Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 9 a: How the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Cannot Have Aptitude and Taste for the Sciences, Literature, and the Arts b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
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chapter 9 a: How the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Cannot Have Aptitude and Taste for the Sciences, Literature, and the Arts 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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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.
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How the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Cannot Have Aptitude and Taste for the Sciences, Literature, and the Artsb
It must be recognized that, among the civilized people of today, there are few among whom the advanced sciences have made less progress than in the United States, and who have provided fewer great artists, illustrious poets and celebrated writers.c
Some Europeans, struck by this spectacle, have considered it as a natural and inevitable result of equality, and they have thought that, if the democratic social state and institutions came at some time to prevail over all the earth,d the human mind would see the enlightenment that illuminates it darken little by little, and man would fall back into the shadows.
Those who reason in this way confuse, I think, several ideas that it would be important to separate and to examine apart. Without wanting to, they mix what is democratic with what is only American.e
The religion that the first emigrants professed and that they handed down to their descendants, simple in its worship, austere and nearly primitive in its principles, enemy of external signs and of the pomp of ceremonies, is naturally little favorable to the fine arts and permits literary pleasures only reluctantly.
[≠At their arrival on the shores of the New World, these men were at first assailed by such great needs and threatened by such great dangers, that they had to dedicate all the resources of their intelligence to satisfying the first and overcoming the second. ≠]
The Americans are a very ancient and very enlightened people, who encountered a new and immense country in which they can expand at will, and that they make fruitful without difficulty. That is without example in the world. So in America, each man finds opportunities unknown elsewhere to make or to increase his fortune. Greed is always in good condition there, and the human mind, distracted at every moment from the pleasures of the imagination and the works of intelligence, is drawn only into the pursuit of wealth. Not only do you see in the United States, as in all other countries, industrial and commercial classes; but, what has never been seen, all men there are busy at the same time with industry and with commerce.
I am persuaded however that, if the Americans had been alone in the universe, with the liberties and enlightenment acquired by their fathers and the passions that were their own, they would not have taken long to discover that you cannot make progress for long in the application of the sciences without cultivating the theory; that all the arts improve by their interaction, and however absorbed they might have been in the pursuit of the principal object of their desires, they would soon have recognized that to reach it better, they had to turn away from it from time to time.
The taste for pleasures of the mind is, moreover, so natural to the heart of civilized man that, among the cultured nations that are least disposed to devote themselves to it, there is always a certain number of citizens who develop it. This intellectual need, once felt, would have soon been satisfied.
But, at the same time that the Americans were led naturally to ask of science only its particular applications, of the arts only the means to make life easy, learned and literary Europe took care of going back to the general sources of truth, and perfected at the same time all that can work toward the pleasures of man as well as all that must serve his needs.f
At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World, the inhabitants of the United States particularly singled out one with whom a common origin and analogous habits closely united them. They found among this people famous scientists, skilled artists, great writers, and they could reap the rewards of intelligence without needing to work to accumulate them.
I cannot agree to separate America from Europe, despite the Ocean that divides them. I consider the people of the United States as the portion of the English people charged with exploiting the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, provided with more leisure and less preoccupied by the material cares of life, is able to devote itself to thought and to develop the human mind in all aspects.
[<≠So I think that democracy must no more be judged by America than the different nations of Europe by one of the commercial and manufacturing classes that are found within them. ≠>]
So the situation of the Americans is entirely exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be put in the same situation. Their entirely Puritan origin, their uniquely commercial habits, even the country that they inhabit and that seems to divert their intelligence from the study of the sciences, letters and the arts; the proximity of Europe, that allows them not to study them without falling back into barbarism; a thousand particular causes, of which I have been able to show only the principal ones, had to concentrate the American mind in a singular way in the concern for purely material things. The passions, needs, education, circumstances, everything seems in fact to combine to bend the inhabitant of the United States toward the earth. Religion alone makes him, from time to time, turn a fleeting and distracted gaze toward heaven.
So let us stop seeing all democratic nations with the face of the American people, and let us try finally to consider them with their own features.g
You can imagine a people among whom there would be neither caste, nor hierarchy, nor class; where the law, recognizing no privileges, would divide inheritances equally; and who, at the same time, would be deprived of enlightenment and liberty. This is not an empty hypothesis: a despot can find it in his interest to make his subjects equal and to leave them ignorant, in order to keep them slaves more easily.
Not only would a democratic people of this type show neither aptitude nor taste for the sciences, literature and the arts, but also you may believe that it will never show them.
The law of inheritance would itself undertake in each generation to destroy fortunes, and no one would create new ones. The poor man, deprived of enlightenment and liberty, would not even conceive the idea of rising toward wealth, and the rich man would allow himself to be carried along toward poverty without knowing how to defend himself. A complete and invincible equality would soon be established between these two citizens. No one would then have either the time or the taste for devoting himself to the works and pleasures of the mind. But everyone would live benumbed in the same ignorance and in an equal servitude.
When I come to imagine a democratic society of this type, I immediately think I feel myself in one of these low, dark and suffocating places, where lights, brought in from outside, soon grow dim and are extinguished. It seems to me that a sudden weight overwhelms me, and that I am dragging myself along among the shadows around me in order to find the exit that should lead me back to the air and daylight. But all of this cannot apply to men already enlightened who remain free after destroying the particular and hereditary rights that perpetuated property in the hands of certain individuals or certain bodies.
[<In democratic societies of this type equality encounters necessary limits that it cannot go beyond.>]
When the men who live within a democratic society are enlightened, they discover without difficulty that nothing either limits them or fixes their situation or forces them to be content with their present fortune.
So they all conceive the idea of increasing it, and, if they are free, they all try to do so, but all do not succeed in the same way. The legislature, it is true, no longer grants privileges, but nature gives them. Since natural inequality is very great, fortunes become unequal from the moment when each man makes use of all his abilities in order to grow rich.
The law of inheritance is still opposed to the establishment of rich families, but it no longer prevents the existence of the rich. It constantly leads citizens back toward a common level from which they constantly escape; they become more unequal in property the more their enlightenment increases and the greater their liberty is.
In our time a sect celebrated for its genius and its extravagances arose; it claimed to concentrate all property in the hands of a central power and to charge the latter with distributing it afterward, according to merit, to all individuals. You were shielded in this way from the complete and eternal equality that seems to threaten democratic societies.
There is another simpler and less dangerous remedy; it is to grant privilege to no one, to give everyone equal enlightenment and an equal independence, and to leave to each man the care of making his place for himself. Natural inequality will soon appear and wealth will pass by itself toward the most able.h
So [enlightened] and free democratic societies will always contain within them a multitude of wealthy or well-to-do men. These rich men will not be bound as closely together as members of the old aristocratic class; they will have different instincts and will hardly ever possess a leisure as secure and as complete; but they will be infinitely more numerous than those who composed this class could have been. These men will not be narrowly confined within the preoccupations of material life and they will be able, although to varying degrees, to devote themselves to the works and pleasures of the mind. So they will devote themselves to them; for, if it is true that the human mind leans from one side toward the limited, the material and the useful, from the other, it rises naturally toward the infinite, the non-material and the beautiful. Physical needs attach the mind to the earth, but, as soon as you no longer hold it down, it stands up by itself.
Not only will the number of those who can interest themselves in the works of the mind be greater, but also the taste for intellectual enjoyments will descend, from one person to the next, even to those who, in aristocratic societies, seem to have neither the time nor the capacity to devote themselves to those enjoyments.
When there are no more hereditary riches, privileges of class and prerogatives of birth, and when each man no longer draws his strength except from himself, it becomes clear that what makes the principal difference among the fortunes of men is intelligence. All that serves to fortify, to expand and to embellish intelligence immediately acquires a great value.
The utility of knowledge reveals itself with an extremely particular clarity to the very eyes of the crowd. Those who do not appreciate its charms value its effects and make some efforts to achieve it.
In enlightened and free democratic centuries, men have nothing that separates them or anything that keeps them in their place; they go up or go down with a singular rapidity. All classes see each other constantly, because they are very close. They communicate and mingle every day, imitate and envy each other; that suggests to the people a host of ideas, notions, desires that they would not have had if ranks had been fixed and society immobile. In these nations, the servant never considers himself as a complete stranger to the pleasures and works of the master, the poor to those of the rich; the man of the country tries hard to resemble the man of the city, and the provinces, the metropolis.
Thus, no one allows himself easily to be reduced to the material cares of life alone, and the most humble artisan casts, from time to time, a few eager and furtive glances into the superior world of intelligence. People do not read in the same spirit and in the same way as among aristocratic peoples; but the circle of readers expands constantly and ends by including all citizens.j
From the moment when the crowd begins to be interested in the works of the mind, it discovers that a great means to acquire glory, power or wealth is to excel in a few of them. The restless ambition given birth by equality [v: democracy] immediately turns in this direction as in all the others. The number of those who cultivate the sciences, letters and the arts becomes immense. A prodigious activity reveals itself in the world of the mind; each man seeks to open a path for himself there and tries hard to attract the eye of the public. Something occurs there analogous to what happens in the United States in political society; works are often imperfect, but they are innumerable; and, although the results of individual efforts are ordinarily very small, the general result is always very great.
So it is not true to say that men who live in democratic centuries are naturally indifferent to the sciences, letters and the arts; only it must be recognized that they cultivate them in their own way, and that they bring, from this direction, qualities and defects that are their own.
[a. ] On the jacket containing the chapter: “The first part of the chapter seems good to me. The second does not satisfy me. The evidence does not grab my mind. Something, I do not know what, is missing./
“Perhaps it will be necessary to have the courage to delete this section entirely in order to arrive immediately at the chapter on details.” See note a of pp. 696–97.
The cover of the rubish of this chapter bears this note: “Very considerable and sufficiently finished fragments of the chapter as it was before the revision of September 1838” (Rubish, 1). Tocqueville already had worked on the chapters on art, science and literature in June 1836.
Bonnel (YTC, CVf, p. 1) remarks that a copy of the Journal des débats of 2 April 1838 exists inside a jacket on which Tocqueville wrote: “Journal to reread when I treat the direction that equality gives to the fine arts.” The number of the Journal des débats cited contains the second part of the review, by Philarète Chasles, of the work of E. J. Delécluze, Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Léopold Robert (Paris: Rittner and Goupil, 1838); the first had been published March 18. This book contains a commentary on the industrialization of art that could have interested Tocqueville.
[In the margin:
[c. ] “To begin the chapter by: It must be recognized . . . something moderate, supple, and not too intensely satirical. I must not put the Americans too low, if afterward I want to raise up other democratic peoples” (Rubish, 1).
[d. ] Passage that began the chapter, in a jacket of the rubish that carries this explanation:
≠Portion of the chapter relating to the particular reasons that turn Americans away from the sciences, literature and the arts. ≠/
Portions of the old chapter./
.-.-.-.-.-.- the frontiers of the United States toward the Northwest still meet here and there in nearly inaccessible places and on the banks of raging torrents against whose course European boats or canoes are unable to go, small groups of beavers half destroyed, remnants of a great amphibious population that formerly extended over the major part of the continent. Although reduced to a very small number, these industrious animals have kept their habits, I could almost say their civilization and their laws.
You see them as in the past devote themselves to different types of industry with surprising dexterity and marvelous harmony. They make bridges, raise large dams that make the rivers meander and, after establishing the walls of the dwelling according to a methodical and uniform plan, they take care to isolate it in the middle of a lake created by their efforts.
That is where, in a secure and tranquil refuge, the generations succeed each other obscurely, amid a profound peace and an unbroken well-being.
Although the most perfect harmony seems to reign within this small society, you cannot find there, if the accounts of the voyageurs do not mislead us, the trace of a hierarchical order; each one there is busy without letup with his affairs, but is always ready to lend his aid.
One day civilized man, this destroyer or this ruler of all beings, comes to pass by and the amphibious republic [v: nation] disappears forever without leaving a trace.
[In the margin: See the description of Buffon. Order, property, comfort, work in common and the division of property, public granaries, internal peace, union of all to repulse external violence.]
Ill-humored observers have been found who wanted to see in this republic of beavers a fairly faithful symbol of the republic of the United States.
Americans have concentrated, it is true, in a surprising way on material concerns.-.-.-.- to man only to have him more easily discover the means to satisfy the needs of the body.
It is not that the inhabitant of the United States is a coarse [v: unpolished] being, but among the products of civilization, he has chosen what was most defined, most material, most positive in order to appropriate it for himself. He has devoted himself to the study of the sciences only to look immediately for the useful applications; in letters, he saw only a powerful means to create individual affluence and social well-being; and he cultivated the arts much less to produce objects of value than to decorate and beautify the existence of the rich. You could say that he wanted to develop the intellectual power of man only to make it serve the pleasures of his physical nature and that he has employed all the resources of the angel only to perfect the animal [variant in the margin: ≠beast ≠].
Among the Europeans who from their arrival in the United States have been struck by this spectacle, there are several who have seen in this tendency of the American mind a necessary and inevitable result of democracy and who have thought that if democratic institutions succeeded in prevailing over all the earth the human mind ...”(rubish, 1).
In the rubishinfluence of democracy on literature, Tocqueville comments: “To make fun of those who believe that democracy will lead us to live like the beavers. Perhaps true if it had started with societies.
“[To the side: Democracy without liberty would perhaps extinguish the enlightenment of the human mind. You would then have only the vices of the system.]”
Cf. Pensée 257 of Pascal (Lafuma edition). Also see Correspondance avec Kergorlay, OC, XIII, 1, p. 389.
The library of the Tocqueville château contained at least two works of Buffon: Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, 1769, 13 vols.; and Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, 1770, 4 vols. (YTC, AIe).
[e. ] In the margin: “<The Americans have appeared to concentrate on the material cares of life and they have seemed to believe that intelligence was given to man only to allow him more easily to discover the means to satisfy the needs of the body.>” On this subject, see Teddy Brunius, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Sociological Aesthetician (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wicksell, 1960).
[f. ] To the side: “ ≠America forms like one part of the middle classes of England. ≠” In the rubish, inside the jacket that is entitled portions of the old chapter:
Among all the classes which made up the English nation there was particularly one that, placed above the people by its comfort and below the nobles by the mediocrity of its fortune, possessed the tranquil tastes [v: the love of well-being], the simple habits, the incomplete enlightenment, the good practical and [blank (ed.)] sense that in nearly all countries. .-.-.-.-.- middle classes. It was the middle classes that provided to the population of the United States its principal and so to speak its only elements.
Scarcely transported to the shores of the New World, these men were at first assailed by great needs and threatened by great dangers against which they had at first to direct their entire attention in order to satisfy the first and to ward off the second.
After these first obstacles had been conquered, it was found that the country they inhabited offered such incredible possibilities to human industry that there was no one there who could not aspire to comfort and many to wealth, so that the human mind, diverted from the pursuit of the sciences, distracted from the pleasures of the mind, insensitive to the attractions of the arts, found itself as if carried away despite itself by a rapid torrent toward only the acquisition of wealth [v: well-being]” (Rubish, 1).
[g. ] Fragment in the manuscript:
“ ≠If those who think that the sciences, letters and the arts cannot prosper among democratic peoples assumed the existence of the three principal circumstances that I am going to talk about, I would perhaps share their sentiment.
I imagine a people newly emerged from the uncivilized state, among whom conditions remained equal and political power is concentrated in the hands of one man. That among a democratic nation of this type the human mind would be stopped in its development, curbed and as if struck by a sort of intellectual paralysis, I accept without difficulty. ≠
[In the margin: Here take if possible a confident, simple, short, broken, didactic style. Free myself from the oratorical form.
Read Beaumont’s piece.
Under democracies that come after an aristocratic order, that are enlightened and free, the sciences, literature and the arts develop, but they develop in a certain way./
America itself can provide us with illuminating details on this point. (Note) The underlined sentence must not be lost from view and try to bind myself to it.
This chapter on general ideas must be short and followed by separate small chapters on the sciences, letters and the arts. Mix America as much as possible with all of that.]
≠But why imagine an imaginary democracy when we can easily conceive of a real one? What good is it to go back to the origin of the world ≠when what is happening before our eyes is enough to enlighten us?
I take the European peoples such as they appear before my eyes, with their aristocratic traditions, their acquired enlightenment, their liberties, and I wonder if by becoming democratic they risk, as some would like to persuade us, falling back into a kind of barbarism.
There exists at the bottom of the human heart a natural taste for things of the mind and the enjoyments of the imagination, as well as an instinctive tendency toward the pleasures of the senses. The mind of man left to itself leans from one side toward the limited, the material and the commercial, the useful, from the other it tends without effort toward the infinite, the non-material, the great and the beautiful.
So when men have once tasted, as among us, the intellectual and delicate pleasures that civilization provides, I cannot believe that he [sic] will ever get sick of them. Legislation, social state can direct in a certain way the natural tendency that leads men there, but not destroy it.
[To the side, with a bracket that includes the last two paragraphs: ≠All of that is perhaps too metaphysical, too long . . . ≠]
Give a democratic people enlightenment and liberty and you will see them, you can be sure, bring to the study of the sciences, letters and the arts the same feverish activity that they show in all the rest.
[In the margin: The first idea is this one: A people who has acquired the habit of literary pleasures cannot get out of the habit completely. There will always remain at least a large number of men who will keep it and there will be utility and profit in satisfying the latter.
The second: Among an enlightened and free people equality cannot fail to have limits. Many rich men, men of leisure who perhaps would not by themselves conceive the pleasures of the imagination but who take to those that they see being enjoyed.]”
Beaumont commented on the study of the sciences in America in Marie, I, pp. 247–48.
Some years later, Tocqueville had partially changed his opinion. In a letter dating probably from 1856 and perhaps addressed to Mignet, he asserted:
Under the spell that your reading cast on me yesterday, I forgot to make a small observation to you that has recurred to me since and [that (ed.)] I do not want to leave absolutely in silence. It concerns the very amusing portrait that you do of the Americans, above all of their scorn for letters. I know that you do not speak there in your name; nonetheless, I believe that a small correction from you would do well in that place. I am talking above all of the accusation of being indifferent to letters. You know that since then they have made, even in this direction, very notable progress. They begin to count among civilized nations, even in the sciences that relate to pure theory, like metaphysics. A single parenthesis by you on this subject will reestablish equity without reducing any of the charm of the tableau (Private archives).
[h. ] ≠Give all citizens equal means [v: instruction and liberty] to achieve wealth and prevent wealth acquired by the individual efforts of one of them from then going to accumulate by itself and being transmitted without difficulty to all of his descendants, and you will very naturally approach the goal toward which the Saint-Simonians claim to go, without using the dangerous and impractical means that they indicate. Leave men alone. They will class themselves according to their capacity, just watch that nothing prevents them from doing so. ≠
[In the margin] These ideas are capital. They clarify my mind and clearly show me the place where it is necessary to build (Rubish, 1. A nearly identical passage exists on the page that carries the number 8).
[j. ] So I am persuaded that conditions, by becoming more equal among us, will only extend the circle of those who know and value literary pleasures. The whole question is knowing whether or not they will lose on the side of purity of taste what they gain on the side of numbers.
But I am far from believing that among democratic peoples who have enlightenment and liberty, the number of men of leisure will be as small as is supposed (Rubish, 1).