Henary’s “Tocqueville and the Challenge of Historicism”

Author’s Abstract: Tocqueville’s juxtaposition of aristocracy and democracy as the regimes characteristic of different historical periods gives rise to the question whether he accepts or rejects the category of human nature. In the juxtaposition of the distinct “worlds” of aristocracy and democracy and their respective conceptions of “man,” some perceive an implicit rejection of the idea of a universal human nature. Others, however, see an attempt to portray human nature comprehensively by highlighting the truth of both aristocratic inequality and democratic equality. While generally endorsing this latter interpretation, the essay maintains that most of its variants are too “democratic” in two respects. First, they underestimate the difficulties Tocqueville must confront in establishing the naturalness of the equality principle, and second, they wrongly insist that he understands nature to privilege the democratic principle. Tocqueville ultimately defends the naturalness of equality, but his claims about the greater justice of the equality principle should be understood as rhetorical rather than as reflective of his conclusions about nature.

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