December 14, 2016 by John Bruce Leonard
Between Democracy and Despotism
THUS, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not by impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.
I would be most curious to know what reaction a reader coming to these words for the first time today might experience—whether they might elicit unease in the soul, or dread or confusion, or a militant cry of protestation, or rather a kind of slightly alarmed complacency, perhaps even a kind of pleasant and vague sense of sympathy and agreement. It may well be that these words are a testing stone for the contemporary soul.
The passage in question, which never fails to send a cold shudder through my heart, and the more each time I return to it after long absence, comes from one of the most intelligent and prescient minds ever to live. I have always considered it a mark of shame on my country that the greatest book, the deepest and most incisive thoughts, ever written regarding America, were penned by a foreigner; and it is an amusing twist on that shame that they should have come in particular from the mind of a Frenchman.
The writer is Alexis de Tocqueville, and the words are excerpted from his monumental work Democracy in America. They occur nigh the end, in a chapter entitled “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” Not only this chapter, but the book in full should be read by anyone of our day who is genuinely interested in comprehending the nature of contemporary democracies, anyone who is concerned about whither they tend, and anyone who is not blind, or wishes at least to open his eyes, to those malign political forms which unhappily may emerge from our present political structures. Tocqueville’s entire work is the more urgently to be recommended today, because many contemporary readers will consider the very concept of “democratic despotism” to be an oxymoron. Yet it is precisely the danger of a despotism arising within democracy, emerging from the deepest elements of its very character, that Tocqueville would awaken us to.
The despotism to which Tocqueville believes we are susceptible today takes at least two forms. One, the more classic of the two, is very similar to that kind of despotism which is reviled and feared as much in our day as ever it was in the past. This is in a word that tyranny into which democracies, as the classic philosophers warn us, tend by their nature to stray. We have learned this lesson all too well in the past century, for we have seen it “with our own eyes,” as it were: and we have seen moreover the horrifying form that this tyranny takes when combined with a technology which permits it, as past tyrannies never dreamed, to regulate all aspects of human life. We have called that specter Totalitarianism, and we live yet enough in its shadow that the memory of its many horrors may to some extent preserve us from its recurrence. Having suffered the long illness of it, we are more or less inoculated against it, so long as it does not arise in a new and more virulent, or less recognizable, strain. For the time being, public awareness of it is almost excessively sufficient to the ask of regulating it, as is glimpsed each time anyone rises up and in true democratic hyperbole accuses some peccant public figure of being a “Hitler” or a “fascist.” I shall therefore not belabor here what has been said by others so abundantly and persuasively elsewhere.
But there is another and, as it were, more insidious possibility which Tocqueville identifies, and it is to this I would most emphatically turn our attention: the possibility of a specifically democratic despotism, which replaces the bayonet with the cold shoulder, prison or execution with the averted eye, and the forcible oppression of dissidents or dissident speech with the infinitely more effective response of—utter silence.
In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him; he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he as uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.
Chains and executioners are the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed; but in our day civilization has perfected even despotism itself, which seemed, indeed, to have nothing more to learn.
I wonder if this will not seem familiar to some of us? if it does not resemble most troublingly things that we have witnessed, or heard about, or experienced?
Naturally, one may well believe—and hardly will one be mistaken!—that this is after all not so bad a fate, as compared to that which awaits nonconformists under the arbitrary reign of tyrannies. For under tyrannies, one may not speak certain thoughts without risk, and perhaps one will lose one’s very freedom for the liberty one has afforded to one’s tongue, or pay for one’s words with one’s life. The terror of this is under no circumstances to be belittled. Yet those of us who are not blind to the highest beauties of the soul nor numb to the glory and nobility of its most excellent creations, would do well to listen on a time the longer to what Tocqueville would teach us:
Under the absolute government of one alone, despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leave the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says to it: You shall think as I do or you shall die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they will become useless to you; for if you crave the vote of your fellow citizens, they will not grant it to you, and if you demand only their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you, for one would flee them in their turn. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.
That is chilling, and I hope I am not alone in feeling the bracing touch of it. As for an indication of its consequences—
If America has not yet had great writers, we ought not to seek the reasons for this elsewhere: no literary genius exists without freedom of mind, and there is no freedom of mind in America.
I can predict the outrage that these words will elicit in certain of their readers. I can already hear the protestation that, though this might have been true two-hundred years ago, the situation is radically changed today, after the emancipation of the sixties and the wave upon wave of liberalism which we have so richly enjoyed these past decades. Yet I suspect that less sanguine minds will be, even as I was, stunned and deeply wounded by these words, for we will sense the way in which they are as true now as they were then. We will ask ourselves—and this is, to my mind, a necessary and edifying lash with which to castigate ourselves—what it could possibly mean that there is no freedom of mind in the country which, perhaps more than any other in history, has dedicated itself in speech and in intention to freedom? This is the country, after all, that to this day refers to itself as the “land of the free”; this is the country which first proclaimed the right of human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet, Tocqueville does not say that the freedom of mind in America is qualified by certain illiberal social or political phenomena, or that it is sometimes compromised by unfortunate accidents of history or what have you. He says, and in more than a single place, that there is no freedom of mind whatsoever in the United States. This gets to the very pith of what he means to warn his European brethren against: he did not want the citizens of Europe to sink into the same wallow of mediocre slavishness which he saw swamping North America.
Blessedly, it is not true, even if it might have been in the day that Tocqueville wrote these words, that America is without her great writers. But America remains to this day without wide appreciation of the few it has produced, and their peculiar histories (they have consistently been misunderstood, unacknowledged, ignored, mocked, and spurred into voluntary exile) do not much console. Those of us, at least, who do not satisfy ourselves with Norman Mailer and Sinclair Lewis and J.D. Salinger—nay, nor even Steinbeck or Poe—must we not admit that, although Tocqueville’s statement here is not literal, it is, nonetheless, alarmingly accurate in spirit? And if it is even halfway true, must we—we, who are concerned with making America great for the first time—must we not acknowledge that this is a deeply troubling fact, given precisely the degree to which our country purports to be one of the most liberal countries of all the world, in this or any other time? And should this not make us listen, with ears newly perked, to Tocqueville’s clarion denunciation of “mild despotism”?
Tocqueville himself, though he was more aware of the distressing qualities of mild despotism than anyone before or perhaps since, considered it preferable to that more classic form of tyranny which might issue from democracies. One has of course to agree with him—given the political situation of two hundred years ago. Indeed, apart from its inherent ills, Tocqueville seemed to consider the worst failing of mild despotism, its proclivity to degenerate into pure despotism. The judgements laid forth by Tocqueville, though they are nearing their two-hundredth anniversary, stand almost unqualifiably valid also in our own day, so thorough, trenchant, and ingenious were they at their birth. But there have been in the intervening centuries two events which compel a revisitation of Tocqueville’s conclusions regarding democratic politics and mores: one, an event of “history,” the other, of philosophy; one to challenge certain aspects of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the illnesses to which democracies are prone; the other to widen the scope of his prescriptions.
The first event is nothing more nor less than the great technological revolution of the past century in particular, possibility of which was foreseen by the greatest minds of past generations, but consequences of which are becoming visible only now for the first time in history. Tocqueville’s analysis must therefore be emended, because the advent of technology in our day has altered the quality of the democratic despotism that Tocqueville feared in a single fundamental respect: it has made it in principle perpetual. As Leo Strauss, that self-avowed friend of democracy, so forcefully put it at the close of his response to Alexandre Kojève in On Tyranny,
Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the complete unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought.
What we speak of here is the perfect conflation of despotism and democracy, the unification of the two apparently contrary principles into a single horrifyingly sinister synthesis.
To appreciate the gravity of this peril, one can surely do worse than to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which a most convincing portrait of such a world is drawn with a sure hand, by a man who was no stranger to the hard sciences and the ways in which they might be made to conform to despotism. This is not Huxley’s deepest nor most penetrating treatment of the question of science’s effect on human life—for that, one must turn to Point Counter Point—but it is certainly that work of fiction which so far as I know most clearly illustrates the kind of despotism which we of today ought most to fear. Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the complete unabashed substitution of public opinion for culture, the total debasement of the human spirit could be radically effected, not just for the next decades or for the remainder of our lives or our historical epoch, but for long centuries to come, for all of what remains of history, by means of practices and institutions that can inflict irreversible mutilations on our very humanity.
We live, I am not afraid of saying, quite blithely unaware of the possibility of this kind of nightmare. We have been inculcated by our contemporary philosophy and by the experience of long and terrible wars to believe that democracy and despotism inhabit two mutually exclusive and perfectly separate political spheres. We presuppose this simple dichotomy, believing tacitly that although one form might result in or give way to the other, the first leaves off exactly where the second begins. And it is this belief, more than any other aspect of the present day, which seems to me most ominous. For so long as we remain blind to these possibilities, this threat may come upon us slowly and treacherously, gathering perfect control of our lives one strand at a time, while we at each of its advancing steps will know no better than to embrace it and call it our friend, and friend to democracy.
TOCQUEVILLE was a somewhat unwilling prophet of democracy. He regarded its coming, not without regret at the world that was dying; he viewed it as an inevitability that must be accepted by equanimous souls, a dispensation of fate itself and an inescapable result of the great plan of God. He consoled himself for the splendor and human greatness which would be lost to the world through it, by reflecting on the increase in humaneness and the reduction of unhappiness and pain the coming democratic revolution would, if managed well, achieve. His faith in God, and his consequent (if in his case somewhat abstract) love of mankind, was his specific against the poisonous vision of “universal uniformity” which “saddened and chilled” him. There is a fateful question as to whether or not we, who have inherited the greatest thoughts of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, may any longer permit ourselves such consolations. If we look the matter squarely in the face we must surely deny ourselves even those final caresses of balsam, particularly when we meditate on the moment in an untimely way, when we gaze beyond it into the future, and weigh with all necessary sobriety the vilest possibilities that technology has made possible for a last humanity, against that burning vision of a hitherto unrealized human greatness that we have come to cherish.
Tocqueville, we may say, learned to come to terms with democracy. He considered this resignation a solemn duty for the thinkers of our age: he everywhere expresses his belief that aristocracy is no longer possible, that it cannot return to mankind in any guise whatsoever. He thus made himself into one of the greatest friends of democracy. His aim was in teaching how the weaknesses of democracy might be strengthened, the dangers of democracy averted, and the strengths of democracy reinforced. In this he was master, and we would do well to make ourselves his intelligent pupils—to apply his teachings where they are still relevant, to supplement them where they are deficient, and to replace them in those where they no longer seem adequate.
One of, if not the greatest of all, dangers to human greatness is to be found in the enervation which might seize promising individuals, when they find themselves utterly isolated amongst the masses, shunned without being punished and spurned without being oppressed, encircled in a suffocating sphere of mute opprobrium—a perfect prison of invisible walls, which bears the name of Solitude above its impassable door. It is a rare and superhuman strength which can persist in radical ideas without even a shred of sympathy or agreement from one’s fellows, for even so long as a few years: imagine, then, the strength that would be demanded of an entire life like this.
One who is divided from all others by his own rarity is today doomed to the worst kind of oubliette, such as not even the wicked genius of the past might have invented. His oppressor is as faceless and anonymous as the crowd itself; there is not even a throne against which he may plot, would he throw off his shackles. Against him stands the might of that rank complacency which daily conquers the souls of his neighbors. Was once a day in which he might have roused the better of them from their slumber, but a new force has come into the world and placed a massive armor about their self-satisfaction and indolence: the force of technology. This new power has permitted the perfection of the antique the policy of panem et circenses; only that it speaks of the much broader and more intricate concepts of “standard of living” and “entertainment.” Through the fields of medicine and psychiatry it has refined the production and circulation of opiates to dull the dissatisfactions and quiet the restlessness of the populace, and it has almost consummated the art of instilling a benign mass dissipation by habituating entire generations of human beings to a constant need for insipid distractions and ceaseless streams of petty pleasures. It has provided the ruling powers, both institutional and popular, a perfect gateway into the very home of human beings, in the form of radios and televisions and computers, and has penetrated all human sanctums but the innermost and most inviolable sanctum of all: the human mind. But it speaks even now with naked ambition of one day conquering also this last bastion of human liberty, via genetic and biomechanical engineering and the production of artificial superintelligence.
All of this should terrify us, but the enormous power inherent in this technology is made nigh invincible by the fact that it is everywhere viewed with pride and complacency by almost everyone, as it if it represented, not the greatest peril ever to confront the spirit of our race, but rather its greatest exaltation.
In drawing attention to the dangers inherent in even the most popular of our modern technologies (such as, for instance, our dubiously named “communication technology”) I thus risk saying things which are not likely to be very popular. I am willing in any case to press the matter quite far indeed, by expressing my belief that our technology today poses problems to far outweigh its advantages, and that we ought to be much more prudent in its use, its development, and its promulgation than I know we will be. This is, so far as I am concerned, the most frightening development in all of modernity, and the one most likely to do irreparable harm to our future. I think it suffices to note that our modern technology is the only invention ever to spring of human minds capable of destroying the entirety of the race.
It will be responded, to be sure, that if it is capable of such evil, then it is capable of at least as much good. I do not deny this, I only doubt that it suffices as a counterargument. For precisely if this is true, then the decisive question is not the goodness or badness of technology itself, but the degree of virtue and responsibility of the hand that wields it. We have granted this power to no one individual, but to the entire race. Only the most doctrinaire liberal will claim that the race is responsible enough to bear such a power: and often enough, it is precisely the most doctrinaire liberal that contradicts his own belief, when he expresses his horror at the ways in which our race is poisoning and ruining, for instance, the natural world. Now, I say that technology today bestows the ability to inflict unquantifiable destruction, and that this bestowal has been granted willy-nilly to the most short-sighted and feeble-willed of all possible agents, together with men who are fundamentally unscrupulous and unconcerned with any goal past their own immediate enrichment and gratification. And I say that if we do not begin to pay better heed to this dire crisis even now confronting us, we risk succumbing to a power which we, though we are its very builders, have imperfectly understood.
The destruction that our technology could bring need not be physical. The Bomb is not the only threat that applied science has birthed. Perhaps it is no longer even the greatest. Technology appears to me as the mightiest aid that has ever been conceded to the hands of humanity’s greatest enemy—an enemy which does not, alas, become the less terrible for being so very benign in its intentions. I am speaking of that very general inertia of will and meekness of heart which Tocqueville identifies as the basic flaw of democracies, the defect which is most likely to deliver them into the hands of “mild despotism.” We of today have no greater duty than to attempt to stem this flood, and to and to do what we may to ensure that this essential principle of justice is obeyed: that the greatest powers are given over only to those who are capable of mastering them responsibly. Before aught else, we must confront this question in our own souls, and clarify our own relation to technology. Only then may we with any degree of consistency and integrity bend our thoughts on the unprecedented political situation now confronting us, and the future which might issue from it.
A FINAL PASSAGE of Tocqueville is worth citing, for the eerie prescience with which it describes our current plight:
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and regular pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel then; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principle affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
We may ask ourselves—no, I tell you, it is our pressing duty to ask ourselves, with all due ruthlessness—just how far this portrait is our own, and just how far our much vaunted technology has fashioned the very chains by which the “tutelary power” today binds us—its greatest and most precious tool in the cowing of our souls. My own position, I think, has been sufficiently intimated. I only beg my reader to consider this matter with all necessary care, and, no matter what conclusions he might reach, to refuse the easy path of mere complacent acceptance of what seems evident.
Now, if it is true—as I believe it is—that technology is a potent weapon in the hands of a dangerous, careless, and largely unintelligent ruler, it is only good strategy to take that weapon, with all due assiduity and mindfulness, and turn it against its master. That is a complicated question, and one in which I am bound to be inexpert. Yet I mention a single point which seems to me to be of immediate relevance.
Tocqueville places great emphasis on the importance of association in any effort to counteract democracy’s worst tendencies. In Tocqueville’s day, of course, the possibilities of association were for clear reasons limited. Physical restrictions to travel and to communication formed its natural borders. It would not have been a simple matter, for example, for a heterodox American of fifty years ago, to say nothing of two-hundred, to find the company of others like him, particularly if he did not reside in one of the great cities of the country. His chances to associate with the like- or open-minded would be few and far between—the rarer, the rarer was his thought.
Today, thanks in part to improved means of travel, but much more to the advent of the internet, these distances have been all but nullified. This is a situation ripe with perils all its own, some of which we are only now just beginning to glimpse in dim outline. It would be the height of irresponsibility—though I fear that this is our general stance today—to accept the “digital age” without qualms, and without asking ourselves most solemnly and most sedulously just how it is altering the quality of our ways and even the substance of our beings. But the “digital age” has at least this to its favor, which is no mean advantage for the lovers of culture: the internet has made real diversity of opinions possible, in a way it was perhaps not in even the recent past, by permitting individuals possessed of utterly eccentric ideas to express their opinions behind the safety of anonymity, and to freely seek their peers, who often dwell in distant places or even in other countries. The solitude of the idiosyncratic is less formidable today than ever before, and in consequence ideas that are not favored by the majority, ideas that are perhaps even regarded as obnoxious and pernicious, may yet root and grow, nourished at distant oases, buttressed against the decaying influence of isolation, and fortified against the erosive resistance of the masses.
To anyone who does not believe that the truth is the unique preserve of one or even both of our popular political parties, this cannot help but appear as a hopeful sign. And if, as price for this, we must accept the exponential increase as well of ignorant, vulgar, superficial, ludicrous, sometimes malignant opinions, that is an acceptable price to pay, when compared with that soul-crushing technocratic uniformity which might, in the end, be the only remaining alternative.
I LEAVE OFF, after these dark thoughts, with an altogether more hopeful vision of the future, as found in the closing of yet another monumental book, this time a work of cultural history. From Dawn to Decadence was finished, remarkably, at the age of ninety-three by one of our greatest intellectuals, the late Jacques Barzun. This book is also eminently worth reading for any lover of European culture, anyone who is concerned with Europe’s present, her past, her future. I cite here but choice fragments of Barzun’s closing prophecies, as imagined from some day in the year 2300. The quotation marks are Barzun’s.
“Some writers have called our time the end of the European age. True in one sense, it is misleading in another: it overlooks the Europeanization of the globe. […] The shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone’s power to define; if it were guessable, it would not be new. But on the character of the interval between us and the real tomorrow, speculation is possible.
“The population was divided roughly into two groups; they did not like the word classes. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics—it was to them what Latin had been to the medieval clergy. This modern elite had the geometrical mind that singled them out for the life of research and engineering. […]
“It was from this class—no, group—that the governors and heads of institutions were recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain—clerics in one case, cybernists in the other. The latter took pride in the fact that in ancient Greek cybernetes means helmsman, governor. It validated their position as rulers over the masses, which by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that has been proved in the late 20C. […]
“As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world. The numerous regions of the occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from Brussels and Washington in concert; they were prosperous, law-abiding, overwhelming in offensive weaponry, and they had decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until exhaustion introduced peacableness into their plans.
“After a time, estimated at little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence—in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad imitators (except for a few pedants), and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundation of our nascent—or perhaps one should say, renascent—culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive.”
Barring the advent of a technocratic totalitarianism of the kind portrayed in Brave New World, the most execrable destiny we might imagine for our present-day Europe is a gradual descent into a new Dark Age, in which the inimitable cultural patrimony of Europe is once more menaced with final extinction by the twin dangers of stagnant forgetfulness and violent and barbaric animosity. If such a future really is come upon us, as is suggested by many signs, we can hope for nothing more than that, this time, those of us who are wakeful both to past and to future will know to prepare for its coming as no one in the last Dark Age could have known. We are in a position—we who will not sleep though our neighbors drowse and slumber; we who will not despair though hope becomes dim to our eyes; we who will learn again how to build for the centuries, perchance even the millennia, as much as lies in our small power—we are in a position today to prepare for such as never before, and to rally ourselves before the necessity of bearing this torch across the bleak era ahead.
There are households in the very land wherein I at present dwell, which have kept the embers of their hearths burning without fail for as long as any human memory or any human tradition can recall. We must bear fixedly before us their modest example.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville’s unparalleled analysis of contemporary democracy, Democracy in America, in recommended translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. I direct the reader who would more intimately understand my own thought, to the following chapters of Tocqueville’s masterpiece: Volume I, Part 2, Chapter 7 and Volume II, Part 4, Chapters 6-7. Cf. Volume II, Part 2, Chapter 20.
2. Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny, one of the finest analyses we have, both of the classical philosophical position on tyranny, and of the novel dangers embodied in totalitarianism. “This edition includes a translation of the dialogue, a critique of the commentary by the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève, Strauss’s restatement of his position in light of Kojève’s comments, and finally, the complete Strauss-Kojève correspondence.” The works of both Xenophon and Strauss bear our most diligent attention. I have not, alas, read the correspondence between Strauss and Kojève, but Kojève’s commentary following Strauss’ analysis, together with Strauss’ restatement of his position, are perhaps the nearest thing I have ever read to a dialogue between men of that exalted philosophical rank. Given the weight of the issue they dispute, I hold this to be an indispensable book for serious thinkers today.
3. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a classic of dystopian literature. Also recommended is, of course, 1984 by George Orwell, which, however, seems to me less brilliant in style and literary quality, and of an inferior clairvoyance. I believe it has lost in relevance and credibility since the fall of the Soviet, and I think that the kind of “perfect stability through perpetual warfare” scenario on which its fictive society rests is less than plausible. The reader interested in Huxley’s thoughts on science should turn to what I regard as his greatest novel, Point Counter Point. Beyond being a trenchant critique of the geometric mind, its beautiful marriage of intellect and musicality, together with its incisive observations of British society and human nature, should recommend this excellent novel to all lovers of literature.
4. Jacques Barzun’s masterful From Dawn to Decadence. This book, completed in Barzun’s ninety-third year of life, represents the culmination of one of the most intelligent and temperate, and one of the longest, careers enjoyed by any of our modern intellectuals. Though one cannot precisely lament that he died before his time, Barzun’s fairly recent demise at the age of nearly one-hundred-five represents nonetheless a great loss for us.
5. A most relevant article from The Economist magazine discussing recent attempts on the part of the Chinese government to gain yet greater social control of its people via digital technologies. There is a troubling sentence, referring, not indeed to China, but to the governments of the West and their relation to the digital world: “Officials talk of creating a system that by 2020 will ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.’” One should ask oneself very seriously just who the “discredited” might include.