Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville

By: Dr. Michael Thomas

The recent student protests at Yale over Halloween costumes and the resignation of the University System President in Missouri over student protests have raised substantial issues that university students could do well to learn from. We have a responsibility in society to disagree constructively and it is increasingly obvious that our civil discourse is no longer civil. Proponents of reason and prudence must step up and claim the mantle of liberal, in the classical enlightenment sense, from those that would drag it through the mud of mob violence on the way to their narrow goals.

Classic texts remind us that these issues are not new. Edmund Burke struggled with the themes of order and chaos in his own writing. When can an existing order be justified and when has the existing order become so abusive that it must be overthrown? Readers of Burke have struggled for two centuries between Burke’s predictions, prior to the fact, that the American Revolution would succeed and the French Revolution would fail. Burke’s theories were based on careful consideration of the events surrounding the Glorious Revolution in England.

Another text that is important to consider is Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings in the large volume, Democracy in America. At times de Tocqueville seems very skeptical of democracy, outlining the necessary schools of democracy that underpin the civil society. He assumes that virtue starts at the hearth, that mothers played a huge role in acting as exemplars. He thought that newspapers were an important part of discourse as was service in voluntary organizations and jury duty. These would teach people to moderate their views and know their opponents.

I can’t say that reading Burke and de Tocqueville will change the course of politics in the US, but it can enliven one’s own understanding of what is at stake. Having these authors at hand can offer a calming perspective on the timelessness of the biggest issues of our own modern experience.

Burke is fighting between the notion of perfectionist politics and mere acceptance of the status quo. He is neither a Hobbesian nor a Roussseauian. He carves out a path forward for those that are concerned with progress, but with proper care given to how that progress is achieved. Burke’s contemporary, Thomas Paine argued for a much more radical change but ultimately couldn’t distinguish what the lasting contributions were from the American Revolution that were missing from the French revolution and caused, in the short-term, a bloody terror and a return to empire.

While Burke doesn’t take issue with the ends of progress, he informs us that progress has to be constituted from the inherent traditions of the status quo. Everyone needed to be brought along without simply collapsing into what was expedient on one or two margins. Burke condemns the radicals of both sides and creates a space for reasonable discourse over what rightly claims the title of progress.

Tocqueville, who accepts democracy warts and all, encourages readers to think about how we structure our society. He rightly praises association. When people come together and are confronted with reasonable disagreement it helps to provide humility and it helps to improve focus on what is important. In our modern discourse the extreme right and the extreme left have abandoned these principles of liberalism. This rejects what both de Tocqueville and Burke spent so much time developing in their texts. Tocqueville fears the very things that we confront today. His fear of the administrative despotism is seen in policy today as government seeks to participate daily in the lives of each of its citizens, for good or ill, its reach is pervasive.

Understanding these great thinkers by spending time in the pages of their books helps structure conversations. We draw on a huge resource when we bring these ideas back to life in our reading and in our discussions with others. It is humbling to read thinkers that took on such large issues, but it is empowering to point others to the framework of their texts so that we can all better understand what is at stake and what we are witnessing on the pages of our newspapers.

This is a guest post by Dr. Michael Thomas. Dr. Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Creighton University and has a fantastic spouse, a cute little daughter, and an exquisite taste in books.  His personal website is Michael D. Thomas.


Should you wish to acquire an exclusive, leather-bound edition of the works of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, you are invited to enroll in our Conservative Tradition Library or Classics of Liberty Library.

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