Ancien Regime III b
In his first and vitally important chapter, Tocqueville says that true aristocracies impose their system of values on a nation, but in France the nobles permitted the philosophes to impose their ideology not only on the education of the young but also even onto the edicts of the regime which began to speak of human rights.
The intellectual conflict in the 18th century was between the Church, whose traditions upheld the faith, and a superficial philosophy that disdained both faith and tradition. Fortunately, the ghastly revolution, he argues, had sobered up the French. What AT failed to understand is that the progress of revolution often takes a step backward before taking two steps forward. While public atheism was no longer fashionable in his day, Catholic piety remained on the fringe in French life, and it stayed there throughout the 20th century down to today.
While the philosophes often prated about liberty, their real dream was of equality and unity. "Not only did they loathe certain privileges, diversity itself was odious." By diversity, obviously, AT did not mean multi-culturalism and pandering to racial minorities, but the existence of social and cultural distinctions. These distinctions, which were the cause of the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the regime, were part of the odious legacy of feudalism, which the philosophes and the economists (early classical liberals) wanted to eliminate. (By the way, from the beginning the economists/liberals/libertarians showed themselves the enemies of society and civilization.)
The past was wrong, they said, and even such things as inherited land boundaries were objects of suspicion. The task of the economists, as they saw it, was to seize power in the state and use it to reshape society and human nature itself. This power did not derive from God or the king. "It did not have ties to tradition; it was impersonal; no longer called the king but the state, no longer the inheritance of one family but the result of and representative of all. The rights of each citizen had to yield to the will of all."
AT dwells at some length on The Code of Nature written, supposedly, by one Morelly, which may well have been a pseudonym. The Code anticipates Proudhon and Marx in its treatment of property. Combined with the economists's theories, Morelly's fantasy is a recipe for the total state. But the philosophes, as critical as they were of the Ancien Regime, were enthusiastic about state power, and Voltaire rejoiced when the parlements were eliminated, precisely because they served as a barrier to total power.
Laws, customs, traditions, religion, and social distinction—all were to be dissolved by the unitary power of the state, acting on rational principles for the good of all.
AT argues quite persuasively (in chapter 4) that the reign of Louis XVI was a time of rapidly increasing prosperity. While taxes and laws were often quite unequitable, they were ameliorated in their application. The rising public debt, partly the result of France's support for the American Revolution, affected only a few people, the rich who held government bonds or whose business depended upon government support. They, the members of the upper business class, can usually be counted on to resist change and prop up the regime on whose stability they so much depend. In this case, however, it was the business classes who demanded immediate reforms that amounted to revolution.
To be continued
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.