No Comment, Quotation — February 28, 2008, 12:00 am

Tocqueville on Arts and Sciences in a Democracy

delacroix-liberty

Du moment où la foule commence à s’intéresser aux travaux de l’esprit, il se découvre qu’un grand moyen d’acquérir de la gloire, de la puissance ou des richesses, c’est d’exceller dans quelques-uns d’entre eux. L’inquiète ambition que l’égalité fait naître se tourne aussitôt de ce côté comme de tous les autres. Le nombre de ceux qui cultivent les sciences, les lettres et les arts devient immense. Une activité prodigieuse se révèle dans le monde de l’intelligence; chacun cherche à s’y ouvrir un chemin et s’efforce d’attirer l’œil du public à sa suite. Il s’y passe quelque chose d’analogue à ce qui arrive aux États-Unis dans la société politique; les oeuvres y sont souvent imparfaites, mais elles sont innombrables; et, bien que les résultats des efforts individuels soient ordinairement très petits, le résultat général est toujours très grand.

Il n’est donc pas vrai de dire que les hommes qui vivent dans les siècles démocratiques soient naturellement indifférents pour les sciences, les lettres et les arts; seulement, il faut reconnaître qu’ils les cultivent à leur manière, et qu’ils apportent, de ce côté, les qualités et les défauts qui leur sont propres.

As soon as the multitude begins to take an interest in the labors of the mind, it finds out that to excel in some of them is a powerful method of acquiring fame, power, or wealth. The restless ambition which equality begets instantly takes this direction as it does all others. The number of those who cultivate science, letters, and the arts, becomes immense. The intellectual world starts into prodigious activity: everyone endeavors to open for himself a path there, and to draw the eyes of the public after him. Something analogous occurs to what happens in society in the United States, politically considered. What is done is often imperfect, but the attempts are innumerable; and, although the results of individual effort are commonly very small, the total amount is always very large.

It is therefore not true to assert that men living in democratic ages are naturally indifferent to science, literature, and the arts: only it must be acknowledged that they cultivate them after their own fashion, and bring to the task their own peculiar qualifications and deficiencies.

Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. 2, ch. ix (1840) in: Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 552 (Pléiade ed. 1996)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Article
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women
“The old framework of feminine mendacity and murky-mindedness is still routinely trotted out, and we should learn to recognize it for what it is.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Post
 
"Clothes are a bit like eating: you have to dress yourself. You have to eat, and even if you eat pizza all day long, that’s still a choice."
Photograph © G Powell
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch

Number of times President Obama mentioned “climate change” in his 2012 State of the Union address:

1

Heroin addiction in Afghanistan was determined to have risen by 140 percent since 2005.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today