Front Page Titles (by Subject) appendix 5: Letter of Alexis de Tocqueville to Charles Stoffels - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4
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appendix 5: Letter of Alexis de Tocqueville to Charles Stoffels - 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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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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Letter of Alexis de Tocqueville to Charles Stoffels
Versailles, 21 April 1830
I have greatly delayed replying to you, my dear friend, not as much however as would be indicated by the date of your letter, which bears the date 11 April, although it arrived only on the 15th, but you know what a rush of things I am caught up in. Even today, I hardly have the time to say to you all that I would like; I cannot wait any longer, however, without risking not finding you at Metz. So pardon me if I only touch very lightly on the question that you treated in depth and remarkably well (I say it to you not as a compliment).
And first, my dear friend, I will say to you that you make me out to be much more of a killjoy than I am naturally; you give me a conviction where I have only expressed doubts, and an absolute opinion when I have surrounded myself with qualifications. If you have done it for the purpose of the case, as a lawyer would say, nothing better; but if you acted involuntarily, I must point out the error and reestablish the point of departure. In general, my dear Charles, you must not imagine that, when I am discussing something with you, I have always taken care to develop fully the ideas that I put forward. You would in truth do me an honor that I do not deserve. I do not believe that you should talk with your friends as you speak in public. To stir the mind, to give the desire to reflect, to raise in passing questions that reflection comes to elaborate, such is the goal of conversation in my opinion; and I never have another with you. So, I beg of you, never take to the letter and, above all, as definitive the opinions that I do not reexamine and that I often throw out, more as a topic than as the result of reflection.
To come back to the great question that we are debating at this moment, I can put my point of view into two sentences.
1. I doubt that the advanced state of civilization is as superior to the middling state as is proclaimed, even when the march of civilization has been well conducted;
2. I believe that almost always the intellectual education of a people is poorly done and that consequently enlightenment is often a fatal gift.
Among all half-civilized peoples, you recognize almost the same base of sentiments, ideas, passions, vices and virtues, more or less hidden it is true, but always easy to recognize. Different characters are to peoples what physiognomy is to the man: they differentiate peoples externally rather than demonstrating a profound and radical difference between them.
In the same way, you always find the mixture of the same elements among nations that have reached a very high degree of civilization; here, the bad elements are more numerous than the good ones; elsewhere, the opposite happens, but all are united solely by this social state. Thus, putting aside all special application, you can form theoretically the idea of a half-civilized people and that of a completely enlightened people; no particular circumstance, good or bad, has come to influence the development of these two principles, and I compare these two peoples with each other.
Among the first of the two, among the one still half-savage, the social state is imperfect, public force is badly organized, and the struggle between it and individual force is often unequal; there is little security for the individual, little tranquillity for the mass, mores brutal, ideas simple, religion there is almost always poorly understood. That is the bad side. Here is the good: forced back on itself in this way, the soul there finds an admirable spring of action, and individual force finds unexpected development; love of country is not rational, but instinctive, and this blind instinct brings forth miracles; sentiments are clear-cut, convictions profound; consequently devotion is not rare there, enthusiasm is common and scorn for death is deep in the heart and not on the lips.
Now let us compare to this half-civilized people the one that has attained a high degree of civilization.
Among the latter, the social body has foreseen everything; the individual gives himself the pain of being born; as for the rest, society takes hold of him in the arms of his wet-nurse, it oversees his education, opens before him the roads to fortune; it supports him in his march, deflects dangers from his head; he advances in peace under the eyes of this second providence; this tutelary power that has protected him during his life still oversees the repose of his ashes. There is the fate of civilized man. The sentiment and the spectacle of happiness soon soften the wild roughness of his nature; he becomes mild, sociable; his passions become calm; his heart seems to have expanded the ability that he had been given to feel; he finds sources of emotions and of pleasure where his fathers would never have imagined that they could exist or would have scorned looking for them. Crimes become rare, unfortunately virtues also. The soul, asleep in this long repose, no longer knows how to wake up on occasion; individual energy is almost extinguished; each man leans on the others when it is necessary to act; in all other circumstances, on the contrary, each man closes up within himself; it is the reign of egoism, convictions are shaken at the same time, for it must be clearly admitted, my dear friend, that not one single intellectual truth is established and the centuries of enlightenment are centuries of doubts and of discussion. There is no fanaticism, but there are few beliefs, consequently few of those actions, sublime in the case of another life, absurd in the opposite hypothesis. Enthusiasm there is an attack of high fever; it does not have its source in the habitual state of the soul; the taste for positive reality grows as doubts increase; the whole world ends up being an insoluble problem for the man who clings to the most tangible objects and who ends up lying down on his stomach against the earth out of fear that he, in turn, may come to miss the ground.
You cannot deny, however, that many sentiments there become purer. Thus love of country becomes more reasoned, more thoughtful, religion better understood by those who still believe in it, love of justice more enlightened, the general interest better understood, but all these sentiments lose in strength what they gain in perfection, they satisfy the mind more and act less on life.
I could undoubtedly push this portrait very much further, but I would write a volume. What I said is sufficient to make you feel that in my opinion you cannot say in an absolute manner: man improves by becoming civilized, but rather that man by becoming civilized gains at the very same time virtues and vices that he did not have; he becomes something other, that is what is most clear.
Now, I am going further and I admit that, everything balanced and weighed, I prefer the second state to the first. Security, individual happiness seem to me all in all the principal end of societies. This end is incontestably attained by civilization and if it can take place without leading to too strong an attack on human morality, it is certain that it is desirable.
But it frequently happens that the intellectual education of a people is poorly done; then, it is not precisely the enlightenment that must be blamed, but the way in which it is given. For example, one nation in the world presents a singular spectacle. For reasons easy to find but very long to enumerate, the progressive spirit or civilization, instead of marching in agreement with religious beliefs or at least not clashing with them in its march, has entered into battle with them, so that an enlightened man there has not only become the synonym of a doubting man, not even the equivalent of an unbelieving man, but in most cases a true enemy of religion, of country. This is not all. Political passions become mixed in with them; a man has become irreligious by pride, by opinion. This nation, I do not need to tell you, is ours. Among us, not only has enlightenment produced its usual effect; this effect is tripled by the way in which this enlightenment has been spread; if the movement was continuous, and nothing declares that it is to stop soon, we would present the example of a great social body without beliefs, a unique example in the history of men, and about which consequently it is impossible to reason.
Do not believe, however, my dear friend, that I conclude from this that enlightenment must be fought and that we must struggle against the irresistible inclination of our century. No, in truth, I believe on the contrary that the only task that remains for the government is to seek to put itself at the head of the movement in order to direct it, to lavish instruction itself in order to be sure that instruction will not become a murderous weapon in other hands. I think, above all, that its efforts must tend toward disconnecting religion from politics, for what particularly harms the first is the proximity of the second. Thus in summary, you see, we will both act more or less in the same way, you by enthusiasm and training, me by reasoning and calculations. You must notice, my dear Charles, that I have been going post-haste for a page and a half. In fact, I do not have time and must say farewell to you. I reproach myself for having philosophized in this way for an hour instead of chatting, which would have been much more valuable, but an honest man has only [interrupted text (ed.)]. (YTC, AVII)