Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 16: Would Démocratie Usher in a New Dark Ages? - The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy in America
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CHAPTER 16: Would Démocratie Usher in a New Dark Ages? - James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America 
The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Foreword by George W. Pierson (2nd edition) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Would Démocratie Usher in a New Dark Ages?
Particularly after 1835, Tocqueville’s concern about the tyranny of the majority reflected a growing interest in intellectual liberty. He worried that one probable result of advancing equality would be massive pressure on individuals to conform in matters of thought and opinion to the views of the many. A related, but even more serious possible consequence, he feared, would be the suppression of innovative thinking altogether. Without new ideas or the freedom to express them, what would then become of cultural progress? For Tocqueville, even the possibility of such a disastrous development evoked some troubling questions for the future.
When describing the results of the New Despotism, of equality without liberty, Tocqueville usually wrote of men falling “below the level of humanity” (au-dessous du niveau de l’humanité) or of “barbarism” (la barbarie).1 But from a very early period in the making of the Democracy, he also worried about another sort of “barbarism.” In November 1831, after reflecting for several months on the many effects of America’s pervasive equality, he asked in one of his travel notebooks: “Why, as civilisation spreads, do outstanding men become fewer? Why, when attainments are the lot of all, do great intellectual talents become rarer? Why, when there are no longer lower classes, are there no more upper classes? ... America clearly poses these questions. But who can answer them?”2
Such doubts were not unusual. Tocqueville probably knew even before going to the New World that, in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, democracy was incompatible with civilization.3 The queries of November 1831 reveal that, even then, he too suspected that democracy might usher in an era of intellectual and cultural stagnation.
Between 1832 and 1835, Tocqueville’s fears about democracy’s threat to civilization resurfaced in several of his drafts. He titled one page, for example, “Influence of Démocratie on moeurs and ideas,” and wrote beneath: “Influence of the progress of equality on human intelligence. Disappearance of intellectual classes, of theoretical talents; possible return toward barbarism by this path.”4
His concern even led him to compare the irresistible march of democracy to the barbarian invasions of Rome. “What new order will come out of the debris of that which is falling? Who can say? The men of the fourth century, witnesses of the invasions of the Barbarians, gave themselves over, like us, to a thousand conjectures; but no one had the idea to foresee the universal erection of the feudal system which, in all of Europe, was the result of this invasion.”5 Pursuing his analogy, he explained: “I spoke above of the men who were present at the ruin of the Roman empire. Let us fear that a similar fate awaits6 us. But this time the Barbarians will not come out of the frozen lands of the North; they will rise up in the hearts of our fields and in the very midst of our cities.”7 Although the potential barbarians of the nineteenth century differed from their predecessors of the fourth, they too threatened to plunge the West into a Dark Age. In an unusually emotional peroration, Tocqueville begged his compatriots: “Let us save ourselves from a new invasion of Barbarians. The Barbarians are already at our gates and we amuse ourselves with discoursing. They are all around us ... There is that to fear.”8
In 1835, however, none of these fragments would appear, and the first half of the Democracy would consequently largely fail to disclose Tocqueville’s grave doubts about the survival of Western culture in the face of democracy’s advance. He would candidly concede that America possessed neither individuals dedicated to higher intellectual pursuits nor classes interested in supporting such endeavors.9 He would note that the enormous power exercised in America by majority opinion inhibited freedom of thought and particularly literary genius,10 and he would even admit that démocratie retarded the development of certain branches of knowledge. “So democracy ... harms the progress of the art of government ... Moreover, this does not apply only to the science of administration. Democratic government ... always assumes the existence of a very civilized and knowledgeable society.”11
But the work would contain no indication that these flaws had serious implications for the future of Western civilization as a whole. One ironic comment in the working manuscript would even argue that Europeans should be relieved to find no commanding intellects in America: “So in America we come upon none of those great intellectual centers which shoot forth heat and light at the same time. I do not know if perhaps we should not thank Heaven; America already carries an immense weight in the destinies of the world; and perhaps only great writers are lacking for her to overthrow violently all the old societies of Europe.”12
By stressing the singularity of the American nation, Tocqueville would also find a way in 1835 partially to excuse the cultural deficiencies of the United States. The first colonists had come not as ignorant savages, he would remind his readers, but as intelligent men firmly grounded in European learning, and, if necessary, the men of the New World could always borrow ideas and techniques from the Old. Furthermore, and most important, although the American republic lacked outstanding men of the arts and sciences, the citizenry as a whole exhibited an uncommonly high level of education, experience, and intelligence.13
So in 1835, by scrupulously maintaining his focus on the United States and its unique situation,14 Tocqueville would largely avoid the difficult task of generalizing about the effects of démocratie on cultural progress. Unable to soothe his own anxiety and unwilling once again to offer unnecessary support to the enemies of democracy, he apparently chose temporarily to conceal his doubts.
There was yet another possible reason for his silence. Beaumont had already decided to include a lengthy discussion of “Literature and Fine Arts” in his novel, Marie.15 Perhaps Tocqueville, though willing to offer some isolated observations about intellectual and cultural life in America, felt reluctant in 1835 to compete with Gustave’s work by presenting a fully developed analysis of his own. Once again Beaumont’s book may have inhibited Tocqueville as he established the dimensions of the 1835 Democracy.
Between 1835 and 1840, while drafting the second half of the Democracy, Tocqueville continued his musings about the probable effects of démocratie on civilization. One possible way out of his quandary would have been to unearth and present to his readers a flourishing American cultural life; the threat to civilization would have been considerably less cogent if even the world’s most democratic society stimulated artistic and literary activities.
In fact, such a demonstration would not have been especially difficult. Even before the late 1830s some European commentators had made a reasonable case for American cultural vigor, based largely on the works of Washington Irving and especially James Fenimore Cooper,16 writers whose names and achievements were familiar to both Tocqueville and Beaumont.17 Developments in New England as Tocqueville drafted the last two volumes of his work would have strengthened the argument considerably if he had been adequately aware of them.18
But evidently he, like Beaumont, felt that mention of Cooper, or Irving, or Channing, or any other literary figure would not really satisfy his doubts.19 Such men were too much the exceptions in American society. Instead, he chose once again to couple an admission of American poverty in arts and letters with a denial that the United States proved anything in general about the effects of democracy on culture. “Thus the Americans are in [a wholly] exceptional situation.”20
Having dismissed America as unique, he finally turned to a broader examination of the cultural influence of democracy. In an unenlightened society, he declared, the rise of démocratie would indeed be a condemnation to continued darkness. An unpublished essay drafted during the writing of the 1840 Democracy explained the reasons for his conclusion:
Equality does not suit barbaric peoples; it prevents them from enlightening and civilizing themselves. Idea to introduce perhaps in the chapters on literature or the sciences....21
... I have never thought that equality of conditions suited the infancy of societies. When men are uncivilized as well as equal, each among them feels himself too weak and too limited to seek knowledge (la lumière) separately; and it is almost impossible that, by a common accord, all will exert themselves at the same time to discover it.
Nothing is so difficult to take as the first step out of barbarism.22 I do not doubt that it requires more effort23 for a savage to discover the art of writing than for a civilized man to penetrate the general laws which regulate the world. But it is unbelievable that men can ever imagine the necessity of a similar effort without its being clearly shown to them, or that they will subject themselves to doing it without grasping the result in advance.
In a society of barbarians equal among themselves, the attention of each man is equally absorbed by the first needs and the grossest interests24 of life, so the idea of intellectual progress can only with difficulty occur to the mind of any of them; and if by chance it came to the point of appearing, it would soon be sort of suffocated in the midst of the nearly instinctive thoughts that the poorly satisfied needs of the body25 always bring forth. The savage lacks all at the same time: the idea of study and the possibility of giving himself over to it.
I do not believe that history presents a single example of a democratic people who raised themselves, by themselves and gradually, toward knowledge (la lumière); and that is easily understood. We have seen that among nations where equality26 and barbarism reign at the same time it was difficult for an individual to develop his intelligence27 in isolation. But if it happens by extraordinary circumstances that he does, the superiority of his knowledge28 suddenly gives him so great a preponderance over all who surround him29 that he is not slow to desire to benefit from his new advantages by ending equality to his profit.
If peoples30 remain democratic, civilization can not then be born in their midst; and if it happens by chance to penetrate there, they cease to be democratic. I am persuaded that humanity owes its enlightenment (lumières) to such chances and31 that it is under an aristocracy or under a prince that men still half-savage gathered the diverse notions which later must have permitted them to live enlightened, equal, and free.32
So among the semicivilized démocratie and culture were incompatible; a society composed of barbarians would be either democratic and perpetually ignorant or aristocratic and progressively civilized. But what about nations already enlightened? “It is very necessary,” Tocqueville cautioned, “to guard against confusing a democratic people, enlightened and free, with another which would be ignorant and enslaved.”33 “I take the European peoples such as they appear to my eyes with their ancient traditions, their acquired enlightenment, their liberties,” he wrote in the manuscript of the 1840 Democracy, “and I wonder if by becoming democratic they run the risk of falling back into a sort of barbarism.”34 He had returned to the fundamental question.
A tentative “Ordre des idées” appeared in an early outline of the chapter on the aptitude of democratic nations for arts and sciences.35 “Prove first that there will always be some men in our democracies who will love the sciences, letters, and the arts. This proven, it will be easy for me to establish that a democracy will furnish to those men all that they need. In order to know what to say here it is necessary to amalgamate the reproaches that people make to Démocratie when they accuse it of extinguishing enlightenment.”36
As a first step, Tocqueville theorized that some inherent human quality drove men everywhere toward the affairs of the mind. “There is in the very nature of man a natural and permanent disposition which pushes his soul despite habits, laws, usages ... toward the contemplation of elevated and intellectual things. This natural disposition is found in democracies as elsewhere.”37 He even argued in one draft that démocratie supplied more than the usual stimulation to those who pursued activities of the mind and spirit. In democracies the inborn tendency toward higher things was strengthened “by a sort of reaction to the material and the ordinary which abounds in these societies.”38
But would such intellectual impulses be given a chance to bear fruit? The key once again was free institutions. In the “Rubish,” discarded drafts of the 1840 volumes, he wrote:
The great object of the lawmaker in democracies thus must be to create common affairs which force men to enter into contact one with another.
The laws which have this result are useful to all peoples; to democratic peoples they are necessary. Here they augment the well-being of the society; there they allow society to survive. For what is society, for thinking beings, if not the communication and the intercourse of minds and hearts? ...
I have treated free institutions as diminishing égoïsme;39 what is involved here is showing them as necessary to civilization among democratic peoples....
... 40 [equality of conditions] leads men not to communicate with each other. Each one, being obliged to oversee his own affairs by himself, has not the leisure nor the taste to seek out, without necessity, the company of his fellows and to share his ideas and theirs....
If the men of democracies were abandoned to their instincts they would then end by becoming almost entirely strangers to one another, and the circulation of ideas and of sentiments would be stopped....
The circulation of ideas is to civilization what the circulation of blood is to the human body.
Here a striking portrait, if possible.41
So the hope for democratic nations rested with whichever free institutions (such as local liberties and associations) brought men together in the pursuit of public business.42 Only then would issues be discussed, ideas stimulated, and intellectual life preserved. Moreover, the energies excited among democratic peoples by such civic and political activities would inevitably spill over into intellectual ventures. “Give a democratic people enlightenment and liberty,” Tocqueville declared in his working manuscript, “and I do not doubt that you will see them carry over into the study of the sciences, letters, and the arts the same feverish activity that they show in all the rest.”43
Another draft revealed that this idea grew particularly out of Tocqueville’s knowledge of French history during the years following the French Revolution. Describing the effects of the revolution, he wrote: “Minds strongly stirred and put into motion by politics, afterwards throw themselves impetuously into all other channels. Free institutions, always in action, produce something analogous in a sustained way. They excite a certain chronic agitation in the human mind which sets it going for all things.”44
So in democratic times and among cultured peoples, there would be men endowed with the essential intellectual interests and capacities and activated by the necessary drives and energies. After some hesitation and a brief but interesting theoretical investigation, Tocqueville, with the enlightened nations of Europe specifically in mind, was thus finally able to conclude that, assuming free institutions, “Equality of conditions seems to me very appropriate for precipitating the march of the human mind.”45
But most of these more optimistic reflections occurred in various drafts or “Rubish” of the 1840 volumes. The published text would be considerably more ambivalent. Especially in the chapter entitled “Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rarer,” which once again considered the probable effects of equality on intellectual innovation, Tocqueville’s conclusions would be much gloomier. Equality of conditions and similar viewpoints, a busy preoccupation with mundane matters, a belief in intellectual equality, the isolation of individuals, the power of public opinion, and the authority of the mass, he would then argue, all joined to discourage new insights and ideas.46
The more closely I consider the effects of equality upon the mind, the more I am convinced that the intellectual anarchy which we see around us is not, as some suppose, the natural state for democracies. I think we should rather consider it as an accidental characteristic peculiar to their youth, and something that only happens during [the] transitional period (époque de passage)....
Because the inhabitants of democracies always seem excited, uncertain, hurried, and ready to change both their minds and their situation, it has been supposed that they want immediately to abolish their laws, adopt new beliefs, and conform to new manners. It has not been noted that while equality leads men to make changes it also prompts them to have interests which require stability for their satisfaction; it both drives men on and holds them back; it goads them on and keeps their feet on the ground; it kindles their desires and limits their powers....
... I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all for fear of being carried off their feet....
People suppose that the new societies are going to change shape daily, but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed with the same institutions, prejudices, and mores, so that mankind will stop progressing and will dig itself in. I fear that the mind may keep folding itself up in a narrower compass forever without producing new ideas, that men will wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity, and that for all its constant agitation humanity will make no advance.47
This passage, in addition to a sense of foreboding and a conclusion much more pessimistic than previous ones, also offered an example of Tocqueville’s use of a mental tool which would occasionally appear in the pages of the 1840 Democracy: époque de transition (or de passage). By his repeated resorts to this concept, Tocqueville underscored his assumption that France (and Europe) in the 1830s was between more stable periods, that the early nineteenth century was primarily an intermediate stage, an époque de transition, and was therefore particularly prone to a wide variety of ills too often attributed by the unthinking to démocratie itself. At every possible opportunity in his last two volumes, Tocqueville reminded his countrymen that France, especially, was in the midst of this painful process of becoming democratic (was between two worlds) and that, to a great extent, this uncomfortable state of flux, rather than démocratie, accounted for the severity of his nation’s social, political, and moral problems. The idea of époque de transition thus allowed him not only partially to explain France’s lamentable condition, but also to disarm certain uncompromising critics of the trend toward equality and to maintain his hope for some better, more settled future of democratic maturity.
In 1840, Tocqueville thus remained uncertain about exactly how démocratie would influence intellectual development. In some passages he seemed to foresee the possibility, given free institutions in times of equality, of a unique cultural flowering. Elsewhere he remained pessimistic and predicted a pervasive mental stagnation. But at least he had finally faced the dilemma which he had posed years earlier. Although Tocqueville had not dismissed the possible deleterious effects of démocratie on cultural progress, his attitude by 1840 was different from the one expressed in earlier, more emotional drafts. Gone were his intense fears of barbarian ascendancy and of the immediate, catastrophic collapse of civilization. After an initial delay—possibly once again caused, in part, by an unwillingness to intrude upon areas marked out by Beaumont—further thought had persuaded Tocqueville that Europe, under the onslaught of advancing equality, would not necessarily go the way of Rome.
[1. ]For examples of the former, see Democracy (Mayer), p. 314  and p. 694 ; for an example of the latter, ibid., p. 705 .
[2. ]6 November 1831, Pocket Notebook 3, Mayer, Journey, p. 160. Also consult Tocqueville’s reflections after speaking with Charles Carroll, 5 November 1831, Non-Alph. Notebooks 2 and 3, ibid., pp. 86–87. Compare with Tocqueville’s musings of 1831 the following questions from Beaumont’s Marie (1835): “Is the world of the spirit subject to the same laws as physical nature? That great minds appear, is it necessary that the masses be ignorant to serve as their shadow? Do not great personalities shine above the vulgar as high mountains, their crests glittering with snow and light, tower over dark precipices?” (Bt. Marie [Chapman], p. 105).
[3. ]Rémond, Etats-Unis, 1:266, 283–305, especially pp. 301–5. Note that proponents of this view often cited the American republic as proof of their contention.
[4. ]Drafts, Yale, CVb, Paquet 13, p. 32. In the 1835 Democracy, Tocqueville would not include any chapter on this idea; only when he drafted the second part of his project (1840) would he develop it.
[5. ]Alternative written above “this invasion”: “the fall of Rome.” Neither phrase is crossed out (Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 3, p. 28).
[6. ]The copyist noted that one word was illegible; possibly “awaits.”
[7. ]Drafts, Yale, CVh, Paquet 3, cahier 3, p. 28.
[8. ]Drafts, Yale, CVb, Paquet 13, pp. 28–29.
[9. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 55–56, 301–5.
[10. ]Ibid., pp. 254–56.
[11. ]Ibid., p. 208. A related statement, one which says a great deal about Tocqueville’s personal attitudes toward démocratie, appeared in the working manuscript: “Democratic government [is] the chef-d’oeuvre of civilization and knowledge”; “Administrative Instability in the United States,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 2.
[12. ]“Administrative Instability in the United States,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 2.
[13. ]Democracy (Mayer), pp. 301–5.
[14. ]Tocqueville purposely devoted his first two volumes primarily to America rather than to démocratie in general.
[15. ]Bt., Marie (Chapman), pp. 105–16; also see p. 95.
[16. ]Rémond, Etats-Unis, 1:286–87, 300–301.
[17. ]See Beaumont’s treatment of these and other figures in Marie (Chapman), pp. 95, 111–12 note, 115–16. Also consult Pierson’s discussion of efforts by the companions to see a lesser-known American writer, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Pierson, Toc. and Bt., pp. 349–50 and notes.
[18. ]Particularly significant would have been the rise of the Transcendentalists from 1836 forward. In 1841 a still-valuable work written in defense of American cultural and literary vitality did indeed appear in France: Eugène Vail, De la littérature et des hommes de lettres des Etats-Unis d’Amérique.
[19. ]Cf. Bt., Marie (Chapman), pp. 111–12 note.
[20. ]Democracy (Mayer), p. 455; also see pp. 454–58.
[21. ]Copyist’s note: “on leaf forming [the] jacket.” The chapters alluded to may be found in the first book of the 1840 volumes, “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States,” chapters 9–11 and 13–15; see especially chapter 9, “Why the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude or Taste for Science, Literature, or the Arts,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 454–58.
[22. ]Alternative crossed out: “It is necessary for men to make a prodigious effort by themselves in order to take the first step.”
[23. ]Alternative crossed out: “I think that it is more difficult for a savage.”
[24. ]Alternatives for “interests”: “needs,” “works,” and “cares.” All crossed out.
[25. ]Alternative deleted: “of physical nature.”
[26. ]Alternative deleted: “equality of conditions.”
[27. ]Alternative crossed out: “mind.”
[28. ]Alternative not crossed out: “enlightenment” (lumières).
[29. ]Alternative not crossed out: “over his peers.”
[30. ]Alternative deleted: “societies.”
[31. ]Alternative for the remainder of this sentence, deleted: “and I think that it is by losing their liberty that men have acquired the means to reconquer it.”
[32. ]Drafts, Yale, CVk, Paquet 7, cahier 1, pp. 18–20. Cf. Democracy (Mayer), pp. 456–57.
[33. ]“Why the Example of the Americans Does Not Prove that a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude or Taste for Science, Literature or the Arts,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 3. This sentence is written in the margin and is not crossed out.
[34. ]Ibid.; this sentence is written on an extra sheet of paper enclosed within the manuscript.
[35. ]Cf. Democracy (Mayer), pp. 433–36 and especially pp. 454–58.
[36. ]Drafts, Yale, CVa, Paquet 8, cahier unique, p. 8.
[37. ]Tocqueville’s own omission; Drafts, Yale, CVk, Paquet 7, cahier 1, p. 5.
[39. ]For elaboration of this idea, see the following two chapters.
[40. ]Page partially destroyed by water and mildew.
[41. ]“On the Use Which the Americans Make of Associations in Civil Life,” Drafts, Yale, CVg, “Rubish,” tome 3. Cf. Democracy (Mayer), pp. 513–17.
[42. ]See the chapter entitled “On the Use Which the Americans Make of Associations in Civil Life,” Democracy (Mayer), pp. 513–17; especially pp. 514, 517.
[43. ]“... Aptitude or Taste for Science, Literature, or the Arts,” Original Working Ms., Yale, CVIa, tome 3. Cf. Democracy (Mayer), p. 458. Note however that in 1840 Tocqueville would also insist that the intellectual and cultural fruits of a democracy, though abundant, would be different from those of an aristocracy. And if equality reigned without liberty, Tocqueville foresaw probable intellectual and cultural disaster; see for example, ibid., p. 436.
[44. ]Drafts, Yale, CVa, Paquet 8, cahier unique, pp. 47–48, dated June 1838. In the margin of this remark, Tocqueville wrote “good to develop,” and in 1840 he would expand upon the idea but neglect to indicate how it had been inspired.
[45. ]Drafts, Yale, CVk, Paquet 7, cahier 1, p. 20. Note in these remarks Tocqueville’s interchangeable use of the terms “democracy,” “free institutions,” and “equality of conditions.”
[46. ]Consult Democracy (Mayer), pp. 640–45.