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But instead of seeking contrivances for this purpose, they have lost those they formerly had. The Socratic dialectics, so magnificently exemplified in the dialogues of Plato, were a contrivance of this description. They were essentially a negative discussion of the great questions of philosophy and life, directed with consummate skill to the purpose of convincing any one who had merely adopted the commonplaces of received opinion, that he did not understand the subject—that he as yet attached no definite meaning to the doctrines he professed; in order that, becoming aware of his ignorance, he might be put in the way to attain a stable belief, resting on a clear apprehension both of the meaning of doctrines and of their evidence. The school disputations of the middle ages had a somewhat similar object. They were intended to make sure that the pupil understood his own opinion, and (by necessary correlation) the opinion opposed to it, and could enforce the grounds of the one and confute those of the other. These last-mentioned contests had indeed the incurable defect, that the premises appealed to were taken from authority, not from reason; and, as a discipline to the mind, they were in every respect inferior to the powerful dialectics which formed the intellects of the “Socratici viri:” but the modern mind owes far more to both than it is generally willing to admit, and the present modes of education contain nothing which in the smallest degree supplies the place either of the one or of the other. A person who derives all his instruction from teachers or books, even if he escape the besetting temptation of contenting himself with cram, is under no compulsion to hear both sides; accordingly it is far from a frequent accomplishment, even among thinkers, to know both sides; and the weakest part of what everybody says in defence of his opinion, is what he intends as a reply to antagonists. It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic—that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice, without establishing positive truths. Such negative criticism would indeed be poor enough as an ultimate result; but as a means to attaining any positive knowledge or conviction worthy the name, it cannot be valued too highly; and until people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great thinkers, and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and physical departments of speculation. On any other subject no one’s opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents. That, therefore, which when absent, it is so indispensable, but so difficult, to create, how worse than absurd to forego, when spontaneously offering itself! If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour for ourselves.
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If we were here to close this article, and leave these noble speculations to produce their effect without further comment, the reader probably would not blame us. Our recommendation is not needed in their behalf. That nothing on the whole comparable in profundity to them yet been written on , will scarcely be disputed by any one who has read even our hasty abridgment of them. We must guard, at the same time, against attaching to these conclusions, or to any others that can result from such inquiries, a character of scientific certainty that can never belong to them. Democracy is too recent a phenomenon, and of too great magnitude, for any one who now lives to comprehend its consequences. A few of its more immediate tendencies may be perceived or surmised; what other tendencies, destined to overrule or to combine with these, lie behind, there are not grounds even to conjecture. If we revert to any similar fact in past history, any change in human affairs approaching in greatness to what is passing before our eyes, we shall find that no prediction which could have been made at the time, or for many generations afterwards, would have borne any resemblance to what has actually been the course of events. When the Greek commonwealths were crushed, and liberty in the civilized world apparently extinguished by the Macedonian invaders; when a rude unlettered people of Italy stretched their conquests and their dominion from one end to the other of the known world; when that people in turn lost its freedom and its old institutions, and fell under the military despotism of one of its own citizens;—what similarity is there between the effects we now know to have been produced by these causes, and anything which the wisest person could then have anticipated from them? When the Roman empire, containing all the art, science, literature, and industry of the world, was overrun, ravaged, and dismembered by hordes of barbarians, everybody lamented the destruction of civilization, in an event which is now admitted to have been the necessary condition of its renovation. When the Christian religion had existed but for two centuries—when the Pope was only beginning to assert his ascendancy—what philosopher or statesman could have foreseen the destinies of Christianity, or the part which has been acted in history by the Catholic Church? It is thus with all other really great historical facts—the invention of gunpowder for instance, or of the printing-press: even when their direct operation is as exactly measurable, because as strictly mechanical, as these were, the mere scale on which they operate gives birth to endless consequences, of a kind which would have appeared visionary to the most far-seeing wisdom.
The crowd of English politicians, whether public men or public writers, who live in a truly insular ignorance of the great movement of European ideas, will be astonished to find, that a conclusion which but few among them, in their most far-reaching speculations, have yet arrived at, is the point from which the foremost continental thinkers theirs; and that a philosopher, whose impartiality as between aristocracy and democracy is unparalleled in our time, considers it an established truth, on the proof of which it is no longer necessary to insist, that the progress of democracy neither can nor ought to be stopped. Not to determine whether democracy shall come, but how to make the best of it when it does come, is the scope of M. de Tocqueville’s speculations.
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In quoting so much of this striking passage, we would not be understood as adopting the whole and every part of it, as the expression of our own sentiments. The good which mankind have lost, is coloured, we think, rather too highly, and the evils of the present state of transition too darkly; and we think, also, that more than our author seems to believe, of what was good in the influences of aristocracy, is compatible, if we really wish to find it so, with a well-regulated democracy. But though we would soften the colours of the picture, we would not alter them; M. de Tocqueville’s is, in our eyes, the true view of the position in which mankind now stand: and on the timely recognition of it as such, by the influential classes of our own and other countries, we believe the most important interests of our race to be greatly dependent.
Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argumentative response
But under an aristocratic government, public men have a class interest, which, if sometimes in harmony with that of the multitude, is often distinct from it. That interest forms among them a permanent tie: it prompts them to ally themselves together, and combine their efforts, for a purpose which is not always the happiness of the many; and it not only binds the rulers to one another, it unites them also with a considerable portion of the governed; for many citizens, without holding any employment, form a part of the aristocracy. The aristocratic magistrate, therefore, meets with a constant support in society itself, as well as in the government.