“Tocqueville on Human Nature and Natural Right” by Donald Maletz

Donald J. Maletz, "Tocqueville on Human Nature and Natural Right" in Interpretation Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 2010)


Tocqueville’s account of American democracy makes no use of what might be thought one of its philosophical foundations, the theory of natural rights based on an interpretation of abstract and universal human nature. Yet at the same time he offers some important analysis of rights, natural right, and human nature. My paper is an exploration of these omissions and inclusions.

To be sure, the omission of natural rights doctrine does not mean hostility to the idea of individual rights as such. Tocqueville emphasizes the importance of the “idea of rights.” He calls it a “beautiful” idea (DA 237), while also noting that it is exceedingly useful for democrats, because it elevates the “interests” which so predominate in the human heart (DA 239). Yet he omits to describe the idea of rights as a truth, or to link it to the theoretical arguments that formed a common thread among eighteenth-century proponents of democracy and opponents of monarchy. That Tocqueville was familiar with the theory of natural rights, and took a critical view of it, became clearer from his later remarks about the difficulty caused by abstract ideas when turned into a basis for political action in the era of the French Revolution (OR I.2, 97, and III.8, 242; see Addendum 1). Even in Democracy in America, however, he makes a point of stressing the limitations of “general ideas” and “abstract words” (DA 481), arguing that an “abundance of abstract terms” both “widens the scope of thought and clouds it” (DA 482). With others among the liberals in the French post-revolutionary era, Tocqueville’s ideas turned toward “quasi-historical, comparative constructs” (Kelly 1992, 55) and toward a liberalism less bound to strict contract theory (Manent 1994, 80-83).

Yet if the absence of strict natural rights theory is notable, it is equally important to notice the lack of any attempt at a comprehensive theory intended to replace it, such as a “philosophy of history” or a relativizing critique of abstract or general principles altogether. To be sure, Tocqueville cannot at all be thought oblivious to history. With some of the French liberals, he sought a return to the methods of Montesquieu and a way to adapt them to the understanding of social change (Siedentop 1994, 24-25). But he never proceeds down the path proposed by Hegel or Marx (see Addendum 3). Neither a theory of natural rights, nor a theory of history: does Tocqueville then lack altogether a framework for making his observations more generally intelligible than as a study of single cases? In particular, is he unaware of the power of the distinction between the natural and the conventional to illuminate important aspects of political life?

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