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Tocqueville the visionary

« I have thought a hundred times that if
I were to leave some trace of myself in this world, it will be far more through what
I have written than by what I have done. »
(Letter to Gustave de Beaumont,
December 26, 1851)

Although Alexis de Tocqueville had achieved real fame in his lifetime - not only in France but also in England and the United States - and although the Americans always recognized him as one of the first thinkers to consider their democracy, his name and works were swiftly forgotten in France for a long time. It was only in the 1930s that he regained favor with certain French intellectuals, and only in the aftermath of the Second World War that he was truly rediscovered as the author of ideas for very accurately examining the ways in which modern democratic societies developed through the 19th century and into the 20th. New readers of Tocqueville were struck by the modernity of his thought and his works. The effect of this was striking: by researching the origin of the vast revolutionary phenomenon of equalization of conditions through changes in social structures in The Old Regime and the Revolution, and by attempting to read the future of European democratic societies in the principles and customs of American democracy, Tocqueville gave his readers the impression of having described - a century before - the society in which they were living. It even seemed like he had pointed out the great risks that it would face, and which it confronted in the mid-20th century. These include totalitarianism, the systematic placing of all responsibility with the State, strengthened bureaucratic power, increasing individualism on the part of citizens, a security-based ideology, and even a form of disinterest in the state - to name but a few - and seemed to constantly tally with the intuitions and reasoning that Tocqueville had formed and developed through the discovery of democratic societies in their infancy. We should not forget, as it has too often been said, that far from contenting himself with a pessimistic and despairing vision of the future of democracies, Tocqueville had enough faith in human beings and the power of his reasoning to think that, if need be, mankind would be capable of defending its freedom and of perfecting the democratic regime. he hoped that education, by showering its gifts on as many people as possible, would give people the desire to be responsible and free, and that the recourse to associations would encourage each citizen to play a part in public affairs, as he himself had done his entire life.

Portrait of Alexis Tocqueville, Théodore Chassériau

Portrait of Alexis Tocqueville, Théodore Chassériau
© RMN/Daniel Arnaudet

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