Tocqueville's Parallel Between Aristocracy and Democracy Reveals Pluses and Minuses for Both Regimes

Published: 2021-09-23 17:50:11
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Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, Democracy in America, is work of sociology which examines democracy in the United States. It is clear that de Tocqueville believed that democracy would inevitably prevail in the Western world. While that is important to note, the reality is, it does not provide an answer as to what de Tocqueville truly believed. Simply because he believes democracy o be inevitable does not mean he believes it to be the best mode of governance. With that said it is evident that there are qualities of democracy, in particular American democracy, that de Tocqueville admires. One object of admiration for him was America’s equality of condition. In terms of aristocracy he provides a number criticisms but, similarly, he lists positives. He sometimes discusses benefits of aristocracy implicitly by critiquing democracy. The aforementioned dualism in relation to both democracy and aristocracy make it impossible to say definitively whether Alexis de Tocqueville was an Aristocrat or a Democrat.
One particularly apt example of why it is difficult to judge de Tocqueville’s own beliefs comes with his discussion of the federal system in the United States. In terms of criticisms he has a number of this type of government. Using the metaphor “The Constitution resembles those beautiful creations of human industry that lavish glory and goods on those who invent them, but that remain sterile in other hands” (156) he describes one of the primary criticism of the federal system, it’s lack of universal applicability. De Tocqueville uses the example of Mexico and its failure in implementing the federal system. The second, and as de Tocqueville puts it, “The most fatal” (156) of the problems with the federal system is the “relative weakness of the Union” (156). This comes, as de Tocqueville mentions, from the fragmentation of sovereignty that is characteristic of the federal system. Despite these criticisms de Tocqueville reserves what can be regarded as high praise for the federal system. He uses the example of Maine and Georgia, two states which were about as far as possible in the old United Statees. He contrasts Maine and Georgia with Normandy and Britanny. He states “The different states have not only the same interests, the same origin, and the same language, but even the same degree of civilization” (158). This is just one example within a certain democratic system where de Tocqueville is unclear as to his particular opinion.Another example, similar to that of the federal system, is de Tocqueville’s discussion of general ideas. He presents a consequence of the democratic system and explains the positives and negatives of said consequence. In this instance one consequence of the American system is the capacity and favor for general ideas. De Tocqueville states “General ideas are admirable in that they permit the human mind to bring rapid judgments to a great number of objects at one time; but on the other hand, they never provide it with anything but incomplete nations, and they always make it lose exactness what they give it in extent” (411). It is not particularly important to discuss the specifics of the tendency towards general ideas, however, it is important to note that they are undoubtedly a result of the American democratic system. Thereby, even within a single sentence, de Tocqueville’s final opinion is unclear.
One point where it can be said that de Tocqueville is censuring democracy and praising aristocracy is in his discussion of the arts. Tocqueville says, “In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modeled in plaster”. This mass production of art is a central criticism that de Tocqueville has of democratic systems. De Tocqueville believes that, as a result of this mass production, innovation will be stymied. Moreover, despite his belief that literacy and a taste for art would be spread, he believed that it would be spread at a basic level, the level of the everyman.
On the other hand, de Tocqueville brings up positives of democracy which could not even be fathomed in an aristocracy. De Tocqueville says “Continual changes then pass at each instant before the eyes of each man. Some worsen his position … and he he tends ceaselessly toward the immense greatness that he glimpses confusedly at the end of the long course that humanity must still traverse” (427). (The entire quotation is relevant I just did not want to add the entire quote to the paper).
De Tocqueville recognizes that in the American democratic system an individual will understand his or her limitations. Moreover, as a result, an individual within this system will forever have the ability to perfect his or herself. This concept is just one of the many benefits of a democratic system that de Tocqueville discusses.
Alexis de Tocqueville in his work, Democracy in America, repeatedly avoids his own personal beliefs in his discussions. His work is far more observational than personal. This is evident when he discusses democracy and aristocracy. What de Tocqueville has compiled can lead one to no definitive conclusions as to whether he is an aristocrat or a democrat.

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