The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 2 (Summer 2018)

Teachable Moments

Teachers of the People: Political Education in Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill

Dana Villa

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Danielle Charette

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 2)

In Henrik Ibsen’s 1883 play An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockmann’s screed against his fellow townspeople hits an antidemocratic crescendo when he declares, “I am going to prove to you, scientifically, that the People’s Messenger leads you by the nose in a shameful manner when it tells you that you—that the common people, the crowd, the masses, are the real essence of the People. That is only a newspaper lie, I tell you!” Stockmann starts off a benign and bookish small-town scientist, but his neighbors’ refusal to heed his warning about local water contamination brings the doctor to despair “The common people are nothing more than the raw material of which a People is made,” he sneers.

Although Dana Villa doesn’t mention Ibsen in Teachers of the People, he is clearly troubled by this well-worn metaphor of citizens being molded from some amorphous political clay. He refers to a number of classic examples: Plato describes the philosopher as a kind of craftsman who could refashion society, if only we’d let him. Machiavelli speaks of imposing “form” on Florence’s untutored matter.

But Villa focuses his criticisms on Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill, all of whom, by his account, were guilty of assuming a paternalistic attitude toward the people they proposed to enlighten. Villa suspects something pernicious in their talk of “the people.” Populists may claim to rally the common folk against plutocrats or the “one percent,” but Villa worries that the idea of a vacuous “people” flatters elites, who fancy they can offer a guiding hand.

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Danielle Charette is a PhD candidate in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.2 (Summer 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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