Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 20 a: Of Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Centuries b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
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chapter 20 a: Of Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Centuries 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 Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Centuriesb
Historians who write in aristocratic centuries ordinarily make all events depend on the particular will and the mood of certain men, and they readily link the most important revolutions to the slightest accidents. They wisely make the smallest causes stand out, and often they do not see the greatest ones.
Historians who live in democratic centuries show completely opposite tendencies.
Most of them attribute to the individual almost no influence on the destiny of the species, or to citizens on the fate of the people. But, in return, they give great general causes to all the small particular facts. [In their eyes, all events are linked together by a tight and necessary chain, and therefore they sometimes end up by denying nations control over themselves and by contesting the liberty of having been able to do what they did.]c These contrasting tendencies can be explained.
When historians in aristocratic centuries cast their eyes on the world theater, they notice first of all a very small number of principal actors who lead the whole play. These great characters, who keep themselves at the front of the stage, stop their view and hold it; while they apply themselves to uncovering the secret motives that make the latter act and speak, they forget the rest.
The importance of the things that they see a few men do gives them an exaggerated idea of the influence that one man is able to exercise, and naturally disposes them to believe that you must always go back to the particular action of an individual to explain the movements of the crowd.
When, on the contrary, all citizens are independent of each other, and when each one of them is weak, you do not discover any one of them who exercises a very great or, above all, a very enduring power over the mass. At first view, individuals seem absolutely powerless over the mass, and you would say that society moves all by itself by the free and spontaneous participation of all the men who compose it.d
That naturally leads the human mind to search for the general reason that has been able to strike so many minds all at once in this way and turn them simultaneously in the same direction.e
I am very persuaded that, among democratic nations themselves, the genius, the vices or the virtues of certain individuals delay or precipitate the natural course of the destiny of the people; but these sorts of fortuitous and secondary causes are infinitely more varied, more hidden, more complicated, less powerful, and consequently more difficult to disentangle and to trace in times of equality than in the centuries of aristocracy, when it is only a matter of analyzing, amid general facts, the particular action of a single man or of a few men.f
The historian soon becomes tired of such a work; his mind becomes lost amid this labyrinth, and, not able to succeed in seeing clearly and in bringing sufficiently to light individual influences, he denies them. He prefers to speak to us about the nature of races, about the physical constitution of a country, or about the spirit of civilization [<great words that I cannot hear said without involuntarily recalling the abhorrence of a vacuum that was attributed to nature before the heaviness of air was discovered>]. That shortens his work, and, at less cost, better satisfies the reader.g
M. de Lafayette said somewhere in his Mémoiresh that the exaggerated system of general causes brought marvelous consolations to mediocre public men. I add that it gives admirable consolations to mediocre historians. It always provides them with a few great reasons that promptly pull them through at the most difficult point in their book, and it favors the weakness or laziness of their minds, all the while honoring its depth.
For me, I think that there is no period when one part of the events of this world must not be attributed to very general facts, and another to very particular influences. These two causes are always found; only their relationship differs. General facts explain more things in democratic centuries than in aristocratic centuries, and particular influences fewer. In times of aristocracy, it is the opposite; particular influences are stronger, and general causes are weaker, as long as you do not consider as a general cause the very fact of inequality of conditions, which allows a few individuals to thwart the natural tendencies of all the others.
So historians who try to portray what is happening in democratic societies are right to give a large role to general causes and to apply themselves principally to discovering them; but they are wrong to deny entirely the particular action of individuals, because it is difficult to find and to follow it [and to content themselves often with great words when great causes elude them].
Not only are historians who live in democratic centuries drawn to giving a great cause to each fact, but also they are led to linking facts and making a system emerge.
In aristocratic centuries, since the attention of historians is diverted at every moment toward individuals, the sequence of events escapes them, or rather they do not believe in such a sequence. The thread of history seems to them broken at every instant by the passage of a man.
In democratic centuries, on the contrary, the historian, seeing far fewer actors and many more actions, can easily establish a relationship and a methodical order among them.
Ancient literature, which has left us such beautiful histories, offers not a single great historical system, while the most miserable modern literatures are swarming with them. It seems that ancient historians did not make enough use of these general theories that our historians are always ready to abuse.
Those who write in democratic centuries have another, more dangerous tendency.
When the trace of the action of individuals or nations becomes lost, it often happens that you see the world move without uncovering the motor. Since it becomes very difficult to see and to analyze the reasons that, acting separately on the will of each citizen, end by producing the movement of the people, you are tempted to believe that the movement is not voluntary and that societies, without knowing it, obey a superior force that dominates them.
Even if you should discover on earth the general fact that directs the particular will of all individuals, that does not save human liberty. A cause vast enough to be applied at the same time to millions of men, and strong enough to bend all of them in the same direction, easily seems irresistible; after seeing that you yielded to it, you are very close to believing that it could not be resisted.
So historians who live in democratic times not only deny to a few citizens the power to act on the destiny of the people, they also take away from peoples themselves the ability to modify their own fate, and subject them either to an inflexible providence or to a sort of blind fatality. According to these historians, each nation is invincibly tied, by its position, its origin, its antecedents, its nature, to a certain destiny that all its efforts cannot change. They make the generations stand together with each other, and, going back in this way, from age to age and from necessary events to necessary events, to the origin of the world, they make a tight and immense chain that envelops the entire human species and binds it.
It is not enough for them to show how facts happened; they like as well to reveal that it could not have happened otherwise. They consider a nation that has reached a certain place in its history, and assert that it has been forced to follow the road that led it there. That is easier than teaching what it could have done to take a better route.j
It seems, while reading the historians of aristocratic ages and particularly those of antiquity, that, in order to become master of his fate and govern his fellows, man has only to know how to control himself. You would say, while surveying the histories written in our time, that man can do nothing, either for himself or around him. The historians of antiquity taught how to command; those of our days scarcely teach anything except how to obey. In their writings, the author often appears great, but humanity is always small.
If this doctrine of fatality, which has so many attractions for those who write history in democratic times, by passing from the writers to their readers, in this way penetrated the entire mass of citizens and took hold of the public mind, you can predict that it would soon paralyze the movement of new societies and would reduce Christians to Turks.k
I will say, moreover, that such a doctrine is particularly dangerous in this period in which we live; our contemporaries are all too inclined to doubt free will, because each of them feels limited on all sides by his weakness, but they still readily grant strength and independence to men gathered in a social body. Care must be taken not to obscure this idea, for it is a matter of lifting up souls and not finally demoralizing them.m
[a. ] One of the titles of the chapter in the rubish is: influence of equality of conditions on the manner of envisaging and writing history.
[b. ] On the jacket of the manuscript, in pencil: “Historians of antiquity did not treat history like Mignet and company.”
[c. ] In the margin: “<Perhaps to delete. This relates only to the last idea of the chapter.>” Cf. p. 858.
A note in the Rubish explains: “This chapter is very closely linked to that on general ideas. It must be combined there or be kept very separate from it” (Rubish, 1).
[d. ] “Be careful while treating this subject about wanting to portray history and not historians, what is happening in the world and not the manner in which historians explain it” (Rubish, 1).
In the article “Movement of the French Press in 1836,” Revue des deux mondes, 4th series, X, 1837, pp. 453–98, which Tocqueville utilized for the draft of chapter 2, you find similar affirmations. “It is no longer only a matter,” you read on p. 464, “as in the past, of putting in the forefront the figures of great men and of moving into the background the vague and unappreciated action of the masses. Our century, which wants to know everything and which doubts everything, seems to prefer facts and proofs to these striking tableaux in which the art of composition and the wisdom of judgments testify to the power of the writer better than the clutter of citations.”
[e. ] “<That necessarily leads their minds back toward the search for general causes, about which you always have at least something to say, and often they content themselves with the first one they find>” (Rubish, 1).
[f. ] There are two ideas in this chapter which must not be confused.
A people can have its destiny modified or changed by the accidental influence of a powerful man, like Napoleon, I suppose.
Or, as well, by an accident due to chance such as a plague, the loss of a battle . . .
You can refuse to believe in the influence of individuals and believe in that of accidents.
In democratic centuries, the influence of individuals is infinitely smaller than in aristocratic centuries, but the influence of accidents is not less.
Now, the modern historical system consists of saying not only that individuals cannot modify .-.-.-.- peoples, but also that accidents cannot do so. So that the nature of some battle, for example, would not have been able definitively to prevent some nation from succumbing, because there was a sequence of old causes that destined it invincibly to perish.
It is clear that all that I say in the preceding chapter applies to individuals and not to accidents. This is exaggerated because, when you go back to the origin of accidents, you almost always arrive at individual action” (Rubish, 1).
[g. ] In the margin: “<This is not in perfect agreement with what precedes and draws the mind in another direction. What I say above is that historians prefer looking for general causes than for particular facts. What I say here is that they are content with bad general reasons, which is another idea. My comparison applies only to the last one, for the heaviness of air is a general cause, as well as the abhorrence of a vacuum. Perhaps delete.>”
[h. ] Marquis de Lafayette, Mémoires, correspondance et manuscrits du général Lafayette (Paris: H. Fournier aîné, 1837–1838), 6 vols. In May 1837, Tocqueville received from Corcelle, who was the editor, the first three volumes of this work. It is probable that the author, who did not sympathize with the general, did not read his memoirs (we know that he considered him to be a well-intentioned man but with a mediocre mind), and that he found this quotation in the second part of the review done by Sainte-Beuve(Revue des deux mondes, 4th series, 15, 1838, pp. 355–81, in which the same quotation appears on page 359).
[j. ] “I believe that in nearly each instant of their existence nations, like men, are free to modify their fate” (Rubish, 1).
[k. ] “Show how the idea of the powerlessness of individuals over the mass leads them to the idea of the powerlessness of the mass over itself and thus leads them to the fatality of the Moslems” (Rubish, 1).
[m. ] In the rubish you find this small chapter on religious eloquence, deleted in the final version:
religious eloquence or preaching.
.-.-.-.-.- the influence that democracy exercises on works of the human mind, it would probably have been enough for me to reveal how it modifies the language of the pulpit.
[In the margin: Perhaps and even probably delete this chapter. It cannot be applied to America. In America, by exception, religious beliefs are very firm and the language of priests is not a plea in favor of Christianity.]
There is nothing so little variable by their nature as religions and it cannot be otherwise. The true religion rests on absolute truth; other religions claim to be supported by it; so all are immobile, and it is easier to destroy them than to modify them.
This immobility extends to everything that is related to religion no matter how distantly. There is no religious custom so unimportant that it is not more difficult to change [v: destroy] than the constitution of a people.
So when any cause whatsoever leads men to vary style and method in holy things, be sure that this is only one of the last effects of a much more general revolution and that the same cause had already long ago changed the manner of treating all other subjects.
.-.-.-.- Catholic and I enter a church. I see the priest mounting the steps of the pulpit. He is young. He wears priestly vestments, but beyond that there is already nothing of the traditional or of the conventional in his bearing, in his gestures, or in his voice. He doesn’t say “My brothers,” but “Sirs.” He doesn’t recite, but he improvises. He does not talk about the growing pain that our sins cause him; our good works do not fill him with ineffable joy. He engages his listener hand to hand, and armed like him, takes him on. He feels that it is no longer a matter of touching us, but of convincing us. He addresses himself not to faith, but to reason; he doesn’t impose belief, he discusses it and wants to have it freely accepted. He does not go to search for arguments in the old arsenal of scholastic theology, in the writings of the Doctors, any more than in the decrees of the Popes and the decisions of the Councils. He borrows his proofs from secular science; he draws his comparisons from everyday things; he bases himself on the most general, the clearest and most elementary truths [v: notions] of human philosophy.
He cites the poets and orators of today almost as much as the Fathers of the Church. Rarely does it happen that he speaks Latin, and I cannot prevent myself from suspecting that the Kyrie Eleison of the Mass is all the Greek he knows.
Sometimes disorganized, incorrect, incomplete, he is nearly always original, brilliant, unexpected, above all fruitful. Give up reading him, but go to hear him.
If, back in the solitude of your dwelling, you happen to compare the man whom you have just heard with the great Christian orators of past centuries, you will discover, not without terror, what the strange power that moves the world is able to do; and you will understand that democracy, after remaking in passing all the ephemeral [v: changing] institutions of men, finally reaches the things most immobile by their nature, and that, not able to change the substance of Christianity, which is eternal, it at least modifies the language and the form (Rubish, 1).