In the third book of his Ancien Régime, Alexis de Tocqueville takes up the intellectual origins of the French Revolution. AT notes the at first sight strange phenomenon, that in absolutist France intellectuals were free to challenge the most fundamental political, social, and religious institutions and beliefs. While each "philosopher" had his own system and axes to grind, they all agreed that "it was right to replace the complex and traditional customs which guided the society of their time with simple and elementary rules borrowed from reason and natural law. Although he does not quite say so, the Enlightenment is the triumph of the Cartesian method, which is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and science. The truest observation Aristotle ever made was that deductive reasoning was as out of place in ethical studies (morals, politics, the arts) as passionate rhetoric would be in a scientific demonstration. On this terrifying error of Descartes, all the intellectual heresies of the past three centuries depend.
Since all human institutions are corrupt, and since corruption can be traced to complexity, it follows that simplification of society will eliminate corruption. AT is right in his analysis, though it is sometimes difficult to comprehend how such naïve twaddle could have made any headway whatsoever. Some of the philosophes' boldness and success, AT attributes to the fact that intellectuals could not participate in politics. Being without influence and experience, they were free to spin theories which other people without experience were happy to accept.
No one could challenge the nonsense, because the aristocracy was no longer a real aristocracy either in the moral or the sociological sense. An aristocracy, as AT (anticipating Mosca) argues, imposes its values and world view on the classes that hope to emulate its betters, but in the Ancien Régime the aristocrats allowed the philosophes to form the character of their children, much as American businessmen allow their own children's minds to be ruined by Ivy League professors and their disciples who teach in prep schools.
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.