Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville, Philosopher of Civil Society: An Interview with Brian Smith

For many political and social thinkers, the work Alexis de Tocqueville on the nature and significance of civil society provides fertile soil for envisioning and articulating a philosophy of human flourishing under the conditions of ordered freedom.

In my Acton University interview with Professor Brian Smith, he overviews Tocqueville’s anthropology, his view of intermediary institutions and their significance in a humane social order, the challenge of the democratic notion of equality and how Tocqueville addresses the problem of despotism. Christians working on issues in philosophical anthropology should attend to this work with earnestness as they seek to envision the social implications of such an anthropology toward a free and virtuous society. 

Prof. Brian A. Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He has written extensively on Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville, and also has interests in the relationship between statecraft, war, and political thought. His current research focuses on the political and social ideas of novelist Walker Percy.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

What are the salient features of Tocqueville’s anthropology, which help to underwrite his vision of a civil society?
I think Tocqueville recognized that human beings share a set of important psychological and moral traits. We are essentially bored, restless creatures who require stability and certainty in at least some aspects of our lives in order to live well. We oscillate between furious engagement with the world and total withdrawal. We are also social creatures who need companionship, care, and love, but crave total independence. Undergirding all these characteristics is our status as essentially limited, dependent creatures that need true faith to find rest. But as many other authors (particular Augustine) note, we frequently flee from this most natural fact about ourselves. While he doesn’t use the language of sin, Tocqueville emphasizes our tendency to act in immoderate, self-contradictory, prideful, and selfish ways.
Tocqueville’s concept of “intermediary institutions” is central to his vision of civic life and human flourishing. Can you explain the meaning and significance of that in Tocqueville and how it is indispensable to the maintenance of liberty and social cohesion in a civil society?
Tocqueville realized that the great danger in modern, egalitarian democracy lay in our tendency toward what he called “individualism.” In the U.S., at least, we don’t normally consider this a dangerous notion. But for him, individualism implied not heroism, but a kind of retreat into isolated nothingness and an evasion of responsibility for one’s fellow man. This kind of isolation poses dangers to liberty because as lone, equal individuals, we come face to face with our tremendous weakness. We need someone or something to save us, and having denied God (isn’t God the ultimate affront to a deep belief in equality?), we turn to the state.

Intermediary institutions (clubs, local political organizations, community activities, churches, etc.) tie us – really oblige us – to our neighbors. They train us to recognize the ways we can satisfy our various needs without turning to political power to provide the goods we require. He says these associations teach the art of being free and living responsibly. Without them, we will fall out of practice at self-government.
 To read the full-text of this interview, please click here.

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