Sunday, September 22, 2013

"An almost invisible brake"

I'm reading Leo Damrosch's Tocqueville's Discovery of America (pb, 2011), which has lots of well-chosen quotations from Tocqueville's and Beaumont's letters, Tocqueville's American notebooks, and Democracy in America itself. Damrosch did his homework with, among other things, the historiography of the 1830s, and his book not only conveys the travelers' insights but also occasionally notes their blind spots (and they had a few: for instance Tocqueville was not very interested in the nitty-gritty of practical politics, e.g. the early Tammany Hall). Among their blind spots was definitely not the opposite sex: the young Frenchmen had an eye for women but were stymied sexually during the trip since they were unwilling to have intercourse with prostitutes, while 'proper' young women, although flirtatious, were not available for physical dalliances.    

At one point (p.60) Damrosch quotes the passage in Democracy (Vol.1, Pt.2, ch.8) in which Tocqueville sets forth his view of the social role of American lawyers. I decided to compare Damrosch's translation of this passage to the version on my shelf, which is the George Lawrence translation. (Other translations have appeared in recent years, e.g. Arthur Goldhammer's.) 

Here's Lawrence's version of the passage (I've added the word in brackets):
When the American people let themselves get intoxicated by their passions or carried away by their ideas, the lawyers apply an almost invisible brake which slows them down and halts them. Their aristocratic inclinations are secretly opposed to the [people's] instincts of democracy, their superstitious respect for all that is old to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its grandiose designs, their taste for formalities to its scorn of regulations, and their habit of advancing slowly to its impetuosity.
Here's Damrosch's version:  
To the democratic instincts of the people, they secretly oppose their aristocratic inclinations; to the people's love of novelty, their superstitious respect for the old; to the vastness of the people's designs, their narrow views; to the people's contempt for rules, their love of forms; and to the people's hotheadedness, their habit of moving slowly.
As can be seen, the biggest difference is that the first is mostly in the passive voice ("their...inclinations are secretly opposed") whereas the second is in the active ("they secretly oppose").

What I should do now is look up the French original and make my own call. But that feels like work and this blog is all about fun. (No, not really. I jest. But it was worth a try...)

Added later: If the (or a) basic theme of Democracy in America, as Damrosch says somewhere, is that habits and mores are firmer safeguards of liberty than laws (I'm paraphrasing), then T. might have been ambivalent about what he saw as the role of lawyers. On the one hand, they counter the "hotheadedness" and possible tyranny of the majority (a good thing to do, in T's view) but on the other hand lawyers' necessary preoccupation with law means that they are somewhat peripheral to the 'deep' foundations of democracy. Neither T. nor anyone else can be read as a kind of timeless oracle, and the fact that a lot has changed in the U.S. since the early 19th cent. must be taken into account. On the other hand, some things have not changed much, e.g. the formal constitutional architecture -- which, btw, seems to be working pretty badly right now.

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