Alexis de Tocqueville,
"Of Individualism in Democratic Countries"
Democracy in America
I have shown how it is that in ages of equality every
man seeks for his opinions within himself; I am now to show how it is that
in the same ages all his feelings are turned towards himself alone.
Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has
given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egoisme
(selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of
self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself
to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm
feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the
mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that
after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society
at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct;
individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved
feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity
Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue;
individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but
in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed
in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world,
which does not belong to one form of society more than to another;
individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the
same ratio as the equality of condition.
Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for
centuries in the same condition, often in the same spot, all generations become,
as it were, contemporaneous. A man almost always knows his
forefathers and respects them; he thinks he already sees his remote
descendants and he loves them. He willingly imposes duties on
himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice
his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will
come after him. Aristocratic institutions, moreover, have the
effect of closely binding every man to several of his fellow citizens.
As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and
permanent, each of them is regarded by its own members as a sort of lesser
country, more cherished and more tangible than the country at large.
As in aristocratic communities all the citizens occupy fixed
positions, one above another, the result is that each of them always sees a
man above himself whose patronage is necessary to him, and below himself another
man whose co-operation he may claim. Men living in aristocratic
ages are therefore almost always closely attached to something placed out of
their own sphere, and they are often disposed to forget themselves.
It is true that in these ages the notion of human fellowship is
faint and that men seldom think of sacrificing themselves for mankind; but
they often sacrifice themselves for other men. In democratic times,
on the contrary, when the duties of each individual to the race become much
more clear, devoted service to any one man becomes more rare; the bond of
human affection is extended, but it is relaxed.
Among democratic nations new families are constantly
springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change
their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of
generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten;
of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man
is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class
gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become
undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other.
Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant
to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.
As social conditions become more equal, the number of
persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to
exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or
retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants.
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire
the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone,
and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his
ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from
him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the
end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
SOURCE: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy
in America, vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), pages 98-99.
This document and others linked to it through
the America's Civil War World Wide Web site are produced and made
available for the non-profit educational use of students at the University
of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. Visitors to these pages are enjoined
against copyright infringement or for-profit applications.