M. de Tocqueville on Democracy in America by J.S. Mill

The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, ed. Marshall Cohen (New York: The Modern Library, 1961)

Fascinating review of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America by Tocqueville’s colleague and correspondent, John Stuart Mill. The letter reveals the enormous respect Mill had for Tocqueville but also the differences between the two thinkers, even as both are rightly called liberals. Mill was much more sanguine that democracy could be well-directed from with the resources of the forms of democracy itself. Tocqueville was much less sanguine about the ability of democratic institutions to produce the kind of statesmen and thinkers necessary for democracy, and, one might add, for human flourishing.


The importance of M. de Tocqueville’s speculations is not to be estimated by the opinions which he has adopted, be these true or false. The value of his work is less in the conclusions than in the mode of arriving at them. He has applied, to the greatest question in the art and science of government, those principles, and methods of philosophizing, to which mankind are indebted for all the advances made by modern times in the other branches of the study of nature. It is not risking too much to affirm of these volumes, that they contain the first analytical inquiry into the influence of Democracy. For the first time, that phenomenon is treated of as something which, being a reality in nature, and no mere mathematical or metaphysical abstraction, manifests itself by innumerable properties, not by some one only; and must be looked at in many aspects before it can be made the subject even of that modest and conjectural judgment which is alone attainable respecting a fact at once so great and so new. Its consequences are by no means to be comprehended in one single description, nor in one summary verdict of approval or condemnation. So complicated and endless are their ramifications, that he who sees furthest into them will longest hesitate before finally pronouncing whether the good or the evil of its influence, on the whole, preponderates.

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