Friday, May 29, 2015

Tocqueville on how aristocracy was the best form of government for England but the worst for Ireland

"Imagine an aristocracy which was born on the very soil it dominates, or whose origin is lost in the obscurity of past centuries. Assume that, not being different from the people, they could easily assimilate with them. Give this aristocracy an interest in uniting with the people to resist a power greater than that of the aristocracy or of the people alone, but weaker than that of the people and the aristocracy united together, so that the more rich and enlightened the people are, the more the aristocracy is assured of its preservation, and the more the rights of the aristocracy are respected, the more the people are certain of retaining the enjoyment of theirs. Imagine an aristocracy having the same language, the same manners, the same religion as the people ; an aristocracy which would be ahead, but beyond the ken, of the people's understanding; an aristocracy which surpasses the people a little in all respects, but immensely in none.

Imagine a middle class gradually increasing in importance in the context of this state of affairs, and by degrees coming to share the power and soon afterwards the privileges of the ancient aristocracy, in such way that money which everybody can hope to obtain, gradually takes the place of birth which depends on God alone. Thus inequality itself will work to forward the wealth of all, for, everybody hoping to come to share the privileges of the few, there would be a universal effort, an eagerness of all minds directed to the acquisition of well-being and wealth. Make of this nation a huge centre of commerce, so that the chances of attaining the wealth with which all the rest can be obtained, multiply infinitely, and ever give the poor a thousand hopes, and so a thousand reasons for remaining satisfied with their lot.

Imagine all these things, and you will have a people among whom the upper classes are more brilliant, more enlightened and wiser, the middle classes richer, the poor classes better off than anywhere else ; where the State would be as firm in its plans as if it were governed by one man, as strong and as powerful as if it relied on the free will of all its citizens ; where the people would submit to the law as if they had made it themselves, and
where order would reign as if it were only the question of carrying out the will of a despot: in fine, where everyone being content with his lot would be proud of his country and would wish to be proud of himself.

Now imagine an aristocracy that was established by a conquest at a time so recent that the memory and the traces of the event were present in all minds. Place the conquest in a century when the conqueror already had almost all the lights of civilisation and the vanquished was still in a state of half savagery, so that both in moral power and in intelligence the conqueror was as far as possible superior to the conquered. Give to these two, who are already so dissimilar and unequal, a different religion, so that the nobility not only distrusts the people, but also hates them, and the people not only hates the nobles but damns them. Far from giving the aristocracy so constituted any particular
reason to unite itself with the people, give it a particular reason not to unite with the people in order to remain similar to the nation whence it came, from which it still draws all its strength, and to resemble which is its pride. Instead of giving it a reason
to take care of the people, give it a special motive to oppress them, by placing its trust in this foreign support which provides that it should have nothing to fear from the consequences of its tyranny. Give to this aristocracy the exclusive power of government and of self-enrichment. Forbid the people to join its ranks, or, if you do allow that, impose conditions for that benefit which they cannot accept. So that the people, estranged from the upper classes and the object of their enmity, without a hope of bettering their lot, end up by abandoning themselves and thinking themselves satisfied when by the greatest efforts they can extract from their land enough to prevent themselves from dying;
and meanwhile the noble, stripped of all that stimulates man to great and generous actions, slumbers in unenlightened egoism.

You would certainly have a terrible state of society, in which the aristocracy would have all the faults and maxims of oppressors ; the people all the vices and faint-heartedness of slaves. The law would serve to destroy what it should protect, and violence would protect what elsewhere it seeks to destroy. Religion would seem only to lend its strength to the passions which it should fight, and to exist only to prevent hatreds from being forgotten and men from establishing among them the fraternity it preaches every day.

The two societies I have just described were however both founded on the principle of aristocracy. The two aristocracies of which I have been speaking, have the same origin and manners and almost the same laws. But the one has for centuries given the English one of the best governments that exist in the world; the other has given the Irish one of the most detestable that could ever be Imagined.

Aristocracy then can be subjected to particular conditions which modify its nature and its results, so that in judging it one must bear circumstances in mind. The truth is that the aristocratic principle was conditioned in England by particularly happy circumstances, and in Ireland by particularly baneful ones. It would not be fair to make a theoretical judgment about aristocracy on the strength of either of these examples. The rule lies elsewhere." -- p155-158 in "Journeys to England and Ireland" by Alexis de Tocqueville.

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