Alexis de Tocqueville on Individualism

One of the observations de Tocqueville repeatedly makes in Democracy in America is that equality, especially democratic equality, tends to dissolve the bonds between people that exist in societies that have a low possibility of social mobility, especially aristocracies. “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link” (508). At first it seems counterintuitive that the fewer divisions there are in a society, the greater would be the temptation for people to isolate themselves, or that equality and tyranny would have the same result in that respect. I would like to examine the relationship between the spread of equality and individualism, the way in which political freedom may lessen the effect of the one on the other, as well as de Tocqueville’s assumption that individualism is always harmful to a society.

De Tocqueville defines individualism as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (506), and asserts that it is an ill unknown in aristocratic countries, which have egoism, but not individualism. It seems that in an aristocracy each person is born with so many durable connections and obligations, not only to his immediate relations, but even to the memory off his ancestors, the hopes of his grandchildren, and the land on which he lives, that he would have to be an egoist in order to abandon them and retreat into the seclusion of himself and his own interests. In countries that are equal and democratic, on the other hand, where each person is expected to make it in the world by his own effort from a fairly young age, not only are those expectations not present to hold him to his place in society, but it would be impossible to be so, even if he wished it, because of the instability of the people and conditions around him and in which he would constantly find himself. It is difficult to have a steady concern for grandparents one knows nothing about, grandchildren who one can hardly imagine, and neighbors who may move away at any time and never return. It therefore seems reasonable that in countries where there is a great deal of social instability and few mutual obligations, people might “withdraw into the circle of family and friends.”

It then becomes a question to what extent individualist tendencies are inevitable and worth accepting, and to what extent they are destructive and should be resisted. De Tocqueville is of the latter opinion, though he does allow that individualism in America is “based on misguided judgment rather than depraved feeling” (506), unlike egoism.  It is a positive attribute of aristocracies that the people within them are “almost always closely involved in something outside themselves, and they are often inclined to forget about themselves” (507).  Among Americans, however, it seems far less certain that individualism is an altogether bad thing. There’s a certain romance of the “rugged individual,” living in his log cabin on the frontier, inventing some before unimagined technology, or creating a new business from nothing; people who succeed in defiance of the community they come from are often given higher accolades than those who do so on by and for it. There’s a fear of stagnancy in the face of communities that remain stable over several generations. De Tocqueville mentioned elsewhere that as America was a trading nation with a large frontier, it was almost necessary to hold an ideal that embraces the risk, instability, and isolation inherent in our position as a country. Because it was necessary that there be people willing to risk their fortunes and friendships in business ventures or moving out to the frontier, it was also necessary that such behavior be accepted and even commended. “As social equality spreads there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained and kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands” (508). Once this kind of seeming independence is a possibility, it also becomes a necessity, and dependence is a kind of disgrace.

The reasons de Tocqueville gives for considering individualism to be a misguided judgment are both political and ethical: it allows for a greater possibility of tyranny and diminishes the virtues of selflessness and love of ones neighbor — and, besides, self-sufficiency is a chimera, as no person ever lives by his personal efforts alone. The effect of individualism on morals seems worth considering, since there does seem to be a marked shift in our understanding thereof from other times and places. Have we traded a positive understanding of social responsibility: that we mutually assist and instruct each other, for a negative one: that we not interfere? De Tocqueville talks about aristocratic societies as a kind of chain, where everyone is bound by obligations to those above and below them, to their families, ancestors, future generations, and so on, and that this very often forces people toward interests and sacrifices in and for those outside themselves. Since he’s writing primarily to people who already understand aristocracy and wish to find out about democracy, there aren’t many illustrations of what kinds of links and obligations he means, but presumably it’s obeying the commands of rulers, caring for the well-being of servants, maintaining a family estate, marrying a suitable wife, not disgracing the family by outrageous behavior; perhaps even things like contributing to the building of architectural projects that require several generations, like a cathedral, and maintaining cultural patronage in the arts. In any event, Americans have no specific obligations of those kinds, though we do generally feel that we ought to contribute to charitable organizations of our choice, and not utterly abandon our parents or grandparents; but even in such cases the obligation may become void if it requires any noticeable sacrifice on our part. The aristocratic and peasant obligations presumably do not. But we do certainly have an obligation not to interfere with other people’s choices: to not impose ourselves, our values, our obligations, on others so long as they do nothing to impose on us. This is, of course, not true in every instance, but does seem to be generally so — that each person in a democratic and equal society may be required to help “society” in the form of monetary contributions to the government and organizations, but not to become personally involved. We set great stock in anonymity and privacy, which seems an effect of individualism. Perhaps obligatory bonds in equal societies tend toward being general rather than personal?

Because of the shift from a model wherein each person is linked to those around him in certain prescribed ways, to one wherein they are united only by necessity and voluntary associations, there has likewise been a shift from an obligation to obey and provide for certain known persons, to a more general obligation to see that no person in society at large is utterly destitute or deprived of his rights. The first is kept by fulfilling one’s specific place in society as well as possible, and the latter by setting up organizations, associations, and governmental programs. This is respectful and efficient, but also problematic, because, as de Tocqueville mentions, it leaves little room for love, inter-generational solidarity, and selflessness, replacing them with the cool pragmatism of “self-interest rightly understood.”

Individualism is likewise dangerous to society because when a large segment of the population is isolated and indifferent to the welfare of those around them, they become unwilling and then finally unable to band together to prevent tyranny, so exclusively do they attend to their own personal affairs. “Equality puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm. Despotism raises barriers to keep them apart. It disposes them not to think of their fellows and turns indifference into a sort of public virtue” (510). It’s a reasonable concern, though doesn’t seem to be much apparent in America; de Tocqueville credits this to America’s tradition of free institutions, and credits these institutions with not only preserving liberty, but combating the worst affects of individualism as well: “the Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality, and they have won” (511). The reason for this is that in politics all citizens are required to work together to achieve their goals and preserve their personal interests, however dissimilar their tastes, and however unlikely that they would choose to associate in their own private lives; they therefore come to realize that they need each other. Thus, free institutions provide for a defense against despotism, and also show the necessary interdependence of men living in society. For that reason de Tocqueville also asserts that “far more may be done by entrusting citizens with the management of minor affairs than by handing over control of great matters, toward interesting them in the public welfare and convicting them that they constantly stand in need of one another in order to provide for it” (511).

Of the trends that de Tocqueville mentions seeing in America, the one that seems to have changed the most is the high participation of nearly everyone in local politics. We still have city councils, boards of education, county offices, and so on, but he describes most of the population living in towns of several thousand, where everyone knows those in office, and are likely to have some town office or work themselves at some point in their lives. With the sift from towns to large cities, and the ever increasing movement of people (which was marked even then), and the concentration of power in federal government, is the use of political associations to counteract individualism still effective? Observationally, it doesn’t seem so: the majority of those in office, even at a city level, tend to do so as a career, and, more importantly, most of the people they serve do not know them. We do certainly talk about politics, but with the internationalization of media, especially TV and internet, it tends to be federal politics, for the most part, with people either of our immediate circle or impersonally, on blogs or message boards. If it is the case that the political vibrancy of America is no longer sufficient to combat the ills potential in individualism, are there other common interests that can replace local politic, or is there perhaps a way to revive the necessity that people assemble locally and in person for the establishment of common social goals?

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Translation by Lawrence, George (1969). Perennial Classics. Quotations are from Volume II, Part 2, Chapter 2-4.

5 thoughts on “Alexis de Tocqueville on Individualism

  1. Pingback: How ordinary petitions helped end slavery and make women into political activists - The Washington Post

  2. I found your post very useful. I am in the process of writing an article about how our individual rights have taken precedence over over obligations as citizens. May I cite a passage from your post? Peter

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