Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 8 a: How Equality Suggests to the Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man b [TN 7] - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 8 a: How Equality Suggests to the Americans the Idea of the Indefinite Perfectibility of Man b [TN 7] - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Equality suggests several ideas to the human mind that would not have occurred to it otherwise, and it modifies nearly all those that the mind already had. I take for example the idea of human perfectibility, because it is one of the principal ones that intelligence can conceive and because it constitutes by itself alone a great philosophical theory whose consequences are revealed each moment in the conduct of affairs.
Although man resembles animals in several ways, one feature is particular only to him alone; he perfects himself, and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the beginning. So the idea of perfectibility is as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but equality gave it a new character.
When citizens are classed according to rank, profession, birth, and when all are compelled to follow the path on which chance placed them, each man believes that near him he sees the furthest limits of human power, and no one tries any more to struggle against an inevitable destiny. It is not that aristocratic peoples absolutely deny man the ability to perfect himself. They do not judge it to be indefinite; they conceive of amelioration, not change; they imagine the condition of society becoming better, but not different; and, while admitting that humanity has made great progress and that it can still make more progress, they enclose humanity in advance within impassable limits.
So they do not believe they have reached the supreme good and absolute truth (what man or what people has been so foolish ever to imagine that?), but they like to persuade themselves that they have almost attained the degree of grandeur and knowledge that our imperfect nature entails; and since nothing stirs around them, they readily imagine that everything is in its place.c That is when the lawmaker claims to promulgate eternal laws, when peoples and kings want to erect only enduring monuments and when the present generation assumes the task of sparing future generations the trouble of regulating their own destiny.
As castes disappear, as classes come closer together, as common practices, customs, and laws vary because men are mixed tumultuously together, as new facts arise, as new truths come to light, as old opinions disappear and as others take their place, the image of an ideal and always fleeting perfection presents itself to the human mind.
Continual changes then pass before the eyes of each man at every moment. Some changes worsen his position, and he understands only too well that a people or an individual, however enlightened, is not infallible. Other changes improve his lot, and he concludes that man, in general, is endowed with the indefinite ability to improve. His failures make him see that no one can claim to have discovered absolute good; his successes inflame him in pursuing the absolute good without respite. Therefore, always searching, falling, getting up again, often disappointed, never discouraged, he tends constantly toward this immense grandeur that he half sees vaguely at the end of the long course that humanity must still cover.
[When conditions are equal each man finds himself so small next to the mass that he imagines nothing equivalent to the efforts of the latter. The sentiment of his own weakness leads him each day to exaggerate the power of the human species.]
You cannot believe how many facts flow naturally from this philosophical theory that man is indefinitely perfectible,d and the prodigious influence that it exercises on even those who, occupied only with acting and not with thinking, seem to conform their actions to it without knowing it.
I meet an American sailor, and I ask him why the vessels of his country are constituted so as not to last for long, and he answers me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress each day, that the most beautiful ship would soon become nearly useless if it lasted beyond a few years.e
In these chance words said by a coarse man and in regard to a particular fact, I see the general and systematic idea by which a great people conducts all things.
Aristocratic nations are naturally led to compress the limits of human perfectibility too much, and democratic nations to extend them sometimes beyond measure.
[a. ] A note from the rubish of the foreword indicates that Tocqueville had thought of having this chapter followed by the one on interest well understood:
After showing how a democratic social state could give birth in the human mind to the idea of indefinite perfectibility, my intention was to show how this same social state brings men to adopt the doctrine of interest well understood as principal rule of life.
I would have thus pointed out to the reader the two principal ideas that in America [added: it seems to me] guide most of the actions of the Americans.
But I am finding unforeseen difficulties that force me to divide my work (With notes of the foreword. Rubish, 1).
[Translator’s Note 7: ] For this title and chapter, I have used the cognate indefinite, a more literary term still carrying the sense of without limit or not limited, rather than using either unlimited or infinite.
[c. ] Certitude:
I imagine that after long debating a point with others and with yourself, you reach the will to act, but not certitude. Discussion can show clearly what must be done, but almost never with utter certainty what must be believed. It always raises more new objections than the old ones it destroys. Only it draws the mind from the fog in which it rested and, allowing it to see different probabilities distinctly, forces it to come to a decision.
[On the side: June 1838.] (YTC, CVa, p. 47).
[d. ] I am so sure that everything in this world has its limit that not to see the limit of something seems to me to be the most certain sign of the weakness of the human mind.
A man is endowed with an intelligence superior to that of the common man. He has beautiful thoughts, great sentiments; he takes extraordinary actions. How would I take hold of him in order to bring him back to the common level?
He deems that a certain truth that strikes his view is applicable in all times and to all men, or he judges that one of his fellows whom he admires is worthy to be admired and merits being imitated in everything.
That is enough to make me see his limits and to indicate to me where he comes back into the ordinary conditions of humanity.
He would place the limit of the true and the good elsewhere than where I place it myself; from that I would not conclude that he fails at everything at this point; I would instead feel disposed to believe that I am wrong myself.
But if he puts the limit nowhere, I have no further need to discuss it and I regard it as established that he is wrong.
5 April 1836. (YTC, CVa, pp. 35–36).
[e. ] Note of Tocqueville in the manuscript: “This answer was given to me, but it concerned only steamboats.”