Sunday, October 20, 1996

Tocqueville on mores

[A letter to a friend who is a political sociologist with a shared interest in the problems of citizenship, political culture, participation, and de-politicization. --Jeff Weintraub]

Sorry it's taken me a little while to follow up our phone conversation about Tocqueville’s political sociology. With regard to what we were talking about....
The main point I was making was that when Tocqueville talks about the crucial significance of "mores," and about the ongoing reciprocal interplay between formal institutions (i.e., "laws") and mores, he is drawing on a very rich and well-established conceptual vocabulary for which Montesquieu is a crucial figure ... but which extends further back than Montesquieu, too. The heart of the matter is brought out especially sharply by a passage in one of Tocqueville's letters, which he wrote while he was working on The Old Regime (a translation is in Roger Boesche's edition of Tocqueville's Selected Letters, pp. 292-295):
You say that institutions [which is what is usually meant by "laws" in, e.g., DinA] are only half my subject. I go farther than you, and I say that they are not even half. You know my ideas well enough to know that I accord institutions only a secondary influence on the destiny of men. Would to God I believed more in the omnipotence of institutions! I would have more hope for our future, because by chance we might, someday, stumble onto the precious piece of paper that would contain the recipe for all wrongs, or on the man who knew the recipe. But, alas, there is no such thing, and I am quite convinced that political societies are not what their laws make them, but what sentiments, beliefs, ideas, habits of the heart, and the spirit of the men who form them, prepare them in advance to be, as well as what nature and education have made them. If this truth does not emerge, at every turn, from my book.... [etc.]
The terms used to capture these ideas in French were moeurs et manières, which in English could be translated as "mores and manners." But matters are complicated by the fact that usage here was far from standard or precise. For example, "manners" was often used to translate moeurs, and/or to cover the whole range of relevant phenomena.
(E.g., Jefferson's famous remark in Notes on the State of Virginia that "It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its constitution." At the end of Chapter I of Book III of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith refers to the “manners and customs” introduced into European societies by feudalism, which continued to have baneful effects after the feudal system itself had ended. In Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, he refers at one point to "the most important of all revolutions ... I mean a revolution in sentiments, in manners, and moral opinions." Etc., etc.)
What is going on, briefly, is that the complex of ideas indicated by moeurs et manières (or sometimes moeurs, manières, and coutumes, or customs) was used to capture the whole field of culture and character. And the continuing value of this tradition of discourse lies in the subtle and penetrating ways in which it grasped the complexity of this field and the interrelations between its different elements. Thus, moeurs et manières include more than "values" (though it could be argued they do include them), but also such things as skills, orientations, sensibilities, habitual modes of acting and feeling, etc. One of the key insights of this approach is that the characters, capacities, outlooks, and skills of individuals are formed, in large part, by the practices in which they engage--and, thus, their everyday experiences. (This is a way of thinking about the process of "education," running from Aristotle through John Stuart Mill and beyond, that I spend a lot of time discussing in Freedom and Community.)
Thus, institutions do help to form mores (as well as depending on them), but one of the key ways they do so is by shaping and channeling the constellations of practices in which individuals habitually engage. In other words, in understanding the ongoing reciprocal influence of institutions and mores, a key conceptual link is a notion of practices.
And so on. Obviously, the relationships between these different elements are complex, so it's not surprising that the boundaries between the different concepts are often fluid and/or fuzzy, and that all the terms involved show a lot of tendencies toward conceptual slide. But the overall framework animating this analysis is, as I said, richly developed and often insightful. And a number of the key theoretical insights have had to be re-invented over and over again in the subsequent history of sociological analysis.
=> Therefore, to come back to where we started, when Tocqueville says
I here mean the term "mores" (moeurs) to have its original Latin meaning; I mean it to apply not only to "moeurs" in the strict sense, which might be called the habits of the heart, but also to the different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits. [etc.]
... this is only the tip of a big iceberg. That is, Tocqueville assumes that his readers will under­stand that he is referring to, drawing on, and intervening in a long theoretical conversation. Without knowing that background, the import of his comments won't be entirely clear.
Now, one of Tocqueville's points here is that, for his purposes, he doesn't think it's necessary to employ a conceptual vocabulary that distinguishes explicitly between moeurs and manières. Instead, he's going to use moeurs to cover this whole complex of ideas--and, if his readers follow him carefully, they can see him (in practice) carefully disentangling, delineating, and re-weaving the different strands in this pattern.
But one of the reasons that Tocqueville thought this point was worth making was that Montesquieu (who was in many ways one of his own theoretical masters, and who was also an obvious point of reference for any discussion of these issues) had tried to draw precisely this analytical distinction in an explicit way. The way that Montesquieu does it isn't entirely rigorous, precise, or consistent. But part of his purpose is to address precisely some of the issues with which you're trying to grapple yourself ... and it might offer you a convenient entry into some of the conceptual resources offered by the larger tradition of discourse that Montesquieu represents.
To spell out that remark requires a little discussion of Montesquieu. As I was trying to make clear on the phone, Montesquieu is not the kind of writer with whom I could simply mention a few pages where all the concepts are clearly defined and systematically elaborated. I'll mention a few specific places where he discusses the relevant terms explicitly, but you'll have to read through his work at greater length to really get the flavor of the analysis. I recommend doing so, just on general principles.
By way of a general introductory comment, I will give you passage from my ch. 6 in Freedom and Community:
Any consideration of Montesquieu's role in the history of so­cial thought must begin by acknowledging that it is not only im­mense­ly significant but also extremely complex and even, it some­times seems, contradictory. Jacobins, moderates, and re­ac­tion­aries could quote him against each other, as did supporters and opponents of the American constitution. Smith and Burke learned from and admired him, and his impact on Rousseau was overwhelming. The liberal, conservative, and republican virtue traditions can all legitimately claim him, in different respects, as a major figure, without any one being able to appropriate him entirely. This range of influence is appropriate for a thinker whose central project was a grand effort at synthesis which would organize the diversity of experience into a systematic conceptual pattern, but whose passion for the concrete and fertility of imagination con­stant­ly overflow the boundaries of his conceptual categories.
Bearing that in mind … in connection with the issues we've been talking about, three of Montesquieu's theoretical works are most relevant. The big one, of course, is The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which has everything in it somewhere.[1] But some key elements of the theoretical argument go back to his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline (1734), which is a remarkable application and ex­tension of Machiavelli's analysis of the Roman republic (in the Discourses), contrast­ing the virtue of the republic with the corruption of the empire. More generally, it's a first step in Montesquieu's long-term project of distilling what he'd learned from Machiavelli (and others) into a systematic method of social and historical analysis. Montesquieu’s watchword in the Considerations is that "it is not chance that rules the world," but rather "general causes, moral and physical" (ch. XVIII). The Spirit of the Laws is intended to be the grand payoff for this project. Along the way, while he was working on SL, Montesquieu wrote a very interest­ing (unpublished) methodological essay, "An Essay on the Causes that May Affect Men's Mind's and Characters," [2] which has a compact discussion of some of the leading ideas. Basically, what you want to look at is The Spirit of the Laws.
Here's another passage from my ch. 6 (please pardon some repetitions of what I said earlier):
The key point is that Montesquieu's search for "causes" does not lead him toward a rigid determin­ism, but toward the idea of the flexible interplay of elements within a sys­tem. Every nation has a "general character" which makes it a unique whole. "This is produced in two ways:" by "physical caus­es," among which climate is most prominent; and by "moral causes," which we might call distinctively social causes. These last re­sult from the interaction of such factors as "laws," religion, moeurs, and manières. The category of "laws," as used in The Spirit of the Laws, includes not only ordinary statutes but also the structure of basic political institutions‑-what Machiavelli would call leggi e ordini.
And now we get to that distinction between "moeurs" and "manières" (the note marked by * also comes from the manuscript):
The crucial, though somewhat fluid, terms "moeurs" and "manières" sometimes appear in English as "mores and manners," and sometimes as "manners and customs." As a first approximation, it might be said that they refer to the beliefs, values, and practices that permeate a people's way of life. While the distinction between them is not precisely drawn, in Montesquieu's usage "moeurs" seem to be closer to cultural values and ideals; "manières" seem closer to customs in the sense of externally recognizable prac­tices. Or, to put it the other way around, moeurs are the underlying principles and ideals that inform practices.* Without too much conceptual distortion we can describe these terms as covering, broadly speaking, the field of culture and char­acter. "Moral causes contribute more than do physical causes to the general character of a nation and to the quality of its think­ing." Montesquieu's science of society is pre-eminently the analysis of the interaction of "moral causes" within a social tot­al­ity, placed against the background conditions produced by "physical causes." For our purposes, we may neglect the physical causes.
*Montesquieu says at one point that "moeurs" are more "interior" and "manières" more "exterior" (Spir­it of the Laws, Book XIX, ch. 16). However, any effort at precise terminologi­cal specifica­tion can be pushed only so far. The lines separating "mores," "manners," and "customs" ("coutumes" also appear in The Spirit of the Laws) are clearly fluid in Montesquieu's own argument, and often even more so in the language of other thinkers influenced by him more or less directly. For example, when Tocqueville takes up the general idea that Montes­quieu is putting forward here, he deliberately slides over the distinction between moeurs and manières and uses "moeurs" to refer to "the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people," noting that this is what the an­cients meant by the Latin "mores." Tocqueville's "moeurs" were then translated into English as "man­ners" by his friend Henry Reeve--the same word, incidental­ly, used to translate "moeurs" in Nugent's English edition of The Spir­it of the Laws almost a century before. (See Democracy in Ameri­ca, Reeve translation, volume I, ch. XVII, pp. 354-355 and 382; Tocqueville does add in passing that moeurs "in the strict sense" might be confined to "habits of the heart," a point which is lost in Reeve's translation.) And when Jefferson refers to the "manners and spirit of a people" as the crucial support of republican liberty, he is clearly referring to moeurs as well as manières.
[1] This was translated into English in 1750 by a certain Thomas Nugent. Until 1989 this translation (still in print in a Hafner paperback) was, remarkably enough, the only significant English translation of the whole work. In 1989 Cambridge issued an excellent new translation, which would probably be the one to get (especially given the small inaccuracies and lacunae in the Nugent translation). But the Nugent translation was really pretty good; and it still has a historical weight and resonance deriving from the fact that it was, after all, the one that almost all English-speaking readers actually read for over 200 years.
[2] A translation of this essay was published sometime in the mid-1970s in Political Theory, but I don't have that precise reference handy. Anyway, it's not vital for you to read it
Well, I could go on ... but I hope these preliminary comments are of some use to you. At least, it should be clear by now what I had in mind when I said you were, in effect, rediscovering (or recovering) the old distinction between moeurs and manières.
Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub