Some Scattered Thoughts on ‘The Old Regime and the French Revolution’

I picked up Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution almost by accident the other day. It was on one of the bargain shelves outside Second Story Books for $2, too cheap to pass up, and I bought it without much thought.

I should say up front – and I feel a little ashamed at this – that I never really liked  Democracy in America, de Tocqueville’s ostensible masterwork. Not saying it’s not good, or valuable, but the insights felt stale (because of its very success, no doubt), and I could never really get into it. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Old Regime. But I finally got around to reading it the other day, and it was phenomenal.

De Tocqueville is a crazily efficient writer. In just over 200 pages, he gives a convincing and comprehensive account of the breakdown of society in 18th century France. This is the brevity of craftsmanship – de Tocqueville notes in the introduction that “sometimes over a year’s research work lies behind the writing of a quite short chapter,” and a detailed appendix lays out his sources and methods if the reader is interested. Most crucially, though, the book is written beautifully. Evocative without being florid, illuminating without being didactic, always forceful and to the point. Here, for instance, is his description of the Revolution as a metaphysical force:

What, to start with, had seemed a mere passing phase, a not unusual symptom of a nation’s growing pains, was now discovered to be something absolutely new, quite unlike any previous movement, and so widespread, monstrous, and incalculable as to baffle human understanding. Some were convinced that this unknown force, which nothing could control and which would seemingly carry on indefinitely by its own acquired momentum, could but lead to a complete and final disintegration of the social fabric throughout the civilized world… In the works of those who lived through the period, we can sense something of that numinous awe which the sight of the barbarians inspired in Salvianus.

So it is a good book, and well worth the reading on that account alone. But – this being late November 2016 – one sees the Political in everything, and here lies the special appeal. Several trends and developments, parallels to the present – even political lessons – impress themselves in a lasting way. Below is brief and unsystematic list of the phenomena that particularly struck me.

The Third Estate, getting taken for a ride under the Ancien Regime
The common man getting taken for a ride under the Ancien Regime

A chasm between the elites and the common people: In pre-revolutionary France, the aristocracy was induced to move inexorably and en masse to the cities, and particularly Paris; at the same time, the positive role of the nobility (e.g. physical protection of vassals, socio-economic aid to tenants) collapses such that the aristocracy provides zero benefits to peasantry while still claiming a host of irritating and often crushing privileges; and the rising bourgeoisie finds itself isolated from both the nobility and the peasantry. Thus:

We must beware of assuming that the desertion of the countryside by those who were at the time still regarded as the leaders of the nation was due to the direct influence of certain kings. Its principal and permanent cause was not deliberate actions of the monarchy, but, rather, the slow, persistent action of our institutions…

Not only was the peasant almost entirely deprived of any contacts with the upper classes; he was also separated even from those of his own class who might have been able to befriend and advise him. For once such persons had achieved a certain culture or prosperity, they turned their backs on him. He was, in fact, cold-shouldered on all sides, and treated like a being of a peculiar species. The peasants of the past may have been at once more oppressed and better cared for; the great aristocrats may have sometimes treated them harshly, but they never abandoned them to their own resources.

A useless and decadent aristocracy, sowing and presaging its own destruction: The aristocracy of France, being more or less excluded from the actual mechanisms of government (now handled through bourgeois administrators) degenerated into idleness and nihilism, till “they were surrounded by men described under the law as their subjects, their vassals, their tenants, their farmers; but in reality they led nobody, they were alone, and when an attack was launched on them, their sole recourse was flight.” The ancient peers of France didn’t quietly into the night; they flew headlong toward their own destruction, indulging and fostering Enlightenment ideas on the absurdity of feudal hierarchies, the falsity of religion, and the abstractly intolerable nature of the present situation –  all without visceral anticipation of the consequences. Not that this was an ignoble thing; just an intensely foolish one. As de Tocqueville has it, it would be precisely these “disinterested beliefs and human fellow feeling which led the French elite to sponsor the revolutionary cause”.

The aristocracy reaping the whirlwind
The wages of “disinterested beliefs and human fellow feeling” for some unhappy nobles

The erosion of religion: This is to some degree a caveat of the previous point. The importance of a literary intelligentsia – touched on below – and the unmooring of the aristocracy from beliefs undergirding its role played a major role in undermining the strength of Christianity as a vital social and political glue, opening up a destabilizing vacuum. I particularly like this paragraph:

In the last phase of the old regime, the French had completely lost touch with practical politics and had no inkling of the part played by religion in the government of nations. Indeed, agnosticism found its first addicts in that very class of the community which had the most urgent and immediate interest in the maintenance of law and order and in keeping the populace in hand. For impiety became modish, a new habit to occupy their idle lives, and not satisfied with cultivating it for themselves, they propagated it among the lower classes.

 A dynamic intelligentsia at the center of cultural life, but remote from power: The animating spirit of French intellectual life during this period came from the philosophes and the litterateurs; brilliant, eloquent, and imaginative men, but utterly removed from the realities of politics and governance. This gulf stemmed from the repression of political life under the monarchy, which prevented these theorists and writers from discussing politics as such openly and in proximity to power. Moreover, the social conditions of France – an idle and politically neutered aristocracy, and a materially suffering peasantry even more wholly excluded from the political system – allowed oblivious but moneyed and cultured patrons to play at this sort of thing, while drawing the dispossessed with intensely appealing prescriptions for root-and-branch change. The consequence of this was the development of wildly impractical ideas about human nature and politics, which (so says de Tocqueville) led to catastrophe after 1789.

Here’s serious relevance to 2016, among other deep and enduring observations from a brilliant mind. Definitely worth a read.