Why Study the Science of Servitude?

When a man “is a participator in the government of affairs”—on a daily, and therefore (for most of us) on a local basis—“he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”

So spoke Jefferson. Tocqueville heartily agreed.

As Socrates observed long ago, an art that is intended for good can readily be turned to evil ends. The most skillful healer can, if he chooses, become the most devious killer.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America presents us with a “new political science,” addressed to a “world entirely new.” The ultimate goal of this science is to promote “human liberty, source of all moral grandeur.”

In teaching the “art of being free,” Tocqueville necessarily outlines the contrasting principles of the science of despotism.

In appraising us of the strategies employed by the enemies of liberty, Tocqueville hopes to inspire a “salutary fear” that will make us “vigilant and combative” against modern species of despotism.

As with the classical philosophers, from whom he draws much wisdom, Tocqueville finds that the success of external oppressors is ultimately dependent on our losing the battle against the worst inclinations of our own nature.

Tocqueville’s long and complex study examines a number of ideas, habits, and institutions that bring out the best in modern man, and many that do the opposite. A book length summary of his findings is available here.

At the heart of Tocqueville’s teaching is the following insight:

Despotism, which, by its nature, is fearful, sees in the isolation of men the most certain guarantee of its own duration, and it ordinarily puts all its efforts into isolating them. There is no vice of the human heart that pleases it as much as egoism: a despot easily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided that they do not love each other. He does not ask them to help him lead the State; it is enough that they do not claim to run it themselves. Those who claim to unite their efforts in order to create common prosperity, he calls unruly and restless spirits; and, changing the natural meaning of words, he calls good citizens those who withdraw narrowly into themselves.

The keys to the art of liberty are mirror images to those of despotism. Unless we oppose passivity with participation, isolation with association, and egoism with love, we have no hope of remaining free in the face of ever more sophisticated oppressors.

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