Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity by Daniel J. Mahoney
For Daniel Mahoney, author of two celebrated works on Raymond Aron and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bertrand de Jouvenel is one of the greatest though most underappreciated political philosophers of the 20th century—a thinker in the mold, if not quite at the rank, of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Jouvenel was concerned with the danger of state power (and hence often miscast as a libertarian), but also with the need to develop conscious public and private strategies to form better citizens and to protect the natural environment. His political thought aimed in no small part at dispelling "the illusions of modernity," though without ever abandoning belief in founding a moderate and rational political science that could improve liberal democracy. The core of Jouvenel's work, according to Mahoney, is found in three "masterworks of political philosophy" written between 1945 and 1963: On Power (the best known of Jouvenel's books), Sovereignty (the most profound), and The Pure Theory of Politics (the most provocative).
Mahoney candidly explores Jouvenel's life—including his dalliances before World War II with both the far Left and the far Right, and his awkward efforts after 1968 to ingratiate himself again with the Left. Mahoney concludes that Jouvenel's thought deserves to be distinguished from his weaknesses, though not fatal flaws, of character: "The sympathetic student of Jouvenel is torn between profound admiration for the wise and humane political philosopher and unavoidable discomfort with the poor practical judgment he regularly displayed in the opening and closing periods of his intellectual career."
—James W. Ceaser
University of Virginia
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This article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books