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An author under the influence

« We are surrounded by the best books that have been published in the principal languages of Europe. I have only added the very best to this library; it goes without saying that this does not represent much, and the 19th century does not occupy much space. »
(Letter to Gustave de Beaumont,
January 22, 1858)

If we study the library at the chateau de Tocqueville in the state that Alexis left it to his heirs, we can see that he did very little to enlarge the book collections of his ancestors, so little do we find works from the 19th century. Through this library - and his education - Alexis de Tocqueville seems to have inherited a nearly exclusive taste for the great works of Antiquity, accounts of voyages, 17th and 18th century treatises on history and geography, the literature of the moralists of the Classical era, and for the works of the Enlightenment. He never - after having discovered them at the age of seventeen - abandoned his liking and admiration for Rousseau, and above all for Voltaire et Montesquieu. Although he never failed to add a fourth name, that of Buffon, to this list of those whom he considered to be the great minds of the 18th century, it is clear that he was most influenced by Montesquieu. A number of points of convergence between The Spirit of Laws and Democracy in America - in both method and material - have often been pointed out, and the two works in many ways seem to dialogue with each other across the century that separates them. Tocqueville did not deny such an influence, and even acknowledged, as he was about to begin The Old Regime and the Revolution, that for this new work he wanted model it on another work by Montesquieu that he admired: Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.

« We take down this or that book and read it aloud. It is as if we are obliging the author who wrote it to come and talk with us. »
(Letter to Gustave de Beaumont, January 22, 1858)

Over and above the obvious intellectual connection that linked Montesquieu and Tocqueville, the other literary sources that profoundly influenced him nearly all come from French classical literature of the 17th century, and some of them appear to have their roots in the lessons given to Tocqueville by his Jansenist tutor, the abbé Lesueur. The abundant quotations from Fontaine that spring from Tocqueville's pen, whether in his letters or in the pages of his Souvenirs, betray an avid reader of the Fables, and works by Saint-Simon and Bossuet were also books to which he often referred. Above all, however, the author that influenced him the most was Pascal, and it is tempting to ascribe the following quotation to him (even though it was written by Tocqueville to his friend Eugène Stöffels Letter to Eugène Stöffels, October, 1843!): "How miserable is man, who is plunged in such irremediable ignorance of all things, that he has no better knowledge of himself than of the most distant objects, and sees his soul no more clearly than the center of the earth!"
Should we thus conclude that Tocqueville remained, like the formal classicism of his pen, completely impervious to the literature of his century? It is tempting to answer yes, if we consider the pains he took to free himself from the model of Chateaubriand - whom he tried to imitate in some of his earliest texts written during his travels in Sicily and the forests of America - or the harshness of the criticism he leveled at Balzac and Victor Hugo. He admired Lamartine, whom he considered to be the greatest poet of his era, and had a few works by Schiller and Goethe in his library, but it appears that he never was curious enough to sample "democratic literature", which symbolized Romanticism for him. We are forced to conclude that the obvious ties that bound Tocqueville to the spirit of his age are less a matter of specific admiration for certain contemporary writers than its more or less conscious contamination by the ideas and feelings of the first generation of Romantics, those of Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, with whom he shared the symptoms of the century's illness.

Voltaire and Rousseau

Voltaire and Rousseau, engraving

Portrait of Jean de La Fontaine

Portrait of Jean de La Fontaine, Rigaud, 1684. Château-Thierry
© musée Jean de La Fontaine


Inventory after the death of Hervé de Tocqueville

Inventory after the death of Hervé de Tocqueville (library)

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