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The Old Regime and the Revolution

The argument of books II and III

With its twelve rigorously ordered chapters, the second book of The Old Regime and the Revolution also constitutes the keystone of Tocqueville's argumentation. His starting point is the paradoxical observation that it was in France that feudal rights had become "more odious" to the peasant world than anywhere else in Europe, although it was precisely in France that they carried the least weight (chapter I). He attempts to shed light on this contradiction by successively evoking the development of France's administrative centralization under the Ancien Régime (chapters II to VII) and then the effects of this on society (chapters VIII to XI). According to Tocqueville, it was centralized administration - one of the distinctive characteristics of monarchic absolutism - that was responsible for the breakup of the society of the feudal world (in particular the links between the lords and the peasants) in the sense that the emergence of a central power that covers society and no longer issues from it took place at the expense of the nobility, which was progressively dispossessed of its local authority. Under such conditions, the last remaining feudal rights - as restrained as they were - could only appear illegitimate in the eyes of peasants who, at great sacrifice, had themselves become owners of their land.   play sound extractlire l'extrait sonore  

« Here I am at the threshold of this memorable revolution; this time I shall not cross it: perhaps soon I may be able to do so. I will not then consider its causes, I shall examine it for itself, and I shall finally dare to judge the society that sprang from it. »
(The Old Regime and the Revolution)

In addition, the entire social organization of the feudal world was weakened by this centralized administration - which, under Tocqueville's pen, becomes not a conquest of the Revolution, but its deepest cause - since the rivalry between a bourgeois class with accrued financial power and a nobility deprived of any real power was exacerbated by its creation of envy in the former and disdain in the latter. The long process of creating equal conditions, which had begun long before the French Revolution and more there than anywhere else - because of the role that the absolutist form of monarchy played in it - ended in the complete disintegration of French society, in which the greatest burden was laid on the backs of the peasants, as the final chapter in the second part recalls. This, according to Tocqueville, was the very social crisis that erupted in 1789.
Having established this, all that remained for Tocqueville to do, in the third and final part of his work, was to determine what were the specific causes that "pollinated" the above-mentioned general causes after 1750 in order to trigger the revolutionary movement. In the first two chapters of the last part, he analyzes the ideological context of the second half of the 18th century, paying particular attention to the role played by the leading figures of the Enlightenment, these "men of letters who became the country's principal politicians" and whose influence was all the greater as their public - particularly in the upper levels of society - were won over in advance by their struggle against religion, which Tocqueville generally considered (since writing Democracy in America) as a cohesive social force and a sort of guarantee of freedom. He takes care to reject the economic argument, according to which France's ruin was at the origin of the Revolution, preferring instead the idea that the prosperity of the kingdom could have brought the Revolution on faster. Finally, he studies how it was the attempts at reform that came from above that themselves lit the spark of the revolutionary process, which "roused the people by trying to offer them relief", and which were "practices thanks to which the government completed the people's revolutionary education", according to the titles of chapters V and VI of the third book. The Old Regime and the Revolution ends on the eve of the Revolution, after having clearly distinguished the impact as well as the tragic sequence of causes, while emphasizing the responsibilities assumed by people. Although Tocqueville did not have the time to complete the vast project to which this work was only an introduction, the work is still one of the most relevant and daring studies of the origins of the French Revolution.

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