Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a notable French political scientist and historian, best known for Democracy in America, a perceptive and groundbreaking analysis of the social, political and economic system of the United States. This four-volume book is brimming with insights and sharp observations. Let us look at and mull over this acute quote:
“While man takes pleasure in this honest and legitimate pursuit of well-being, it is to be feared that in the end he may lose the use of his most sublime faculties, and that by wanting to improve everything around him, he may in the end degrade himself. The danger is there and nowhere else…
Materialism is, among all nations, a dangerous sickness of the human mind; but it must be particularly feared among a democratic people, because it combines marvelously with the vice of the heart most familiar to these people.
Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments. This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that everything is only matter; and materialism, in turn, finally carries them with an insane fervor toward these same enjoyments. Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are pushed. It is good that they see the danger and restrain themselves.” (de Tocqueville 2007: 957-8)
Richard Swedberg’s very interesting and comprehensive book Tocqueville’s Political Economy (2007) focuses on de Tocqueville’s thinking regarding the economy and economics, trough readings of his two major books and many of his other writings. At the center of Democracy in America, Tocqueville produced a magnificent analysis of the emerging entrepreneurial economy that he found during his 1831-32 visit to the United States. More than two decades later, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville made the complementary argument that it was France’s economy and society that led to the Revolution of 1789. In between these two remarkable and widely known publications, Tocqueville also produced many lesser-known writings on such topics as property, consumption, and moral factors in economic life. As one can learn from the book, Tocqueville has greatly contributed to the field of economic sociology and political economy, and the time has come to feature de Tocqueville’s unique scholarship in this respect.
“Mais tandis que l’homme se complaît dans cette recherche honnête et légitime du bien-être, il est à craindre qu’il ne perde enfin l’usage de ses plus sublimes facultés, et qu’en voulant tout améliorer autour de lui, il ne se dégrade enfin lui-même. C’est là qu’est le péril, et non point ailleurs…
Le matérialisme est chez toutes les nations une maladie dangereuse de l’esprit humain; mais il faut particulièrement le redouter chez un peuple démocratique, parce qu’il se combine merveilleusement avec le vice de cœur le plus familier à ces peuples.
La démocratie favorise le goût des jouissances matérielles. Ce goût, s’il devient excessif, dispose bientôt les hommes à croire que tout n’est que matière; et le matérialisme, à son tour, achève de les entraîner avec une ardeur insensée vers ces mêmes jouissances. Tel est le cercle fatal dans lequel les nations démocratiques sont poussées. Il est bon qu’elles voient le péril, et se retiennent.”