Tocqueville contrasts historians in aristocratic ages, who tend to explain all events by the actions and characters of great individuals, to historians in democratic age, who explain every small event by vast general causes. In the former case, this is because aristocracies do contain a few prominent actors who exert an undue influence; whereas this is not the case in a democracy. Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle, Tocqueville notes: it’s just that the proportion of each cause varies depending on whether an age is democratic or aristocratic.
Turning from literature to history, Tocqueville is similarly creative in his arguments linking political conditions to ways of viewing history (even as, here and elsewhere, he continues to insist that there is no necessary and one-to-one relationship between politics and culture). As usual, he attempts to be balanced and fair in weighing aristocracy and democracy against each other.
If ancient historians were unable to perceive general theories of history, today there’s a greater danger: democratic historians fail to identify the influence of certain great individuals, leading people to assume that change is involuntary and irresistible, and thus that they’re powerless to change anything themselves. This sense of historical necessity, or determinism, prevents any sense of individual responsibility for historical affairs—a great danger in an age when, Tocqueville argues, it’s important to empower the people, rather than presuming that they’re impotent.
Tocqueville makes a fascinating argument here about the ways in which a specific theory of history can actually affect the way people understand their own agency, responsibility, and place within history. Tocqueville’s own political aims—his general wish for improvement and political education—are particularly evident here.