An Angel and A Brute:
Self-Interest and Individualism in Tocqueville's America

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.


The doctrine of sovereignty of the people is the principle of self-interest properly understood. Throughout his work Tocqueville infers that the most important element of democracy is not the mere machinery of government but the habit of relations among individuals and groups of individuals. Governmental structure may promote or interfere with certain of these relations, but Tocqueville does not shrink from asserting that the heart of a nation is the complex of customs and attitudes that make up the actual life of its people.

Providence has given each individual the amount of reason necessary for him to look after himself in matters of his own exclusive concern. That is the great maxim on which civil and political society in the United States rests; the father of a family applies it to his children, a master to his servants, a township to those under its administration, a province to the townships, a state to the provinces, and the Union to the states... Hence the republic penetrates... into the ideas, opinions, and all the habits of the Americans at the same time that it is established in their laws; and in order to change their laws, they would in a sense have to change the whole of themselves. (397)

This lengthy quotation establishes the basis for that "equality of conditions" mentioned by Tocqueville in the very first sentence of his book. American democracy draws its life from this principle; and Americans, says Tocqueville, treasure it above all other conditions. (503) But therein lie certain problems.

Tocqueville suggests that in the throes of this "passion" for equality, a people may be willing to sacrifice the equally valuable though far more fragile gift of freedom. (505) Democratic people

want equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery. They will put up with poverty, servitude and barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy... In our day freedom cannot be established without [equality], and despotism itself cannot reign without its support. (506)

Over the course of his book, Tocqueville develops a scenario by which such a despotism might impose itself...all from the positive seed of equality and the pursuit of self-interest. Briefly sketched, it is thus: Democratic ages tend toward political and civil freedom. This condition of freedom (in which men are able to pursue self-interest through associations) produces a high level of prosperity. In themselves these conditions discourage despotism because "the trading spirit and instincts of industry" are so resistant to a despot's interference. (539) Yet, Tocqueville notes that the pursuit of physical comforts so predominant in democracies may create an epidemic of unenlightened self-interest.

When the taste for physical pleasures has grown more rapidly than either education or experience of free institutions, the time comes when men are carried away...Intent only on getting rich, they do not notice the close connection between private fortunes and general prosperity. (540)

Tocqueville suggests that the next step to despotism may seem a very logical one to those under the sway of pure greed.

People passionately bent on physical pleasures usually observe how agitation in favor of liberty threatens prosperity before they appreciate how liberty helps to procure the same... The fear of anarchy long haunts them, and they are always ready to jettison liberty in the slightest storm. (540)

Under these conditions of fear, the despot may not be one man but rather a majority who willingly abandon libertarian principles and legislate their freedom away. The gentlemen described at the very beginning of this paper would seem quite ready to take these steps if they felt their "petty and banal pleasures" threatened.

Individualism rises as a threat when citizens no longer feel called out of themselves by the needs of the larger society about them. Through a contrast of democracy with aristocracy, Tocqueville indicates the way in which individualism not only isolates the citizen from his ancestors and his descendants but also creates a distinct rupture between himself and his contemporaries. (508) Equality of conditions creates "more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to hold much power over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs." (508) Here we see the delicate balance between power and freedom. The mean at which most citizens have enough to satisfy themselves (but not enough to interfere with their neighbor's pursuit of self-interest) produces a populace of individuals who each "imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands". (508) They lose sight of the larger social picture. Equality thus contains the seeds of its own destruction; (for a despot, Tocqueville notes, "calls those 'good citizens' who care for none but themselves"). (509)

We cannot but think of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman as Individualism Incarnate. Willy plods through life dreaming big dreams yet struggling to achieve the barest necessities for the sake of his family. That family is his horizon. But his ultimate defeat shouldn't be placed on his shoulders alone. He operated in a society that gave with one hand and took with the other. Willy could see no way out.

The same equality which allows each man to entertain vast hopes makes each man by himself weak...This constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind. (537)

A man so frustrated has nowhere to turn. "Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart." (508)

But another view of Willy may see him victimized by the condition Tocqueville labeled "industrial aristocracy". For, in spite of his dreams, Willy was not the self-employed, self-limited entrepreneur but was chained to the salary paid by an employer. True, Willy did not slave over an assembly line, but his servitude was no less real for that and was possibly more cruel. The maker of pinheads described by Tocqueville has been weaned away from his dreams; "his thought is permanently fixed on the object of his daily toll." (555) But Willy Loman's job let him maintain his illusions of equality and self-determination (and the dreams these conditions inspired) even in the face of manifest inequality and lack of freedom. As a wage-slave, Willy could have no recourse but to the most severe form of individualism. He could see no way to change his conditions through association with others and thus sank back to "the solitude of his own heart".

Miller's play, of course, expands on conditions that Tocqueville probably never expected to become so widespread. Yet the Frenchman would not be too surprised, because he envisioned the way in which "a natural impulse is throwing up an aristocracy out of the bosom of democracy". (557) It is ironic that a democracy's equality of conditions should ultimately produce such inequality. Tocqueville might consider such an outgrowth the result of the uncontrolled pursuit of unenlightened self-interest. The master does not see how his self-advantage is bound up with the self-advantage of his workmen. Their relationship is characterized by the strictest utility (represented as profit for one and pay for the other) without any other bonds of tradition or common concern. Industry is good. It meets the rapidly expanding demand for material goods in a free society. (556) But this very process creates a working class which is used like any other raw material over the course of production. Tocqueville saw, I think, that this class which approaches the condition of matter would stand as an enormous challenge to the pursuit of self-interest properly understood. For how could that virtue operate in the midst of such "permanent inequality of conditions"? (555-558) One likely outcome would find the working class asserting its equality through associations (unions) designed to raise workers from the level of raw material and establish them as a "self" with interests that are well-entangled with those of the masters.

Given this movement toward individualism and a brutal aristocracy, Tocqueville could have ended his study on a note of despair. But an organism contains within itself not only forces of sickness and decay but also of healing and continued well-being. Thus, while one aspect of equality pulls men away from society toward their own needs, another gathers them up in a frenzy of social involvement. This throws us back to Tocqueville's happiness with the administrative decentralization of American government. Such a system announces that nothing will be done (no roads fixed, laws enforced, schools run, fires fought, fences mended or taxes collected) without the direct participation of individuals on the local level. (65) For this reason individuals grow in an awareness that one man's self-interest need not exclude the self-interest of another. "As soon as common affairs are treated in common, each man notices that he is not as independent of his fellows as he used to suppose and that to get their help he must often offer his aid to them." (510)

Thus, while one side of equality stimulates competition (through the natural compulsion to establish status and identity above the crowd of society), another side teaches that cooperation is the only means of achieving any level of prosperity. In a democracy there is strength only in numbers. (515) Tocqueville sees the American obsession for forming associations as the ultimate and most natural recognition of this truth. It is also the surest way to stimulate social energies and resist the despotic tendencies inherent in an equal society.

Feelings are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon the other. (515)

In other words, a government cannot truly enthuse an individual; only a group of interacting individuals can bring life to a government.

Civil and political associations lead men back from the edge of desperate individualism through a regenerative engagement of self with others. Tocqueville grants an extraordinary power to these combinations: "If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads." (517)

Religion is an important counter-force to the constant pursuit of physical comforts and the materialism to which Americans are prone. Tocqueville's approach to religion is somewhat pragmatic. He recognizes the turbulence of his revolutionary times yet suggests that these conditions are not incompatible with widespread religious faith and tolerance as long as the church is not perceived as the enemy of liberty (through political-economic connections with the old regime). (300) Thus, American society, with very little history of church-state alliance and a constitutional guarantee against it, is especially open to the favorable influences of religious practice.

Tocqueville attends to the public uses of religion. He notes that all Christian sects propound the same morality ("Love God and love your neighbor as yourself"), thus "all agree concerning the duties of man to one another." (290) But Tocqueville has no illusions about the efficacy of religion directly applied to a society. It "is often powerless to restrain men in the midst of innumerable temptations which fortune offers," and can only be felt indirectly through the mores established by wives and mothers. (291) This could prove to be no small influence since Tocqueville considers mores far more important than laws themselves in preserving American democracy. (307)

It would seem that the most obvious service religion may perform would be to place some restraint on the Americans' mad dash for material wealth (a central effect of equal conditions). But Tocqueville notes a worldly tone among preachers who

are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this. (530)

He assures us , however, that this apparent contradiction merely shows the all-pervasive influence of "the doctrine of self-interest properly understood." Even religion must be justified under its aegis. Yet belief does necessarily move men (even those deeply committed to the pursuit of wealth) away from the materialist threat; "they will have a natural regard and secret admiration for the immaterial part of man, even though they sometimes refuse to submit to its sway." (545) In circumstances dominated by extreme material concerns, Tocqueville sees "a colossal reaction in the souls of men" taking the forms of extreme religious enthusiasms. (535)

A nation concerned about the future, with a vision of some distant accomplishment, is a vital nation. Religion, with its most distant of all visions, has traditionally molded human behavior accordingly. Tocqueville recognizes the fading impact of religious belief on the lives of modern nations (even though, as noted above, religious practice still serves a useful function) and he proposes an odd process by which governments, combating individualism and unenlightened self-interest through the stimulation of long-term goals, might actually turn their people back to religious faith. (547-549)

Throughout his work Tocqueville refers to the image of the human heart. Several of these passages have already been cited. This could be easily overlooked as the poetic phraseology of a wandering European romantic, but the regular appearance of the image brings to mind Tocqueville's judgment that

For them desire for well-being has become a restless, burning passion which increases with satisfaction. They broke the ties of attachment to their native soil long ago and have not found new ones since. (283)

This quest for well-being may necessarily employ the mind and the limbs of men, but desire is mythically rooted in the heart. Any understanding of human society and government must ultimately come to terms with "the nature of the beast". What lies beneath what any person calls his self-interest if not desire? With what caution should we approach the desires of others? How are people to be protected from each other in this mad surge toward satisfaction?

That which makes us better than the brutes in this is that we employ our souls to find those material benefits to which instinct alone directs them. In man an angel teaches a brute how to satisfy its desires. (546)

Tocqueville holds that humans alone among creatures must be taught how to become fully themselves. In this light democracy as governmental machinery, political exercise and social tradition is actually nothing more than a perpetual schooling in how people should live together for the greatest benefit of all. It is both the lesson and the teacher, the ultimate "learn by doing" curriculum. This self-education, because it is a long process, may be the truest education; because through direct involvement with their government, individuals and their associations become firmly rooted in the habits of democracy. Tocqueville comments on the luxury of time and space that supports this process: "the great privilege of the Americans is to be able to make retrievable mistakes." (232)

So much for the method of education. What about the content? Tocqueville might suggest that the single skill most necessary for the preservation of equality and freedom is the ability to recognize and respect the rights of self and others. Again, one can only learn this by seeing the vital connection between his private interest and that of the other. Thus, for example, "Everyone having some possession to defend, recognizes the right to property in principle." (238) This involves nothing less than the habitual exercise of Tocqueville's doctrine of self-interest properly understood. He might place this doctrine at the head of a list of virtues for a free society.

Do you not notice how on all sides beliefs are giving way to arguments, and feelings to calculations? If amid this universal collapse you do not succeed in linking the idea of rights to personal interest, which provides the only stable point in the human heart, what other means will be left to you to govern the world, if not fear? (239)

The sinister implications of this statement rise before us today as, in the international arena, nations and groups of peoples cannot connect the idea of rights to their private interest because their own rights have been so widely neglected (Palestinians in particular come to mind). Faced with such disregard, they find no acceptable alternative to the use of force. This reminds us that Tocqueville's principles can only operate within a self-defined community where mutual responsibilities are recognized. The world's long struggle toward community will proceed, but (to continue the metaphor) it has barely begun to go to school.

Within the American community, however, if the virtue of self-interest properly understood remains a vital part of the national curriculum, if it is regularly taught through the innumerable combinations of citizens seeking it in all the corners of their lives, then the country will remain secure. Tocqueville's prognosis is positive; he believes that this virtue "has no difficulty in keeping its power, for it turns private interest against itself and uses the same goad which excites them to direct passions." (527)

Some theories would have it that when a nation ceases to expand internally through economic growth and externally through increased influence over other nations it begins to die. Tocqueville might hold that such economic stagnation and international impotence are merely the effects of the nation having abandoned its education in virtue.

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
Mundelein, IL

The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour
Exploring Democracy in America
May 9, 1997 - February 20, 1998