De Tocqueville Essay, Research Paper
Dr. I. P. Freely
A.P. British Literature Portfolio
May 2, 1997
Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Aristocracy is a phenomenon that is perhaps as natural a summer crop, and as devastating as the locusts that eat it. De Tocqueville?s position on aristocracy is quite clear. He is a strong advocate of the aristocracy, it is a part of the natural order and necessary. His position may have some basis, however I have yet to see the ?upside? of a caste system or a good defense of it.
De Tocqueville believes that aristocracy provides stability and fellowship. De Tocqueville?s support of aristocracy is weak and ill founded. His first point of aristocracy is that of stability, ?Among aristocratic nations, as families remain for centuries in the same condition,?. Stationary families have the stability to resist most circumstances and become fixed. This also allows families to gain power that they have no real right to hold. Old things often become stagnant and rotten, as did the aristocracy when families intermarried beyond their genes capacity, as well as becoming corrupted.
De Tocqueville?s second point is that the aristocracy have great lineage and pay homage to their ancestors, ?A man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them;?. This is quite true, however De Tocqueville does not mention that because of the family ?blood?, wars have been fought, and many lives lost. De Tocqueville continues to say, ?He willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and latter [ancestors and descendants], and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications . . .?. It is a nice sentiment, however, history has taught us that it is rare to find a self-sacrificing person, and even rarer is the benevolent overlord. De Tocqueville?s argument lacks a solid and provable basis. The fact that aristocrats look only for their ancestors or descendants is a very self-centered act. They are concerned with only their family and it?s success. De Tocqueville does not mention the ?sacrifice? an angry lord makes for his serfs and servants by throwing them off his land. It would destroy De Tocqueville?s argument to show that lords were hard, if not cruel at times, on their tenets. History has proven it.
De Tocqueville tries to justify the isolation of the aristocracy by claiming that it binds people together by ?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 cooperation he may claim.?. A community bound by social class is often referred to as a slaving society. The people at the bottom of this system are indebted to those above with nowhere else to turn. The man who is bound to another of a higher class is most likely to be exploited, for in an aristocratic society one has only the aristocrats to turn to for justice. Unfortunately, a man needs justice most when he is mistreated by the aristocracy.
The aristocracy is ?closely attached to something placed out of their own sphere,? is another idea that De Tocqueville had of the aristocracy. In reality, the aristocracy probably had very little to do with anything outside of their ?sphere?. He also claims that ?they are often disposed to forget themselves.?. If aristocrats thought about anything besides themselves, then perhaps they would have eased some of the suffering in the world. They could not know or care about anything that was not in their immediate world. It is unlikely that they would be so out of their ?sphere? that they could have possibly known the poor man?s plight, or have cared. It does not hurt the aristocrat if families live on the street.
De Tocqueville concludes his avocation of an aristocratic system by discussing fellowship, ? . . . the notion of human fellowship is faint and that men seldom think of sacrificing themselves for mankind; but often sacrifice themselves for other men.? True, human fellowship is faint, however it is more faint in the feudal system. The aristocrats do not sacrifice for men. It is the masses who work for the few that sacrifice. The system is against the majority of people, the very people whose backs keep it running.
Fortunately, for the advocate of democracy, De Tocqueville gave a fine defense for it. All his criticism are the very ideas upon which Democracy is based. De Tocqueville felt that Democracy brings about equality and breaks the social structure. Oddly enough, I must agree with him.
De Tocqueville begins criticizing the stability of the democratic system, ?new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away,?. This creates opportunity for individuals to move up in social standing. The mobility of the democratic class system was designed to allow equal opportunity for people to decide their own position on the ?social ladder?.
De Tocqueville continues to go on and say, ?the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.?. This is true, though it is true in any political system. A man is more likely to know his neighbors. This does not seem to be a valid argument for or against democracy. In an aristocracy one can know many people form one class. In a democracy, it is possible to know a few people from all classes. Speaking further on the subject of classes, De Tocqueville remarks on the fact that all classes mingle, and ?its members become undifferentiated and lose their identity for each other.? De Tocqueville found one of the goals of Democracy. It is to equalize people, and give no persons special treatment.
De Tocqueville continues to uphold feudalism by claiming again that it binds people together. His metaphor for the bond was his greatest error. De Tocqueville plainly says, ?Aristocracy has made a chain of all members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.?. This is precisely what democracy is meant to do. A democracy is meant to free people from such slavery and servitude. De Tocqueville chose poor words in this statement. It is a rare occasion when the image of chains brings a pleasant or light feeling. Chains are meant to bind and restrain. The are meant to dehumanize. This, as De Tocqueville says, is what the feudal system does. Aristocracy creates chains which bind those on the bottom, with the leads of the chains held by those at the top. Democracy was founded on the belief of liberty, and with this foundation we try to break the chain of slavery so people can live lives of their own.
Equality is one of democracy?s foundations. De Tocqueville does not see this, however as he writes, ?As social conditions become more equal . . . [people cannot] . . . exercise any great influence over their fellows,?. The idea behind this strange equality is that people are free to make decisions with out the fear of outside influences.
Democracy, though it works as a system designed for the masses, also works for individual rights. De Tocqueville notes that, ?they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.?. This is a foundation of democracy, that we have right to life. This includes the right to shape our ?destiny?.
De Tocqueville wrote sensible arguments, save the fact that they were totally unfounded and not supported in any way. I cannot say whether it is better live under democracy or feudalism. It is possible to see that in most circumstances, a democracy is better for the people. In fact, it?s better for any person to live under a democracy, except for the aristocrat.