CITIZEN’S BOOK CLUB: PROLOGUE ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

CITIZEN’S BOOK CLUB: PROLOGUE ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

 

 

→ On why ugly elections are good for democracies:

“I know that one can confront me here with all the intrigues that an election occasions, the shameful methods that candidates often make use of, and the calumnies that their enemies spread. These occasion hatreds, and they recur all the more often as elections become more frequent.

These evils are great, without doubt, but they are passing, while the goods that come into being with them remain.

The desire to be elected may momentarily lead certain men to make war on each other, but this same desire leads all men in the long term to lend one another mutual support; and if it happens that an election accidentally divides two friends, the electoral system brings together in a permanent manner a multitude of citizens who would have remained forever strangers to one another. Liberty creates some individual hatreds, but despotism creates general indifference…

The free institutions that the inhabitants of the United States possess and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind each citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. At every moment they lead his mind back toward this idea, that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow men; and, as he sees no particular reason to hate them, since he is never either their slave or their master, his heart easily inclines in the directions of altruism. At first one assumes responsibility for the general interest by necessity, and then by choice; what was a calculation becomes an instinct; and, by dint of working for the good of one’s fellow citizens, one fainally acquires the habit and the taste for helping them.” [Vol. II, ii, 4]

→ On whether Americans can think for themselves:

“In the United States, the majority takes care of supplying individuals with a host of ready-made opinions and thus relieves them of the obligation of forming their own. There are a great number of theories of philosophy, morality, or politics which everyone there adopts in this way without examination, on the word of the public, and if one looks closely, one will see that religion itself prevails there much less as revealed doctrine than as common opinion…

I see clearly two tendencies in equality: one that carries the mind of each man to new thoughts and the other that readily reduces it to no longer thinking at all. And I see how, under the influence of certain laws, democracy may extinguish the intellectual liberty that the democratic social state favors, so that after having broken all the shackles once imposed upon it by classes or by individual men, the human mind would shackle itself tightly to the general will of the majority…

This, I cannot repeat too often, is matter for profound reflection on the part of those who see in liberty of mind something sacred and who hate not only the despot but despotism. For myself, when I feel the hand of power weighing heavily upon my head, it is of little importance for me to know who oppresses me, and I am not more disposed to place my head in the yoke because a million arms present it to me.” [Vol. II, i, 2]

→ On why Americans don’t read philosophy:

“I think that there is not, in the civilized world, a country where philosophy is paid less attention than in the United States.

The Americans have no philosophic school which is their own, and they pay very little mind to those which divide Europe; they scarcely know their names…

…In the midst of the continual movement which prevails within a democratic society, the tie which unites the generations with each other is loosened or broken; everyone in it easily loses all trace of the ideas of his ancestors or pays them scarcely any mind…

Nevertheless, it is easy to see that almost all the inhabitants of the United States govern their minds in the same manner and direct them according to the same rules; that is to say that they possess, without ever having taken the trouble to define its rules, a certain philosophic method which is common to all of them.

Avoiding the spirit of system, the yoke of habit, the maxims of family, the opinions of class, and, up to a certain point, national prejudices; taking tradition only as a piece of information, and present facts only as useful preparatory work for doing differently and better; seeking the reason for things by oneself and in oneself alone, aiming for the result without allowing oneself to be shackled to the means, and setting one’s sights on the substance beneath the form: such are the principal traits that characterize what I will call the philosophical method of the Americans.

If I go still further, and among these diverse traits I look for the principal one, and the one that can summarize almost all the others, I find that, in most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals only to the individual effort of his reason.

America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed…” [Vol. II, i, 1]

→ On democracy’s secret weapon: 

“Democracy, even when the local circumstances and the dispositions of the people allow it to survive, does not present the appearance of administrative regularity and methodical order in the government; that is true. Democratic liberty does not execute each of its undertakings with the same perfection as intelligent despotism; often it abandons them before having gotten results from them or takes a risk on dangerous ones.

But in the long term it produces more than despotism; it does each thing less well, but it does more things. Under its empire, it is not so much what the public administration executes that is great, it is what is executed without it and outside of it. Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it accomplishes what the most skillful government is often powerless to create; it spreads throughout the whole social body a restless activity, an overabundant force, an energy which never exists without it, and which, if the circumstances are favorable, can bring forth wonders.” [Vol. I, ii, 6]

→ On America’s wonderful, feverish agitation:

“The American inhabits a land of wonders, around him everything is in constant motion, and each movement seems a progress…

This universal movement which prevails in the United States, these frequent reversals of fortune, this unpredictable movement of public and private wealth, all combine to keep the soul in a sort of feverish agitation that wonderfully disposes it to all efforts and maintains it, as it were, above the common level of humanity. For an American, the whole of life is passed as if it were a hand in a game, a time of revolution, a day of battle.

These same causes, by acting at the same time on all individuals, end up imparting an irresistible impulse to the national character. The American picked at random will therefore be a man ardent in his desires, enterprising, adventurous, above all innovative. This spirit reappears, in fact, in all his works: he introduces it into his political laws, his religious doctrines, his theories of social economy, his individual occupation; he carries it with him everywhere, in the depths of the woods as well as in the midst of the cities.” [Vol. I, ii, 10]

 

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