Thursday, July 11, 2013

From "intellectual dust" to great herds of mud

"When equality of conditions succeeds a protracted conflict between the different classes of which the elder society was composed, envy, hatred, and uncharitableness, pride and exaggerated self-confidence seize upon the human heart, and plant their sway in it for a time.  This, independently of equality itself, tends powerfully to divide men, to lead them to distrust the judgment of one another, and to seek the light of truth nowhere but in themselves.  Everyone then attempts to be his own sufficient guide and makes it his boast to form his own opinions on all subjects.  Men are no longer bound together by ideas, but by interests; and it would seem as if human opinions were reduced to a sort of intellectual dust, scattered on every side, unable to collect, unable to cohere [(une sorte de poussière intellectuelle qui s'agite de tous côtés, sans pouvoir se rassembler et se fixer)]."

     Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II (1840).I.i ("Philosophical method of the Americas"), trans. Henry Reeve, with revisions by Francis Bowen and Phillips Bradley ((New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), vol. 2, p. 7);  =II.I.i in Œuvres, ed. André Jardin (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), II (De la démocratie en Amérique), ed. Jean-Claude Lamberti and James T. Schleifer (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1992), 518.
     But as Tocqueville soon makes clear (for example, in the very next chapter), because "men will never cease to entertain some opinions on trust and without discussion" (8), the dust must soon begin to collect and cohere.
     What is worse, "in ages of equality", one's "readiness to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever mistress of the world."  For "The same equality that renders him independent of each of his fellow citizens, taken severally, exposes him alone and unprotected to the influence of the greater number.  The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but it imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence" (10).


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