Of The Principal Source Of Belief
Among Democratic Nations
(Vol. II, Part I, ch. 2)
At different periods dogmatic belief is more or less abundant.
It arises in different ways, and it may change its object or its
form; but under no circumstances will dogmatic belief cease to exist,
or, in other words, human beings will never cease to entertain some
implicit opinions without examining them. If everyone undertook
to form his own opinions and to seek for truth by isolated paths
struck out by himself alone, it is not to be supposed that any considerable
number of people would ever unite in any common belief.
But obviously without such common belief no society can prosper
- say rather no society can subsist; for without ideas held in common,
there is no common action, and without common action, there may
still be human beings, but there is no social body. In order that
society should exist, and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper,
it is required that all the minds of the citizens should be rallied
and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot
be the case, unless each of them sometimes draws his opinions from
the common source, and consents to accept certain matters of belief
at the hands of the community.
If I now consider each human being by himself, I find that dogmatic
belief is not less indispensable to him in order to live alone,
than it is to enable him to co-operate with his fellow- creatures.If
one were forced to demonstrate to himself all the truths of which
he makes daily use, his task would never end. He would exhaust his
strength in preparatory exercises, without advancing beyond them.
As, from the shortness of his life, he has not the time, nor, from
the limits of his intelligence, the capacity, to accomplish this,
he is reduced to take upon trust a number of facts and opinions
which he has not had either the time or the power to verify himself,
but which others of greater ability have sought out, or which the
world adopts. On this groundwork he raises for himself the structure
of his own thoughts; nor is he led to proceed in this manner by
choice so much as he is constrained by the inflexible law of his
There is no philosopher of such great parts in the world, but that
he believes a million of things on the faith of other people, and
supposes a great many more truths than he demonstrates.
This is not only necessary but desirable. One who undertakes to
inquire into everything for himself, could devote to each thing
but little time and attention. His task would keep his mind in perpetual
unrest, which would prevent him from penetrating to the depth of
any truth, or of grappling his mind indissolubly to any conviction.
His intellect would be at once independent and powerless. He must
therefore make his choice from among the various objects of human
belief, and he must adopt many opinions without discussion, in order
to search the better into that smaller number which he sets apart
It is true that whoever receives an opinion on the word of another,
does so far enslave his mind; but it is a salutary servitude which
allows him to make a good use of freedom.
A principle of authority must then always occur, under all circumstances,
in some part or other of the moral and intellectual world. Its place
is variable, but a place it necessarily has. The independence of
individual minds may be greater, or it may be less: unbounded it
cannot be. Thus the question is, not to know whether any intellectual
authority exists in the ages of democracy, but simply where it resides
and by what standard it is to be measured.
I have shown in the preceding chapter how the equality of conditions
leads human beings to entertain a sort of instinctive incredulity
of the supernatural, and a very lofty and often exaggerated opinion
of the human understanding.
Those who live at a period of social equality are not therefore
easily led to place that intellectual authority to which they bow
either beyond or above humanity. They commonly seek for the sources
of truth in themselves, or in those who are like themselves. This
would be enough to prove that at such periods no new religion could
be established, and that all schemes for such a purpose would be
not only impious but absurd and irrational. It may be foreseen that
a democratic people will not easily give credence to divine missions;
that they will turn modern prophets to a ready jest; and they that
will seek to discover the chief arbiter of their belief within,
and not beyond, the limits of their kind.
When the ranks of society are unequal, and human beings unlike
each other in condition, there are some individuals invested with
all the power of superior intelligence, learning, and enlightenment,
while the multitude is sunk in ignorance and prejudice. Those living
at these aristocratic periods are therefore naturally induced to
shape their opinions by the superior standard of a person or a class
of persons, while they are averse to recognize the infallibility
of the mass of the people.
The contrary takes place in ages of equality. The nearer the citizens
are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition,
the less prone does each become to place implicit faith in a particular
individual or in a particular class of society. But his readiness
to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever
mistress of the world.
Not only is common opinion the only guide which private judgment
retains among a democratic people, but among such a people it possesses
a power infinitely beyond what it has elsewhere. At periods of equality
individuals have no faith in one another, by reason of their common
resemblance; but this very resemblance gives them almost unbounded
confidence in the judgment of the public; for it would not seem
probable, as they are all endowed with equal means of judging, but
that the greater truth should go with the greater number.
When the citizen of a democratic country compares himself individually
with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal
of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of
his fellows, and to place himself in contrast to so huge a body,
he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance
The same equality which renders him independent of each of his
fellow-citizens taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected
to the influence of the greater number. Public opinion has therefore
among a democratic people a singular power, of which aristocratic
nations could never so much as conceive an idea; for it does not
persuade to certain opinions, but it enforces them, and infuses
them into the faculties by a sort of enormous pressure of the minds
of all upon the reason of each.
In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude
of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus
relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody
there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and
politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we look to
it very narrowly, it will be perceived that religion herself holds
her sway there, much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a
commonly received opinion.
The fact that the political laws of the Americans are such that
the majority rules the community with sovereign sway, materially
increases the power which that majority naturally exercises over
the mind. For nothing is more customary in man than to recognize
superior wisdom in the person of his oppressor.
This political omnipotence of the majority in the United States
doubtless augments the influence which public opinion would obtain
without it over the mind of each member of the community; but the
foundations of that influence do not rest upon it. They must be
sought for in the principle of equality itself, not in the more
or less popular institutions which human beings living under that
condition may give themselves. The intellectual dominion of the
greater number would probably be less absolute among a democratic
people governed by a king than in the sphere of a pure democracy,
but it will always be extremely absolute; and by whatever political
laws human beings are governed in the ages of equality, it may be
foreseen that faith in public opinion will become a species of religion
there, and the majority its ministering prophet.
Thus intellectual authority will be different, but it will not
be diminished; and far from thinking that it will disappear, I augur
that it may readily acquire too much preponderance, and confine
the action of private judgment within narrower limits than are suited
either to the greatness or the happiness of the human race. In the
principle of equality I very clearly discern two tendencies; the
one leading the mind of every human being to untried thoughts, the
other inducing him to freely give up thinking at all. And I perceive
how, under the dominion of certain laws, democracy would extinguish
that liberty of the mind to which a democratic social condition
is favorable; so that, after having broken all the bondage once
imposed on it by ranks of society or by individuals, the human mind
would be closely fettered to the general will of the greatest number.
If the absolute power of the majority were to be substituted by
democratic nations, for all the different powers which checked or
retarded overmuch the energy of individual minds, the evil would
only have changed its symptoms. Human beings would not have found
the means of independent life; they would simply have invented (no
easy task) a new dress for servitude. There is - and I cannot repeat
it too often - there is in this matter for profound reflection for
those who look on freedom as a holy thing, and who hate not only
the despot, but despotism. For myself, when I feel the hand of power
lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me;
and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke, because
it is held out to me by the arms of a million people.
Why So Many Ambitious Individuals And So
Little Lofty Ambition
Are To Be Found In The United States
(Vol. II, Part III, ch. 19)
The first thing which strikes a traveler in the United States
is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to escape from their
original social condition; and the second is the rarity, in a land
where all are actively ambitious, of lofty ambition. No Americans
are devoid of a yearning desire to rise; but hardly any appear to
entertain hopes of great magnitude, or to drive at very lofty aims.
All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation
- few contemplate these things upon a great scale; and this is the
more surprising, as nothing is to be discerned in the manners or
laws of America to limit desire, or to prevent it from spreading
its impulses in every direction.
It seems difficult to attribute this singular state of things to
the equality of social conditions; for at the instant when that
same equality was established in France, the flight of ambition
became unbounded. Nevertheless, I think that the principal cause
which may be assigned to this fact is to be found in the social
condition and democratic manners of the Americans. All revolutions
enlarge the ambition of human beings: this proposition is more peculiarly
true of those revolutions which overthrow an aristocracy. When the
former barriers which kept back the multitude from fame and power
are suddenly thrown down, a violent and universal rise takes place
towards that eminence so long coveted and at length to be enjoyed.
In this first burst of triumph nothing seems impossible to anyone:
not only are desires boundless, but the power of satisfying them
seems almost boundless, too. In the midst of the general and sudden
renewal of laws and customs, in this vast confusion of all men and
all ordinances, the various members of the community rise and sink
again with excessive rapidity; and power passes so quickly from
hand to hand that none need despair of catching it in turn.
It must be recollected, moreover, that the people who destroy an
aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have witnessed its splendor,
and they have unconsciously imbibed the feelings and notions which
it entertained. Thus at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved,
its spirit still pervades the mass of the community, and its tendencies
are retained long after it has been defeated.
Ambition is therefore always extremely great as long as a democratic
revolution lasts, and it will remain so for some time after the
revolution is consummated. The reminiscence of the extraordinary
events which human beings have witnessed is not obliterated from
their memory in a day. The passions which a revolution has roused
do not disappear at its close. A sense of instability remains in
the midst of re-established order: a notion of easy success survives
the strange vicissitudes which gave it birth; desires still remain
extremely enlarged, when the means of satisfying them are diminished
day by day. The taste for large fortunes subsists, though large
fortunes are rare: and on every side we trace the ravages of inordinate
and hapless ambition kindled in hearts which they consume in secret
and in vain.
At length, however, the last vestiges of the struggle are effaced;
the remains of aristocracy completely disappear; the great events
by which its fall was attended are forgotten; peace succeeds to
war, and the sway of order is restored in the new world; desires
are again adapted to the means by which they may be fulfilled; the
wants, the opinions, and the feelings of human beings again find
their limits. Human beings find their level, and cohere once more;
and democratic society finally firmly established.
A democratic nation, arrived at this permanent and regular state
of things, will present a very different spectacle from that which
we have just described; and we may readily conclude that if ambition
becomes great while the conditions of society are growing equal,
it loses that quality when they have grown so.
As great wealth is subdivided and education spreads, no one is entirely
destitute of education or of property; the privileges and disqualifications
of caste being abolished, and human beings having shattered the
bonds which held them fixed, the notion of advancement suggests
itself to every mind, the desire to rise swells in every heart,
and everyone wants to mount above their station: ambition is the
But if the equality of conditions gives some resources to all the
members of the community, it also prevents any of them from having
resources of great extent, which necessarily circumscribes their
desires within somewhat narrow limits. Thus among democratic nations
ambition is ardent and continual, but in general it does not aim
very high. Life is generally spent in eagerly coveting small objects
which are within reach.
What chiefly diverts a democratic people from lofty ambition is
not the scantiness of their fortunes, but the vehemence of the exertions
they daily make to improve them. They strain their faculties to
the utmost to achieve paltry results, and this cannot fail speedily
to limit their discernment and to circumscribe their powers. They
might be much poorer and still be greater.
The small number of opulent citizens of a democracy do not constitute
an exception to this rule. One 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. One cannot enlarge his mind as he would his house.
The same observation is applicable to the sons of such a man; they
are born, it is true, in a lofty position, but their parents were
humble; they have grown up among feelings and notions which they
cannot afterwards easily get rid of; and it may be presumed that
they will inherit the propensities of their father as well as his
It may happen, on the contrary, that the poorest scion of a powerful
aristocracy may display vast ambition, because the traditional opinions
of his race and the general spirit of his order still buoy him up
for some time above his fortune.
Another thing which prevents those of democratic periods from easily
indulging in the pursuit of lofty objects, is the lapse of time
which they foresee must take place before they can be ready to approach
them. "It is a great advantage," says Pascal, "to
be a man of quality, since it brings one man as forward at eighteen
or twenty as another man would be at fifty, which is a clear gain
of thirty years." Those thirty years are commonly wanting to
the ambitious characters of democracies. The principle of equality,
which allows everyone to arrive at everything, prevents all from
In a democratic society, as well as elsewhere, there are only a
certain number of great fortunes to be made; and as the paths which
lead to them are indiscriminately open to all, the progress of all
must necessarily be slackened. As the candidates appear to be nearly
alike, and as it is difficult to make a selection without infringing
the principle of equality, which is the supreme law of democratic
societies, the first idea which suggests itself is to make them
all advance at the same rate and submit to the same probation.
Thus in proportion as individuals become more alike, and the principle
of equality is more peaceably and deeply infused into the institutions
and manners of the country, the rules of advancement become more
inflexible, advancement itself slower, the difficulty of arriving
quickly at a certain height far greater.
From hatred of privilege and from the embarrassment of choosing,
all are at last constrained, whatever may be their standard, to
pass the same ordeal; all are indiscriminately subjected to a multitude
of petty preliminary exercises, in which their youth is wasted and
their imagination quenched, so that they despair of ever fully attaining
what is held out to them; and when at length they are in a condition
to perform any extraordinary acts, the taste for such things has
In China, where the equality of conditions is exceedingly great
and very ancient, no one passes from one public office to another
without undergoing a probationary trial. This probation occurs afresh
at every stage of his career; and the notion is now so rooted in
the manners of the people that I remember to have read a Chinese
novel, in which the hero, after numberless crosses, succeeds at
length in touching the heart of his mistress by taking honors. A
lofty ambition breathes with difficulty in such an atmosphere.
The remark I apply to politics extends to everything; equality
everywhere produces the same effects; where the laws of a country
do not regulate and retard the advancement of individuals by positive
enactment, competition attains the same end.
In a well-established democratic community great and rapid elevation
is therefore rare; it forms an exception to the common rule; and
it is the singularity of such occurrences that makes one forget
how rarely they happen.
Those living in democracies ultimately discover these things; they
find out at last that the laws of their country open a boundless
field of action before them, but that no one can hope to hasten
across it. Between them and the final object of their desires, they
perceive a multitude of small intermediate impediments, which must
be slowly surmounted: this prospect wearies and discourages their
ambition at once. They therefore give up hopes so doubtful and remote,
to search nearer to themselves for less lofty and more easy enjoyments.
Their horizon is not bounded by the laws but narrowed by themselves.
. . .
I have shown elsewhere by what secret influence the principle
of equality makes the passion for physical gratifications and the
exclusive love of the present predominate in the human heart: these
different propensities mingle with the sentiment of ambition, and
tinge it, as it were, with their hues.
I believe that ambitious individuals in democracies are less engrossed
than any others with the interests and the judgment of posterity;
the present moment alone engages and absorbs them. They are more
apt to complete a number of undertakings with rapidity than to raise
lasting monuments of their achievements; and they care much more
for success than for fame. What they most ask of others is obedience
- what they most covet is empire. Their manners have in almost all
cases remained below the height of their station; the consequence
is that they frequently carry very low tastes into their extraordinary
fortunes, and that they seem to have acquired the supreme power
only to minister to their coarse or paltry pleasures.
I think that in our time it is very necessary to cleanse, to regulate,
and to adapt the feeling of ambition, but that it would be extremely
dangerous to seek to impoverish and to repress it over-much. We
should attempt to lay down certain extreme limits, which it should
never be allowed to overstep; but its range within those established
limits should not be too much checked.
I confess that I apprehend much less for democratic society from
the boldness than from the mediocrity of desires. What appears to
me most to be dreaded is that, in the midst of the small incessant
occupations of private life, ambition should lose its vigor and
its greatness - that the passions of humanity should abate, but
at the same time be lowered, so that the march of society should
every day become more tranquil and less aspiring.
I think then that the leaders of modern society would be wrong
to seek to lull the community by a state of too uniform and too
peaceful happiness; and that it is well to expose it from time to
time to matters of difficulty and danger, in order to raise ambition
and to give it a field of action.
Moralists are constantly complaining that the ruling vice of the
present time is pride. This is true in one sense, for indeed no
one thinks that he is not better than his neighbor, or consents
to obey his superior: but it is extremely false in another; for
the same individual who cannot endure subordination or equality,
has so contemptible an opinion of himself that he thinks he is only
born to indulge in vulgar pleasures. He willingly takes up with
low desires, without daring to embark in lofty enterprises, of which
he scarcely dreams.
Thus, far from thinking that humility ought to be preached to our
contemporaries, I would have endeavors made to give them a more
enlarged idea of themselves and of their kind. Humility is unwholesome
to them; what they most want is, in my opinion, pride. I would willingly
exchange several of our small virtues for this one vice.