Coda: Tocqueville and the Greeks  pp. 234-251

Coda: Tocqueville and the Greeks

By Eric Nelson

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Alexis de Tocqueville seems at first glance to have no place in a story about Greek republicanism. His greatest work, Democracy in America, has been characterized routinely as the first intimation of a fundamentally new age and the unveiling of a new approach to political reasoning. As Tocqueville himself puts it, his study of American democracy exhibits “a new political science for a world completely new.” This is a statement worth taking seriously. Tocqueville's belief that mankind no longer faces a choice among different regimes leads him to abandon the standard search for the optimus status reipublicae. The rise and global victory of democracy is “fated,” he tells us, and nations can only hope to control “whether equality leads them to servitude or liberty, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.” In short, for Tocqueville, political science in the modern world is left with the relatively modest task of identifying the optimus status democratiae. But Tocqueville's critique of the republican tradition goes far deeper. Apart from insisting that men of his day have no real choice of regimes, he is clear that no form of government is “best” at all times, or always promotes human flourishing better than all the others. He argues that “the political powers which seem best established have no safeguard of their longevity aside from the opinions of one generation, the interests of one century, or often the life of one man … There has never been a government which is based on some invariable disposition of the human heart, nor one which could found itself on an immortal interest.”.

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