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chapter 2 a: Of the Principal Source of Beliefs among Democratic Peoples b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3.
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Of the Principal Source of Beliefs among Democratic Peoplesb
Dogmatic beliefs are more or less numerous, depending on the times. They are born in different ways and can change form and object; but you cannot make it so that there are no dogmatic beliefs, that is to say, opinions that men receive on trust and without discussion. If each person undertook to form all his opinions himself and to pursue truth in isolation, along paths opened up by himself alone, it is improbable that a great number of men would ever unite together in any common belief.c
Now, it is easy to see that no society is able to prosper without similar beliefs, or rather none can continue to exist in such a way; for, without common ideas, there is no common action, and, without common action, there are still men, but not a social body. So for society to exist, and, with even more reason, for this society to prosper, all the minds of the citizens must always be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen without each one of them coming at times to draw his opinions from the same source and consenting to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.d
If I now consider man separately, I find that dogmatic beliefs are no less indispensable for him to live alone than to act in common with his fellows.e
If man was forced to prove to himself all the truths that he uses every day, he would never finish doing so; he would wear himself out with preliminary demonstrations without advancing; as he has neither the time, because of the short span of his life, nor the ability, because of the limitations of his mind, to act in this way, he is reduced to holding as certain a host of facts and opinions that he has had neither the leisure nor the power to examine and to verify by himself, but that those more clever have found or that the crowd adopts. On this foundation he builds himself the structure of his own thoughts. It is not his will that leads him to proceed in this manner; the inflexible law of his condition compels him to do so.
There is in this world no philosopher so great that he does not believe a million things on the faith of others, and who does not assume many more truths than he establishes.f
This is not only necessary but desirable. A man who would undertake to examine everything by himself would only be able to give a little time and attention to each thing; this work would keep his mind in a perpetual agitation that would prevent him from penetrating any truth deeply and from settling reliably on any certitude. His intelligence would be independent and weak at the very same time. So, among the various subjects of human opinions, he must make a choice and adopt many beliefs without discussing them, in order to go more deeply into a small number that he has reserved to examine for himself.g
[<In this manner he is misled more, but he deceives himself less.>] It is true that every man who receives an opinion on the word of others puts his mind into slavery; but it is a salutary servitude that allows making a good use of liberty.h
[That is noticeable above all in dogmatic beliefs whose subject is religion.
Religion, by providing the mind with a clear and precise solution to a great number of metaphysical and moral questions as important as they are difficult to resolve, leaves the mind the strength and the leisure to proceed with calmness and with energy in the whole area that religion abandons to it; and it is not precisely because of religion, but with the help of the liberty and the peace that religion gained for it, that the human mind has often done such great things in the centuries of faith.]j
So, no matter what happens, authority must always be found somewhere in the intellectual and moral world. Its place is variable, but it necessarily has a place. Individual independence can be greater or lesser; it cannot be limitless. Thus, the question is not to know if an intellectual authorityk exists in democratic centuries, but only to know where its repository is and what its extent will be.
I showed in the preceding chapter how equality of conditions made men conceive a kind of instinctive unbelief in the supernatural, and a very high and often exaggerated idea of human reason.
So men who live during these times of equality are not easily led to place the intellectual authority to which they submit outside and above humanity. It is in themselves or their fellows that they ordinarily look for the sources of truth. That would be enough to prove that a new religion cannot be established during these centuries, and that all attempts to bring it to life would be not only impious, but also ridiculous and unreasonable. You can predict that democratic peoples will not easily believe in divine missions, that they will readily scoff at new prophets and that they will want to find the principal arbiter of their beliefs within the limits of humanity and not beyond.
When conditions are unequal and men dissimilar, there are some individuals very enlightened, very learned, very powerful because of their intelligence, and a multitude very ignorant and very limited. So men who live in times of aristocracy are naturally led to take as guide for their opinions the superior reason of one man or of one class, while they are little disposed to recognize the infallibility of the mass.
The contrary happens in centuries of equality.m
As citizens become more equal and more similar, the tendency of each blindly to believe a certain man or a certain class decreases. The disposition to believe the mass increases, and more and more it is opinion that leads the world.
Not only is common opinion the sole guide that remains for individual reason among democratic peoples; but also it has among these peoples an infinitely greater power than among any other. In times of equality, men, because of their similarity, have no faith in each other; but this very similarity gives them an almost unlimited confidence in the judgment of the public; for it does not seem likely to them that, since all have similar enlightenment, truth is not found on the side of the greatest number.n
When the man who lives in democratic countries compares himself individually to all those who surround him, he feels with pride that he is equal to each of them; but, when he comes to envisage the ensemble of his fellows and to place himself alongside this great body, he is immediately overwhelmed by his own insignificance and weakness.
This same equality that makes him independent of each one of his fellow citizens in particular, delivers him isolated and defenseless to the action of the greatest number.o
So the public among democratic peoples has a singular power the idea of which aristocratic nations would not even be able to imagine. It does not persuade, it imposes its beliefs and makes them penetrate souls by a kind of immense pressure of the mind of all on the intelligence of each.
In the United States, the majority takes charge of providing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus relieves them of the obligation to form for themselves opinions that are their own. A great number of theories in matters of philosophy, morality and politics are adopted in this way by each person without examination on faith in the public; and, if you look very closely, you will see that religion itself reigns there much less as revealed doctrine than as common opinion.p
I know that, among Americans, political laws are such that the majority governs society as a sovereign;q that greatly increases the dominion that it naturally exercises over intelligence. For there is nothing more familiar to man than recognizing a superior wisdom in the one who oppresses him.r
This political omnipotence of the majority in the United States increases, in fact, the influence that the opinions of the public would have without it on the mind of each citizen there; but it does not establish it. The sources of this influence must be sought in equality itself, and not in the more or less popular institutions that equal men can give themselves. It is to be believed that the intellectual dominion of the greatest number would be less absolute among a democratic people subject to a king, than within a pure democracy; but it will always be very absolute, and, whatever the political laws may be that govern men in centuries of equality, you can predict that faith in common opinion will become a sort of religion whose prophet will be the majority.
Thus intellectual authority will be different, but it will not be less; and, far from believing that it must disappear, I foresee that it would easily become too great and that it might well be that it would finally enclose the action of individual reason within more narrow limits than are suitable for the grandeur and happiness of the human species. I see very clearly in equality two tendencies: one that leads the mind of each man toward new thoughts and the other that readily reduces him to thinking no more. And I notice how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy would extinguish the intellectual liberty that the democratic social state favors, so that after breaking all the obstacles that were formerly imposed on it by classes or men, the human mind would bind itself narrowly to the general wills of the greatest number [volontés générales du plus grand nombre —Trans.].s
If, in place of all the diverse powers that hindered or slowed beyond measure the rapid development of individual reason, democratic peoples substituted the absolute power of a majority, the evil would only have changed character. Men would not have found the means to live independently; they would only have discovered, a difficult thing, a new face of servitude. I cannot say it enough: for those who see liberty of the mind as a holy thing, and who hate not only the despot but also despotism, there is in that something to make them reflect deeply. For me, when I feel the hand of power pressing on my head, knowing who is oppressing me matters little to me, and I am no more inclined to put my head in the yoke, because a million arms present it to me.
[b. ] New sources of beliefs. Authority. Sources of beliefs among democratic peoples. To put in, before or after the chapters in which I treat the influence of equality on philosophy and religion.
What is happening in the United States in the matter of religion is proof of this. (Illegible word) difficulty for men to stop at common ideas. Remedy for that in the future. This difficulty is something more revolutionary than democratic.
The same ideas from this chapter recur two or three times in the course of the work, among others in associations and above all in revolutions; I must try to treat them completely here, with verve and without being concerned about what I said elsewhere; because that is their natural and principal place. But afterward it would be necessary to compare this chapter to those I named above, so as to avoid monotony as much as possible, particularly with the chapter on revolutions. There is the danger. I believe however that it can be avoided by painting with moderation in this chapter the natural and true state of democratic peoples relative to beliefs and in the chapter on revolutions by showing (illegible word) and more (illegible word) the exaggeration and the danger of the same tendencies (YTC, CVj, 1, pp. 1–2).
The first title of the second chapter had been: of particular causes that in america can harm the free development and the generalization of thought (YTC, CVj, 1, pp. 33–42, 82–88). The principal cause, Tocqueville wrote, is the rule of the majority. This idea reappears at the end of the chapter, but without the development and the attention it had received in the rough drafts.
[c. ] Note to reread before reworking this chapter. Capital.
The weakening of beliefs is much more general and more complete during the democratic revolution than when democracy is settled.
Since a multitude of beliefs is then renounced, general confidence in beliefs is shaken.
By belief I mean an opinion that you have not had the time to examine yourself and that you accept on trust because it has been transmitted to you, and because those more clever profess it or because the crowd follows it.
Dogmatic beliefs are supports necessary for the weakness [of (ed.)] men. There is no human mind that is able to find [prove? (ed.)] by itself all the truths that it needs to live. A belief is an instrument that you have not fabricated yourself, but that you use because you lack the time to look for something better.
You cannot hide the fact that equality of conditions, democracy . . . is essentially contrary to dogmatic beliefs, that is a capital idea, which I must face throughout this chapter, clarify, explain and carefully delimit in my mind (YTC, CVj, 1, p. 2).
Wilhelm Hennis (“La ‘nueva ciencia politica’ de Tocqueville,” Revista de estudios politicos 22, 1981, pp. 7–38) notes that Tocqueville is more like Rousseau than he is a Cartesian because he accepts the necessity of dogmatic beliefs and because he places the grandeur of man in the coincidence of the sentiment of liberty with religious sensibility.
But to us this anti-cartesianism seems instead to be a sign of Pascal’s influence. Like the author of the Pensées, Tocqueville believes that, at the time of his fleeting passage in the world, man must accept certain general ideas that he is incapable of proving or of discovering by himself and that all free human action finds itself within the circle limited by these truths. As Tocqueville wrote to Kergorlay in 1841: “Experience teaches me more and more that the success and the grandeur of this world reside much more in the good choice of these general and generative ideas than in the skillfulness that allows you each day to get yourself out of the small difficulties of the moment” (Correspondance avec Kergorlay, OC, XIII, 2, p. 100).
Luiz Díez del Corral has more than once demonstrated the influence of Pascal on Tocqueville (as in “El liberalismo de Tocqueville. (La influencia de Pascal.),” Revista de Occidente 3, no. 26 (1965): 133–53). See also Luis Díez del Corral, El pensamiento político de Tocqueville (Madrid: Alianza, 1989); and Aurelian Craiutu, Liberalism Under Siege (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003).
[d. ] “I know only two states bearable for peoples as for men: dogmatic beliefs [v: ignorance] or advanced knowledge, between these two extremes are found doubt and all miseries” (YTC, CVa, p. 41).
[f. ] “The great Newton himself resembles an imbecile more by the things that he does not know than he differs from one by the things that he knows” (YTC, CVk, 1, p. 36).
In a note destined for the introduction, Tocqueville had written:
There is no man in the world who has ever found, and it is nearly certain that none will ever be met who will find the central ending point for, I am not saying all the beams of general truth, which are united only in God alone, but even for all the beams of a particular truth. Men grasp fragments of truth, but never truth itself. This admitted, the result would be that every man who presents a complete and absolute system, by the sole fact that his system is complete and absolute, is almost certainly in a state of error or falsehood, and that every man who wants to impose such a system on his fellows by force must ipso facto and without preliminary examination of his ideas be considered as a tyrant and an enemy of the human species.
[To the side: They intercept some beams from time to time, but they never hold the light in their hand.]
The idea is not mine, but I believe it good. 8 March 1836.
Not to accept or to disregard a fact because the cause escapes you is a great weakness and a great foolishness in the moral and political sciences, as in all the others (YTC, CVk, 1, pp. 46–47).
[g. ] In the margin, in pencil: “To reexamine. Ampère.”
[h. ] Uncertainty of human judgments./
The one who receives an idea is almost always more convinced of its correctness and absolute truth than the one who conceived and produced it. This appears at first view contrary to good sense and even to experience, but it is so.
The work to which the one who conceived the idea devoted himself in order to make it ready to appear before the public, almost always made him discover certain weak, obscure or even incomplete sides that escape others. The reader or the listener who sees the result of the operation without seeing the operation itself, notices at first the plausible and likely side that is presented to him and, without being concerned about the other side, he seizes the former and holds on to it firmly. I am persuaded that everything considered skepticism is more common among those who teach where certitude is to be found than among those who go to the latter to find certitude.
27 December 1835 (YTC, CVa, pp. 54–55).
And in another place:
A doctrine must never be judged by the one who professes it, but by those who accept it.
[In the margin: That a doctrine must not be judged by the teacher, but by the disciples.]
The most harmful doctrines can lead the man who invented them to very beautiful practical consequences; because, apart from his doctrine, he has the strength of mind, the imagination, the ambition and the energy that made him discover the doctrine and bring it to light. His disciples have nothing more than the doctrine and in them it bears its natural fruits.
29 December 1836 (YTC, CVa, p. 34).
[j. ] “I would readily compare dogmatic beliefs to algebraic quantities by the aid of which you simplify the operations of life” (YTC, CVj, 1, pp. 5–6).
[k. ] Two effects of authority:
Not only are you strong on beliefs that you have received, but you are also more confident about beliefs that you formed yourself. The soul acquired the habit of firmly believing and energetically defending all its beliefs, the dogmatic ones as much as the philosophical ones (Rubish, 1).
[m. ] Influence that equality of conditions exercises on philosophy.
The further I go the more I am persuaded that equality of conditions pushes man with an unequaled energy to lose sight of the individual, his dignity, his strength, his value . . . , in order to think no longer of anything except the mass. This single given fact influences nearly all the points of view that men have about humanity in that time. The trace [of it (ed.)] has been found everywhere.
In democracy you see only yourself and all. After the influence that equality exercises on philosophical method, say what it exercises on philosophy itself.
[To the side: Question of realists and nominalists, to examine when I treat the influence of equality on philosophy. You tend more and more today to lose sight of the individual in order to see only humanity, that is to say, to become, I believe, realist.
See Revue des deux mondes of May 1837, literary review of the year]” (YTC, CVj, 1, p. 7).
It concerns A.C.T., “Mouvement de la presse française en 1836,” Revue des deux mondes, 4th series, X, 1837, pp. 453–98. On page 456, an account is given of the edition done by Victor Cousin of the works of Abelard and of his definition of the words realist and nominalist.
In 1840, Tocqueville writes, on the same question, to his English translator:
I believe that the realists are wrong. But above all I am sure that the political tendency of their philosophy, dangerous in all times, is very pernicious in the time in which we live. The great danger of democratic ages, be sure of it, is the destruction or the excessive weakening of the parts of the social body in the presence of the whole. Everything today that raises up the idea of the individual is healthy. Everything that gives a separate existence to the species and enlarges the notion of the type is dangerous. The mind of our contemporaries runs in this direction by itself. The doctrine of the realists introduced into the political world pushes toward all the abuses of democracy; it is what facilitates despotism, centralization, scorn for particular rights, the doctrine of necessity, all the institutions and all the doctrines that allow the social body to trample men underfoot and that make the nation all and the citizens nothing (Letter to Henry Reeve of 3 February 1840, Correspondance anglaise, OC, VI, 1, pp. 52–53).
[n. ] In the margin: “Before having this entire part of my discussion printed, I must reread the analogous things that I say in the chapter on revolutions and consider for myself what I should leave there or transfer here.”
[p. ] When you look very closely, you see that equality of conditions produces three things:
Faith in common opinion is the faith of democratic nations. The majority is the prophet; you believe it without reasoning. You follow it confidently without discussion. It exerts an immense pressure on individual intelligence. The moral dominion of the majority is perhaps called to replace religions to a certain point or to perpetuate certain ones of them, if it protects them. But then religion would live more like common opinion than like religion. Its strength would be more borrowed than its own. All this can be supported by the example of the Americans.
Men will never be able to deepen all their ideas by themselves. That is contrary to their limited nature. The most (illegible word) and the most free genius believes a million things on the faith of others. So moral authority no matter what you do must be found somewhere in the moral world. Its place is variable, but a place is necessary for it. Man needs to believe dogmatically a host of things, were it only to have the time to discuss a few others of them. This authority is principally called religion in aristocratic centuries. It will perhaps be named majority in democratic centuries, or rather common opinion.
[In the margin: Somewhere make the state of transition felt in which each person is pulling in his direction and forms purely individual opinions, beliefs, ideas.]
As men become more equal, the disposition to believe in one man decreases, the disposition to believe in the mass increases, and is more and more the opinion that leads the world.
Religion is an authority (illegible word) [prior? (ed.)] to humanity, but manifested by one man or one class of men to all the others, who submit to it. Common opinion is an authority that is not prior to humanity and that is exercised by the generality of men on the individual.
The source of these two authorities is different, but their effects come together. Common opinion like religion gives ready made beliefs and relieves man from the unbearable and impossible obligation to decide everything each day by himself. These beliefs were originally discussed, but they are no longer discussed and they penetrate minds by a kind of pressure of all on each.
[In the margin: I spoke elsewhere about the political and violent dominion of the majority. Here, I am speaking about its moral and peaceful dominion. To say that.]
It is very difficult to believe that equality does not weaken the first of these authorities, but you can think that it will make up for it in part by the second, and that the moral power of common opinion will be called upon to limit much more than is supposed the errors of individual reason. This will be a change of power rather than a destruction of power (YTC, CVj, 1, pp. 8–10).
[q. ] The manuscript says “governs despotically.”
[r. ] Of particular causes that can harm the free development and generalization of thought in America./
I showed in the preceding chapter that dogmatic and traditional opinions maintained in the matter of religion limited the innovative mind of the Americans in several directions so to speak. There is another cause perhaps less powerful, but more general that threatens to stop and already hinders the free development of thought in the United States. This cause, which I already pointed out in another part of this work, is nothing other than the (illegible word) power that the majority exercises in America.
A religion is a power whose movements are regulated in advance and that moves within a known sphere, and many people believe that within this sphere its effects are beneficial, and that a dogmatic religion better manages to obtain the desirable effects of a religion than one that is rational. The majority is a (illegible word) power that moves in a way haphazardly and can spread successively to everything. Religion is law, the omnipotence of the majority is arbitrariness.
Religion leads the human mind to stop by itself and makes obedience the free choice of a moral and independent being.
The majority forces the human mind to stop, despite what they have [sic] and by forcing it constantly to obey ends by taking away from it even the desire to be free to act for itself.
In the United States, the pernicious influence that omnipotence of the majority exercises over thought makes itself noticeable above all in politics. It is principally on political questions that public opinion has formed until now; but the laws of the Americans are such that the majority, in whatever direction it decided to head, would make its omnipotence equally felt. Its own will and not the constitution of the country limits it.
You cannot hide from the fact that the Americans have, in that, allowed themselves to be carried away by the usual tendency of democratic peoples. In democracies, whatever you think, the majority and the power that represents it are always provided with a rough power and no matter how little the laws favor instead of combat this tendency, it is nearly impossible to say where the limits of tyranny will be. Now, despotism, whoever imposes it, always produces a kind of dullness of the human mind. Freed from the opinions of family and of class, the human mind bends itself to the will of the greatest number. I say that among purely aristocratic peoples the interest of class, the habits of family, the customs of profession, the maxims of the State . . . form as so many barriers that enclose within them the imagination of man.
If in place of these (two illegible words) that hinder and slow the progress of the human mind, democratic peoples substituted the uncontrolled power of the majority, it is easy to see that the evil would only have changed character. You could say that the human mind is oppressed in another way, but you could not maintain that it is free. Men would not have found the means to live independently; they would only have discovered, a difficult thing, a new mode of servitude.
In aristocracies the power that curbs the imagination of man is one and the prejudices of all types that are born and maintained within an aristocracy take certain paths and prevent the imagination from proceeding in that direction, but they do [not (ed.)] attack intellectual liberty in its principle and in an absolute way; in democracies constituted in the manner that I spoke about above, the majority hangs in a way over the human mind, it curbs in a permanent and general way all its springs of action and by means of bending men to its will ends by taking away from each one of them the habit and the taste to think for themselves. So it could happen, if you were not careful, that democracy, under the dominion of certain laws, would harm the liberty of thought that the democratic social state favors, and after escaping from the interests of class and the traditions of family the human mind would chain itself to the will of the greatest number.
I think that is something that should make all those who see in human liberty a holy thing and who do not hate the despot, but despotism, reflect deeply. For me, when I feel the hand of power pressing on my head, knowing who is oppressing me matters little to me [and I (ed.)] do not feel more inclined to (illegible word) [put (ed.)] my head in the yoke because a million hands present it to me.
[two illegible lines]
I say that among democratic peoples I clearly notice two contrary tendencies. One leads men toward new and general thoughts, the other could reduce them, so to speak, to not thinking.
So if I found myself suddenly charged with giving laws to a democratic people, I would try to distinguish these two tendencies clearly and make them not cancel each other out or at least make it so that the second does not become preponderant. With this purpose, I would attempt not to destroy the dominion of the majority, but to moderate its use and I would work hard to get it to limit itself after overturning all rival powers. In this way, in order to provide not a complete picture but an example, if I lived among a democratic people, I would prefer to see it adopt the monarchical constitution rather than the republican form, I would prefer that you instituted two legislative assemblies rather than one, an irremovable judiciary rather than elected magistrates, provincial powers rather than a centralized administration. For all of these institutions can be combined with democracy, without altering its essence. As the social state becomes more democratic I would attach more value to gaining all or a few of these things, and by acting in this way I would have in view not only, as I said in another part of this work, to save political liberty, but also to protect the general progress of the human mind. If you say that such maxims will not be popular, I will attempt to console myself with the hope that they are true.
I understand that you serve the cause of democracy, but I want you to do so as a moral and independent being who retains the use of his liberty even as he lends his support. That you see in the majority the most bearable of all powers, I understand, but I would like you to be its counselor and not its courtier, and I would want you to say to it just as Massillon said to the young king, Louis XV, Sire [interrupted text (ed.)]” (YTC, CVj, 1, pp. 33–42).
The library of the Tocqueville château contained a 1740 edition, in five volumes, of the sermons of Massillon. Tocqueville is perhaps referring to the following passage from the second part of the sermon on the Incarnation:
The liberty, Sire, that princes owe to their peoples is the liberty of laws. You are the master of the life and the fortune of your subjects; but you can dispose of them only according to the laws. You know only God alone above you, it is true; but the laws must have more authority than yourself. You do not command slaves, you command a free and quarrelsome nation, as jealous of liberty as of its liberty.
Another note mentions:
“Chap. II. Of the particular causes that can harm the free development and the generalization of thought in America.
The pieces of Massillon, on which you can draw, are found:
Petit carême. 1. Sermon of Palm Sunday, first and third part. 2. Sermon of the Incarnation, second part.
You could still look for and, in any case, knit together separate sentences. There would be nothing improper about that” (YTC, CVj, 1, p. 33).
[s. ] Liberty and authority will always divide the intellectual world into two parts. These two parts will be more or less unequal depending on the centuries./
Authority can be exercised in the name of one certain power or in the name of another; but authority itself will continue to exist.
[In the margin: If men had only dogmatic beliefs, they would remain immobile.
If they had only non-dogmatic beliefs, they would live in an ineffectual agitation. On the one hand, despotism; on the other, anarchy.] (Rubish, 1).