French Political Leader, Historian, Writer
Alexis de Tocqueville, fully Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville
French Political Leader, Historian, Writer
The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrificed, but it suggest daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of person sin habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits. If the principle of interest rightly understood were to sway the whole moral world, extraordinary virtues would doubtless be more rare; but I think that gross depravity would then also be less common. The principle of interest rightly understood perhaps prevents men from rising far above the level of mankind, but a great number of other men, who were falling far below it, are caught and restrained by it.
Religion in American takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions... How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?
Men seldom take the opinion of their equal, or of a man like themselves, upon trust.
Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another, not does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.
It cannot be denied that democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart; not so much because they afford to everyone the means of rising to the same level with others as because those means perpetually disappoint the persons who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.
In the principle of equality I discern two tendencies: the one leading the mind of every man to untried thoughts; the other prohibiting him from thinking at all.
In democratic countries, however opulent a man is supposed to be, he is almost always discontented with his fortune because he finds that he is less rich than his father was, and he fears that his sons will be less rich than himself. Most rich men in democracies are therefore constantly haunted by the desire of obtaining wealth, and they naturally turn their attention to trade and manufactures, which appear to offer the readiest and most efficient means of success. In this respect they share the instincts of the poor without feeling the same necessities; say, rather, they feel the most imperious of all necessities, that of not sinking in the world.
A man who raises himself by degrees to wealth and power, contracts, in the course of this protracted labor, habits of prudence and restraint which he cannot afterwards shake off. A man cannot gradually enlarge his mind as he does his house.
In times when the passions are beginning to take charge of the conduct of human affairs, one should pay less attention to what men of experience and common sense are thinking than to what is preoccupying the imagination of dreamers.
It is important not to confuse stability with force, or the greatness of a thing with its duration.
Laws are always unstable unless they are founded on the manners of a nation; and manners are the only durable and resisting power in a people.
Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power or debased by the habit of obedience, but by the exercise of a power which they believe to be illegitimate, and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive.
Nations are less disposed to make revolutions in proportion as personal property is augmented and distributed among them and as the number of those possessing it is increased.
One of the most ordinary weaknesses of the human intellect is to seek to reconcile contrary principles, and to purchase peace at the expense of logic.
Taken as a whole, men will only devote their enthusiasm, their time, and their energy to matters in which their passions have a personal interest. But their personal interests, however powerful they may be, will never carry them very far or very high unless they can be made to seem noble and legitimate in their own eyes by being allied to some good cause in which the whole human race can join.
The power of the majority... is not unlimited. Above it in the moral world are humanity, justice, and reason; and in the political world, vested rights.
There is no country in the world in which everything can be provided for by the laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.
To commit violent and unjust acts, it is not enough for a government to have the will or even the power; the habits, ideas, and passions of the time must lend themselves to their committal.
We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all that is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What appears to me to be man’s decline, is His eye, advancement; what afflicts me is acceptable to Him. A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just: and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty. I would strive, then, to raise myself to this point of the divine contemplation and thence to view and judge the concerns of men.
When a child begins to move in the midst of the objects that surround him, he is instinctively led to appropriate to himself everything that he can lay his hands upon; he has no notion of the property of others; but as he gradually learns the value of things and begins to perceive that he may in his turn be despoiled, he becomes more circumspect, and he ends by respecting those rights in others which he wishes to have respected in himself. The principle which the child derives from the possession of his toys is taught to the man by the objects which he may call his own.
In times of revolution, people boast almost as much about the imaginary crimes they propose to commit as, in normal times, they do of the good intentions they pretend to entertain.
A democracy can obtain truth only as the result of experience; and many nations may perish while they are awaiting the consequences of their errors.
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasure. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasure, with the result that a democracy collapses over loose fiscal policy.
Amid the ruins which surround me I shall dare to say that revolutions are not what I most fear for coming generations?... It is believed by some that modern society will be always changing its aspect; for myself, I fear that it will ultimately be too invariably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same manners, so that mankind will be stopped and circumscribed; that the mind will swing backwards and forwards forever without begetting fresh ideas; that man will waste his strength in bootless and solitary trifling, and, though in continual motion, that humanity will cease to advance.