Democratic ‘idiots’ according to Tocqueville

According to Tocqueville, any social group, even the lower classes, could feel the pride and dignity of belonging to an identified social cast. Modern democracies tended to prevent even the privileged classes from constituting a proper esprit: ‘Aujourd’hui, on voit encore des riches, mais ils ne forment plus un corps compact et héréditaire ; ils n’ont pu adopter un esprit, y persévérer et le faire pénétrer dans tous les rangs.’[1] A recent academic translation of the former passage has replaced ‘esprit’ by the expression ‘esprit de corps’: ‘Today, wealthy individuals still exist, but they have ceased to constitute a distinct and hereditary body capable of fostering and maintaining an esprit de corps, and instilling it in people of all ranks.’[2] The first English translation (1863) used the compound ‘class spirit’, [3]  adding ‘esprit de corps’ in parentheses in another passage where again Tocqueville only used the word ‘esprit’: ‘En toutes choses la majorité fait loi ; elle établit de certaines allures auxquelles ensuite chacun se conforme ; l’ensemble de ces habitudes communes s’appelle un esprit : il y a l’esprit du barreau, l’esprit de cour.’[4] In English:


The will of the majority is the most general of laws, and it establishes certain habits to which everyone must then conform; the aggregate of these common habits is what is called the class spirit (esprit de corps) of each profession; thus there is the class spirit of the bar, of the court, etc.[5]


For Tocqueville, esprit de corps was something of a pleonasm, hence the use of the sole word esprit. Democratic individualists can hardly form an esprit; etymologically speaking, they are ‘idiots’:


How do people remain their own masters? By maintaining the kind of community that secures their liberty. Freedom and community are not opposing forces any more than pluribus and unum. We are free so that we can create a community life so that, in turn, we can be free. Tocqueville’s singular contribution to our understanding of idiocy and citizenship is this notion that idiots are idiotic precisely because they are indifferent to the conditions and contexts of their own freedom. They fail to grasp the interdependence of liberty and community.[6]

[1] Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, p. 331.

[2] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Library of America, 2004), p. 403.

[3] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by Henri Reeve (Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1863), vol. I, p. 237.

[4] Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, vol II., p. 23.

[5] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. by Henri Reeve, p. 237

[6] Walter C. Parker, Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2003), p. 4.

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