Tocqueville claims that the United States has made little progress in sciences, poetry, or the arts. While some Europeans have concluded that this is the natural result of equality, Tocqueville wants to isolate the particular reasons for this weakness. Puritanism, first of all, has always looked down on the fine arts and literature. In addition, the possibilities for devoting one’s time and energies to making a fortune, rather than focusing on the imagination and the intellect, are immense. Nearly everyone in America is involved in industry and commerce, he claims.
Tocqueville may question the specific reasons given for the weakness of the arts in America, but he leaves unchallenged the notion that Americans have indeed been less successful in the arts. In the moment in which Tocqueville was writing, there were absolutely successful and innovative American artists, though, historically speaking, the country is younger than those in Europe, so the sum total of American artists would naturally be smaller. Tocqueville, however, prefers to find a source of his arguments in the American character.
Tocqueville argues that, if one considers America as an offshoot of England, Americans are that portion of Englishmen destined to explore the woods and wilderness, while back home people devote time to thought and imagination. All these causes have dovetailed to make Americans uniquely focused on practical objects—something that will not necessarily be the case in other democracies.
Although early Americans traced their origins to a number of countries, Tocqueville focuses on England as the most significant place of ancestry. However, his point is also to stress that places like France need not fear that democratization will suppress the arts there.
Tocqueville imagines a democratic society without classes or ranks that would also lack knowledge and freedom (if a despot, for instance, were to keep his subjects equally ignorant): such a people would probably never develop a taste for science, literature, or art, though they wouldn’t develop fortunes either. Equality would soon be established, but it would be an equality of ignorance and servitude. Tocqueville is appalled at such an idea—but he notes that there is another possibility, that an already enlightened people can subsequently work toward freedom and equality.
Tocqueville continues to distinguish freedom from equality, and in this thought experiment he imagines a world in which everyone is equal, but precisely because of that, no one is free to think for himself or to cultivate intellectual affairs. The solution, he thinks, is to make sure that the arts are cultivated first, so that the benefits of democracy only accrue afterward.
Tocqueville notes that all democratic societies will always contain wealthy people, even if that group isn’t a coherent class as they are in aristocracies. Those groups will have the leisure and curiosity to devote themselves to spiritual and intellectual affairs. Once hereditary wealth and rank have been dissolved, disparity of wealth will result from differences in intellectual capacity, so people will realize that it is worthwhile to develop one’s intellect.
Although Tocqueville has just warned of the dangers of equality on a literary and intellectual plane, here he proposes another thought experiment, suggesting that once intelligence is the key to wealth, more people might want to prize intelligence and education (if only to grow wealthy themselves).
In democracies, Tocqueville notes, classes communicate and mingle with each other: the humblest classes look with interest at the more intellectual communities and may well strive to emulate them. Those who cultivate science and the arts will then expand. Tocqueville thus argues that democratic societies are not necessarily indifferent to intellectual affairs; it’s just that they cultivate them in their own way.
Although Tocqueville acknowledges that disparities in wealth will always exist, he argues that democracies are more permeable, their different ranks less distinct—such that the lower classes can learn from and strive to become the upper classes. He continues to insist that the relationship between democracy and the arts depends on circumstance.