Tocqueville points out that while everyone in America is seeking to improve his condition, there is usually an upper limit to such ambition. No one contemplates aims much higher than property, power, and reputation. Tocqueville doesn’t think this can be traced to equality of condition, because increasing equality of condition has led to unbounded ambition in France. But he reflects that people who have recently overthrown an aristocracy are still affected by its spirit and tendencies (including that of lofty ambitions), which persist long after the revolution
Here Tocqueville elaborates on his earlier point that, while everyone in American is constantly striving, there’s not much creativity in the kinds of goals they strive for. Glancing back at France, Tocqueville seems to fear the unbounded ambitions of his fellow countrymen—however, he manages to explain these in a way that keeps alive the possibility of learning from the American example.
America, though, has arrived at a much later period in equality and democracy. As wealth and knowledge are diffused and disseminated, the desire for advancement also increases. But this same process prevents any one person from having far greater resources than another, thus limiting both ambition and desire. Democratic men strive and strain for small goals; even those who have attained great wealth also remain prudent and restrained, while their sons recognize that their parents were humble and thus avoid unbounded ambition too.
Here Tocqueville makes a political and historical argument for why Americans seem both eager to strive after economic and social improvement, but also are content to stop after achieving a certain measure of wealth (even after several generations). The ease with which wealth is lost and gained in America helps to explain their caution.
As equality increases, the means of advancement are slowed, since it’s difficult to distinguish people from each other: professions often require a number of petty small exams and exercises, checking the development of great desire and ambitions. China, for instance, long characterized by equality of condition, selects its public officers through competitive trials at every stage of their career.
At times, Tocqueville goes further afield than Europe and America: here he brings up China, to him an example of a radically democratic society, and thus one that has to deal with the same questions of limited ambition and restrained desire.
Democracies thus open up limitless fields of action, but also make the movement across these fields slow and gradual, such that people’s ambition is discouraged by their own desire, not by laws. Nevertheless, if anyone does, against all odds, come to have boundless ambition, there are no limits to it—making it even more dangerous than elsewhere. Tocqueville advises that it’s necessary to regulate and purify ambition, though it would be wrong to repress it. Indeed, he suspects that the pettiness of daily life in a democracy is of more danger than bold ambitions are: leaders shouldn’t seek to lull their people into contentment, but rather to provoke them into ambition from time to time. Pride may be dangerous in morality, but may be useful in encouraging people to yearn toward greatness.
Tocqueville continues to explore the paradox that the opening of ambition to everyone in a democracy actually results in more limited, constrained desires. At the same time, Tocqueville engages in the kind of thought experiment that he seems generally to enjoy, asking what would happen if one exception to the general rule slipped through. Still, he’s quick to discount that danger as he weighs the advantages and disadvantages of ambition and pride—here, less on the plane of individual morality than on that of social improvement and a society’s level of greatness.