De Tocqueville’s Observations on American Culture

Volume I, Issue 2 –  In the early 1840s, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote on his observations of American culture, from politics to religion. In the book ‘Democracy in America’ he claims in the preface that he writes as a “friend” to Americans, from one who has objectively observed the culture as an outsider from France. He claimed that his main purpose in writing the book was to warn Americans of one issue that he believed would be destructive to a democratic country. The issue was INDIVIDUALISM:

“Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world.”

“Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more from depraved feelings; it originates as much in the deficiencies of the mind as in the perversity of the heart.”

“Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism. Egotism is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another: individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of conditions…”

“…As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands…[Democracy] can throw him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Alexis De Tocqueville, ‘Democracy in America’, Vol. II, New York: The Colonial Press, 1900, 104-106.

1 Cor. 12:12: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”

For further reading:

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations; Robert Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.