human soul (520). Second, man is rational in that he longs not only to act in accordance with an opinion about moral order, but actually to grasp the truth about such order.

For Tocqueville, the greatness of human sentiments (and hence of their expression in word or deed) is measured by the greatness of the objects to which they correspond–not merely by the perceived greatness of those objects (456). In fact, the greatest of all sentiments is nothing but the sublime desire for truth (435). Virtue, or the natural greatness of man, is characterized by a liberality or independence of mind rooted in the love of truth, not in the dictates of passion or will (247). In sum, Tocqueville holds that human sentiments and actions ought to be ruled by reason and that reason ought to seek out and apply to action the “admirable order of all things” (273, 505).

The Frequent Indifference to Truth

The influence of moral order on human behavior demonstrates the deep confluence between the “is” and the “ought” in human affairs. Yet the actual condition of political societies reveals a morally distressing gap between the two. Two primary factors intervene to prevent most human beings from achieving virtue as Tocqueville describes it.

First comes ego­ism or the passion for narrow self-interest that so frequently colors not only the actions, but even the opinions, of men (273). Next, and perhaps more fatally, comes the disinclination or inability of most human beings to engage in the philosophic pursuit of the truth about the order of things.

Tocqueville stresses the weakness of human reason and the difficulty in formulating general notions about the most important things–“God and human nature”–that do not distort their objects. Through the “slow, de­tailed, conscientious work of the intelligence,” significant knowledge on such subjects is attainable, and Tocqueville’s confidence in the tenets of his own political science attests to his own efforts in this direction. Yet human­ity as a whole is unwilling to make or incapable of making such efforts, leaving human societies vulnerable to “very superficial and very uncertain notions” about these indispensible matters (411-15, 417-19).

The Democratic Urge to Deny Inequalities

From the perspective of the moralist or the virtue-seeking political scientist, a paradox emerges. Considered in themselves, reason is good and is the ground of human excellence, while irrational passions and prejudices are degrading to humanity. Practically speaking, however, man’s rational nature is commonly expressed in gross simplifications about the nature of things.

In “aristocratic times,” the ubiquity of hierarchy and distinc­tion habituate the mind to discover inequality and dissimilarity even where equality and similarity exist; in “democratic times,” the mind is tempted to regard even natural and beneficial inequalities as offenses against justice and to demand equality even where it is ruinous to the greatness and hap­piness of humankind (420-28, 469-72).

The statesman or practitioner of the genuine political art must recognize these errors for what they are and attempt to steer particular political communities closer to those virtues defined by the true nature of humanity (518). Yet, given the aversion of citizens to the rigorous philosophic examination of nature, naked appeals to reason are unlikely to succeed at correcting society’s course (613). In fact, the false identification of reason with faulty general ideas may render some appeals to reason counterproductive.

Attaining Reasonable Government by Use of Artifice

The art of the legislator there­fore requires leaders to guide citizens closer to the demands of reason by appealing to other, nonrational and even otherwise irrational motives and experiences, to the extent that such means are capable of moderating the intellectual errors besetting a given society (502-3). In other words, politi­cal science reveals that natural right must be pursued by means of political (or conventional) right, however imperfectly suited it may be to the task.9

This paradox of politics helps to explain both the problem of individualism as Tocqueville defines it in Democracy and the solutions he proposes to it. Left to itself, the democratic idea of and passion for equality will exac­erbate the natural egoism of man by convincing citizens that no one has ei­ther the ability or the right to surpass the crowd in knowledge, influence, or any other characteristic of virtue. The opinions, feelings, and habits of men will conspire to make them turn in on themselves and become absorbed in private life, abandoning all concern with philosophy, religion, and politics to mass opinion and its manipulative representatives, especially the state.

Although each citizen will retain and even guard with jealousy a preference for his own professional knowledge and private needs and tastes, none will dare to assert or even to entertain ideas or feelings in matters of universal concern that are truly their own; to do so would be against the general idea of equality, and hence intolerable. The final result of such “reasoning” will be the erection of a vast administrative order subjecting men to its mild and benevolent but enervating rules rather than fitting these rules to men–an order designed to suppress the natural greatness of man in the name of a superficial and degraded notion of “natural” right (479-84, 599-617, 640-73).

Democracy Requires Local Government and Christianity

What can prevent such a despotism from forming?

Although Tocqueville believes this nightmarish outcome to be contrary to nature well under­stood, he regards it nonetheless as the natural result of democracy’s natural inability to grasp the whole truth about nature. His conclusion is explicit: in democratic times, as in all others, nature must be defended by artifice (645). More specifically, those who see natural right well must counteract the general misapprehension of nature by promoting those habits, opinions, and points of honor that cut against the errors of the age, whether or not they are per se reasonable (518).

Although there are countless examples of such statesmanship in De­mocracy, two features of Tocqueville’s strategy for regulating democracy stand out: local government and the Christian religion. Both are features of the New England township, whose blending of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion Tocqueville calls the key to his own work (27-44). Both are elaborated at length and celebrated throughout his book.

Succinctly put, participation in local government counteracts individualism by pro­viding citizens with concrete experiences of the necessity and goodness of public-spiritedness and social cooperation (415-16, 485-500); and Chris­tianity checks administrative despotism by connecting citizens, through their regular worship, with an order of things neither wholly egalitarian nor tolerant of a state that would seek to remake man in its own image (275-82 , 517-21).

Whatever may be true of the philosopher or the states­man, Tocqueville maintains that the average citizen will come far closer to virtue through the experience of self-government and the doctrines of faith than through the power of abstract reason alone.

Tocqueville is well aware of the dangers of local prejudice and religious intolerance, but he disappoints the simplistic hopes of modern cosmopoli­tanism by insisting that true enlightenment recognizes the permanent need for political and religious institutions that foster the natural potential of humanity even while they divide humanity into distinct communities.

Assessment of Tocqueville

Some have faulted Tocqueville for defending liberal democracy American-style while ignoring the Declaration of Independence and indeed the entire doctrine of natural rights.10Others have regarded Tocqueville’s frequent appeals to the quasi-classical notion of virtue as incomplete without an ac­companying discussion of the best regime.11Both points suggest something important about Tocqueville’s thought, but neither observation is sufficient without a careful exploration of Tocqueville’s reasons for proceeding as he does.

Tocqueville’s ambivalence toward the language of natural rights is ex­plicable on the basis of our previous inquiries. In democratic times, appeals to nature will be taken for appeals to equality. Although there is a species of equality consistent with human greatness, there is also a depraved form of equality that would level all natural differences among men–and it is toward this latter equality that democratic man is naturally inclined (52, 479-82, 640). Tocqueville is therefore careful to separate the language of rights from that of equality or nature and to stress instead the connection of rights to virtue and the practical experiences of political life (227-29).

In lieu of the Declaration’s appeal to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of hap­piness,” Tocqueville quotes John Winthrop’s “beautiful definition of [genu­ine] liberty” as the “holy liberty” “to do without fear,” and in union with proper authority, “all that is just and good” (42). The grounds of Tocqueville’s reticence toward classical political thought become most evident in a close reading of the second chapter of Democracy, the one Tocqueville calls the key to his work and the one dealing with the allegedly Puritan foundations of American political order (27-44).

Tocqueville’s second chapter concerns the “point of departure” for American democracy–and, it turns out, for his book as well. It opens with the argument that virtue and vice develop in the human being from the youngest age. Both Tocqueville’s focus on virtue and his substantive claim about its “point of departure” are in line with the teachings of clas­sical thinkers.12 Yet Tocqueville has introduced individual virtue or its lack as an analogy for the character of nations.

His closing remark, then, must be applied to America: “The man”–or the nation–“is so to speak whole in the swaddling clothes of his [or its] cradle” (28). Here the allusion to clas­sical political philosophy is explicit, and it connects Tocqueville with that major theme of classical thought he apparently ignores: the best regime.

Cicero Using the Guise of Greek Thought

In Cicero’s De Re Publica, the philosophic statesman Scipio is asked to give his opinion on the best regime. On the premise that Rome em­bodies this notion, he gives an account of its foundation by the legendary Romulus, concluding with the remark that, “by the wisdom of a single man, a new people was not simply brought into being and then left like an infant crying in its cradle, but was left already full-grown and almost in the maturity of manhood.”

Scipio’s interlocutor, the philosophic statesman Laelius, responds by noting that Scipio has adopted a new mode of dis­course, one not employed by the Greeks. Whereas Socrates discussed a best regime existing only in speech, and his successors discussed the types and principles of political society without extensive examples, Scipio presents his own ideas about politics while giving credit for them to others.

Through Scipio, Cicero himself refers principally to what those like Romulus did by chance or necessity and confines himself to the discussion of one regime: republican Rome. He thereby imports the Greek philosophic tradition in a rhetorical guise best designed to assure its acceptance in and applicability to the Roman world.13

Later in Democracy, Tocqueville argues that the careful study of Greek and Roman literature is essential to the formation of virtuous democratic leaders. Ancient texts are a “salutary diet” sorely needed to correct the errors of the modern age, and yet their virtues are inapplicable to modern times without the prudent translation of those who have mastered them (450-52).

Applying Classical Concepts to Modern Democracy

By alluding to Cicero so early in his book,14 Tocqueville presents those who are already careful readers of classical texts, and who are also willing to be careful readers of his, with a lesson in how to apply classical concepts to modern democracy.

Just as Cicero embraced the Greek notion of the best regime while adapting it to the context of republican Rome, Tocqueville is adapting a classical teaching to changing circumstances. And just as Cicero felt obliged to communicate his principles through the words and examples of others, Tocqueville uses America–and especially the words and deeds of its early New England men–as a vehicle for his political teaching.

A complete account of Tocqueville’s thought must there­fore examine not only the coherent philosophy informing his analysis of modern democracy but also the way in which it carries forward and adapts the political thought of his predecessors.

The Elevation of Virtue Over Rights

Tocqueville’s debt to classical political thought is signaled by his eleva­tion of virtue over rights (227),15 his allusion to Cicero’s De Re Publica, and his celebration of the New England township for exhibiting “a real, active, altogether democratic and republican political life” “as in [ancient] Athens” (40).16

Aside from the comments mentioned above, however, Tocqueville never explicitly stresses the importance of classical thought. In part this is explained by the width of the gulf between the ancient and the modern political states: what the ancients called democracy, Tocqueville points out, would more aptly be called a large aristocracy by modern standards (450ff.).

Yet Tocqueville takes his ambivalence toward the ancients much further, at least in one passage. In his only explicit reference to Cicero, Tocqueville denounces the classical philosopher and orator for feeling keen sorrow over the fate of a Roman citizen crucified, while remaining indifferent to the lot of those over whom the Romans triumphed. “It is evident,” Tocqueville claims, “that in his eyes a foreigner is not of the same human species as a Roman” (539).

This failure of the heart seems rooted in a failure of the intel­lect: earlier, Tocqueville had accused “the most profound geniuses of Rome and Greece” of failing to grasp the general but simple idea “of the similarity of men and of the equal right to liberty that each bears from birth”–an idea self-evident to Tocqueville’s modern audience (413).

Tocqueville’s Accusation of Cicero

As with his allusion to De Re Publica, Tocqueville’s accusation of Cicero and his ancient ilk proves far more meaningful to those who have studied the latter. One cannot help noticing that Cicero, in his political-philosophic writings, articulates a doctrine of natural law according to which all human beings share equally in a universal community of rational beings.17 Neither the similarity of human beings as such, nor the moral duties consequent to it, can be said to have escaped the ancients in general or Cicero in particular–as Tocqueville was certainly aware.

Furthermore, the evidence Tocqueville cites against Cicero–that he felt more for Roman than for foreign sufferings–is taken from the latter’s forensic oratory.18 As a lawyer and an accomplished student of classical rhetoric, Tocqueville knew that the orator must adapt his speech to the inclinations of his audi­ence. In a Roman court, for instance, one must appeal both to the legal con­cept of citizenship and to the sentiments fellow citizens are likely to have for one another.

In fact, Tocqueville might be accused in these passages of appealing to the prejudice of moderns–who believe themselves, without reflection, to be wiser than ancients–to denigrate the intellectual status of classical authors, who had at least an equal grasp of the point in question: the universality of human nature and the consequent moral dignity of man.

Keeping Christian Elements of Cosmopolitanism

Tocqueville’s point would be better taken had it less to do with what the ancients were capable of knowing and more to do with what they were capable of applying in practice. This reading is confirmed by Tocqueville’s own elaboration on the way moderns have come to recognize the truth of human equality: “it was necessary,” he claims, “that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal” (413, emphasis added).

Although both classical and modern philosophy knew and argued for a morality based on universal human nature, Tocqueville credits neither with making this doctrine accepted by the bulk of humankind. It was not the philosophic self-examination of humanity, nor even the propaganda of enlightenment philosophes, but rather the Christian dogma of the adoption of humanity by an incarnate God, that led to the enlightenment of man on this point.

Reflection on this fact will shed light on Tocqueville’s reasons for keep­ing his rhetorical distance from, while utilizing the insights of, classical political thought, and placing more stress upon the need to retain explicitly Christian elements of cosmopolitanism.

The Classical Background of Tocqueville’s Position: Plato

Tocqueville’s position is best understood in light of the internal development of political thought as its various proponents encountered the problem of applying its universalist or cosmopolitan insights to the realm of particular politics. The classical doctrine to which Tocqueville alludes through Cicero began with Plato’s Socrates. In Plato’s Republic (Politeia), Socrates explores the connection between human nature, human excel­lence, and political order. He argues that reason is the sovereign part of man and that the life devoted to reason–the philosophic life–constitutes the perfection of man’s nature.

Although Socrates uses an imaginary re­gime of perfect justice to aid in the understanding of individual virtue, it turns out that the city, even in theory, is incapable of achieving the unified devotion to truth characteristic of philosophic excellence. Hence, in an ironic twist, the philosopher has to be compelled to rule a city that has to be compelled to obey him.19 One is left with the impression that the virtue available to man by nature is to be pursued by extraordinary individuals, whose ability to elevate the life of the communities of which they form a part will be limited at best.20

The Classical Background of Tocqueville’s Position: Aristotle

Based on a similar understanding of nature, Plato’s student Aristotle attempts to fashion a political science capable of further enriching politi­cal practice. In his Ethics, Aristotle demonstrates that the sovereignty of reason–and hence genuine human excellence–can find expression in the practice of those moral and intellectual virtues demanded by social and political activity. In his Politics, he goes so far as to define man as a political animal, one who naturally finds his fulfillment through active partnership in a community defined by rational deliberation about just and unjust ac­tions.

Other than the rare philosopher, who achieves a divine happiness through almost self-sufficient contemplation, human beings as such ought to seek fulfillment in a political life suffused with opportunities to perfect their rational nature.21 The extent to which men can be persuaded to seek perfection in this manner, however, is another question. In both of his political works, Aris­totle makes clear that universal human nature is the standard of virtue and justice. Yet in both works he also notes the implacable tendency of actual political regimes to distort the notions of justice and human worth in order to accommodate their own partial perspectives and partisan agendas.

The obvious response would be to assert natural law against conventional error, and Aristotle admits the inherent legitimacy of this move (1129b).22 Yet he quickly retreats from it, protesting that nature itself is changeable (1134b) and gearing his political science mostly toward mitigating the errors of dominant political factions, rather than constructing a regime devoted to genuine virtue (1279b-1288a).

It seems that natural right can never truly become natural law because law, consisting as it does in generalities, cannot do without authorities ca­pable of applying it to particular circumstances (1137b, 1286a-1288a). The general truths available to our reason by nature will never find expression absent a concrete political-social authority, and yet no actual authority is willing or able to enforce nature with accuracy and constancy.

The Aris­totelian statesman will certainly seek to improve his society by the light of natural right, and Aristotle does call for a new educational system and hence for a potentially promising intellectual revolution among political society’s leaders (1337a-1342b). Yet it remains unclear at best how explicit and forceful his project to mitigate the factionalism and elevate the univer­sal goods of political life can ever become.

Cicero’s Dilemma: The Success of Rome

As a professed admirer of both Plato and Aristotle, Cicero inherits this problem of the weakness of reason.23 As a Roman statesman, he inherits a particular form of this problem. For Aristotle, political particularity contained both a threat and a promise. If the ways of the polis cut citizens off from the rest of humanity, the concrete experiences of self-government nonetheless provided opportunities for the cultivation of humane virtues, under the guidance of wise statesmen.24

By Cicero’s day, the classical polis had been swallowed up by its own outward success: Rome, the greatest city, held sway over the civilized world. Empire had brought the city, in its particularity, face to face with the existence of the universal human com­munity. The question under these circumstances was not whether the polis could be brought to consider such universality, but what notions it would draw upon in doing so.

The task of the philosophic statesman, for Cicero as for his predeces­sors, is twofold: to seek the truth about human nature dialectically and to convey this truth to particular political communities through a suitable rhetoric. Such rhetoric is necessary because philosophy appeals only to human reason, to which most men are deafened by the enticements of pleasure and the bonds of local community.

In addition to rhetoric, philosophy requires the support of law or political authority in order to improve the tone of human life. Political authority is necessary, in part, because it re­inforces persuasion with force. Yet the exercise of force and the glory it brings can easily corrupt those who wield it and make them less receptive to the dictates of reason. This was Cicero’s particular fear about Rome: in conquering the world, even with the aid of genuine virtue, the Romans were tempted to cast virtue aside and seek dominion for its own sake. Ob­session with military power, coupled with a willingness to ignore justice in dealings with other peoples, was setting the stage for a collapse of moral restraint at home and the erection of domestic dictatorship.25

All Men Live in a Cosmic Polis Ruled by the Gods

In light of this threat, Cicero deemed it necessary to invigorate the rhetoric by which philosophy seeks to influence political practice. In the passage of De Re Publica to which Tocqueville alludes in connection with his own rhetorical strategy, Cicero signals his intention to bring the insights of political philosophy fully to bear on Rome, the first universal polis.

Such attention is of course flattering, and Cicero does not hesitate to ingrati­ate himself to his audience by asserting that Rome, in the course of its historical development, came to exemplify the best regime. Yet, as Laelius’s comments attest, Cicero is quite open about the irony of his praise, and he also accompanies it with a highly elevated set of expectations.

By virtue of their rational nature, Cicero argues, all men are members of a cosmic polis ruled by the gods. All human beings, regardless of citi­zenship or ethnicity, are equal in their potential for virtue; all possess the dignity of membership within this divine order.

This cosmic order does not do away with the necessity for particular political communities. Man is naturally attached to his own as well as to what is good in itself. His duties must begin with his family and place of birth and extend from thence to his actual polis.

Yet particular political orders are themselves members of a moral order that is itself political in the sense that its dictates–the precepts of practical reason–are law: the law of nature, promulgated by God in humanity itself and enforced by the misery consequent to its violation.26 Only if the polis (Rome) is willing to know and abide by this cosmopolitan law, will its achievement of universality (empire) redound to the betterment of civilization rather than to its degradation.

Even as he composed the works meant to convey this philosophic rhetoric to the Roman republic, Cicero was undergoing a persecution that culminated in the triumph of that which he so vehemently opposed: the empire of the Caesars.

On its own terms, Cicero’s philosophic statesman­ship seemed to fail. Yet the lessons Cicero sought to impart were not lost on all ears. In modified form, they came to define a school of political thought much despised in modern times but indispensible to an understanding of modernity’s development: the classical-Christian tradition of natural law.27

In order to grasp Tocqueville’s assessment of the prospects for realizing the potentialities of human nature in the political realm, we must examine the thought of that school and the influence it had on Tocqueville.


Along with Cicero’s De Officiis, Saint Augustine’s The City of God became foundational for the medieval understanding of political order. As the Ro­man empire began to crumble, Christians were accused of undermining the polis through their rejection of its pagan gods and civic virtues. In a charge that resurfaced in the Enlightenment period, Christians were faulted for withdrawing their loyalties from the earthly city and despising its concerns in favor of an imaginary, heavenly homeland.28

In answering this accusa­tion, Augustine paid tribute to the teaching of the great pagan philosophers, who had already established the necessity of a kind of dual citizenship or division of loyalties between particular and universal authority–the first necessary but flawed, the second virtuous but often ineffectual. Plato, Cicero, and others had sought to improve the character of political life by subjecting it to the universal standards of reason and natural virtue. Had they succeeded, Augustine implies, Rome might not have faced the problems it did in his day.

The collapse of Rome was not due to any slack­ening of its particularistic energies, but rather to the intrinsic dangers of its peculiar obsession (glory) and to the failure of the philosophic project to counterbalance Roman citizenship with membership in a higher moral order. Christianity, by embracing and advancing that philosophic project, actually had the potential to cure the ills of late antiquity, if it was not too late for such a cure.29

To illustrate his point, Augustine references the status of poetry and religion in the classical world. By the light of natural reason, the corrupting tendencies of both were perfectly evident. Thus Plato’s Socrates expelled Homer from the educational curriculum of his polis in speech. In practice, however, reason was impotent to reform this crucial component of ancient life. Roman law, for instance, placed only the most minimal restrictions on the theater and was unable to prevent the vilest excesses from taking place in the worship of the gods.

Although Cicero appealed to God as the giver of the natural law of right reason and virtue, neither he nor any philosopher was able to counteract the social disorder wrought by pagan belief. Religion is too powerful among men for reason to displace it, and classical religion was set against reason in a battle the latter could not possibly win.30

Faith Leads to a Cosmopolitan Moral Order

The advent of Christianity, according to Augustine, made possible a limited but substantial progress in addressing this political-philosophic problem. By proclaiming the sovereignty of one God alone–the God who is Logos or divine reason–Christianity expelled the demons who had run rampant in the classical polis.

Contrary to its accusers, Christianity preach­es essentially the same virtues as the pagan philosophers, rooted in the same reason and the same universal nature of man, but it reinforces nature, reason, and virtue with an appeal to a purified and unified divine author­ity.

Since the influence of faith in society is far more extensive than that of reason alone, Christianity transforms the political environment, rendering it much more receptive, or at least much less hostile, to the counsels of reason.31 The classical philosophers had seen this possibility and had tried to appeal to myth as well as reason in advancing the claims of the latter; but their appeals had been weak and unconvincing in themselves.32

Christian­ity, by transforming the hearts of citizens, offers the only realistic basis of a truly just political order–one balancing the need for local attachments and dogmatic beliefs with the sovereignty of a rational, transpolitical, and cosmopolitan moral order.33 The power of Christian cosmopolitanism can be seen in the way it captured the late Roman empire and became the foundation of European society for at least a millennium. From the beginning, however, its power had acknowledged limits. Augustine was quick to admit that the capac­ity of faith to transform hearts is qualified by free will and an ingrained proclivity for vice.

A Detached Benignity Promotes Social Amelioration

The city of God, though present on earth in the hearts of believers, is always confronted by the city of sinful man, also present in many hearts, and often in the very same ones. If all men were completely converted by the Gospel, earthly republics would flourish, but such perfec­tion is not to be expected in this life. Instead, Christians must be prepared to endure the worst of republics here, in hopes of entering the heavenly republic hereafter. Yet this very hope is effectual in the here and now, mak­ing a foreshadowing of heavenly bliss attainable in this life and therefore inspiring the practice of virtue in the city of man.

Precisely because the Christian does not expect absolute perfection from the earthly polis, he is willing to persevere in otherwise discouraging situations and is able to contribute more to the polis’s relative perfection.34 This attitude of detached benignity toward the polis, which also characterized the classical philosopher-statesman, is made accessible to any citizen by the Christian faith.

Without seeking to replace or displace institutions of local membership and rule, Christianity subjects the souls of believers to a universal law enforced temporally as well as eternally and reinforced by the frequent and tangible practices of worship as well as by belief in things unseen.

Eventually, this overarching authority fostered the growth of an elaborate doctrine of natural law, formulated most powerfully by Saint Thomas Aquinas, echoed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., and constituting the basis of the Catholic Church’s moral, social, and political teachings to this day.

Its influence on Tocqueville’s qualified cosmopolitanism remains for us to consider.

Tocqueville’s Classical-Christian Cosmopolitanism

Tocqueville, in his own way, adopts a version of this Christian cosmo­politanism. Though not a believer himself,35 Tocqueville appreciated the strength of Augustine’s defense of Christianity in light of the goals of clas­sical political philosophy. Tocqueville recognized that it had taken Jesus Christ, in addition to Socrates, to make the bulk of humankind understand their common humanity.

By the same token, he did not believe modern philosophy could succeed at founding a healthy cosmopolitan order on doctrines of human nature divorced from religious belief.36 While he was a friend to modern democracy and a proponent of democratic liberalism, Tocqueville rejected and sought to separate liberalism from the anticlassical and anti-Christian principles of modern philosophers and statesmen (11-12, 278-88, 417-25, 504-6, 517-21).

A brief examination of those principles and his reasons for eschewing them will complete our sketch of Tocqueville’s unique blending of elements from classical, modern, and Christian cosmopolitanism. The roots of Enlightenment thought can be discerned in the infamous yet immeasurably seminal writings of Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. At its foundation is a reprise of the ancient Roman critique of Christianity: by dividing men’s hearts and diminishing their concern for earthly things, religion undermines political authority and effectually fosters civic disorder and earthly impotence.

The Augustinian defense of Christianity as it effects classical virtue is met with a transformation of the very concept of virtue in repudiation of its classical form. No longer is virtue sought for its own sake, for the perfection of human nature and the achievement of happiness. The very notion of moral perfection is cast aside as fanciful and dangerous, as nothing but a mask for selfish ambition.

The peace and unity of humankind, grounded in the rational apprehension of human nature, remains the Enlightenment ideal. Yet modern political thought holds that this ideal cannot be achieved on the basis of an appeal to an imaginary and divisive higher order. Rather, religion and classical virtue must be replaced by the liberation of material desire and the construction of a political-social order focused on collective selfishness, or the relief of man’s estate through the drastic reorientation of both natural and political science. Only on the basis of this “low but common ground” can the com­mon interests of mankind be advanced and the backwardness of particular authorities be left behind.37

Modern cosmopolitanism elevates what is low in man by making it the key to the universal flourishing of mankind. Tocqueville is keenly aware of this characteristic of modern political thought, and he makes it a central task of his political science to combat it (11-12, 643). As a prudent states­man, however, Tocqueville’s mode of attack is subtle and corrective, rather than destructive. He acknowledges that self-interest exerts a powerful influ­ence on the men of all ages and that its acceptance as a legitimate motive for human action is the inevitable fruit of modern democracy (500-503).

Yet he consistently exposes the errors of modern rationalism, points to the dangers of its unmitigated acceptance, and suggests various means of guiding its adherents back toward a more classical form of virtue. Since classical virtue itself was limited in its appeal to human societies, however, Tocqueville seeks to promote it in large part by appealing to that form of religious belief most successful in bringing classical ethics to life: Christianity.

The French Revolution’s Anti-Christian Cosmopolitanism

Both the power and the limits of anti-Christian cosmopolitanism are evident in the phenomenon of the French Revolution. Like the Reforma­tion, the Revolution drew to its side men from all families and nations. The transpolitical appeal of both revolutions stemmed from their respec­tive groundings in cosmopolitan thought. Catholicism and Protestantism offered conflicting views of the universal brotherhood of man, and the Enlightenment offered yet another. In this respect, Christianity and mo­dernity are competing religions.

In principle, each is capable of uniting all human beings in a common bond of moral obligation; in practice, however, Enlightenment thought had proved no better at procuring universal har­mony than had Christianity, and it had even proved far more dangerous than its predecessor in certain respects.38 In attempting to replace the city of God with the religion of earthly progress, the French Revolution precipitated an extended culture war that continued to divide the France and the Europe of Tocqueville’s day.

Nor was this division an accident of history, to be forgotten when the republic of reason finally prevailed over the kingdom of darkness. “Man did not give himself the taste for the infinite and the love of what is immortal,” Tocqueville contends. “These sublime instincts . . . have their immovable foundation in his nature . . . . He can hinder and deform them, but not destroy them” (510).

The attempt to eradicate these instincts will lead to perpetual conflict as long as humanity is able to resist the unnatural attempt “to materialize man” (11). Should the forces of “enlightenment” prevail and compel submission, however, they will have succeeded only in denaturing and degrading citizens, at enslaving them to their own worst tendencies, and not at liberating humankind in any genuine sense (508-14, 517-21, 661-73).

This is why Tocqueville, although he accepted the fact of modernity and attempted to reconcile its warring factions, himself declares war on the materialist underpinnings of modern thought.  Tocqueville’s new political science seeks to moderate material acquisi­tiveness and channel human energies as much as possible toward the devel­opment of moral and intellectual virtues.

The Puritan Blend of Local Liberty and Universal Religion

The key to Tocqueville’s strategy is found, as he indicates, in his chapter treating the Puritans as the founders of American political society (27-44). It is not the Puritans’ bizarre and tyrannical proclivities, but rather their blending of the spirits of liberty and religion that interests Tocqueville. More precisely, it is their peculiar blend of local liberty and universal religion that he finds instructive. As in ancient times, the Puritan focus on active self-government provides opportunities for philosophic statesmen to inculcate virtues in otherwise unphilosophic citizens (46, 191).

Unlike the classical polis, however, the early New England township was neither fully self-contained nor under the influence of pagan superstitions. It belonged not only to the British Empire, however loosely this bond was felt, but also to Christendom. As zealous Christians, New Englanders could not help regarding the most local of their political acts in light of the laws of God and the universal brotherhood of man. Consumed as they sometimes were by the spirit of the sect (39), that spirit nonetheless aimed at the betterment of the world through the shining example of liberty virtuously employed (32).

Through his account of the Puritans, Tocqueville expresses his hope that a civic virtue reminiscent of the classical polis can be blended with the cosmopolitan morality of Christianity and the fact of democratic modernity to preserve societies from the debilitating effects of a purely modern conception of reason, nature, and rights.

The Invisible Despotism of Materialistic Individualism

Tocqueville did not advocate a return to classical Rome, medieval Chris­tendom, or seventeenth-century New England. He was well aware of the threats of local majority tyranny and religious oppression. Yet he was also aware of the waning power of both civic and religious ties in modern times (228, 482-84). A far greater threat to humanity, in his view, came from the nearly invisible despotism of a materialistic individualism that would lull citizens into surrendering the use of their most sublime and essential human faculties (519, 665).

Part of his strategy for averting this disaster involved reaching out to modern souls with the doctrine of self-interest well under­stood, while counseling that true self-interest demanded the preservation and cultivation of civic life and religious belief (500-506), both of which contain a vision of human flourishing that is “aristocratic” in its aspiration toward virtue (481, 517) but democratic in that all men can participate meaningfully in the economies of self-government and religious practice.

Tocqueville did not consider the doctrine of self-interest, however well understood, sufficient for the cultivation of virtue. Of far greater impor­tance was the experience by citizens of the sublime satisfactions made pos­sible only by the practice of virtue (228, 415-16, 485-500). When enough citizens have a sufficient glimpse of the splendor of human excellence–a thing generally made possible only by an active life of politics and religious worship–then it is possible to sustain a popular love of liberty, and hence an environment conducive to the pursuit of those goods constituting the greatness and happiness of the human species.

Although such a model does not promise to liberate citizens entirely from the sway of all authorities save human reason itself, and hence departs from the modern Enlightenment blueprint for the construction of a global order of justice, this model does in Tocqueville’s considered view better accord with the limits of the human nature on which all cosmopolitanism is based. If Tocqueville is correct, ac­cepting these limits, and thus moderating the modern cosmopolitan dream, may represent the best hope of realizing it to the extent that nature allows.



I am deeply grateful to Devin Schadt, Khalil Habib, Carl Eaton, Matthew Holbreich, and two anonymous readers, for their thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this essay. All remaining flaws are of my own provenance.–L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.

1. Jennifer Pitts documents the opposition of early liberals to European imperialism and denies on this basis that liberalism entails empire. Yet if liberalism provokes violent resistance by promoting radical change in all or most societies, it is difficult to imagine the success of a liberalism never willing to use force in the advancement of these imperial ambitions. The question then becomes when, not whether, force is justified. “Empire and Democracy: Tocqueville and the Algeria Question,” Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 3 (2000).

2. Tocqueville was critical of injustices committed by Europeans against native peoples, but he tended to regard the “empire or influence” of Europeans throughout the world as both inevitable and beneficial to humanity. He saw the potential in colonization both for the improvement of “half-civilized” populations and for the reinvigoration of public spirit in an increasingly individualistic Europe.

For critical accounts, see Jennifer Pitts, “Empire and Democracy”; and Melvin Richter, “Tocqueville on Algeria,” Review of Politics 25 (1963); for a qualified defense, see Bruce Frohnen, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism:The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1993), 119–22.

Although space does not permit an adequate discussion of the issue here, it must be noted that Tocqueville’s political philosophy attempts to realize universal natural right through the artful use of particular institutions and customs. The centrality of mores (see below) to Tocqueville’s political science both limits the possibilities of universalist reform, in that mores are difficult to change, and accentuates the need for such reform, insofar as bad mores are capable of powerfully frustrating the fulfillment of human nature.

3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 6ff. Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical references are to this work. I have occasionally made slight alterations to the translation.

4. See André Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography, trans. Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998), 59–60; Alexis de Tocqueville, “Letter to Beaumont, April 22, 1838,” in Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Politics and Society, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985), 131.

5. The literature tends to emphasize Tocqueville’s debts to Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Pascal; see Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Tocqueville, Democracy, xxx–xxxix. Though genuine, these debts should not overshadow the influence of other authors and traditions on Tocqueville’s thought or the critical distance he maintains from all his sources.

6. See Alexis de Tocqueville, “Speech to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences,” Oeuvres I, ed. A. Jardin, Edition Pléade (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 1215–26. An English translation can be found in Tocqueville and the Art of Democratic Statesmanship, ed. Brian Danoff and L. Joseph Hebert (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, forthcoming), chap. 1.

7. Natural right refers to “a standard of right and wrong independent of positive right” and “discernable to human reason.” Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953), 4, 9.

8. For a more detailed version of this argument, see L. Joseph Hebert, MoreThan Kings and Less Than Men: Tocqueville on the Promise and Perils of Democratic Individualism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), 29–35, 46–54.

9. In this, Tocqueville closely follows Montesquieu, although the version of natural right Tocqueville promotes is more classical, and Montesquieu’s is more modern. See Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller, and Harold S. Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989); Paul Carrese, The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone,and the Rise of Judicial Power (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003); Tocqueville, Democracy, 89, 567.

10. See Thomas West, “Misunderstanding the American Founding,” in InterpretingTocqueville’s Democracy in America, ed. Ken Masugi (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991).

11. See Mansfield and Winthrop, “Editor’s Introduction,” xxx.

12. See Plato Laws 765d–e; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1.4, 2.3, 10.9; and Cicero De Officiis 1.32.

13. Cicero De Re Publica 2.11 and context.

14. This reading does not exclude the possibility that other allusions were couched in the same phrase, e.g., allusion to the “swaddling clothes” of Jesus Christ.

15. For Tocqueville, virtue is the free choice of what is good, and virtue is what renders men great. Virtue demands liberty, but liberty is good only when used virtuously. Tocqueville likewise subordinates equality to liberty and greatness. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to England and Ireland, trans. Lawrence Mayer (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 117; Tocqueville, Democracy, 42, 52, 227.

16. Tocqueville’s defense of township government clearly borrows from Rousseau’s defense of city-based government. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract: With Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978). Yet Tocqueville rejects Rousseau’s reliance on the general will, his view of politics as denaturing, his contention that Christianity is incompatible with sound politics, and his preference for wholly independent city-states. See Tocqueville, Democracy, 56–65, 89–90, 275–88, 410, 583.

17. Cicero De Re Publica 1.13, 3.22; Cicero De Legibus 1.4–12, 1.22–24, 2.4–5.

18. See Cicero Verrine Orations 5.26, 66.

19. Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), esp. 500d, 519d, and Bloom’s essay. My reading of The Republic is deeply indebted to my teachers Michael Palmer, Clifford Orwin, and Thomas Pangle.

20. As Mark Kremer points out, Plato’s very project of Socratic apologetics implies that he believes political society can be elevated, however imperfectly, by a poetic rendering of philosophic virtue. “Interpretive Essay,” in Plato’s Cleitophon: On Socrates and the Modern Mind (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), 27–34.

21. Aristotle Ethics 1.7, 10.7–8; Aristotle Politics 1.2.

22. In this and the next paragraph, parenthetical references are to Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.

23. From a cosmic perspective, Scipio observes, Rome and its empire seem as nothing; yet in actual human experience, the loss of a city seems like the loss of a world. Cicero De Re Publica 6.16, 3.23. Although reason draws us toward universal truth, it is difficult if not impossible for human beings to find truth except as embodied in particular institutions. In his vision of heaven, Scipio cannot help gazing back toward the earth (6.19).

24. Aristotle Politics 2.2ff., 3.4–5, 7.4.

25. Cicero De Legibus 1.10–11, 22–24; 2.6; Cicero De Officiis 1.11–12, 19, 25; 2.7–8; 3.11, 17–22. See also James Fetter and Walter Nicgorski, “Magnanimity and Statesmanship: The Ciceronian Difference,” in Magnanimity and Statesmanship, ed. Carson Holloway (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

26. Cicero De Re Publica 2; 3.22; 4.1; 6.4; 20; Cicero De Legibus 1.1, 4–12, 22–24; 2.1–4, 10; 3.1; Cicero De Officiis 1.14–18, 28, 41, 45; 3.5–6, 10–11.

27. Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1913), introduction.

28. Note Tocqueville’s care to defend the Puritans on this very point. Democracy, 32, 35.

29. St. Augustine, Political Writings, ed. Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, trans. Douglas Kries and Michael W. Tkacz (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994); Augustine De Civitas Dei 2–8; compare Plato Republic 592a–b; and Cicero De Legibus 2.2.

30. Augustine, Political Writings, secs. 2, 4, 6–7; Plato Republic 376e–398b; Cicero De Legibus 2.4, 8–17.

31. Augustine, Political Writings, sec. 2.

32. Plato Republic 614a–621d; Cicero De Re Publica 6.3–26.

33. For Tocqueville’s tribute to the moral effectiveness of Christianity in Jacksonian America, see Tocqueville, Democracy, 245, 278–79, 517–21.

34. Augustine, Political Writings, secs. 1–2, 5, 14, 19–20.

35. Tocqueville flatly admitted his lack of belief in private correspondence; refer to Sanford Kessler, Tocqueville’s Civil Religion (New York: State Univ. of New York Press, 1994), 193nn1–3. This unbelief is evident in Tocqueville’s lack of interest in the workings of divine grace (Democracy, 284, 419) and in his insistence that the free mind take nothing on faith (273, 410, 417–18). See Hebert, More than Kings, 136.

36. It was conceivable to Tocqueville that a new religion might yield the same benefits as Christianity, yet he considered this practically impossible in modern, skeptical times. Democracy, 408, 519. Instead, he feared the growth of enervating forms of spirituality, such as pantheism (425). Tocqueville’s stan dard for measuring religion is based on the need to direct liberty toward virtue, and not all religions accomplish this equally, in his view (419–20). Tocqueville also acknowledged the importance of orthodoxy in the maintenance of religious belief (406), rendering blanket toleration and syncretism a threat to virtue. See Tocqueville, “Letter to Kergorlay, 1831,” in Selected Letters, 46–53.

37. See Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998); Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994); Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959). For Tocqueville’s response to this line of thought, as embodied in René Descartes, see L. Joseph Hebert Jr., “Individualism and Intellectual Liberty in Tocqueville and Descartes,” Journal of Politics 69 (2007).

38. Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, ed. François Furet and Françoise Mélonio, trans. Alan S. Kahan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), 1:2–3.


This excerpt is from Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (University of Kentucky Press, 2011). Also see “Cosmopolitanism: Citizens Without States“; “Introduction”; “Aquinas’s Mediated Cosmopolitanism and the Impasse of Ancient Political Philosophy”; “Ibn Tufayl’s Critique of Cosmopolitanism in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan”; “Kant’s Teaching of Historical Progress and Its Cosmopolitan Goal”;  An Introduction to Martin Heidegger“; “The Postmodern Condition of Cosmopolitanism.”

L. Joseph Hebert, Jr.

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L. Joseph Hebert is an Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Ambrose University in Iowa. He is author of Readings on Virtue, Law, and Politics.