Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 1 a: How Mores Become Milder as Conditions Become Equal - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4
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chapter 1 a: How Mores Become Milder as Conditions Become Equal - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4 
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. 4.
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How Mores Become Milder as Conditions Become Equal
We have noticed for several centuries that conditions are becoming equal, and we have found at the same time that mores are becoming milder.b Are these two things only contemporaneous, or does some secret link exist between them, so that the one cannot go ahead without making the other move?
Several causes can work together to make the mores of a people less harsh; but, among all these causes, the most powerful one seems to me to be equality of conditions. So in my view equality of conditions and mores becoming mild are not only contemporaneous events, but also correlative facts.c
[≠Equality of conditions leads men toward industrial and commercial professions, which need peace in order for men to devote themselves to those professions. Equality of conditions suggests to men the taste for material enjoyments; it distances them imperceptibly from war and violent revolutions. I have already said a portion of these things; I will show the others in the course of this work.d
Those are the indirect effects of equality of conditions; its direct effects are not less.≠]
When writers of fables want to interest us in the actions of the animals, they give them human ideas and passions. Poets do the same when they speak about spirits and angels.e No miseries are so deep, or joys so pure that they cannot capture our minds and take hold of our hearts, if we are presented to ourselves under other features.
This applies very well to the subject that occupies us presently.
When all men are arranged in an irrevocable manner, according to their profession, their property and their birth, within an aristocratic society, the members of each class, all considering themselves as children of the same family, experience for each other a continual and active sympathyf that can never be found to the same degree among the citizens of a democracy.
But it is not the same with the different classes vis-à-vis each other.
Among an aristocratic people, each caste has its opinions, its sentiments, its rights, its mores, its separate existence. Thus, the men who compose each caste are not similar to any of the others; they do not have the same way of thinking or of feeling, and they scarcely believe that they are part of the same humanity.
So they cannot understand well what the others experience, or judge the latter by themselves.
Yet you sometimes see them lend themselves with fervor to mutual aid; but that is not contrary to what precedes.
These same aristocratic institutions, which had made beings of the same species so different, had nevertheless joined them by a very close political bond.
Although the serf was not naturally interested in the fate of the nobles, he believed himself no less obligated to devote himself to the one among the nobles who was his leader; and although the noble believed himself of another nature than the serf, he nonetheless judged that his duty and his honor forced him to defend, at the risk of his own life, those who lived on his domains.
It is clear that these mutual obligations did not arise out of natural right, but political right, and that society obtained more than humanity alone was able to do. It was not to the man that you believed yourself obliged to lend support, it was to the vassal or to the lord. Feudal institutions made very tangible the misfortunes of certain men, not the miseries of the human species. They gave to mores generosity rather than mildness, and although they suggested great attachments, they did not give birth to true sympathies; for there are real sympathies only between similar people; and in aristocratic centuries, you see people similar to you only in the members of your caste.
When the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, who all, by their birth or their habits, belonged to the aristocracy, report the tragic end of a nobleman, there are infinite sorrows; while they recount in one breath and without batting an eye the massacre and tortures of the men of the people.
It is not that these writers felt a habitual hatred or a systematic disdain for the people. The war between the various classes of the State had not yet been declared. They obeyed an instinct rather than a passion; as they did not form a clear idea of the sufferings of the poor, they were little interested in their fate.
It was the same with the men of the people, as soon as the feudal bond was broken. These same centuries, which saw so much heroic devotion on the part of the vassals for their lords, had witnessed unheard of cruelties exercised from time to time by the lower classes against the upper classes.g
You must not believe that this mutual insensitivity is due only to the absence of order and enlightenment; for you again find its trace in the following centuries that, even while becoming well-ordered and enlightened, still remained aristocratic.
In the year 1675, the lower classes of Brittany were roused by a new tax. This tumultuous movement was put down with unparalleled atrocity. Here is how Madame de Sévigné, witness to these horrors, informed her daughter about them:
Aux Rochers, 30 October 1675.
My heavens, my daughter, how amusing your letter from Aix is! At least reread your letters before sending them. Allow yourself to be caught up in their charm, and with this pleasure, console yourself for the burden you have of writing so many of them. So have you kissed all of Provence? There would be no satisfaction in kissing all of Brittany, unless you loved to smell of wine. [ . . . (ed.) . . . ] Do you want to know the news from Rennes? [ . . . (ed.) . . . ] A tax of one hundred thousand écus was imposed, and if this amount was not found within twenty-four hours, it would be doubled and would be collected by soldiers. One entire great street was chased away and banished, and the inhabitants were forbidden to come back under pain of death; so that all these miserable people, new mothers, old people, children, wandered in tears outside this city, without knowing where to go, without food or anywhere to sleep. The day before yesterday the violinist who began the dance and the theft of the stamped paper was broken on the wheel; he was quartered, and the four parts were displayed in the four corners of the city. [. . . (ed.) . . . ] Sixty bourgeois were taken and tomorrow they will begin to be hanged. This province is a good example to the others, above all to respect governors and the wives of governors, and not to throw stones into their gardens.1
Yesterday Madame de Tarente was in her woods in delightful weather. It is not a question of either staying there or eating there. She goes in by the gate and comes out the same way . . .
In another letter she adds:
You talk to me very amusingly about our miseries; we are no longer broken on the wheel so much; one in eight days in order to uphold justice. It is true that hanging now seems refreshing to me. I have an entirely different idea of justice since being in this country. Your men condemned to the galleys seem to me to be a society of honest men who have withdrawn from the world in order to lead a pleasant life.
We would be wrong to believe that Madame de Sévigné, who wrote these lines, was an egotistical and barbarous creature; she passionately loved her children and showed herself very sensitive to the misfortunes of her friends; and we even notice, reading her, that she treated her vassals and her servants with kindness and indulgence. But Madame de Sévigné did not clearly understand what suffering was when you were not a gentleman.
Today, the harshest man, writing to the most insensitive person, would not dare to give himself to the cruel banter that I have just reproduced, and even when his particular mores would permit him to do so, the general mores of the nation would forbid him.
What causes that? Are we more sensitive than our fathers? I do not know; but certainly our sensibility falls on more things.
When ranks are nearly equal among a people, since all men have more or less the same way of thinking and feeling, each one of them can judge in a moment the sensations of all the others; he glances quickly at himself; that is sufficient. So there is no misery that he cannot easily imagine and whose extent is not revealed to him by a secret instinct. Whether it concerns strangers or enemies, imagination immediately puts him in their place. It mingles something personal in his pity, and makes him suffer as the body of his fellow man is torn apart.
In democratic centuries, men rarely sacrifice themselves for each other; but they show a general compassion for all the members of the human species. You do not see them inflict useless evils, and when, without hurting themselves very much, they can relieve the sufferings of others, they take pleasure in doing so; they are not disinterested, but they are mild.
Although the Americans have so to speak reduced egoism to a social and political theory, they have shown themselves no less very open to pity.
There is no country in which criminal justice is administered more benignly than in the United States. While the English seem to want to preserve carefully in their penal legislation the bloody traces of the Middle Ages, the Americans have almost made the death penalty disappear from their legal order.
North America is, I think, the only country on earth where, for the last fifty years, the life of not a single citizen has been taken for political crimes.
What finally proves that this singular mildness of the Americans comes principally from their social state, is the manner in which they treat their slaves.
Perhaps, everything considered, there is no European colony in the New World in which the physical condition of the Blacks is less harsh than in the United States. But slaves there still experience dreadful miseries and are constantly exposed to very cruel punishments.
It is easy to discover that the fate of these unfortunates inspires little pity in their masters, and that they see in slavery not only a fact from which they profit, but also an evil that scarcely touches them. Thus, the same man who is full of humanity for his fellows when the latter are at the same time his equals, becomes insensitive to their sufferings from the moment when equality ceases. So his mildness must be attributed to this equality still more than to civilization and enlightenment.
What I have just said about individuals applies to a certain degree to peoples.
When each nation has its separate opinions, beliefs, laws and customs, it considers itself as forming by itself the whole of humanity, and feels touched only by its own sufferings. If war comes to break out between two peoples so inclined, it cannot fail to be conducted with barbarism.
At the time of their greatest enlightenment, the Romans cut the throats of enemy generals, after dragging them in triumph behind a chariot, and delivered prisoners to the beasts for the amusement of the people. Cicero, who raises such loud cries at the idea of a citizen crucified, finds nothing to say about these atrocious abuses of victory. It is clear that in his eyes a foreigner is not of the same human species as a Roman.h
On the contrary, as peoples become more similar to each other, they show themselves reciprocally more compassionate toward their misfortunes, and the law of nations becomes milder.
[a. ]1. Equality makes mores milder in an indirect manner, by giving the taste for well-being, love for peace and for all the professions that need peace.
2. It makes them milder directly.
When men are divided into castes, they have a fraternal sentiment for the members of their caste, but they scarcely regard all the others as men. Great (illegible word) and great categories.
When all men are similar, what happens within them alerts them to what must happen in all the others, and they cannot be insensitive to any misery. They are not devoted, but they are mild.
Example of the Americans (YTC, CVf, pp. 36-37).
[b. ] Two peoples have the same origin, they have lived for a long time under the same laws; they have kept the same language and the same habits of life, but they are not similar; what causes that?
[In the margin: At the head of civil society. Transition from political society to civil society. Influence of laws on character.
Influence of democracy in America on mores. Everything is modeled on the people. The rich man must grow up with the people, must travel with them, must take his enjoyments with them. He can scarcely protect himself from them in the refuge of the domestic hearth.
At home the rich man is under permanent suspicion. And he must in a way be poor or once have been poor to aspire to honors.]
The one is eager to change, the past displeases him, the present tires him, only the future seems to him to merit his thought. He scorns age and scoffs at experience. He makes, undoes, remakes his laws without ceasing. Everything changes and is modified by his indefatigable activity, even the earth that supports him. Superiorities of all kinds offend and wound him. He even sees the plebeian privileges of wealth only with disfavor.
His vanity is constantly uneasy. He seeks praise. There is no flattery so small that he does not receive it with joy. If he fails in his efforts to obtain it, he praises himself and becomes intoxicated with the incense that his hands have prepared. The laws are democratic.
The other is prostrated before the past, he mixes everything that comes from antiquity in his idolatry and esteems things not so much because they are good, but because they are old. So he takes care to change nothing in his laws or, if the irresistible march of time forces him to deviate on certain points, there are no ingenious subtleties to which he will not resort in order to persuade himself that he has only found in the work of his fathers what was already there and only developed a thought that had formerly occurred to their minds. Do not hope to get him to acknowledge that he is an innovator; although a very strong logician otherwise, he will agree to go to the absurd rather than admit himself guilty of such a great crime. Full of veneration for superiorities of all kinds, he seems to consider birth and wealth as so many natural and imprescriptible rights [v: privileges] that call certain men to govern society [v. in the margin: wealth as a virtue and birth as an imprescriptible right]. With him, the poor man is scarcely considered as a man. Full, moreover, of an immense pride, he thinks he is sufficiently sure of his grandeur not to ask the common people to acknowledge it, and he judges himself so above praise that he does not need to give it. The laws are aristocratic.
There are men who say that this is the American spirit and I say that it is the democratic spirit. What is taken for the English spirit is the aristocratic spirit (YTC, CVk, 1, pp. 14-16). The copyist, Bonnel, indicates that one part of this piece is not in Tocqueville’s hand. See p. 437 of the second volume.
[c. ] In the margin: “≠You cannot hide from the fact that the natural place of war would be there, for it is only in the absence of wars or in the manner in which it is conducted that the subject of this chapter is proved.≠”
[d. ] Equality of conditions leads citizens toward industrial and commercial professions and makes them love peace, which they need in order to devote themselves to those professions. Equality of conditions thus imperceptibly little by little takes away from the citizens the love of violent emotions and suggests to them the taste for tranquil enjoyments. As conditions become equal, the imagination of men therefore turns imperceptibly away from the cruel pictures offered by war and feeds more readily on the mild images presented by well-being. Human passions are not extinguished, they change objects and become less fierce. Accustomed to the charms of a well-ordered and prosperous life, you are afraid of being saddened by making your fellows suffer and you fear the sight of the pain almost as much as the pain itself.
[In the margin: I do not believe that this piece should be introduced, however to consult./
The things it contains are true and important, but they prevent the unity of the chapter.]
This is how equality of conditions leads indirectly to the mildness of mores. The direct effects are not less.
When writers of fables . . . (YTC, CVk, 1, pp. 5-6).
[e. ] In the margin: “and Milton would never have succeeded in interesting us in the fate of [a blank (ed.)] if he had not given human feelings to the devils and to the angels.”
It is a democratic word. You have real sympathy only for those similar to you and your equals. The humanity that we notice today is due in part to men being closer to each other. When there were only great lords and men of the people, men were strangers to each other and above all different; no one could judge by himself what others felt. So there could not be true sympathy, and mores were hard.
[In the margin: Aristocracy gives birth to great devotions and great hatreds. Democracy leads all men to a sort of tranquil benevolence./
Sympathy less but general.]
17 October 1836.
These classes were indifferent to each other’s fate not because they were enemies,but simply because they were different. Sympathy from two Greek words, I believe, meaning to feel with (Rubish, 2).
[g. ] In the margin, in pencil: “≠Example, Jacquerie.≠”
[1. ]To sense the pertinence of this final joke, you must recall that Madame de Grignan was the wife of the Governor of Provence.
[h. ] Something analogous is seen from one people to another. When peoples are very different from each other, separated by opinions, beliefs, opposite customs, they seem as well to be outside of the same humanity. Moreover, aristocratic sentiments also become established between them. They believe themselves not only different but also superior to each other. That would lead naturally to a law of nations horrible in times of war.
Now wars between peoples are like civil wars in antiquity (Rubish, 2).