Alexis de Tocqueville on democracy, materialism and political economy

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 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)

Alexis de TocquevilleRichard 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 Swedberg’s 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.

The recent open-access English translation of Democracy in America by Prof.  James T. Schleifer is available here: pp. 1-277, 278-687, 688-985, 986-1569 including index.

The above mentioned quote in French is here.

Alexis de Tocqueville quote

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