Tocqueville v. Socrates
April 25, 2011
In the latest batch of papers read and graded, two students used Tocqueville and his account of “soft despotism” as a guide in understanding American politics and especially Progressive politics. As is well-known, especially today when Tocqueville seems all the rage, “soft despotism” provides for the wants and needs of the people while or to an extent that it renders them inert and governs them despotically. This is quite a critique of modern democracy and one that some conservatives like as it allows them to call out what we call “the welfare state.”
But what if the alternative is “the warfare state?” And what if the “warfare state” is the result of embracing, as Progressives both former and current, both liberal and conservative, a politics of greatness, meaning national greatness?
This allows us to raise the question: Which is worse, which is darker, Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” or the kind of politics that results from the pursuit of greatness? Which is more deadly? Which is more inhuman? It might be that a politics that seeks to provide for human beings is less bad than a politics that seeks to inspire human beings or human societies. A provisional politics might be preferable to an inspirational politics precisely because the former is less deadly, more pacific [without being pacifistic], and more humane.
And, good, old Socrates: Where would he fall in this regard? Socrates clearly did not seek to inspire. In fact, it would seem more accurate to say that he sought to deflate, and especially to deflate those who thought of themselves as “inspirational,” like the Sophists, who sought to inspire the young, to feed their ambitions by enticing them to participate in politics by seeking power and privilege and promising them that they would teach them how to achieve such power and privilege.
I would say that Socrates sought to disillusion as well as or as a means to deflate those most overblown with self-importance. That is, he sought to puncture the ambitions of the hubristic by revealing that their dearest convictions were illusions. According to Socrates, because they pursued greatness, both personal and political/social, the Athenians did not care for that which is most important, viz., making one’s soul the best possible. Apparently, the care of the soul requires turning away from the pursuit of greatness, especially the pursuit of great power and/or great fame. And this is what Pericles, for example, did not understand nor did the Athenians. Maybe Tocqueville did not understand this either.
It might be that “softness” is, if not better than “hardness,” at least requisite in order to render “hardness” humane. Or, put differently, the feminine side of human nature, the caring side, the nurturing side, is essential, especially when it comes to caring for one’s soul, for making one’s soul the best possible.