By Farhang Erfani

Farhang Erfani, Villanova University

True union, or love proper, exists only between living beings who are alike in power and thus in one another’s eyes living beings from every point of view; in no respect is either dead for the other. This genuine love excludes all opposition.

Hegel, “Love”

Under democracy the state of servitude has nothing degrading because it is chosen freely and adopted temporarily, because public opinion does not stigmatize it, and because it does not create any permanent inequality between servant and master.

Tocqueville, Of Democracy in America[1]


The theme of “master and slave” was not Hegel’s invention, although his name is now forever associated with it. What is unique about Hegel’s approach is that he systematized what was already a common theme for his time. As a literary genre, the struggle between masters and servants had dominated the French eighteenth century plays. Notably, Marivaux and Beaumarchais had popularized this struggle in their works, in which, with a great deal of satire and comedy, the master is shown as entirely dependent on the servant. In fact, in every play of this genre, the master and the servant are driven by the plot to switch roles, often because the master is in some sort of trouble– love affairs, financial issues, religious matters–and the servant assumes the master’s position, only for the duration of the play, in order to succeed where the master had failed. In Beaumarchais’ Le marriage de Figaro, published a few years before the French revolution, Beaumarchais shows that the master, Monsieur Le Comte, needs his servant, Figaro, without whom he is lost. But in this case as in all others, not only are the roles reversed, but the master is always blind to his own dependency. Though Figaro is often tactful–because he lives under the constant threat of violence from Monsieur Le Comte–he sometimes criticizes his master for being oblivious to the true nature of their relationship. For instance, in Scene 5 of Act III, the climax of classical plays, Monsieur Le Comte asks his servant how long it will take him to change his clothes. Figaro responds that “it will take some time.” Monsieur le Comte comments, impatiently, that “[d]omestics here…they take longer to get dressed than the masters.” Figaro replies: “[t]hat is because they don’t have servants to help them.”

These plays were all the more ironic because, by the end of the plot, the masters and the servants always went back to their previous roles, thus perpetuating the injustice and the exploitation. The servants’ redemption was only momentary, and useful to the masters, who conveniently forget the episode. The servants enjoyed knowing that they were more knowledgeable and perhaps even more intelligent than their masters who fully depended on them, and the masters enjoyed prosperous lives at the expense of their servants. Neither Beaumarchais nor Marivaux took this relationship any further.[2]They cleverly pointed out the absurdities without showing where this exhausted model would lead; Hegel, however, took the model of the relationship between master and servant to its unpleasant conclusion. Hegel’s famous master and slave dialectics underlines the fact that the relationship as such is untenable, exhaustible and already exhausted. The relationship leads nowhere but to more violence, as demonstrated by the uprisings of the French revolution. For Hegel, the conflictual relationships between masters and slaves, between the haves and the have- nots, between lordship and bondage, was just the beginning of a difficult and bumpy road. To be politically divided, to be at odds against one another, and even to have a fragmented self are nothing but different symptoms of a more fundamental problem: our incapacity to cope and to come to terms with our freedom. Or to be even more precise, as long as we do not understand ourselves, we are doomed to such struggles.

In this essay, I will propose that there are at least two different ways of coping with struggles: one is to eliminate them–and this is the way that Plato, Hegel, Marx and many others chose–and the other is to institutionalize them–this is Tocqueville’s democratic way, which others, today, are also adopting. I will first outline the main elements of Hegel’s approach, with a specific focus on the Phenomenology of Spirit. My goal is to emphasize that, for Hegel, the goal must be a reconciled polis, which can only happen if and when the history-long struggle between masters and slaves has ended. I will then turn to Tocqueville’s Of Democracy in America, which was published about thirty years after Hegel’s Phenomenology. Tocqueville is also aware of struggle between masters and slaves, but he prefers embracing democracy as a means of domesticating, and not eliminating once and for all, political strife.

Hegel: On Overcoming Struggle

In this first part, I will briefly retrace the Spirit’s road in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This road is marked by the Spirit’s struggle for recognition, reconciliation and freedom–goals that prove to be

remarkably difficult to achieve.[3]In Hegel’s view, the difficulty (contrary to Kant’s assumption) lies in the fact that a theory of knowledge, an epistemology of the human mind, would not suffice in positing freedom and self-understanding. Hegel shares Kant’s goal but believes that a clear picture of the categories of the mind falls short of our expectations because it begins with the end; it begins with the mind or Spirit, whereas for Hegel, the kind of awareness that Kant needed for his theory is the result of an arduous process. Or better yet, Spirit, if we were to give it a short working definition, is the process that leads to self-awareness and self-understanding. And to dismiss the arduous task of learning that Spirit must endure is to ask for the impossible, which is “the attainment of the end without the means. But the length of this path has to be endured, because, for one thing, each moment is necessary.”[4]

More importantly, the very “habit of picture-taking”–Kant’s way–is a bankrupt enterprise likeany“formalisticthinkingthatarguesbackandforthinthoughtsthathavenoactuality.”[5]Thatis to say, a thought that freezes and isolates the human mind in time, a thought that depicts its a priori qualities fails at understanding the reality or the “actuality” of Spirit as a temporal process. In fact, it would even be a mistake to read Hegel’s Spirit (Geist) as just an individual human mind. Although Hegel’s view encompasses mind, his “concept of spirit is roughly a view of people in the sociohistorical context as the real of subject of knowledge.”[6]Spirit depicts the unfolding of life–not just of the mind–in time and space. Hegel illustrates this in a key metaphor in the “Preface” of the Phenomenology:

The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.[7]

If the goal of philosophy is to understand life through concepts, then we must first understand what a Concept is.[8]From Plato’s forms, to Descartes’ essences, to Kant’s formal categories, Hegel opposes time as the fundamental Concept. If there is a sub-stance to reality, if reality stands over anything, it is time. And because time is the antithesis of permanence, much of traditional metaphysics becomes questionable. In this instance, we must see that the fruit in itself is no concept; in fact it is nothing in itself. Those who see the fruit as an “abstract lifeless unity cannot cope with [the] sheer unrest of life.”[9]A fruit is only a moment in the process that is constantly self-negating and self-refuting. To put it in more technical terms, a fruit is only a temporal phenomenon, not a noumenon. The task of philosophy should consequently no longer be “labeling all that is in heaven and earth … pigeonholing everything,” or depicting life in a style of “painting that is absolutely monochromatic.”[10]Or as Findlay says, “it is senseless to talk of an ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ reality without connecting it with the procedures through which such a reality could be established as real by us.”[11]

Even though Hegel is overcoming philosophy’s traditional metaphysics, there is of course something very Platonic in his mission statement. Recall that the ultimate task of Plato’s guardians was to learn dialectics, which is also a Hegelian term. What the dialectics of Plato and Hegel have in common is their dedication to understanding difference. After years of education, Plato considered the main task of the philosophers not to understand this or that form but rather to appreciate what makes any form what it is and how it is different from all others.[12]Resisting the Parmenidean Oneness of Being, Plato philosophized about the space between forms; he analyzed the “not” as much as the “is.” This is why, as Hegel put it, philosophy’s true focus should not be on a phenomenon or an “accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, [but as] what is bound and is actually only in its context with others, [and more importantly on how it attains] an existence of its own and a separate freedom–this is the tremendous power of the negative.”[13]Plato and Hegel translated this task in a poignant metaphor: to do philosophy is to learn to die, to know how to face negation–a task that we traditionally resist. For Hegel, negation was understood in terms of time–we must learn that each moment is the death or the negation of a previous one, itself on its way to being negated. If we learn to accept this fundamental contingency of life we could perhaps learn to accept that the “life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it.”[14]Let me add that although the main difference between Plato and Hegel’s dialectics resides in Hegel’s appreciation of time as the fundamental differential concept of negation, they both agree that the just state is a reconciled state; a state that is free of strife, of conflicts[15]–a thought that Tocqueville and proponents of radical democracy will challenge.

Having grounded his thought in a dialectics of time through negation in the “Preface,” Hegel proceeds to retrace the steps of the development of Spirit. It would be impossible and unjust even to summarize the Phenomenology in its entirety in such a short space. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on three important steps of Hegel’s narrative: Spirit before socialization, i.e., consciousness, Spirit in social struggle in the case of the master/slave dialectics, and finally Spirit in reconciliation with absolute knowledge at the end of history.

Hegel begins with consciousness in its most primitive element: the “here and the now.” Spirit finds itself dwelling in the natural world, in the “immediacy of my seeing, hearing and so on.”[16]Consciousness is then nothing but a bundle of untreated and unreflected sense perceptions. But as naive as consciousness is, as unaware of itself and of time as it is, it soon realizes that the “now” is never what it seems to be. For instance, even if “now” is the evening, shortly “now” will be night. “To say anything more about what confronts us in Sense-awareness is at once to pass beyond it, to dissolve it into a series of concepts or universals” (Findlay 88). In other words, consciousness’s naïveté cannot persist in the light of change; it cannot be satisfied with the “now” which always escapes it. Even if consciousness were to refuse to see the “power of negation” in the world, the latter is nothing but a performance of negation, in its simplest form:

Even the animals are not shut out from this wisdom, but, on the contrary, show themselves to be most profoundly initiated into it; for they do not just stand idly in front of sensuous things as if these possessed intrinsic being, but, despairing of their reality, and completely assured of their nothingness, they fall to without ceremony and eat them up.[17]

Following the animals’ lead, consciousness learns that senses give us no access to the real–sensed objects have no “intrinsic being,” and they are many things and nothing at the same time.[18]As Jean Hyppolite puts it, each of these objects “vanishes in the other, and this movement of vanishing is the only reality of forces that has sensuous objectivity.”[19]Put in Hegelian jargon, an object is nothing “in-itself”; it possesses no reality. It is only at the disposal of consciousness, which alone exists “for- itself,” meaning that it alone is aware of itself.

By appreciating the deception of the natural world and consciousness’ power of bestially annihilating it, consciousness embarks on an exploitative journey: it understands a “native” truth about itself[20]–it becomes conscious of its superiority as a for-itself, hence becoming self- consciousness. The world becomes its playground, the scene in which it tries to satisfy itself. What consciousness desires in the world of objects, of objectivity, is finding its own place. “The end point of desire is not, as one might think superficially, the sensuous object–that is only the means–but the unity of the I with itself. Self-consciousness is desire, but what it desires, although it does not know this explicitly, is itself: it desires its own desire.”[21]Running the risk of oversimplifying Hegel’s thought, one could say that consciousness in its previous stage was a child discovering the world and that at this further level of maturity, it finds itself desiring the world and all its objects much like a young adult or teenager. It fails to see that what it needs is truly to understand its place and itself in the world. This selfish desire for understanding and recognition cannot be satisfied because objects do not have the capacity for reciprocity–objects do not provide self-consciousness with the “gratification” that it desires.[22]Ultimately, Hegel warns us, “Self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness.[23]

But as mentioned before, Spirit must learn this truth by itself. Unsatisfied with the natural world, it turns to the social world, where there are other self-consciousnesses, which it treats like a natural object. Spirit has not learned to cope with the Other self-consciousness’s freedom and subjectivity. So when two self-consciousnesses meet, they have much to learn about each other. “Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other.”[24]Because Spirit, so far in its natural solitude, has only dealt with objects, in the most destructive fashion, it treats the other in the same way: each self-consciousness seeks the death of the other one. However, as Hegel points out, this “trial by death does away with the truth which it was supposed to issue from it, and so, too, the certainty of self-generally.”[25]And it is indeed death, or fear of death, that will separate the two consciousnesses: the one who fears death most surrenders and reduces itself to the object status–it becomes the slave. The master is the consciousness who feared death least and now can own the other self-consciousness the way he owned the world beforehand.

From the beginning, however, this relationship is doomed to failure. Each sought an “adequate mirror” to better understand himself, but instead preferred, especially in the case of the master, to create and reinforce his own image by force.[26]The master, who apparently won the battle, has not achieved his goals of (a) recognition, since the relationship is “one-sided and unequal”[27]and (b) independence, since now his slave works for him. Pure physical survival has not satisfied the master:

Unlike animals, men desire not only to preserve in their being, to exist the way they exist; they also imperiously desire to be recognized as self-consciousness, as something raised above pure animal life. And this passion to be recognized requires, in turn, the recognition of the other self-consciousness.[28]

So we could say that it has not satisfied the slave, either. In fact, in the long run, the slave is the winner. Forced to labor for his master, he rediscovers the truth about the negation of the world. He realizes that “it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.”[29]The roles are reversed: the master needs the slave because he depends on the slave and the slave now has a higher consciousness because he masters negation; he has a “mind of his own.”[30]

This unsatisfactory relationship is nothing but the beginning for Spirit. Having begun on this false-premise of domination, of mastering others like natural objects, Spirit continues its path, seeking self-understanding and recognition, without learning to accept the other’s subjectivity and freedom. Every step or moment of its development is marked by a self-refutation–much like the original metaphor of the bud–that leads it to a higher level of self-consciousness. The key, of course, is not to deny or resist these moments of negation. On the contrary, Spirit fails at every step because it still refuses to see the fundamental role of time and negation. Even when it turns itself to family life, the ethical life or the political life, Spirit still wants to drink “from the cup of substance.”[31]Refusing to see the contradictions of its various positions, Spirit pursues the logic of domination to its extreme–which Hegel saw in the “Terreur” following the French revolution. Hoping to avoid its own death, Spirit dwells in negation and dictates the death of others, which is: “the coldest and the meanest deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.”[32]

Before beginning the section of the master and slave dialectics, Hegel had announced that this is the “turning-point” in the history and the story of Spirit.[33]But this is the turning point that Spirit missed, or rather misunderstood. From its first instant of socialization, Spirit failed to achieve its goal of self-understanding. It saw itself as a free being but could not engage others in their freedom; it instead preferred a history-long struggle in an unsuccessful search for self-affirmation. In 1807, as Hegel was finishing the Phenomenology, the world had not overcome its violent desires. The French revolution had given birth to the Terreur which in turn gave birth to Napoleon. Germany was fundamentally divided and even France, as we know now, went through more turmoil. More wars and struggles, more exploitations and violence followed Hegel’s Phenomenology. Very much like in the Phenomenology, we still operate within the master and slave paradigm–we seek mastership. Without changing the direction of our path, we instead intensify the degree of violence with each epoch. Again, as in the Phenomenology, we exhaust our resources in strife only to find newer and more powerful ways to keep the struggle alive. As I am writing these words, the Untied States has conquered Iraq, trying to affirm its identity through violence and domination. The outcome was easily predictable: America won the war and now owns Iraq, only to find itself once again unsatisfied, with more enemies and more to fear. In other words, the self-destructive pattern of “trial by death” and seeking identity through violence has clearly not ended, but Hegel hoped that we would realize its futility. He thought that we should see this exhaustion as a symptom and accept that we should move into a “new era.”[34]

Having described this essential failure, all the way to Kant’s philosophy, which lacks “an actual existence,”[35]Hegel begins to prescribe. His prescription is to change the course of history, or perhaps even to end history as we know it. As Kojève put it:

Man was born and history began with the first Fight that ended in the appearance of a Master and a Slave. That is to say that Man–at his origin–is always either Master or Slave; and that true Man can exist only where there is a Master and a Slave…. And universal history, the history of the interaction between men and of their interaction with Nature, is the history of the interaction between warlike Masters and working Slaves. Consequently, History stops at the moment when the difference, the opposition, between Master and Slave disappears: at the moment when the Master will cease to be Master, because he will no longer have a slave; and the Slave will cease to be Slave because he will no longer have a Master (although the Slave will not become the Master in turn, since he will have no Slave).[36]

That was precisely Hegel’s–and Marx’s–goal: to end the pattern of struggle. At the “turning point,” Hegel had warned us that only when consciousness becomes Spirit, only when it learns to be “an absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence” could the violence and struggle end.[37]In other words, consciousness becomes a Spirit when it learns to find its freedom in association with others, instead of asserting it in a struggle against them. Only when the master and the slave become aware of the futility of their wars, they can finally “let go of their antithetical existence … in a reconciling Yes.[38]The goal for Hegel is therefore a community of affirmation, a political community in which struggle is eliminated. This is no commonplace political community. History is so far marked by failed politics in the Hegelian sense where true politics is the absence of struggle. This reconciled community, according to Hegel, is one that has “absolute knowledge.”

This is the point–the possibility of reconciliation through absolute knowledge–where Hegel and Tocqueville take fundamentally different roads. Whereas Tocqueville would agree that history is marked by violent struggles, he would not advocate a political philosophy that is reconciled through rationality and knowledge. For Hegel, Spirit’s lack of success in understanding itself and its violent upshots are avoidable; a Spirit that knows itself would be at peace with itself and others. Our multiple failed efforts at mastering the other’s freedom teach us about the impossibility of this task and the irreducibility of another human freedom. To know this limitmeans, for Hegel, having an absolute knowledge, which is often misunderstood as eternal knowledge. It is instead the knowledge of one’s finitude.

The political implementation of absolute knowledge moves Hegel closer to social contract theorists.[39]Much like Rousseau,[40]Hegel advocates freedom through political belongingness and participation. In this sense, Hegel’s community is similar to Rousseau’s and Locke’s inasmuch as it requires voluntarism. But in its form Hegel differs from most social contract theorists since he advocates monarchy.[41]Even though every member of the Hegelian community rationally participates in the political community, given that absolute knowledge means the recognition of one’s limits, Hegel does not espouse radical equality. The recognition of one’s limits translates, for most citizens, as their inability all to be kings–only a few can embody rationality at the fullest. Hence the need, contra Rousseau and Locke, for monarchy.

But my goal here is not to focus on theform of Hegel’s proposed state. What matters is his philosophical position according to which the best state is one where, like in love, we are one with each other. This unity excludes opposition, struggle and unavoidably, dissent! So it should be no surprise that by the end, Hegel’s politics looks totalitarian; he knows that to eliminate political struggles, and for individuals to enjoy their freedoms in the most rational sense, to have true unity, individual wills must be in line with the will of the state. As he put it: Plato in the Republic makes everything dependent on the government and makes disposition into a principle, which is why he places the main emphasis on education. This is completely at variance with modern theory, which leaves everything to the individual will. But this [modern conception] gives no guarantee that the will in question will also have the right disposition compatible with the state’s continued existence.[42]

In other words, we cannot revert back to Plato’s total control, nor can we leave the people to themselves. This is where Hegel is trapped and his proposed enlightened monarchy becomes “literally a reactionary” solution.[43]That, in my view, is due to the fact that he–like Marx–tried to eliminate conflict, rather than to cope with it.

Tocqueville: On Democratizing Struggles

Tocqueville’s Of Democracy in America was published in 1835, three decades after Hegel’s Phenomenology, but a world of historical events separates them. Whereas Hegel knew of Napoleon in his glorious days, Tocqueville had witnessed the fall of the Emperor, the debacle of the Empire, the return to the Monarchy, to Republicanism and back again to Napoleonism. Understandably, Tocqueville was less optimistic about politics and the rationality of the governors as well as that of the governed.[44]The guillotine had claimed the lives of a few members of his family and his birth no longer guaranteed political success; his family longed for a restoration of the old ways. Even though he will part from his aristocratic heritage to a certain extent, we must not forget that, contrary to Hegel, Tocqueville “was born into a tight cocoon of aristocratic reaction. He remained all his life an aristocrat, as he phrased it, ‘by instinct,’ and the most intimate of his lifelong friends were fellow nobles.”[45]He had much to gain in maintaining the gap that separated his kind from the many, in calling for the reconciliation of the classes and in restoring a Hegelian monarchy, but his voyage to America convinced him once and for all that the age of aristocracy was over. “An aristocracy, in order to last,” he came to admit, “needs to found inequality in principle” while democracy is the promise of equality.[46]More importantly, beyond democracy’s egalitarianism, he realized that democracy’s philosophical originality lies elsewhere. “It has demonstrated to me that those who regard universal suffrage as a guarantee of the goodness of choices make a complete illusion for themselves. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”[47]In other words, democracy operates against the entire philosophical tradition that founds politics in the good, in the rational. Political philosophers of course knew that and rejected democracy for this very reason. Tocqueville’s approach is therefore unique because he embraces democracy despite this weakness. I will try to show what these “other advantages” are, especially in the case of violence. But I must once again emphasize that it is not the opposition of the two forms of government–Tocqueville’s democracy vs. Hegel’s enlightened monarchy–that I find particularly enlightening. I am more interested in their different philosophical foundations. With Tocqueville, politics is no longer grounded in the rational participation of citizens; nor are struggles forever resolved through a philosophical reconciliation. Instead, Tocqueville values democracy’s inclusiveness and its domestication of conflicts through law. I must first say a few words about Tocqueville’s general argument in Of Democracy in America.

His masterpiece began as a kind of travel diary, which he turned into a book for his fellow friends, the Aristocrats. It was only the wide and unexpected success that encouraged the young author to write a second volume, which was somewhat different in tone to the point that some argued that the two volumes present two different democracies.[48]One does not need to go that far, but it is true that Tocqueville’s main audience was initially the potential and actual legislators–the few, the aristocrats, his friends–and he wrote to remind them of the importance of democracy as a “duty imposed on those who direct society.”[49]In a tone much like Marx’s in the Communist Manifesto, Tocqueville told his friends that

A great democratic revolution is taking place among us: all see it, but all do not judge it in the same manner. Some consider it a new thing, and taking it for an accident, they still hope to be able to stop it; whereas others judge it irresistible because to them it seems the most continuous, the oldest, and the most permanent fact known in history.[50]

Marx (and Hegel) had of course also seen the growing opposition between the masses and nobility, and Marx thought that the conflict would become unbearable and exhausted to the point that– through a revolution–the masses would take over and create a harmonious society. In a sense, Marx was right that the specter of the masses was haunting the bourgeoisie–Tocqueville and his kind. But he was wrong in thinking that all the elite would take it “for an accident.” Tocqueville belonged to the second category that reluctantly accepted democracy as “the most permanent fact known in history.” For him, democracy meant the growing “equality of conditions.” This is not–at least not at first–material equality.[51]It represents political equality; thanks to the democratic revolution, natural political privilege was slowly abolished. But even though Tocqueville accepts the democratic revolution, he confesses that it gives him a “sort of religious terror.”[52]In the face of democracy, he felt a genuine “sense of dislocation and loss,” but he also knew that the trouble was long in the making.[53]“When one runs through the pages of our history,” he remarked, “one finds so to speak no great events in seven hundred years that have not turned to the profit of equality….The noble has fallen on the social ladder, and the commoner has risen; the one descends, the other climbs. Each half century brings them nearer, and soon they are going to touch.”[54]Tocqueville’s merit, in my view, is that he not only acknowledged that the gap which separated the few from the many was gradually disappearing but that he insisted that “all those in the centuries we are now entering who try to base freedom on privilege and aristocracy will fail.”[55]He admittedly retains, especially in Book I, a certain paternalist tone:

The most powerful, most intelligent, and most moral classes of the nation have not sought to take hold of [democracy] so as to direct it. Democracy has therefore been abandoned to its savage instincts; it has grown up like those children who, deprived of paternal care, rear themselves in the streets of our towns and know only society’s vices and miseries.[56]

But his remedy, as we will see, is far from the Platonic model of recreating a society based on rational ideals. Given its savage instincts, he certainly wished to “instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts.”[57]But living after the French revolution and the Terreur, he could not find a philosophical position from which to shape the citizens. The very ideal of the philosopher educator molding the masses from on high had become impossible for at least two reasons. First, Tocqueville had witnessed the difficulties and the undesirability of social engineering. Second, he knew that “the natural instincts of democracy bring the people to keep distinguished men away from power, an instinct no less strong brings the latter to distance themselves from a political career” and that “it is impossible, whatever one does, to raise the enlightenment of the people above a certain level.”[58]In sum, he had given up on “philosophers as kings” and on “prescribing some ideal form of government for the world.”[59]His prescription will not be spectacular, nor will it guarantee perfection; it will strive for justice for the majority, reducing conflicts and encouraging citizens’ political participation.

Any political regime requires a few favorable factors for its success. Tocqueville listed, in order of importance, three “causes tending to the maintenance of democracy”: accidental causes, such as historical epochs or geographical locations, good laws and finally healthy habits and mores.[60]The first cause is apolitical since we have very little control over it. Good laws are certainly important, and they were the focus of Plato, Hegel, Machiavelli, Montesquieu and Rousseau, but Tocqueville focuses on mores and habits as the ultimate foundation of democratic success. And the right habit in a democracy means believing in accepting and embracing autonomy. After all–and this is in Tocqueville’s view democracy’s greatest advantage in the case of violence–because citizens produce their own however imperfect laws, because laws are their very own creation, citizens in a democracy are compelled to obey them without force. So those who focus on creating good laws alone will sooner or later need to enforce them on the unwilling body politic. This is not to say that democratic citizens are more rational or that they believe in the perfection of their own laws. Quite to the contrary, they submit to the law “in the first place as an evil that is imposed by themselves,” and more importantly, “as a passing evil.”[61]They know that they can change the legislators and the laws and, in the meantime, accept the majority’s decisions. This transfer of the origin of legislation from the Aristocrats to the masses already reduces traditional political violence to a great extent. Philosopher Kings needed ruses–such as the “noble lie” or even violence in the case of Hegel–to impose what they knew to be better laws. This is no longer a structural necessity in a democracy. The obvious disadvantage of democracy is that it may make bad laws. In fact Tocqueville lamented the masses’ lack of enlightenment and the potential tyranny of the majority. “The majority being the sole power that is important to please,” Tocqueville noticed,

Moralists and philosophers [and certainly career politicians] are not obligated to wrap their opinions in veils of allegory; but before hazarding a distressing truth, they say: We know that we are speaking to a people too much above human weaknesses not to remain always master of itself. We would not use language like this if we did not address men whose virtues and enlightenment rendered them alone among all others worthy of remaining free.[62]

Such demagogical tactics would not have worked with the old aristocracy. Whereas the democratic masses can be seduced, Tocqueville believed that “an aristocratic body is too numerous to be captured, [and] too small in number to yield readily to the intoxication of unreflective passions. An aristocratic body is a firm and enlightened man who does not die.”[63]But that is pure nostalgia, and Tocqueville knows it. Despite all the dangers, violence is reduced in a democracy because citizens operate within the boundaries of the law. This is well illustrated in the master and servant relationship. Against Hegel who thought that only a perfect state can eliminate political conflicts, Tocqueville shows that the imperfect and unavoidable state of democracy can do as much.

In the age of democracy, masters and servants are, according to Tocqueville, brought closer to each other. Almost by the end of Book II–in chapter V of Part 3, entirely dedicated to the topic– Tocqueville tells us that “we have never seen in history a society in which equality reigned as much [as in America] and therefore no society which was free of masters and slaves.”[64]Of course, Tocqueville realizes that there are different classes and different degrees of wealth in America. But what interests him primarily is how the relationship between the two is “policed” by democracy. Democracy’s promise of equality has spread even to such traditional relationships.

When conditions are equal, men constantly change place; there is still a class of valets and a class of masters; but it is not always the same individuals, and above all not the same families, that compose them; and there is no more perpetuity in command than in obedience…at each instant the servant can become a master and aspire to become one; the servant is therefore not another man than the master.[65]Whereas in Aristocratic societies “the poor man is domesticated from childhood,”[66]in a democracy, where superiority by birth is abandoned, domestics no longer consider themselves in strife with the master. On the contrary, the two live “contractually,” and, as a “race,” the old-fashioned relationship is abolished. Because masters and servants have, politically speaking, the same weight, the servants consider themselves equal to their masters in a fundamental way.[67]Perhaps more importantly, the servants believe that in the future, their children, if not themselves, could become masters through work. Since there is no natural difference between the two, and because the two classes get closer by the day, in Tocqueville’s view, the struggles between masters and servants have been tamed. The former do not exploit the latter through violence anymore, and it is only a free contractual agreement that connects the two parties. The sheer absence of violence in their relationship–which has been replaced by laws and contracts–makes the relation of subordination less cruel and no longer permanent. In contrast, in Aristocracies, “The master…often exercises even without his knowing it a prodigious dominion over the opinions, habits, and mores of those who obey him, and his influence extends much further than his authority.”[68]

This is a very honest confession for an Aristocrat. In sum, given that masters and servants are no longer ontologically different thanks to the democratic revolution and given the fluidity of democratic life, the two are much closer to each other–even physically–and thus exploitation is minimized. Their relative position is purely temporal and could be reversed in the next generation.[69]

There is of course a certain naïveté in Tocqueville’s assessment, to which I will come back in the conclusion. But he also recognized that his theory applies only to the northern states, because in the South masters still owned slaves and controlled them through violence. In the north, where it is believed that there is no “natural inferiority,”[70]relationships are regulated and fall under the law that the citizens–masters and servants–chose and therefore respect and follow.

But in his typical nostalgic pattern, as soon as Tocqueville recognizes the value of democracy, he reminds the readers of the lost advantages of the old aristocracy. In the case of the master/servant relationship, aristocracy was superior to democracy in producing art, literature and philosophy. Tocqueville insists that the Southern man, because he has a slave, is more educated and has developed his mind much more:

In Southern states the most pressing needs of man are always satisfied. Thus the American of the South is not preoccupied by material needs of life; someone else takes charge of thinking of them for him. Free on this point, his imagination is directed toward other greater objects…[he] loves greatness, luxury, glory, noise, pleasures, above all idleness…. [In contrast, the Northern man] since childhood has been occupied with combating misery, and he learns to place ease above all enjoyments of mind and heart. Concentrated on the small details of life, his imagination is extinguished, his ideas are less numerous and more general,

but they become more practical, more clear and more precise.[71]

With democracy, “genius becomes rarer and enlightenment becomes more common. The human mind is developed by the combined small efforts of all men, and not by the powerful impulsions of some of them.”[72]But there is perhaps a lesson in this loss: bringing modesty to politics and striving for justice for the majority. Tocqueville’s politics lacks the grandeur of Hegel’s; the Tocquevillian “general will” is not always right; in fact it often errs. But this may be the price that we have to pay and the danger that we must face after the democratic revolution. This is why Tocqueville confessed that democracy left him with both hope and fear.[73]The fear is quite understandable, for we all know that democracy makes great mistakes.

To counter this tendency he hoped for a “new aristocracy.” His nostalgia becomes finally productive: “I shall admit without difficulty that in a period of equality like ours it would be unjust and unreasonable to institute hereditary officials,” for that is no longer acceptable. But nothing prevents their substitution with “aristocratic people.”[74]Not a new class of old aristocrats, but a new kind of active republican citizen, dedicated to the welfare of all–“there is no question of reconstructing an aristocratic society, but of making freedom issue from the bosom of the democratic society.”[75]

In his view, old-fashioned aristocracy represented a certain guarantee of freedom vis-à-vis the Kings, but only for their own interests. Moreover, old aristocracy was in power thanks to violence and inequality–it was the “daughter of conquest.”[76]What is required in democratic regimes is securing the boundaries of freedom in order to prevent democracy from harming itself and its citizens. So the task of enlightening the masses that Tocqueville mentioned in the “Introduction” of his work is becoming clearer. Without having an elite that guides society despite itself, Tocqueville calls for a new citizenry that is non-exploitive, non-violent. He calls for a citizen body that is truly autonomous.

He knew that philosophers always sought “to make great things with men [but] I should want them to think a little more of making great men.”[77]Such great men, without a class or hereditary rights, are the ones who set the example without recourse to violence. They do not eliminate political differences and struggles but domesticate them. Here he has the kinds of Jefferson and Madison in mind, who institutionalized and encouraged political competition. So we can see that in a way Tocqueville shares Hegel’s goal of reducing conflict, of bringing people closer to each other. But contrary to Hegel, his polis is imperfect. It is never fully reconciled and it does not embody rational or philosophical beauty. “I let my regard wander over the innumerable crowd composed of similar beings,” Tocqueville wrote in the concluding lines of his work, “in which nothing is elevated and nothing lowered. The spectacle of this universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret the society that is no longer.” But that is “born [from] my weakness,” he acknowledges, for “equality is perhaps less elevated but it is more just and its justice makes for its greatness and its beauty.”[78]


I find Hegel’s analysis quite brilliant; his paradigm sheds a fascinating light on history as driven by struggle, and it seems that we are still operating within his framework. As globalization and capitalism progress everyday, the struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the conflict between the new masters and the new slaves spreads and grows in violence. With that in mind, Tocqueville’s position seems a bit naïve. After all, according to him we are political children of the democratic revolution but the Hegelian struggle has not been tamed. So should we be Hegelian or Tocquevillian?

I believe that we can no longer be Hegelian, because of Hegel’s emphasis on epistemologically and philosophically grounding politics. Politics as the embodiment of an ideal seems impossible for we who value pluralism, diversity and perspectivalism–for we who live after the democratic revolution and after the totalitarian experiences of the twentieth century. Equally important, from a philosophical perspective, such a state would neutralize the general population, who become pawns or puzzle pieces for a greater cause that only the very few enlightened can see. We value the spread of political autonomy, not its opposite.

But even though it seems that we are closer to Tocqueville, I do not believe that we can entirely be Tocquevillian, either. His predictions regarding the growth and the spread of equality have proven to be inaccurate. In the case of the master and the servant relationship, it is true that violence between masters and servants, between the bourgeoisie and the workers, has been somewhat reduced, but this was no easy task. It was the fruit of extremely difficult and sometimes violent negotiations, starting in the late-nineteenth century. Furthermore, workers in industrialized countries–especially in America–do not vote for laws that are favorable to their cause. Tocqueville was aware of demagogy, but he fully neglected ideological blindfolds. Employers convince American workers that labor laws hurt them; unions are increasingly maligned and isolated; the wealth and power gap seems to grow by the day. Tocqueville believed that in America, a servant’s child could be a master and vice versa. Even though such myths are very much still part of the “American dream” and that it is true that there is a greater degree of flexibility in America than in many other countries, it is simply not the case that the children of workers will–by working hard–one day become owners. Finally, we should not forget that the relative amelioration of the workers’ conditions in industrialized countries is due to colonialism and now to globalization–Asian sweatshops do not seem to have benefited from the age of democracy yet.[79]

Despite these criticisms, I do believe that Tocqueville is worth our attention. His work lacks the precision and the clarity of a political platform, and thus cannot be appropriated as a whole. Conservatives and progressives alike regularly quote him and his writing lends itself to such large uses. In my case, I find him particularly helpful once positioned along with “radical democrats.” Against the liberal vs. communitarian dilemma, radical democrats propose that we change the political equation altogether. Thinkers such as Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe no longer think of political agency in terms of individuals or communities–neither category alone can account for our current historical problems. They instead embrace a much more fragmented view of society; or better yet, for them the very ideal of “society is impossible.” They have given up on the necessity of an Archimedean (or Hegelian) perspective and believe that a society is the result of a contingent and temporary balance of opposing forces. In other words, they believe that no society is ever reconciled because different interests–that of the workers and the owners, for instance–are in nature incompatible. Their differences are not rationally eradicable. The very idea of democracy– which they consider as radical in the sense that it is never fully determined–is to provide a political and legal terrain for these unavoidable struggles. I cannot here even begin to give a fair account of their work,[80]but I hope that this essay shows that Tocqueville’s analysis reinforces their position. Contra Hegel, radical democrats agree with Tocqueville that democracy does not, cannot and should not eliminate conflicts. They also agree with Tocqueville that democracy’s potential is far from being exhausted. We ought to use democracy and its means to fight oppression and not wait for an impossible national or even international unity that would end all struggles. Struggles, differences of interests, and political conflicts never end; but they can be more peacefully and perhaps more effectively fought in a democracy.[81]


[1]Translation slightly modified.

[2]For a more complete analysis of this genre, see Sarah Mazza, Servants and masters in eighteenth-century France: the uses ofloyalty (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983).

[3]On the notion of “difficulty” in Hegel’s narrative, see J.N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination (New York: Collier Books, 1958) 81-82.

[4]Hegel,Phenomenology of Spirit trans. A.V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977) ¶29. How one understands the concept of “necessity” here shapes one’s understanding and appreciation of Hegel’s work. If the necessity is teleological–i.e., if the necessity is part of a preordained harmony–then Spirit is determined and the difficulties that it faces are theatrical; they are necessary for the performance of Spirit, but the goal is already fixed. But if we understand necessity historically, then it takes a different and more free form. To put it in terms of one’s life-story or narrative, necessary moments are what make us who we are. The person that I have become is the end of a process of necessary moments, such as being born in a specific country, in a specific epoch, speaking a certain language, going to a university, etc. To write about Hegel in English, it was necessaryfor me to know English, to have studied Hegel, etc.

[5]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶58.

[6]Tom Rockmore, Cognition: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 4.

[7]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶2.

[8]I here substitute “Concept” for “Notion” in Miller’s translation. I am grateful to my friend Shannon Mussett for pointing out that the German word “Begriff” is better translated as Concept. See also Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974) 33-34.

[9]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶46.

[10]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶51.

[11]J.N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination (New York: Collier Books, 1958) 85.

[12]This concept of the dialectic as understanding difference was already present in theRepublic. But it is even taken furthering the Sophistwhere difference or negation is considered as one of the fundamental forms.

[13]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶32.

[14]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶32.

[15]I realize that the differences between Hegel and Plato are far greater. A crucial difference that I have neglected to address is the origin of knowledge. For Hegel, one begins with the sensuous world, the world of objects. As Rockmore puts it, “the starting point lies in experience, or the so- called world of appearance, which we only surpass to explain what is given in experience, but that cannot be explained within it” (52). By bringing Hegel and Plato closer to each other, I do not wish to collapse such important metaphysical differences. But from a political perspective, Hegel is Platonist in so far that he values a harmonious state.


[16]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶101.

[17]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶109. For more regarding the role of animals in Hegel’s Phenomenology, see Marc Peterson, “Animals Eating Empiricists: Assimilation and Subjectivity in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature,” The Owl of Minerva, Vol. 23.1 (Fall 1991) 49-62.

[18]Hegel’s very simple example is “salt [which] is a simple here, and at the same time manifold; it is white and also tart,also cubical in shape,” etc. (Phenomenology¶113). Sensual objects are always other things, and they are nothing enduring in themselves.

[19]Hyppolite 124.

[20]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶167.

[21]Hyppolite 160.

[22]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶175.

[23]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶175.

[24]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶186.

[25] Hegel, Phenomenology¶188.

[26]Findlay 94.

[27]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶191.

[28]Hyppolite 169.

[29]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶196.

[30]This is of course the crucial point for Marx, who saw the master and slave struggle as a symbol of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The latter, like the slave, made the bourgeoisie depend on its workforce. More importantly, in Marx’s view, the workers too have a mind of their own; they understand the dialectical nature of the world better than their masters. As Kojève puts it, “it is the Slave, and only he, who can realize a progress, who can go beyond the given and–in particular–the given that he himself is”, in Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (Cornell: Cornell UP, 1980) 50. See also John Russon’s The Self and Its Body in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1997) 61-72.

[31]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶467.

[32]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶590.

[33]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶177.

[34]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶111.

[35]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶668.

[36]Kojève 43-44 (emphasis added).

[37]Hegel,Phenomenology ¶177.

[38] Hegel, Phenomenology¶671.

[39] See Patrick Riley, Will and Political Legitimacy: A Critical Exposition of Social Contract Theory in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel (Iuniverse, 1999) 163-200.

[40]I have elsewhere shown that Rousseau is the transitional figure between the Hegelian and Platonic politics of reconciliation and Tocqueville’s politics of democratic indeterminacy.

[41]Findlay 326-337.

[42]Hegel,Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999) 217.

[43]Findlay 324.

[44] For more about the historical details of the time, see Cheryl Welch De Tocqueville (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001) Chap. 1. I should also add that Tocqueville is also a historical thinker. But unlike Hegel’s historical approach, Tocqueville uses factual history as a platform for understanding his time. In this sense, Tocqueville is closer to Montesquieu and Aristotle than to Hegel.

[45]Welch 9.

[46]Alexis de Tocqueville, Of Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 383.

[47]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 190.

[48]Seymour Drescher, “Tocqueville’s Two Democracies,” Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 201- 216.

[49]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 7.

[50]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 3. See also Daniel Rodgers, “Of Prophets and Prophecy,” in Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, ed. Abraham Eisenstadt (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988) 202-205

[51]For Marxists, of course, Tocqueville was delusional. Marxists always associated democracy with the bourgeois ideology. In their view, democracy always gave partial and illusionary freedom and only a revolution that would end all struggles would create true equality.

[52]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 6.

[53]Welch 25.

[54]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 5-6.

[55]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 666.

[56]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 7.

[57] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 7.

[58]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 188-189.

[59]Gordon S. Woods, “Tocqueville’s Lesson,” New York Review of Books XLVIII.8 (May 17, 2001): 47.

[60]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 265, 295.

[61] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 231.

[62]Tocqueville,Democracy in America, 239 and 247-248. Tocqueville also adds: “How could the flatterers of Louis XIV do better?”

[63] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 220.

[64] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 546. I have significantly modified this translation based on Tocqueville’s original text in French.

[65]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 549.

[66]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 547.

[67]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 550.

[68]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 548.

[69]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 551.

[70]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 330.

[71]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 360.

[72]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 674.

[73]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 675.

[74]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 667. I have again significantly modified the translation.

[75]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 666. See also, Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (London: Rowan & Littlefield, 1996) 53-67.

[76]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 383.

[77]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 672.

[78]Tocqueville,Democracy in America 674-75.

[79]I am very grateful to my friend and colleague Gregory Hoskins for pointing out some of these difficulties in Tocqueville’s work.

[80]For instance, see Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985) and Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), for their view of “agonistic” politics where conflicts are preserved. Claude Lefort’s position was developed in his Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972) and in his Democracy and Political Theory (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988). I have tried to show how the concept of antagonism is necessary in radical democracy, see my “The Uncanny Proximity: From Democracy to Terror,”Florida Philosophical Review II. 2 (Winter 2002): 5-22.

[81]A shorter version of this paper was presented in April of 2003 at the Pennsylvania Political Science Association’s annual meeting at Villanova University.

Works Cited

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Erfani, Farhang. “The Uncanny Proximity: From Democracy to Terror.” Florida Philosophical Review II.2 (Winter 2002): 5-22.

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Farhang Erfani

Farhang Erfani is an instructor at Villanova University. His research interests include contemporary French philosophy and political philosophy. He is currently finishing his dissertation on democracy and utopia.