OF the major political thinkers of his generation--including Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, and Leo Strauss--Bertrand de Jouvenel suffers from relative neglect. During the 1950s and 1960s, the French philosopher and political economist enjoyed a considerable reputation in the English-speaking world. He lectured as a visiting professor at Yale and the University of California-Berkeley, and his books garnered serious reviews in prestigious journals. But by the time of his death in 1987, his star had dimmed. Read through a span of recent political-theory journals and you will rarely encounter his name.
The neglect is not surprising. Jouvenel's thought does not fit into the two categories that unfortunately came to dominate academic thinking on politics during the 1970s and continue to rule it today: the arid left-liberalism of analytic philosophers like Ronald Dworkin, which reduces political thought to abstract reflection on moral and legal principles, and the nihilist radicalism of post-structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault, which irresponsibly seeks to blow up the bourgeois world to clear the way for who knows what.
Jouvenel's work, published over five decades in a series of learned, beautifully written books and essays, is anything but abstract. It harkens back to an older style of political thought (as old as Aristotle, really, but arching over the centuries to include Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville) that brings together moral and political philosophy and painstaking historical and institutional analysis.
His work is also a model of political responsibility. The philosopher Pierre Manent places Jouvenel in the sober tradition of liberalisme triste--melancholy liberalism--whose great representative is Tocqueville and among whose recent exemplars I would include Irving Kristol and Manent himself. These anti-utopians fully acknowledge the basic decency and justness of liberal democratic civilization. But they are also aware of its profound weaknesses--the erosion of moral and spiritual life, the hollowing out of civil society, the growth of an overbearing state, and the "joyless quest for joy," as Leo Strauss once put it, of a society dedicated chiefly to commercial pursuits. The task of liberalisme triste is to illumine the tensions and possibilities of this liberal civilization, in the hope of advising citizens and statesmen how best to cultivate the goods and avoid or at least moderate the evils that attend it.
Thankfully, there are signs that Jouvenel is sparking renewed interest. Over the last half-decade, two publishers--Liberty Fund Press and Transaction Publishers--have made available again to English readers some of his most important work. It seems an ideal occasion, then, to reconsider Jouvenel's contribution to political thought.
A life in the age of extremes
Bertrand de Jouvenel was born in 1903 into an aristocratic French household swept up in the political and intellectual currents of the early twentieth century. His father, Baron Henri de Jouvenel, was a well-known Dreyfusard politician and newspaper editor, and his mother, Sarah Claire Boas, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, ran a trendy Parisian salon, so young Bertrand met many of the leading artists, writers, and politicians of the day. Through his mother, a passionate supporter of Czechoslovak independence, he gained his earliest political experience, working as private secretary to Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's first prime minister, when barely out of his teens.
Jouvenel was close to both of his parents, who divorced in 1912, but his relationship to his father was sorely tested during the early twenties. After divorcing Bertrand's mother, Henri had remarried the novelist and sexual provocateur Colette. In 1919, the 16-year-old Bertrand, strikingly handsome-"all sinews and lank," observes Colette biographer Judith Thurman- entered a scandalous affair with his stepmother, then in her late forties, who had seduced the bookish teenager. In October 1923, according to one version of events, Henri surprised Bertrand and Colette in bed, definitively ending a marriage that had already soured. A remorseful Bertrand "was horrified to see myself, or to believe myself, the cause of this drama," hut continued the affair for two more years. He later patched things up with his father, but Colette always haunted him. Even as an old man, happily married to his second wife Helene (he briefly married war correspondent Martha Gellhorn during the early 1930s), Jouvenel had difficulty spe aking of his forbidden romance without emotion.
Jouvenel's formal education was more conventional than his love life. Subsequent to studying at the Lycee Hoche in Versailles, he graduated from the Sorbonne, where he read in law and mathematics. He later took up a succession of short-term academic posts that culminated in an appointment to the prestigious Ecole Science Politique in 1975. He always regretted not having a steadier academic career, which would have given him the opportunity to mold a generation of students as Aron and Strauss did. As founder and director of the think tank SEDEIS (Societe d'Etudes et de Documentation Economiques Industrielles et Sociales), an institution with many connections both inside and outside the academy, he did have a huge impact on the education of French elites by familiarizing them, through regular seminars and publications, with Anglo-American economic ideas.
Jouvenel's political education owed less to the academy than to his extensive work as a journalist, specializing in international relations, from the late 1920s until the Second World War. As political scientists Marc Landy and Dennis Hale observe, "To a degree unparalleled by any other chronicler of the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s, even Orwell, de Jouvenel witnessed the key events and came to know the key individuals firsthand." Jouvenel interviewed at length Mussolini, Churchill, and, in a world-wide exclusive in 1935, Hitler. His journalistic activities brought him to various European hotspots, including Austria during the Anschluss and Czechoslovakia during the Nazi invasion. This hands-on experience, note Landy and Hale, gave Jouvenel a feel for the stuff of politics, its tragic contingencies and mundane complexities, its resistance to abstract categories and utopian schemes, its dangers and decencies.
Like many of his generation, Jouvenel found his way to support for liberal democracy only gradually. At the age of 23, he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Radical-Socialist candidate. For a while, disgusted by the decadence of the French Third Republic, he sought solace on the other political extreme, and in 1936 joined Francois Doriot's Parti Popular Francais, a right-wing populist--some would say quasifascist--party. He would leave the party two years later, however, because of Doriot's shameful support for the Munich Pact. His eyes now opened, Jouvenel signed up with the French Army intelligence to struggle against the rising Nazi menace. In 1942, following France's armistice with Germany, he worked for the French resistance, eventually fleeing to Switzerland with the Gestapo in pursuit. By now, he had become the full-fledged antitotalitarian liberal that he remained the rest of his life.
Jouvenel's flirtation with the radical right during the thirties came back to trouble him in the early 1980s, when the Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell falsely accused him of collaborating with the Nazis. Jouvenel sued for libel in 1983 and won. Raymond Aron, who had left his hospital bed against his doctor's wishes to testify on Jouvenel's behalf, dropped dead of a stroke immediately after telling the court that his longtime friend was "one of the two or three leading political thinkers of his generation"--and no collaborator.
In addition to his journalistic activities, Jouvenel published several books prior to the war, including, in 1928, L'economie dirigee (coining the term the French still use for economic planning), a 1933 study of the Great Depression in the United States, and three novels. After the war, he mostly abandoned journalism to concentrate on writing the treatises in political philosophy that won him widespread acclaim. Jouvenel's postwar works contain the three main themes of his mature thought: an effort to understand the hypertrophy of the modern state; a meditation on the common good in pluralistic modern societies; and an attempt to describe the dynamics of political life. Let us look at each in turn.
Beware the Minotaur
Jouvenel wrote his first major work of political philosophy, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, from Swiss exile as World War II raged and Europe lay in ruins. Its basic aim, one which runs through all of Jouvenel's postwar writings, is to examine how the modern state became so dangerous to human liberty.
The long shadow of the totalitarian state darkens every page of On Power. National Socialism and communism, in their quest to revolutionize the bourgeois economic and political condition, had desolated entire nations. Never before had such state power been unleashed. But even in contemporary liberal democratic societies, the centralized state had grown to a disturbing size. Jouvenel's libertarian ideal--"the recognition, or the assumption, that there is in every man the same pride and dignity as had hitherto been assured and protected, but for the aristocracy only, by privileges"--found less and less breathing room in the collectivist modern world.
Jouvenel's labyrinthine book is a kind of pathology of modern politics. Jouvenel reviews Western history to determine exactly when centralized authority--Power, or the Minotaur, as he alternatively calls it--first extended its reach and what allowed it to do so. The Minotaur started to stir, he discovers, in the twelfth century; it grew "continuously" until the eighteenth and has exponentially increased in size since then.
Jouvenel blames Power's growth on several permanent features of centralized government (following Jouvenel, I will capitalize the "p" in power whenever referring to the state apparatus). First, the central governing authority naturally seeks dominance. After all, flawed human beings occupy the offices of Power, and they often want to lord over everybody else. "Is not the will to Power rooted deep in human nature?" Jouvenel asks. The desire for dominion is not the whole story of human nature, as Jouvenel would readily agree, but every truthful account of political life--from the Biblical narrative of David to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia--recognizes its eternal existence.
The second explanation for the concentration of Power is political rivalry. For political communities to survive military challenge, their leaders must be able to act decisively and forcefully. Fail to match your rival's punch-his capacity swiftly to mobilize his citizenry and levy their wealth or develop deadly new technologies--and you could quickly find yourself out for the count. To keep pace with powerful Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, for example, the respective dynasties of England and France had to take more authority into their hands, increasing the number of men under arms and hiking taxes. More recently, during World War II, the allied democracies used propaganda and state direction of the economy--Power-boosting tools generally shunned by free societies--to resist the Nazi war machine. The competition for military supremacy feeds the Minotaur.
The medieval moment
These two explanations, true as far as they go, still do not explain why Power started to expand when it did nor why that expansion intensified dramatically after the seventeenth century. For that, Jouvenel shows, greater attention to the logic of Western history is necessary. On Power exemplifies what I think is one of the great virtues of Jouvenel's political thought: In order to expand our perspective on the events affecting us, it shifts our attention from the immediacy of the present, which can be blind, to the past and, as we will see, to the future. In this book, Jouvenel breaks with the popular Enlightenment story--"pure fantasy," he deems it--of monarchs "to whose exactions there are no bounds" and modern democratic governments "whose resources are proportionate to their authority." The true picture, we learn from history, is much more ambiguous.
Consider the Middle Ages. Far from crushing men with arbitrary force, the medieval king inhabited a spiritual, moral, and institutional world that kept him tightly bound. The divine law, as the Catholic Church taught it, limited the king's authority, indeed all human authority, from above. The king was God's servant, with a sacred duty to preserve God's created order. That hierarchical order, among other things, made the king not master of, but simply first among, nobles--each a rival authority with land and forces of his own. To get anything done the king had to go, hat in hand, to his fellow nobles to beg for men and funds, all the while making sure the Church did not disapprove too strongly. In turn, the common law, a human artifact written within the framework of the divine law and borrowing some of its luster, limited Power from below with innumerable precedents and customs. Jouvenel remarks, "The consecrated king of the Middle Ages was a Power as tied down and as little arbitrary as we can conceive." G od was sovereign, not men; there was no absolute or uncontrolled human authority.
Some might accuse the Catholic Jouvenel of romanticizing medieval life. I think this is to mistake his point. Of course, kings often rudely violated the law, as Jouvenel admits, and the medieval mindset failed to extend to every man and woman full recognition of the dignity that is their due. But the law wove a religious and customary web around Power that prevented it from completely breaking loose and becoming absolute. Recall, Jouvenel says, that the Catholic Church's sanctions "brought the Emperor Henry IV to fall on his knees before Gregory VII in the snow of Canossa." In such a universe, Power could expand only slowly.
This complex web began to unravel when European kings, keen to boost their authority, threw their lot in with the people to heat down the nobles who kept Power in check. The people looked to the kings to free them from the petty and sometimes not-so-petty oppressions of the aristocrats, whom the kings, in top Machiavellian form, had successfully encouraged to ditch their age-old responsibilities to the plebs. From this alliance between kings and the masses arose, beginning in the fifteenth century and lasting until the eighteenth, Europe's absolute monarchies. The absolute monarchs, driving the aristocracy into the ground, centralized and modernized Power and wielded resources far greater than medieval kings. The Protestant Reformation also helped tear apart the medieval web and amplify monarchical Power by giving reformed princes leeway to redefine the meaning of divine laws and to disregard custom; Catholic princes, to keep up, began to skirt the Church's rules themselves. The Minotaur grew.
Democracy on trial
But what really triggers Power's dramatic expansion, Jouvenel suggests, is the birth of the democratic age, which finishes off the dying medieval order. The political scientist Pierre Hassner, a keen reader of Jouvenel, has it exactly right: On Power "is a generalization of Alexis de Tocqueville's idea that the French Revolution, rather than breaking the absolutism of the state, further concentrated power in the hands of the state." Jouvenel sees democratic times extending Power's reach in at least three different, but related, ways.
First and most fundamental is the triumph in the eighteenth century of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, the idea that "the people," not some divine source or ancient custom, make the final call on all matters of law and social organization. "The denial of a divine lawgiving and the establishment of a human lawgiving," warns Jouvenel, "are the most prodigious strides which a society can take towards a truly absolute Power." Outside of small communities, popular sovereignty, taken literally, is absurd. The people themselves cannot actually govern and pretty soon others--often a single other--rule in their name. And these new rulers find it easier than ever before to direct and mobilize society.
Popular sovereignty erodes the restraints on what political communities can imagine doing. If the law is solely an expression of the people's will, where would the limits on it come from? Anything becomes possible: the rounding up of political opponents, the bombing of civilians, laws condemning minorities or the unfit to extinction, the creation of genetic monstrosities or genetic supermen.
In addition, popular sovereignty encourages the notion that the state is a tool directly to secure the people's well-being. Power is accordingly burdened with a surfeit of new responsibilities, from running jobs programs and providing welfare, to redistributing wealth and regulating businesses, to funding scientific research and guaranteeing education to all citizens. Some of this is reasonable and salutary, no doubt, but taken together it increases the state's sway.
Popular sovereignty also brings mass conscription: Since everyone ostensibly has an equal stake in Power, everyone must defend it. Historian Hippolyte Tame put it well: Universal suffrage and mass conscription are like "twin brothers ... the one placing in the hands of every adult person a voting paper, the other putting on his back a soldier's knapsack." The Sun King Louis XIV, the most absolute of absolute monarchs, would have loved to institute conscription for his endless wars across seventeenth-century Europe, but he felt himself powerless to do it. It was the French Revolution that first militarized the masses and sent them forth across Europe's battlefields.
The second way in which the democratic age extended Power was through the unleashing of relativism. Popular sovereignty meant self-sovereignty, the right of each individual to decide his own right and wrong. This Protagorism, as Jouvenel terms it, in which man becomes the measure of all things, summons the Minotaur to quell the social disorder it inevitably unleashes. In a later work, he gravely writes, "To the entire extent to which progress develops hedonism and moral relativism, to which individual liberty is conceived as the right of man to obey his appetites, nothing but the strongest of powers can maintain society in being." The social theorist Michael Novak would later make the same point: "For a society without inner policemen ... there aren't enough policemen in the world to make men civil."
Jouvenel pointed out that relativism calls forth Power a second way. The loss of objective standards is existentially unbearable, opening "an aching void in the room of beliefs and principles." The secular religions of communism and National Socialism would draw nourishment from this crisis of meaning, building up Power to truly monstrous proportions. In Jouvenel's stark account, totalitarianism is born of the modern world's moral confusion.
Finally, Power grows in the democratic age because of the erosion of civil society. Democratic regimes base themselves on the individual, and individualism tends to hollow out or utterly destroy civil society. The modern state wages a relentless attack on the "social authorities"--in today's policy jargon, the mediating structures of families, churches, businesses, and other associations that stand between the state and the individual and that constitute extra-individual sources of authority and meaning. The attack can he blunt and brutal, as in the totalitarian regimes' total repression of civil society. Or it can take a softer form, as when the bureaucratic and inefficient welfare state takes over from families the responsibility for rearing children. In either case, though on very different scales, one finds state Power vastly increased and individual liberties menaced or obliterated. In a social field in which there are but two actors--Power and the individual--humans cannot flourish.
Jouvenel does not have much good to say about the liberal democratic West in On Power. He does suggest the possibility of sustaining the flickering light of political and human liberty by supporting moral and religious belief in a "higher code" that would restrain human willfulness, and by educating leaders and citizens to be vigilant of Power, like their medieval predecessors. But he views the separation-of-powers doctrine advocated by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal constitutionalists as a weak reed against Power's tank-like advance. Since all modern constitutions base themselves on the people's will, they will not long deter Power's advance.
In fact, Jouvenel's argument in On Power risks becoming a kind of reverse Marxism, in which history ends not in bliss but in the concentration camp. The gigantic state is "the culmination of the history of the West," he observes in the book's grim closing paragraphs, implying that there is not a lot we can do about it. Thankfully, the evolution of the democracies in the years since Jouvenel wrote the book does not bear out its gloomiest warnings.
Despite its excessive pessimism, On Power stands as a permanent warning to the citizens and statesmen of liberal democratic regimes that their freedom is difficult to sustain, for reasons inseparable from the logic of their own principles. And in Jouvenel's ensuing work, most evocatively in Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good, he develops a more constructive political science, one which looks more positively upon liberal constitutionalism.
The upshot: The classical goods of complete harmony and thick community that the modern world has undermined--and there is no doubt that they are goods--are incompatible with other goods that we cannot imagine living without. Too many armchair communitarians, on the left and the right, simply fail to see this.
If Jouvenel rejects any return to Greece as destructive of our modern freedoms, however, he does not turn around and embrace the libertarianism that, say, Charles Murray serves up in What It Means to Be a Libertarian. In Murray's view, government should do next to nothing, refusing to make judgments about citizens' moral choices and giving the market and the institutions of civil society free reign, except when monopolists or thieves or murderers mess things up.
This thin understanding of the political, Jouvenel contends, is not an adequate governing philosophy for a modern liberal democracy. Indeed, to the extent that government, basing itself on the self-sovereignty of man, refuses to discriminate between moral and immoral choices, it surrenders to the relativism that already disturbs liberal societies. As On Power showed, such relativism beckons the state to restore the order it destroys and to fill the emptiness it creates in the soul.
For Jouvenel, the modern democratic state has a much richer moral task. It is to create the conditions that let "social friendship"--a common good compatible with the goods and freedoms of modernity--blossom. Jouvenel describes this modern common good as resting "in the strength of the social tie, the warmth of the friendship felt by one citizen for another and the assurance each has of predictability in another's conduct." To nurture this mutual trust is the essence of the art of politics.
Daniel J. Mahoney and David DesRosiers, in their illuminating introduction to the Liberty Fund edition of Sovereignty, correctly observe that the book "contains one of the richest accounts of the permanent requirements of statesmanship written in this century." Among the tasks of the liberal statesman are the following (this is by no means an exhaustive list): First, the statesman must prudentially balance innovation and conservation. Modern societies, severed from the past, are open, mobile, and constantly transforming. Government needs to respond to the constant flux with policies that attenuate some of its worst effects. For contrary to what "dynamists" like Reason magazine's Virginia Postrel think, human beings cannot live in a world that is always changing: Such a condition is profoundly alienating. Thus Jouvenel would be willing to use government funds to retrain workers displaced by a new technology.
One way of pursuing this balance is to anticipate future trends as much as possible in order to cushion their impact. Hence Jouvenel's extensive research in "future studies," given its fullest theoretical treatment in a fascinating but sadly out-of-print 1968 book, The Art of Conjecture (here again he shakes us from what I would call, if you can forgive the somewhat barbarous neologism, our presentism). The "art" in the title is a tip-off. In Jouvenel's view, there is no science of the future, only reasoned inferences from existing trends.
Next, the statesman must do nothing to harm and everything possible to help a culture of ordered liberty prosper short of imposing a state truth. As we have seen, the free society cannot survive if license prevails. At a minimum this means a statesman should be a model of self-restraint in his own life. (No Esquire crotch-shots or trysts with interns, in other words.) But one can imagine an array of policies-President George W. Bush is pursuing some of them right now--that would shore up, rather than weaken, ordered liberty without resorting to massive state coercion. Of course, the political leader cannot do this alone--not hardly. This is a task for all citizens of a free society, particularly those who participate in culture-forming institutions.
The statesman must also regulate "noxious activities" that threaten social friendship. Racists would get no license to march in a Jouvenelian liberal democracy. Parties that advocated revolution or violence would find no home there, either. Jouvenel believes civility is crucial to a free society.
And finally, the statesman must deflate hopes for a permanent solution to the political problem. There is no ultimate solution in politics, only temporary "settlements," as Jouvenel put it in a later book. To try to conjure up ancient Greece again or to dispense with politics almost all together (the communitarian and libertarian dreams, respectively) are both solutions, not settlements. Politics is our permanent this-worldly condition; to deny that fact is to create, or at least tempt, tyranny.
The good and bad of capitalism
Nowhere is there greater need for vigilance in cultivating the common good in modern democracies than with regard to the free market. To be sure, Jouvenel is a strong defender of the efficiency and productivity of a free economy. The capitalist dynamo has eased life for millions, giving them choices and opportunities and time unavailable to all but the few in premodern societies. Jouvenel knows that economic growth and consumer satisfaction are the imperatives that drive our societies.
But having more goodies does not constitute the good life. Quality of life is key to assessing a decent society. Like Pope John Paul II, Jouvenel argues that a strong moral culture and vigorous political institutions must serve as makeweights against the market. Thus Jouvenel would probably have had few qualms about cracking down on Hollywood violence and Calvin Klein kiddie-porn ads. For just as government has a responsibility to educate citizens politically, so too it is important to lift the preferences of consumers to higher ends. "We live in majority societies where beautiful things will be wiped out unless the majority appreciates them," Jouvenel pointedly observed during the sixties. A market society is praiseworthy only if the choices people make within it are praiseworthy.
Another area in which the market needs public oversight is the environment. In a highly organized modern society, Jouvenel wrote in the 1957 essay "From Political Economy to Political Ecology," "Nature disappears behind the mass of our fellow creatures." We forget what we owe it. I can imagine some conservative readers rushing to put Jouvenel back on the shelf at this point. But Jouvenel's green thumb is much closer to legal theorist Peter Huber's (or Theodore Roosevelt's) market-friendly conservationism than it is to Norwegian Arne Naess's antihumanist deep ecology.
The environment is for man, not man for the environment--that Biblical insight is one Jouvenel embraces. Promethean modern economies have made man master of the Earth, and that is potentially to the good, he says. But with mastery comes responsibility. In a 1968 essay entitled "The Stewardship of the Earth," Jouvenel sums up his environmental vision: "The Earth has been given to us for our utility and enjoyment, but also entrusted to our care, that we should be its caretakers and gardeners." This is sensible stuff. It means smart environmental regulations establishing wildlife reserves, cleaning up rivers, protecting endangered species, and punishing toxic dumpers, not trying to restore some pre-industrial arcadia (there is that anti-utopianism again).
If Jouvenel's support for the free market stops short of an idolatry of choice and the right to pollute, it enthusiastically resists government interventions aimed at redistributing wealth. "Only Hayek has rivaled Bertrand de Jouvenel in demonstrating why redistributionism in the democracies results in the atrophy of personal responsibility and the hypertrophy of the bureaucracy and the centralized state instead of in relief to the hapless minorities it is pledged to serve," enthuses the sociologist Robert Nisbet about a book Jouvenel first published in 1952, called The Ethics of Redistribution. In this short, profound study, Jouvenel ignores (though he agrees with it) the economic argument against the redistribution of wealth: that it eats away at incentives and so impoverishes everybody. Instead, he concentrates on the moral arguments against redistribution in an indictment of contemporary left-liberalism as damning as we have.
Jouvenel's three arguments remain unanswered. One is that redistribution quickly becomes regressive. Jouvenel shows that levying the wealth of the rich does not provide nearly enough economic resources to offer a subsistence minimum to the down and out. Instead, government must dip into the pockets of the middle class and even the lower middle class, who themselves receive income transfers. This insight, Jouvenel avers, upsets a widely held belief: "that our societies are extremely rich and that their wealth is merely maldistributed." Pursuing redistribution in the face of this truth, he adds, "involves the debasement of even the lower middle-class standard of life." Society becomes proletarianized.
The second argument against redistribution is that it corrodes personal responsibility. By providing for basic needs, the redistributionist state weakens the individual's independence and civil society's authority, threatening to make people into dependent drudges. This also reinforces the modern impulsion to centralization described in On Power.
Finally, redistribution, by confiscating higher incomes, means that the wealthy stop supporting life's amenities: no more grants to symphonies, museums, university endowments, parks, and so on. If these amenities are to continue to exist, the state must fund them directly. The state invariably will use a utilitarian calculus in deciding what to fund. One gray vision starts to prevail, not a thousand or hundreds of thousands of varied visions. Jouvenel implies that a bourgeois society is much more likely to support high culture than is a redistributionist state.
Jouvenel knew that the impulse to shake down the rich and give to the poor is a permanent temptation in democratic capitalist regimes. There will always be calls from those whom the market had not benefited to redress their plight through politics; and there will always be politicians ready to hear them out. Redistributionism is unlikely ever to disappear in modern societies, but we can try to limit its reach.
A real science of politics
Jouvenel's final contribution to the study of politics is a detailed analysis of its workings, not as a replacement for reflection on the good (as undertaken in Sovereignty) but as a supplement to it. The hope is to make political science useful to the statesman, who, as we have seen, has a responsibility of cultivating the social friendship and civility that vivifies the free society and slows the Minotaur's advance. Jouvenel's most ambitious effort in this vein is a difficult, chiseled book first published in 1963 and recently reissued by Liberty Fund Press: The Pure Theory of Politics.
This book focuses not on political statics (the juridical forms of constitutions and institutions) but on political dynamics: the phenomenon of "man moving man." One source of this influence is what Cicero called potestas: the authority that inheres in someone because of his institutional position. The U.S. military brass may not have liked the idea of draft-dodging ex-hippie Bill Clinton being their commander-in-chief, but their respect for the potestas of the presidency meant they jumped when he said jump. The other source is potentia: authority based on the raw ability to get men to do your bidding and follow your lead. It is the influence of an effective basketball coach or teacher, or, most importantly for Jouvenel's purpose, of the charismatic politician. It is as natural as rain.
Potentia can be a good thing in politics. Churchill's heroic rallying of the English people during World War II would have been unthinkable if he did not possess it. It can also be dangerously irrational, tapping into the volcanic forces that can sweep entire populations away in grand passions. How else to describe Hitler's Mephistophelean influence over the Germans? "It is profoundly unsafe to assume that people act rationally in Politics," Jouvenel somberly notes.
The ostensible aim of The Pure Theory of Politics is description. Jouvenel targeted the book to an audience of American social scientists who thought that the study of political life should be as free of values as the study of physics. Yet the book is a subtle critique of their abstract social science. Dry academicians said they looked at behavior, but what they meant were things like voting patterns, not strong behavior, behavior of the kind that Machiavelli chronicles with such cold lucidity.
Thus the real purpose of The Pure Theory of Politics is to remind liberal democrats, who often place unwarranted hopes in human reasonableness, that politics is not always, not often, guided by the light of reason; it is often messy, sinister, mad, and tragic, as Thucydides and Shakespeare--Jouvenel's chosen guides in this odd but beautiful book--teach us. Chastened by this lesson, perhaps today's leaders will see the fragility of liberal communities and strive to create the conditions for the growth of social friendship.
Bertrand de Jouvenel's melancholy liberalism has a lot to teach us, though for those who like their politics sunny-side up, it does not come as good news. Liberal democracies can attain true human goods, including meaningful freedom, social friendship, and widespread prosperity, Jouvenel reassures us. But these fragile societies must remain on guard, lest their many weaknesses--from the erosion of personal responsibility, to their tendency toward collectivism, to the abiding hope for final solutions--make dust of these goods.
BRIAN C. ANDERSON is senior editor of City Journal and author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).
This is the sixth in our occasional series of "Reconsiderations." Previous essays have examined the works of Louis Hartz, Richard M. Titmuss, Herbert Croly, Marshall MeLuhan, and Frederick Douglass.
COPYRIGHT 2001 The National Affairs, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group