Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 57 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville finds that as he attempts to survey his entire subject, he struggles to do so. The society he’s tried to describe is just coming into existence, still half weighed down by a former way of life. It’s impossible to know how many of these ancient institutions will disappear entirely; changes in laws, opinions, and manners are still in a process of flux. He sees no parallel in all of history to these changes.
Tocqueville returns to a conundrum of his project: he’s attempting to use history and ethnographic analysis to understand the present and look to the future, even as the ground seems to be shifting under his feet; while he’s made comparisons to other cultures and historical periods, none is entirely sufficient.
Themes
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Still, Tocqueville can make out certain characteristics: growing equality of condition, the leveling of wealth, the universalizing of the feeling of ambition together with the shrinking of its scope. Laws are becoming more humane even as energy of character is diminished; heroism is declining but so is cruelty; life is not brilliant, but easier and more secure. Genius becomes rarer as information is more disseminated. The arts are less exalted, but more abundant; the ties of race, rank and country are lessened but the bond of humanity grows stronger.
In this series of passages, Tocqueville returns to some of his central themes and arguments, while describing them as various aspects of a single process: the “middling” or “leveling” effect of democracy. For him this process has both its benefits and disadvantages, both sides of which he identifies in the law, in manners, in the arts, and in social bonds generally.
Themes
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Tocqueville is saddened by this universal uniformity, though he regrets the world of extremes between great men and insignificant men, wealth and poverty, and learning and ignorance, which allowed him to focus on the former categories alone. But he acknowledges that this is largely because he ignored the latter half—unlike God, whose sight embraces all things. If God prefers the greater well-being of all, perhaps this increasing equality is to him more just. On earth no one can affirm absolutely that this new world is better, but it’s certainly different, with different vices and virtues, different advantages and disadvantages. It wouldn’t be fair to judge it based on a state of society that no longer exists, as many of his contemporaries are doing: instead they should look forward.
Even as Tocqueville expresses regret for the lost age of aristocracy, he acknowledges that he was only able to embrace the best of what aristocracy had to offer because he (as a member of the privileged class himself) could afford to pay little attention to those ignored or harmed by aristocratic society. Again, Tocqueville inserts himself into contemporary debates in France about the direction society could take, as he urges his fellow thinkers—especially those who are similarly nostalgic for a lost age—not to cling to the past.
Themes
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Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Looking back over his own work, Tocqueville is apprehensive but also hopeful. He criticizes those who say that nations do not direct their own affairs but are determined by some inevitable power, by race or soil and climate. This is cowardly and false: instead nations should embrace their own free will, even while men are certainly limited by circumstance—but there is a large circle of fate within which people and nations are free to act, and the question is whether they will allow equality of condition to lead them to freedom or servitude.
Tocqueville makes a powerful argument against determinism (the idea that humans have little or no agency, but that instead their lives are determined by forces outside their control). While Tocqueville has traced the effects of politics on social conditions, he insists that such effects are not absolute or necessary—but instead that people might work to change their circumstances.
Themes
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Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
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