In one of the most interesting passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out the hard distinctions between aristocracy and democracy. In considering what separates the old order from the new, he sounds a bit like an author setting out to create a science-fiction universe, or least as a philosopher giving advice to a fiction writer about the creating coherent and credible alternate universes. Here is the section in which Tocqueville describes the defining traits of aristocratic societies:
“What are you requiring of society and its government? One must be clear about that. Do you wish to raise the human mind to a certain lofty and generous manner of viewing things of this world? Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions? Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion? Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom? Do you crave poetry, reputation, glory?
Are you intending to organize a nation so that it will exercise strength of purpose over all others? Are you giving it the aim of undertaking mighty projects and leaving an impressive mark upon history, however its efforts may turn out?
If, in your estimation, that should be the main objective of government, do not choose a democratic government because it would not steer you to that goal with any certainty” (286).
As for democracy, its merits and limitations are of an almost entirely different order:
“But, if it seems useful to you to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity upon the necessities of physical life and to use it to foster prosperity; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if you aim to create not heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vice rather than crime and to find fewer splendid deeds provided you have fewer transgressions; if, instead of moving through a brilliant society, you are satisfied to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, in your view, the main objective for a government is not to give the whole nation as much strength or glory as possible but to obtain for each of the individuals who make it up as much well-being as possible, while avoiding as much suffering as one can, then make social conditions equal and set up a democratic government” (286-287).
These passages are indicative of what I consider to be Tocqueville’s realism, in which he not only reflects on the respective advantages of the two forms of society, but also specifies their respective shortcomings and how these deficiencies are at the same time bound to what he finds meritorious in each system. Aristocracy is by far the more extreme arrangement: tremendous injustices side-by-side with glittering achievements, in which intense devotion, unconditional commitment, and deep piety are balanced out, as it were, by debauchery and transgression. Democracy, on the other hand, seeks to look after the good of the many, which yields a milder and more relaxed society, where virtue can be joined to happiness through good habits and reasonable and moderate aspirations. Tocqueville is clear about the trade-off involved in building a society in which the majority can enjoy well-being and prosperity: democratic culture will be far less brilliant and much more materialistic than those produced by aristocracies. The fact that aristocrats are prone to dissipation and excess also make them capable of demonstrating a “haughty scorn” for material comforts and therefore of displaying “unusual powers of endurance when ultimately deprived of them” (616).
For Tocqueville, what matters most in an aristocracy is a “lofty idea” of man it raises up for itself. It is not any artist or general but Blaise Pascal, demystifier of the superiority of the nobility by asserting its basis on convention, who for Tocqueville exemplifies the highest fulfillment of the aristocratic drive for splendor and greatness. Democratic societies, on the other hand, exist within a materialistic horizon, in which lofty ambitions and tyrannical injustices alike have become alien. In a sense, Tocqueville is saying that if one lives in a democracy, one cannot hope for more than a wide distribution of well-being. One must make peace with the reality that great and outstanding works of human genius, like the political revolutions that produce democracies, will become rare.
The value of Tocqueville’s thought for contemporary politics consists in how it may shake us free of the currently accepted constellation of designations and values that structure the oppositions between left and right, Republican and Democrat. Perhaps environmentalism, which seeks, if not to “inspire scorn” for consumer goods, at least attempts to make us more open to the idea of living with less, contains a strong aristocratic dimension, which is not surprising if we consider that it is generally the well-off who espouse environmentalism as a kind of lifestyle choice. Perhaps it makes more sense to view socialism, which entails imposing limitations on the aspirations of those seeking to increase their wealth, in certain vital respects being much closer to aristocracy than to democracy. Democracy itself is hostile to the principle of authority as such, with the consequence that democratic peoples, by their nature, cannot allow “any innovator to gain and exercise great power over the mind” (745). Whereas it is authority that allowed for the abuses of the aristocracy, its erosion under democracy is what, Tocqueville predicts, will serve to immobilize political life in democracy. It is hard not to regard Tocqueville as a prophet when surveying the current political landscape:
“It is generally believed that new societies will change shape day by day but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same customs, with the result that the human race may stop moving forward and grind to a halt, that the mind of man may forever swing backwards and forwards without fostering new ideas, that man will wear himself out in lonely, futile triviality and that humanity will cease to progress despite its ceaseless motion” (750).
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.