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Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (Eminent Lives)

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Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (Eminent Lives) Cover

ISBN13: 9780061768880
ISBN10: 006176888x
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Publisher Comments:

Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to recognize and trumpet the grandness of the American project. His two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835, offered not only a vivid account of the still young nation but famously predicted what the nation would become, and firmly established his place in U.S. history. Yet in his own time, Tocqueville had little evidence for the truth of his ideas. Introspective, sickly, prone to self-doubt, he was a most unlikely visionary. In wry, elegant prose, Joseph Epstein, America's most versatile essayist, offers an engaging and altogether human portrait of the Frenchman who would become an American icon.

Synopsis:

A distinguished literary historian and author of the bestseller "Snobbery: The American Version" examines the legacy of the celebrated 19th century social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Synopsis:

Part of the acclaimed Eminent Lives series, Alexis de Tocqueville dissects the legacy of the celebrated cultural observer. Joseph Epstein, distinguished literary historian and author of the bestselling Snobbery: The American Version, provides a fresh account of the celebrated writers classic travels in America, and compares what de Tocqueville witnessed to the current state of our nation.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is the author of, among other books, Snobbery: The American Version, Fabulous Small Jews (a collection of stories), Envy, and Friendship: An Exposé. He was the editor of The American Scholar between 1974 and 1997, and for many years taught in the English Department at Northwestern University. His essays and stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Commentary, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines.

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OneMansView, March 22, 2010 (view all comments by OneMansView)
Nice overview of a most unique individual (3.5*s)

This short work is not so much of an attempt to chronicle de Tocqueville’s life and works, as it is an attempt to understand his mind, character, and personality. How can it be that this obscure, aristocratic Frenchmen, in his late twenties, could produce perhaps the most insightful book ever written on democracy and without doubt the most read and quoted? Born in 1805 during Napoleon’s reign, the French Revolution and its connection to aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, and dictatorship was, according to the author, the most significant event in de Tocqueville’s life. Beyond the family nightmare of his parents being only days away from being guillotined, the Revolution reverberated throughout French society for decades. De Tocqueville, given his fixation on fundamental ideas, sought to understand for himself and his fellow Frenchmen what underlay the social and political developments of his time, including the experiment in democracy in the US that so fascinated Europeans.

As the author notes, de Tocqueville has resisted definitive classification through the years in terms of his profession, his political leanings, and his ranking as a profound philosopher. The biggest debate concerns his being a conservative or a liberal. The contention that he was a Christian conservative is countered by the crisis in religious belief that he underwent in his late teens that affected him the rest of his life and the fact that he was no lover of monarchy or aristocracy, seeing the spread of equality and democracy, not without their own shortcomings, as inevitable. Perhaps de Tocqueville was not of the intellectual stature of a Marx or Stuart Mill, but he was a keen observer and organizer of political and social phenomena, able to offer profound, often prophetic, insights concerning their bases.

Curiously, de Tocqueville longed to be a politician and was finally elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1840, where he served for eight years with little impact. But he was not socially adept; he was a poor speaker and was unwilling to join political coalitions. Furthermore, he was an intellectual elitist, preferring to remain aloof from the less high-minded. It is interesting that he maintained close friendships with several men during his entire lifetime, including his collaborator in his journey to America, Gustave de Beaumont. His other foray into politics was a short term as the minister of foreign affairs in 1849 under the regime of Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, before the dissolving of the Chamber and the complete seizure of governmental powers.

There is no doubt that de Tocqueville was a most complex individual. His ambition is in little doubt as he made every effort to produce a stylish DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA that did make his reputation, although the benefits were largely personal, not material. He was a profoundly pessimistic man, perhaps bordering on clinical depression. His political insights were more troubling to him than liberating. He did have other real worries, as he was rather sickly over a good bit of his life and died at the age of fifty-three of tuberculosis. His premature death prevented him from completing his comprehensive study of the French Revolution, THE OLD REGIME AND THE REVOLUTION.

This book is a nice overview of Tocqueville, focusing on his broad intellectual inclinations and pointing to his uniqueness. It provides at best a cursory look at his ideas, with the frequent repetition of his concerns about the rise of equality and the average man in political society, at the costs of limiting liberty and settling for widespread mediocrity. The book is very readable, but there is an absence of a table of contents, index, or notes. The bibliography is very limited. Hugh Brogan’s biography remains the fullest treatment of de Tocqueville.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780061768880
Subtitle:
Democracy's Guide
Author:
Epstein, Joseph
Publisher:
Harper Perennial
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
Europe - France
Subject:
General Biography
Subject:
Biography-Historical
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Series:
Eminent Lives
Publication Date:
20091103
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
7.90x5.20x.60 in. .40 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » Historical
History and Social Science » Politics » General
History and Social Science » US History » De Tocqueville
History and Social Science » World History » France » General

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (Eminent Lives) New Trade Paper
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Product details 224 pages Harper Perennial - English 9780061768880 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , A distinguished literary historian and author of the bestseller "Snobbery: The American Version" examines the legacy of the celebrated 19th century social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville.
"Synopsis" by , Part of the acclaimed Eminent Lives series, Alexis de Tocqueville dissects the legacy of the celebrated cultural observer. Joseph Epstein, distinguished literary historian and author of the bestselling Snobbery: The American Version, provides a fresh account of the celebrated writers classic travels in America, and compares what de Tocqueville witnessed to the current state of our nation.
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