Tag: American philosophy

Cranford and Democracy in America, Volume 2

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”

My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The story revolves around the arrival in the town of a young doctor and the attempts of the ladies of the town to place his status within their society and of course to find him a suitable wife.”

Democracy in America, Volume 2by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve (French classic, American classic)

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”


Book cover for Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford

I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me.  The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.

Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes:

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Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 3)


For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.

For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.

Part 3: Babylon or Zion?

In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume 1, Alexis De Tocqueville  declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:

In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .

Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .

The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .

If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.

Photograph of the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty

Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when:

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Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2)

Democracy in America Vol. I

Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE (1805 – 1859), translated by Henry REEVE (1813 – 1895)

When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a thriving democracy of a kind he had not seen anywhere else. Many of his insightful observations American society and political system, found in the two volume book he published after his visit, still remain surprisingly relevant today. (Summary by the Bookworm)

Genre(s): *Non-fiction, History , Philosophy

Language: English

Audiobook cover of Democracy in America Vol. 1, by Alexis de Tocqueville, read by LibriVox volunteers
Democracy in America Vol. 1

For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.

Part 2: The Power of Democracy

One of the key points that Alexis de Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America, Volume 1 is that democracy is a form of government that is extremely powerful:

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Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1)

Book cover for Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve
Democracy in America, trans. H. Reeve

Democracy in America, Volume 1, by Alexis de Tocqueville, (French classic, American classic)

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system, Democracy in America—first published in 1835—enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. Philosopher John Stuart Mill called it ‘among the most remarkable productions of our time.’ Woodrow Wilson wrote that de Tocqueville’s ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was ‘possibly without rival.’

“For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His shrewd observations about the ‘almost royal prerogatives’ of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. De Toqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.”


Part 1: Introduction

Democracy in America is a classic that many Americans know about but few have actually read. I’m a member of a book group that exists to read this kind of material, and it took us ten years to finally be willing to take it on. The book’s length is formidable, and it’s written with such depth of observation that it requires time and thought to get through. Four members of the group made the effort to read Democracy in America. One finished the first volume and got part of the way through the second. The rest of us read the majority of the first volume with the intention of finishing it. All four of us were amazed and excited about the truth regarding America that we discerned in this book. All four of us gained a greater understanding of the origins of the United States, the things that make it great, and the underlying reasons for some of its current problems. All four of us want to put the second volume of Democracy in America on our list for next year.

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The Virginian

The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister (American classic)

“Still as exciting and meaningful as when it was written in 1902, Owen Wister’s epic tale of one man’s journey into the untamed territory of Wyoming, where he is caught between his love for a woman and his quest for justice, has exemplified one of the most significant and enduring themes in all of American culture. With remarkable character depth and vivid descriptive passages, The Virginian stands not only as the first great novel of American Western literature, but as a testament to the eternal struggle between good and evil in humanity, and a revealing study of the forces that guide the combatants on both sides.”


100th Anniversary Edition book cover of The Virginian, by Owen Wister
The Virginian

This is one of those novels that has everything—cowboy card games, coarseness, and pranks without much in the way of foul language; action, adventure, and a climactic shoot-out without any gore; and romance, passion, and an incredibly intimate honeymoon scene without any mention of sex. One of the most important events in the book, in fact, is a hanging that happens off-stage. By modern literary standards, this story ought to fall apart. As a proponent of wholesome fiction, I am delighted to tell you that it works! And, by the way, don’t scroll to the end of the novel to read that incredibly intimate honeymoon scene to see what I mean, because that won’t work. (Okay, so I know you’re going to do it anyway, but seriously, you’re going to be disappointed!) The way Owen Wister accomplishes the seemingly impossible is by building a complex vision of the protagonist phrase by phrase, scene by scene. A reader needs the context of the entire book to appreciate that final honeymoon scene.

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