Not Heroic Virtues

From Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Goldhammer Translation):

What do you want from society and government? Clarity on this point is essential.

Do you wish to impart a certain loftiness to the human mind, a generous way of looking at the things of this world? Do you want to inspire in men a kind of contempt for material goods? Do you hope to foster or develop profound convictions and lay the groundwork for deep devotion?

Is your goal to refine mores, elevate manners, and promote brilliance in the arts? Do you want poetry, renown, and glory?

Do you seek to organize a people so as to act powerfully on all other peoples? Would you have them embark on enterprises so great that, no matter what comes of their efforts, they will leave a deep imprint on history?

If, in your view, these are the main objectives that men in society ought to set for themselves, do not choose democratic government, for it offers no guarantee that you will reach your goal.

But if it seems useful to you to turn man’s intellectual and moral efforts to the necessities of material life and use them to improve his well-being; if reason strikes you as more profitable to man than genius; if your purpose is to create not heroic virtues but tranquil habits; if you would rather see vice than crime and are prepared to accept fewer great deeds in exchange for fewer atrocities; if, instead of a brilliant society as a stage for your actions, you are willing to settle for a prosperous one; and if, finally, the principal purpose of a government is not, in your view, to make the nation as a whole as glorious or powerful as can be but to achieve for each individual the greatest possible well-being while avoiding misery as much as possible; then equalize conditions and constitute a democratic government. (pp. 281–282)


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