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TO MADAME SWETCHINE. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). 2 vols.
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TO MADAME SWETCHINE.
Tocqueville, October 15, 1855.
My correspondent’s last news of you was not bad. He said that you were rather better than you usually are; your friends must make up their minds as you do so bravely to this imperfect state, since God refuses you the perfect health of which you would make such admirable use. Madame de Tocqueville and I have constantly thought of you during the vicissitudes of what you so touchingly call a civil war. You may believe that we entered fully into the impressions which such a scene must produce on a mind like yours, so open to every tender feeling, and closed against every bad passion. Alas! there is no sign of the cessation of so much public and private misery. I fear too that to the scourge of war will soon be added that of famine. It will at any rate be very hard for the poor to get through the winter, and those who are well off ought to make considerable sacrifices for their poor neighbours. I own that I do not expect this benevolence to be general.
This series of bad years seems to have worn out charity instead of exciting it. One soon becomes familiar with misery which one does not feel, so that an evil, which the longer it lasts seems greater to the sufferer, seems from the very fact of its lasting, smaller to the spectator. And then the links which ought to unite all classes have been much weakened by our revolutions. . . .
Do you not wonder with me, Madame, when you see spring from a nation so devoid of public virtue, an army so full of it? So much selfishness here, so much self-devotion there, seem incompatible. I see a peasant start to join his regiment; he is in despair, often in tears. He is little touched by the thought that he is going to defend his country; he thinks only of his fields, of the petty business and interests which he is about to leave. He curses duty for tearing him away from them. A year afterwards his letters are brought to me by his family. In them he appears ready to bear anything required by military duty; he knows that a soldier should sacrifice every day, without hesitation, his comfort or his life for the good of the service; he found these maxims and these regulations established; he adopted them with his uniform; he will shake them both off together. Once more he will become the poor clown whom we used to know, and will carry with him into the civil world none of the sentiments which he exhibited in his little military one.
Till I reflected upon the present behaviour of our armies, I thought that there was much exaggeration in the accounts handed down to us of the public virtues of the ancients. I could not understand how the men of those days were capable of them. For, after all, man is the same in every age. The every-day conduct of our armies explains the mystery. Civil society was at that time constituted as military society is now. The men of those days, as individuals, were not better than we are, in private life they were probably worse. But in public life they were subjected to an organization, a discipline, a prevailing opinion; to fixed customs and traditions, which forced them to a conduct different from ours.
I am ashamed, Madame, to see how I have been carried away by the current of my ideas. Excuse this uncalled-for dissertation, on the ground that I write to you as you permit me to talk to you, giving utterance to every thought that comes into my head.
You show so much kind interest in the work which I am engaged in, that I wish I could tell you that my stay here had been very productive. But as yet, unfortunately, such is not the case. Yet I have every inducement to work. I am fond of this place, I lead a quiet life, I enjoy retirement without the sense of loneliness; the only thing wanting has been the energy, without which one can do nothing well, though one has every motive for doing well. When, after an interval of nearly two months, I tried to return to my work, all my interest in it was gone. I was struck by all its faults, and I was attacked by one of the most violent fits of despondency that I have had for a long time. I am very subject to this mental disease, and I have not even the consolation of believing what one often hears said, that fools never suffer from it. I have met in the course of my life with people who distrusted greatly their capacity, who were inclined to think that they did nothing well, and were perfectly justified in that opinion. The truth is that great self-confidence and great self-distrust proceed from the same source, an extreme desire to shine, which prevents men from judging themselves calmly and temperately. Vanity is gay in some men, and is sad in others, equally without reason. . . . .