Equality and Ambition


Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

Discussion Questions

On the first chapter selection:
Of The Principal Source Of Belief Among Democratic Nations

1. How does Tocqueville define dogmatic belief?

2. To what extent does Tocqueville believe that dogmatic belief is of benefit to humanity? Why does he think that there could not be a society without dogmatic belief?

3. In what ways is dogmatic belief according to Tocqueville consistent or inconsistent with freedom?

4. What in Tocqueville's analysis is the source of dogmatic belief in ages of equality?

5. According to Tocqueville, do ages of equality give birth to pride or humility? Of both?

6. What kind of despotism does Tocqueville think most likely in ages of equality?

On the second chapter selection:
Why So Many Ambitious Individuals
and So Little
Lofty Ambition
are to be Found in the United States

1.In what ways according to Tocqueville does ambition flourish in democracy? Why does ambition take the form that it does?

2. In what ways in Tocqueville's analysis did ambition manifest itself in France as that country became more democratic? Why did ambition take a different form in France from that in the United States?

3. How does equality moderate ambition?

4. Why was Tocqueville less concerned with the dangers to democracy posed by ambitious individuals than that ambition would become an endangered species of human striving?

5. How would Tocqueville respond to Jefferson's argument that the natural aristoi arise in ages of equality?

6. What is Tocqueville's estimation of pride and humility?

Paper topics
1. How might we encourage lofty ambition today, given the problems that Tocqueville sees for ambition in ages of equality?

2. Do you think that Tocqueville was more concerned than Jefferson with the dangers that equality posed to thinking or to ambition? How are his two concerns related?

3. Would Tocqueville have more respect for the class which Jefferson calls the "pseudo-aristoi"? Discuss.

4. Compare and contrast Jefferson's and Tocqueville's view of the benefits of equality to humanity. How would Tocqueville respond to Jefferson's defense of a democratic social condition? Do Jefferson and Tocqueville defend or criticize democracy? Do they do so on "democratic" grounds?

5. Does Jefferson or Tocqueville have the greater faith in the potentials of human nature? Consider Tocqueville's discussion of "lofty ambition" as well as Jefferson's view of the natural aristoi.

6. Do Lincoln and Tocqueville give similar analyses of ambition and of its operation during times of revolution and during times of peace? Are there nevertheless differences in their accounts?

7. Compare and contrast Tocqueville's and Lincoln's views of the different forms ambition may take and the benefits and problems they pose.

Tocqueville Reading

Guide to unit 2

back to unit 2