For the purposes of discussing Tocqueville, individualism could be briefly defined as a focus on individual aims and beliefs over those of the collective. Today, Americans often think of individualism as working in tandem with liberty, but Tocqueville not only saw these two ideals as diametrically opposed, he also believed that individualism was one of the most negative and dangerous aspects of American democracy. Whereas Americans believed that individuals having the ability to strive for their own betterment was democratic and egalitarian, Tocqueville saw a world in which everyone was competing against each other for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of society as a whole. By eroding social and political bonds between people, Tocqueville argues, individualism leads to a materialistic society of single-minded people striving toward wealth rather than the common good.
Contrasting individualistic American society with traditional, French aristocratic culture, Tocqueville notes that, in aristocratic societies, landowners are reliant on each other, on the king, and on those who labor for them. But in the democratic, egalitarian society of the United States, many people have become just stable enough to be able to rely on themselves alone. Today, as in Tocqueville’s time, Americans tend to view self-reliance as a virtue. But Tocqueville claims that the true virtue lies in needing to rely on other people, since doing so creates ethical bonds between citizens that can potentially expand outward, such that people can consider all their fellow countrymen—even those they haven’t personally relied on—as being connected to themselves. These social connections may be abstract, Tocqueville concedes, but for him that doesn’t mean they are artificial or inconsequential. Indeed, he criticizes what he characterizes as Americans’ tendency to privilege “natural” ties of the family over social ties of citizenship. And while “egoism” or selfishness has always existed, Tocqueville argues that it’s only when democracy creates the conditions for people to live self-sufficient lives that individualism might become a threat to the fabric of society.
Tocqueville also argues that individualism is directly tied to materialism, or the privileging of wealth and accumulation above all else. In some ways, Tocqueville does admire what he sees as Americans’ constant activity: their incessant desire to start new commercial enterprises and make more and more money for themselves. This is, after all, part of what has made America such a uniquely stable democracy. But Tocqueville is also suspicious of Americans’ dogged pursuit of wealth, seeing materialism as a moral and spiritual failing, but also a natural result of equality of condition. Even if everyone is given the same chances, he points out, American society still privileges those who work hardest and accumulate the most wealth (rather than those who are born with impressive titles). If materialism is therefore an inevitable result of democracy—and thus an inevitable aspect of France’s own future—Tocqueville believes this is an inherently troubling aspect to an otherwise positive system of governance.
Individualism and Materialism ThemeTracker
Individualism and Materialism Quotes in Democracy in America
The great political agitation of American legislative bodies, which is the only one that attracts the attention of foreigners, is a mere episode, or a sort of continuation, of that universal movement which originates in the lowest classes of the people, and extends successively to all the ranks of society. It is impossible to spend more effort in the pursuit of happiness.
The jury teaches every man not to recoil before the responsibility of his own actions, and impresses him with that manly confidence without which no political virtue can exist. It invests each citizen with a kind of magistracy; it makes them all feel the duties which they are bound to discharge towards society, and the part which they take in its government. By obliging men to turn their attention to other affairs than their own, it rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.
In the ages in which active life is the condition of almost every one, men are therefore generally led to attach an excessive value to the rapid bursts and superficial conceptions of the intellect; and, on the other hand, to depreciate unduly its slower and deeper labors.
I am of opinion, upon the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world; but, at the same time, it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.
Variety is disappearing from the human race; the same ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are to be met with all over the world. This is not only because nations work more upon each other, and copy each other more faithfully; but as the men of each country relinquish more and more the peculiar opinions and feelings of a caste, a profession, or a family, they simultaneously arrive at something nearer to the constitution of man, which is everywhere the same.