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Tocqueville and the Democratic Intellect

Tocqueville And The Democratic Intellect

Philosophy and the American Outlook

Tocqueville presents American democracy in its practice as learning by doing and not through philosophical ideas. But in the first part of volume 2 [of Democracy in America], he turns to philosophy to consider not the influence of philosophy on democracy but of democracy on philosophy, on “intellectual movement in the United States.” This is an early instance of the phrase “intellectual movement,” perhaps the first, and he uses it in the singular, not “movements” in the plural as we would today, to indicate that he wants to see how–and if–the democratic mind works.

He has said that democracy is “irresistible,” meaning not to be resisted, but it turns out that there are alleged “friends” of democracy who use the word differently. They believe that human beings have no choice but to submit to large, impersonal forces that determine their lives and rob them of the possibility of voluntary, mindful (“intellectual”) movement toward the goal of democratic liberty.

Who are they? Tocqueville describes two types of intellectual he regards as harmful, pantheists and democratic historians.

The Influence of Descartes in America

But at the beginning of his discussion he singles out one individual, the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, for special treatment. Americans, he says, give less attention to philosophy than anywhere else in the civilized world, yet all of them use one uniform method for intellectual inquiries, which is to rely on individual effort and judgment, the very method of Descartes.

It is in America that his precepts are “least studied and best followed.” Its democratic social state both alienates them from philosophy and inclines them to adopt his maxims. In that state men do not hold to tradition, nor do they accept the opinion of a class; seeing no superior to themselves, they come to trust only themselves.

Here is a strange view of Descartes, not usually considered a political philosopher and surely not a democrat, now declared by Tocqueville to be the author, without intending it, of the democratic “method” (Descartes’s own term). Here too is a strange view of Americans in thrall to, or living in unconscious agreement with, a French philosopher none of them have ever read.

Individualism Requires Religious Faith

Descartes, whose most famous teaching is to question authority, is himself an authority in America in all but name. His attack on authority has become an authority justifying the sovereignty of the individual. It is hard to say whether Tocqueville has made Descartes or his ignorant American fellow-thinkers more ridiculous. Descartes’s philosophy of “clear and distinct ideas” boils down to the clumsy sovereignty of each nonphilosophical American, who knows essentially what he knows without needing to read him.

Yet the Americans absurdly place an authority in the people who, if they were following Descartes, should have been consumed with doubt. With such vulgarization and contradiction, what kind of intellectual movement is this?

To explain the democratic mind, Tocqueville reflects on the nature of the human condition. All intellectual, as opposed to instinctual or spontaneous, movement requires the use of one’s own mind. To use one’s mind means doubting the authority of what one is told. Yet if thinking is to produce action, one must stifle one’s doubts. No individual has the time or ability to think through everything for himself, and no society could survive without common action and common ideas. Even the philosopher has to make assumptions, as no one can think about everything at once.

From the need for authority Tocqueville makes an easy transition to the need for belief, as both society and individual must accept a “first foundation” on faith, in truth a kind of enslavement, but a necessary “salutary servitude.” Both Descartes and the democratic social state that replicates his philosophy exaggerate the power of human reason. Reason cannot replace authority and establish the autonomy of the individual. All human reason can do is to change aristocratic authority into democratic authority–but it can do this. Man is not by nature “perfectly free,” beginning from a condition where there is no authority, as Hobbes and Locke supposed.

Americans Love to Generalize

Democracy is not created from the state of nature in which there is no authority, but rather by democrats who deny the authority of anyone or any class above themselves. In doing so each feels the pride of being equal to every other individual. Yet each is overwhelmed at the same time with a sense of weakness and insignificance in comparison to the “great body” of all other individuals.  Democratic authority, therefore, has two opposite effects on the mind: bringing the mind to new thoughts in the denial of tradition and custom and at the same time inducing it to give up thinking in the face of public opinion.

From the need for belief, Tocqueville remarks that the democratic mind loves to generalize. This is a weakness, he thinks. God, who sees both similarities and differences, has no need of general ideas, but man needs the convenience of gathering like objects under the same form. Americans show more interest in general ideas than do their “English forefathers,” who represent America’s aristocratic past in England as distinct from its democratic point of departure in the Puritans who opposed English aristocracy. Aristocrats have an instinctive distaste for generalities, preferring to consider men one or a few at a time, but democrats develop an ardent and lazy passion for them because they begin from the apparent fact that everyone near them is almost the same as they are–those like oneself, the semblables.

Out of democratic equality comes the habit of thinking in terms of hasty generalization and in fear of being profound. This democratic failing prompts Tocqueville to a new discussion of religion. In volume 1 he had considered religion’s utility to democracy and shown how it “teaches Americans the art of being free.” In volume 2 he turns to the truth of religion.

Religion is Useful and Necessary in a Democracy

Religion helps Americans to think by delivering them from doubt. While Descartes’s philosophy imposes the requirement of doubt, especially of religion, religion in Tocqueville’s eyes rescues a democratic people from the enervation and paralysis produced by doubt. Men need “very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them,” for without these they would be at the mercy of chance, subject to disorder and impotence.

Religion imposes a “salutary yoke on the intellect,” and if it does not save men in the next world, it is useful to their happiness and greatness in this world. It provides answers to the greatest problems, without which men, lacking the ability to think on their own, will be reduced to the cowardice of not thinking at all.

Descartes, or any philosopher, might say that doubt shows greater awareness and freedom than belief. To read Plato, one would find a less flattering view of Tocqueville’s “salutary yoke” in the picture of the cave in which Socrates says most men are imprisoned. But Tocqueville says to the contrary that, for most men, doubt leads to a surrender to chance, because doubt questions whether anything happens regularly or predictably.

If men believe that chance rules human events, they will let things happen as they will and not attempt mindful, free action. Religion reassures us that chance does not rule and confirms that human intentions can succeed, human actions make sense.

One could object that religion in its intellectual aspect is still judged for its utility; but now, one could answer, it is judged for the utility of the mind in directing action. Religion is good for democracy because it inspires instincts contrary to the love of material enjoyments and because, in doing so, it teaches one’s duties to others. In both regards, religion is necessary to freedom.

Tocqueville says he has been brought to think that “if [man] has no faith, he must serve and if he is free, he must believe.” When one thinks of the hostility of the old liberalism to faith, here indeed is a “new kind of liberal.” He presents religion as the public face of philosophy, rather its friend than its enemy, protecting philosophy from causing inadvertent harm–which it would do if let alone.

Pantheism Both Attacks and Reinforces Democracy

Pantheism is a religion-philosophy, a “philosophic system” that, as in Spinoza’s system, encloses God and the universe, creator and creation, in a single whole. This means that God had to create as He did, that God is as much an effect of His creation as the cause of it.

This means, too, that men are not capable of being directed by their minds, nor of being a first cause like the Puritans and are no more free than nonhuman nature. Pantheism is not only an expression of the democratic mind, as a general idea leveling all distinctions in nature and denying that there is any special status within nature for human beings.

It is also an attack on the democratic mind or any notion of mind because it denies the human capacity to rise above the rest of nature by reflecting or acting on it. Pantheism is the logical culmination of scientific objectivity–giving no preference to human beings–and also, strangely enough, of democratic equality–the whole universe is democratic.

Progress Gives Hope to Democratic Man

Yet immediately after his brief but important discussion of pantheism, Tocqueville brings up the idea of progress, which he calls “indefinite perfectibility.” What is its relation to pantheism? Progress is the main positive belief of the democratic mind, despite its posture of doubt and its tendency toward blind fatality. Progress would seem to be mindful improvement of the status quo into something better; it would seem to be the main instance of “intellectual movement” such as he is considering.

Now, progress is a human capability, distinguishing man from other animals and the rest of creation. Creation is therefore not a “single whole” as pantheism asserts, but a complex whole containing a being capable of change and creating anew–which is progress–distinct from the rest. The idea of progress is inconsistent with pantheism, and yet both are expressions of the democratic mind.

Pantheism wants to generalize across all differences and distinctions, but the idea of progress insists on an exception being made of democratic men in order to show respect for the very democratic mind that is fashioning the generalization to make pantheism. Democrats say in effect that everything is essentially equal, except for the democrats who assert this point.

The inconsistency can be found within the idea of progress. Equality, Tocqueville says, suggests to Americans the idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man.

The Democratic “New is Better”

Equality suggests but does not compel democrats to believe in progress, because compulsion would detract from the dignity of human invention, of conceiving and promoting a better way to be or do. And why is democratic progress indefinite? Progress can be found in aristocracy, but there it is definite; it is improvement toward perfection, or progress “within certain impassable limits.” Progress cannot go beyond perfection, nor, given imperfect humans, can it do more than approach perfection.

Democracies pursue not perfection, but something different: “the image of an ideal and always fugitive perfection,” an “immense greatness” always receding from view that can only be glimpsed confusedly. They do not know what perfection is, but they do not deny it either. They are unphilosophic because they deny any logic or truth outside themselves, yet at the same time they follow a “philosophic theory” of indefinite perfectibility that accepts the sovereignty of mind over matter, but awards the capability to progress to each person and every century.

Tocqueville tells an anecdote of an American sailor who explains that his country’s ships are not built to last because progress is so rapid that old ships soon become useless. For Americans, the perfect ship does not exist, but somehow, without knowing what is perfect, we know vaguely, indefinitely, that new is better.

Thus the democratic mind has a theory of progress, but it is one that slights the pure theory of perfection and prefers application of theory to practice. “Equality develops the desire in each man to judge everything by himself; it gives him in all things a taste for the tangible and real and a contempt for traditions and forms.”

A Taste for Mediocrity

In the permanent bustle of democracy men have no leisure for the quiet meditation required for the “most theoretical principles,” and they lack opinions expressing “the dignity, power, and greatness of man,” that are valued in aristocracy and dispose the mind to love the truth. Tocqueville warns that progress depends on discoveries of pure theory that are less likely, though not impossible, in societies devoted to progress. Progress comes from those with a “disinterested love of truth” rather than from love of progress. Science, it appears, is not so much scientific method–the method of Americans–as love of truth.

In their intellectual movement Americans do not know where they are going and have little esteem for the “contemplation of first causes” necessary for pure science. “In our day one must detain the human mind in theory,” for the democratic mind prefers practice and does not to care to think profoundly on its own. In this part of Democracy in America, Tocqueville reveals an appreciation of theory not so evident elsewhere in his book, but never absent. For the most part he describes and then praises or blames, but here, as instructor of democracy, he presumes to give advice.

Preferring the Useful to the Beautiful

Tocqueville observes next that in cultivating the arts, Americans, though not blind to beauty, prefer the useful to the beautiful and want the beautiful to be useful. But then he makes a less obvious point by remarking on the spirit of American manufacturing. As opposed to aristocratic centuries, where the aim of the productive arts is to make the best possible product, Americans make scarcely any but mediocre ones, though everyone has one.

Practicing a prudent and conscious mediocrity, their byword is “good enough,” and they have discovered that you can get rich by selling cheaply to all. Still, one might wonder, how will Americans perfect their products if they do not see that to do something is to do it well? Even a mediocre product needs the model of the best if it is to improve.

Tocqueville praises the painting of Raphael, a Renaissance painter he seems to consider aristocratic, for making us “glimpse divinity in his works.” Divinity such as this stands above human perfection but inspires the human perfection necessary for democratic progress, yet it is not likely to be found in democratic times.

Democratic Grandiosity

At this point Tocqueville raises the question of where greatness can be found in democracy. In democracy, individuals are weak, but the state or nation is great. Private individuals may live in small dwellings, but in their public monuments they imagine and display their desire for greatness.

Americans have built for themselves an immense, artificial city (Washington, D.C.), still in Tocqueville’s day scarcely more populated than a French town, for democracy typically produces many small monuments and a very few great ones, with nothing in between. Greatness in democracy is a work of expansive imagination, and his following chapters discuss democratic speech in its various forms, focusing on its characteristic exaggeration and vanity. These are the modes in which the democratic intellect expresses itself.

A Demand for Innovative Literature

In literature, democratic writers despise the formal qualities of style that are prized in aristocracies. They are less artful, more bold and vehement; less erudite and profound, more imaginative and forceful; they seek to astonish rather than please, and to carry away passions rather than charm taste. One sees few great writers and thousands of vendors of ideas. The writers of antiquity, with their care for details and appeal to connoisseurs, are not much studied in democracy, where education is more scientific, commercial, and industrial than literary–though, Tocqueville adds, they are a “salutary diet” for democrats who want to excel in letters.

The languages of democratic peoples reflect their desire for motion and innovation, their distaste for anything conventional and arbitrary, and their love of abstraction. Democratic poetry has an instinctive distaste for anything old and for depicting anything ideal. Instead, it opens to the future and seeks objects that are vast, such as the fate of all humanity. Democratic oratory is often bombastic, and democratic theater “becomes more striking, more vulgar, and more true”–always in comparison with aristocracy.

Democratic Historians Prefer Inevitability

Yet the juxtaposition of two chapters at the end of the chapters on speech reveals the plaintive vanity at the center of the democratic intellect: how important is man when all men are equal?

To answer the question, Tocqueville makes a particularly dramatic contrast between democracy and aristocracy. Historians in aristocratic centuries, he says, make all events depend on the particular wills and humors of certain men, but in democratic centuries they habitually attribute almost no influence to individuals in history and give great general causes for particular facts.

It is true, he admits, that general causes explain more in democratic times, when individuals are indeed less effectual, but such explanations are dangerous because they subject individuals to an inflexible providence or a blind fatality. They imply that as man is not master of himself, he is not the master of events, thus not free.

Democratic historians seem determined to show that progress is not a goal achieved consciously, voluntarily, by human beings: “Historians of antiquity instruct on how to command, those of our day teach hardly anything other than how to obey.” Yet the historians appear great themselves, seeming to dispose of the great causes they describe and complacently looking down on the rest of humanity unaware of the forces driving them forward.

Honors Raise One Above the Crowd

The following chapter on parliamentary eloquence in the United States looks to be unconnected to history but actually develops the same thought. In aristocratic parliaments the members, being aristocrats, have nothing to prove and are content to remain silent if they have nothing to say. In America, on the contrary, the representative is a nobody and is constantly stung by the necessity to acquire and display his importance as well as that of his electors, holding forth with frequent pompous and incompetent orations.

The spirit of the democratic representative, who says that he is important, contradicts the spirit of the democratic historians, who presume that man is insignificant. Democratic man, it appears, has a desire to be honored, a desire unknown to himself to live in an aristocracy, where he would be honored as someone important. His generalizing mind, busy at justifying democracy, is at odds with his own individual mind justifying himself.



Quotations follow the text in Democracy in America from the introduction through pt. 1 of vol. 1, then into pt. 2. The quotation on trading small virtues for the vice of pride is at DA vol. 2, pt. 3, chap. 19, and the one on the “two distinct humanities” is at DA vol. 2, pt. 4, chap. 8.

On the writing of Democracy in America, see James T. Schleifer, The Making of Democracy in America, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000). Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), is the best overall study of the book, and Sheldon S. Wolin, Tocqueville between Two Worlds (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) is an indispensable critique of AT.

Careful readers will want to verify in the original texts the generalizations offered in this chapter about the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke, and in particular to explore the function of mores as argued in two of AT’s favorite predecessors, Montesquieu (in the Spirit of the Laws, bk. 3, chap. 19) and Rousseau (in the Social Contract, bk. 2, chap. 12).


This excerpt is from Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010)

Religion is Useful and Necessary in a Democracy

Harvey C. MansfieldHarvey C. Mansfield

Harvey C. Mansfield

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is author and editor of several books, including a recent translation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Chicago, 2002).

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