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Who Needs Anciennete? Tocqueville on Aristocracy and Modernity

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In Tocqueville Between Two Worlds, Sheldon Wolin offers a challenging reinterpretation of Tocqueville as a political thinker. Among Wolin’s major themes is a novel concept of the place of 'aristocracy' in Tocqueville's theory and practice of politics. Wolin asserts that, contrary to scholarly consensus, Tocqueville was engaged in a lifelong pursuit of anciennete, the retrieval of a rapidly disappearing aristocratic past in order to counteract new forms of despotism. However, a careful analysis of the whole range of Tocqueville’s theoretical works and political action leads one to the opposite conclusion. None of his major works appears to corroborate Wolin's thesis. Both Tocqueville's theory and practice were deeply informed by a contrasting premise. The only possible means of sustaining modern liberty and avoiding, or curing, modern despotism lay in a wholehearted acceptance of the irretrievable triumph of modern democracy and its distinctive political institutions.

Keywords: America; England; Old Regime and the Revolution; Sheldon Wolin; Tocqueville; Tocqueville between two worlds; anciennete; aristocracy; democracy; democracy in America; feudal; feudalism; political theory; recollections; souvenirs

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA 15260-7403, USA., Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2003


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