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

Tocqueville on Arts and Sciences in a Democracy

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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)

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