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An Interview with Alexis de Tocqueville


What follows is an interview with a very astute observer of the current social and political scene, Mr. Alexis de Tocqueville. His insights may provide some answers to the current state of our nation, and will certainly provide food for thought.


Warren Forgay

 Author Notes

Writer, living in Alberta

 Essay - 4/1/1998

WF: Canada has changed greatly since the 1960s. There is more talk than ever about "national unity", but it seems farther away now than it did thirty years ago. Why do you think this is the case in our time?

A: Epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed, religious belief shaken, and the spell of tradition broken. The country then assumes a dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens. The country is lost to their senses; they can discover it neither under its own nor under borrowed features, and they retire into a narrow and unenlightened selfishness. They have neither the instinctive patriotism of a monarchy nor the reflecting patriotism of a republic. They have stopped between the two in the midst of confusion and distress. (1)

WF: There has been some call in recent years, particularly in Western Canada, for a more democratic system of government. How would you characterize the political system?

A: In democratic countries, the members of political assemblies think more of their constituents than of their party, while in aristocracies they think more of their party than of their constituents. What ought to be said to gratify constituents is not always what ought to be said in order to serve the party to which representatives profess to belong. The general interest of a party frequently demands that members belonging to it should not speak on great questions which they understand imperfectly; that they should speak but little on those minor questions which impede the great ones; lastly, and for the most part, they should not speak at all. To keep silence is the most useful service that an indifferent spokesman can render. Constituents, however, do not think so. (2)

WF: In other words, the Canadian system is really more aristocratic, than democratic, because you seem to be describing Canadian MPs. But if this is so, why then do Canadians, particularly those in Eastern Canada, keep voting for parties which wish to maintain this state of affairs, if as you say, constituents do not like this aristocratic approach?

A: People shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. For their happiness government willingly labors, provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry. What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? The supreme power extends its arm over the whole community, with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. (3)

WF: In other words, Western Canada cannot arise above the crowd that is Eastern Canada, particularly Ontario. The power of the federal government, you seem to be saying, is seen as a much more positive thing in the East than in the West. Do you think the power of the federal government will destroy the West in the long run?

A: Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, reducing it to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. (4)

WF: What do you think of the efforts of the Reform Party to bring about real change in the way the Canadian political system is run, such as bringing about a Triple-E Senate, or democratic reforms to the House of Commons?

A: I think that it is extremely difficult to excite the enthusiasm of people for any theory which has not a palpable, direct, and immediate connection with the daily occupations of life; therefore they will not easily forsake their old opinions. Democratic nations have neither time nor taste to go in search of novel opinions. Even when those they possess become doubtful, they still retain them because it would take too much time and inquiry to change them; they retain them, not as certain, but as established. (5)

WF: Okay, if this then explains the attitude of people, especially in Eastern Canada, it would seem that reform of the federation is impossible. Are you saying then that there can be no change of opinion, not even in Western Canada?

A: Opinions do not change without much difficulty, and it is almost as difficult to show that they are changed. (6)

WF: Western Canadians say that they identify themselves first as Canadians, not as Westerners or as citizens of their respective provinces. How do you explain that Westerners can, on the one hand, call for fundamental changes to the way the Canadian federal system operates, and on the other hand declare their loyalty to Canada and the status quo?

A: Time or events will sometimes undermine or destroy an opinion, without any outward sign of change. It has not been openly assailed, no conspiracy has been formed to make war on it, but its followers one by one noiselessly secede. (7)

WF: You seem to be saying that Western Canada is moving towards secession. How can this be when the majority in the Western provinces say they are opposed to Western independence from Canada? What about this Canadian patriotism? Many Western Canadians on the one hand think the West is treated like a colony by Canada as a whole, and yet they also say how patriotic they are. At least, that is their stated opinion.

A: Day by day a few of them abandon it, until at last it is only professed by a minority. In this state it will still continue to prevail. As its enemies remain mute or only interchange their thoughts by stealth, they are themselves unaware for a long period that a great revolution has actually been effected; and in this state of uncertainty they take no steps; they observe one another and are silent. The majority have ceased to believe what they believed before, but they still affect to believe, and this empty phantom of public opinion is strong enough to chill innovators and to keep them silent and at a respectful distance. (8)

WF: Now, I would like to ask you about the Charter, which was adopted in 1982. It has been said that this meant a shift from an English conception of law to a French conception of law. Is there really any difference between the two?

A: The English have retained the law of precedents; that is to say, they continue to found their legal opinions and the decisions of their courts upon the opinions and decisions of their predecessors. In the mind of an English lawyer, a taste and a reverence for what is old is almost always united with a love of regular and lawful proceedings. English lawyers investigate what has been done; the French advocate inquires what should have been done; the former produce precedents, the latter reasons. A French observer is surprised to hear how often an English lawyer quotes the opinions of others and how little he alludes to his own, while the reverse occurs in France. (9)

WF: In other words, in such decisions as the Delwin Vriend case in April, 1998, it would seem that this decision of the Canadian Supreme Court follows the French system, because the Supreme Court "read into" the charter something that is not there. Why do you think that something like this is less likely in the case of an English lawyer?

A: Abnegation of his own opinion and implicit deference to the opinion of his forefathers is common to the English lawyer. This servitude of thought which he is obliged to profess, necessarily give him more timid habits and more conservative inclinations in England than in France. (10)

WF: In other words, the judicial activism we are now seeing in Canada from the Supreme Court is neither conservative nor English.

A: In England laws are esteemed not so much because they are good as because they are old; and if it is necessary to modify them in any respect, to adapt them to the changes that time operates in society, recourse is had to the most inconceivable subtleties in order to uphold the traditionary fabric and to maintain that nothing has been done which does not square with the intentions and complete the labors of former generations. (11)

WF: It has been said that the motto of Canada has been "peace, order, and good government". What do you think of that?

A: A nation that asks of its government nothing but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart, the slave of its own well-being, awaiting only the hand that will bind it. (12)

WF: Is this why we see in our nation today so many special interest groups who have so much influence?

A: In such a nation the despotism of faction is not less to be dreaded than the despotism of an individual. When the bulk of the community are engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs. At such times it is not rare to see on the great stage of the world a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd; they alone are in action, while all others are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country; and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall. (13)

WF: You certainly seem to describe fairly well what our interest groups and lobby groups are like. But you say it is because people have become inattentive. Is that because we don't really care about the country? Why do you think things have come to this?

A: The inhabitant of a democracy does everything in a hurry, he is always satisfied with "pretty well" and never pauses more than an instant to consider what he has been doing. His curiosity is at once insatiable and cheaply satisfied; for he cares more to know a great deal quickly than to know anything well; he has no time and but little taste to search things to the bottom. A democratic people engage in serious occupations, and they act inconsiderately because they give but little time and attention to each of these occupations. The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest defect of the democratic character. (14)

WF: I would like to ask you about another thing which has interested me. Since the 1960s Canada has committed itself to the concept of Official Bilingualism, and Official Multiculturalism. The Premiers of Canada produced a document in 1997 which speaks of the equality of the provinces. The Federal Government has endorsed this document, and yet it also holds to the view that Canada is a union of two founding nations, races, languages, and peoples. Now, it seems to me that these two things are contradictory, as is having at once a policy of bilingualism and a policy of multiculturalism. How can this be?

A: One of the most ordinary weaknesses of the human intellect is to seek to reconcile contrary principles and to purchase peace at the expense of logic. Thus there have ever been and will ever be men who, after having submitted some portion of their religious belief to the principle of authority, will seek to exempt several other parts of their faith from it and to keep their minds floating at random between liberty and obedience. (15)

WF: You mention religion. I am familiar with people who pick and chose their religious ideas, like shopping in a store or eating in a cafeteria. But religion today is treated by our politicians and our courts of no importance for society, especially Christianity.

A: Fixed ideas about God and human nature are indispensable to the daily practice of men's lives; but the practice of their lives prevents them from acquiring such ideas. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Every man accustoms himself to having only confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself. His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned; and, in despair of ever solving by himself the hard problems respecting the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. (16)

WF: You do not think there can be democracy in the long run without religious faith, then?

A: I am inclined to think that if faith be wanting in man, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe. (17)

WF: But these days, religion has been replaced, especially in our universities, by the doctrine of scientific materialism.

A: Materialists are offensive to me in many respects; their doctrines I hold to be pernicious, and I am disgusted at their arrogance. When they think they have said enough to prove that they are brutes, they appear as proud as if they had demonstrated that they are gods. Materialism is a dangerous disease of the human mind; but it is more especially to be dreaded among a democratic people. (18)

WF: Why is that?

A: Because it readily amalgamates with that vice which is most familiar to the heart under such circumstances. Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification; this taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only; and materialism, in its turn, hurries them on with mad impatience to these same delights; such is the fatal circle within which democratic nations are driven round. (19)

WF: I agree that no society which cares for nothing higher that physical gratification can long endure. But how can our political leaders bring us back to a more healthy spiritual state?

A: My answer will do me harm in the eyes of politicians. I believe that the sole effectual means which governments can employ in order to have the doctrine of the immortality of the soul duly respected is always to act as if they believed in it themselves; and I think that it is only by scrupulous conformity to religious morality in great affairs that they can hope to teach the community at large to know, to love, and to observe it in the lesser concerns of life. (20)

WF: In other words, the politicians should uphold religion and morality even if they do not practice it themselves. But why did you speak in terms of the immortality of the soul? This is a pretty old-fashioned belief.

A: The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the greatest benefit which a democratic people derives from belief, and hence belief is more necessary to such a people than to all others. When, therefore, any religion has struck its roots deep into a democracy, beware that you do not disturb it; but rather watch it carefully, as the most precious bequest of aristocratic ages. Do not seek to supersede the old religious opinions of men by new ones, lest in the passage from one faith to another, the soul being left for a while stripped of all belief, the love of physical gratifications should grow upon it and fill it wholly. (21)

WF: Unfortunately, it looks as though Canada has already reached that point. But surely you are not saying that all physical enjoyments are to be avoided, or that they can be?

A: The special taste that men entertain for physical enjoyments is not naturally opposed to the principles of public order. It often stands in need of order that it may be gratified. Nor is it adverse to regularity of morals, for good morals contribute to public tranquillity and are favorable to industry. It may even be frequently combined with a species of religious morality; men wish to be as well of as they can in this world without forgoing their chance of another. Some physical gratifications cannot be indulged in without crime; from such they strictly abstain. The enjoyment of others is sanctioned by religion and morality; to these the heart, the imagination, and life itself are unreservedly given up, till, in snatching at these lesser gifts, men lose sight of those most precious possessions which constitute the glory and the greatness of mankind. (22)

WF: It seems that in Canada today there is no longer a common shared set of values or even on what the country is supposed to be all about. Christianity, at least by our elites, has been kicked aside. There is no agreement on whether Canada is a union of ten equal provinces or a union of two founding nations. Multiculturalism is official federal policy. All sorts of special interest groups now exist, as I have said, and they certainly do not all agree with each other. What do you think about this lack of consensus in Canada today?

A: Obviously without common belief no society can prosper; rather, no society can exist; for without ideas held in common there is no common action, and without common action there may still be men, but there is no social body. (23)

WF: Thank you, Mr. de Tocqueville, for taking the time for this interview, and for answering a few questions, today.

[Of course, no such interview ever actually took place, as Mr. Alexis de Tocqueville died in 1859. But his brilliant insights and even wisdom still ring true today. The sources for each of the twenty-two answers are given below. The quotes are from Democracy in America, Volumes I and II, (Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Publishers, 1945, 1972). For the purposes of this dialogue arrangement, there is, of course abridgement, and the questions asked here may not be, of course, the questions directly addressed by Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote those words in the 1830s. In a few instances, a change has been made in the tense of a verb, or a word has been added (e.g. the word "because" at the beginning of Answer 19). But this does not lessen the fact that many of Alexis de Tocqueville's insights and observations are as keen and relevant today as they were when first made in the 1830s.]

Answer One: pp. 242, 243, Vol. I

Answer Two: p. 90, Vol. II

Answer Three: pp. 391, 318, 319, Vol. II

Answer Four: p 319, Vol. II

Answer Five: p. 260, Vol. II

Answer Six: p. 261, Vol. II

Answer Seven: pp. 261-262, Vol. II

Answer Eight: p. 262, Vol. II

Answer Nine: p. 276, Vol. I

Answer Ten: p. 277, Vol. I

Answer Eleven: pp. 277-278, Vol. I

Answer Twelve: p. 242, Vol. II

Answer Thirteen: p. 142, Vol. II

Answer Fourteen: pp. 223-224, Vol. II

Answer Fifteen: p. 30, Vol. II

Answer Sixteen: p.21, Vol. II

Answer Seventeen: p. 22, Vol. II

Answer Eighteen: p. 145, Vol. II

Answer Nineteen: p. 145, Vol. II

Answer Twenty: p. 147, Vol. II

Answer Twenty One: p. 145, Vol. II

Answer Twenty Two: p. 132, Vol. II

Answer Twenty Three: p. 8, Vol. II

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