Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Tocqueville discusses another consequence of equality, the belief in human perfectibility. When classes and opportunities are fixed by rank and birth, people remain content with the limits given to them; but when all are considered as equal, the possibility of improvement of each person toward greatness becomes nearly unlimited. Though some rise and some fall in an unending process, each individual never stops yearning toward un-reached goals. Tocqueville cites an American sailor who, responding to his question about why ships are built to last such a short time, says that the art of navigation is progressing so rapidly that new technologies will quickly render the ships useless anyway. Tocqueville concludes that while aristocracies narrow perfectibility too much, democracies tend to extend it too far.
While the American ideal is one of perfectibility of all people (that everyone can, in theory, achieve their dream), Tocqueville is quick to point out that in reality, people are constantly rising and falling in terms of material status. His anecdote about the sailor underlines his measured admiration (which is yoked to skepticism) about what this ideal means in practice. Perhaps the constant striving causes Americans to neglect the present reality of what they’re doing.
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