Tocqueville’s Assumptions

From Theodore Caplow’s “The Current Relevance of Democracy in America” (The Tocqueville Review 7, 1985/86).

Underlying all of Tocqueville’s predictions is a set of assumptions as remarkable as the predictions themselves. They are brought into play whenever he tries to imagine the future. There seem to me to be at least six of these:

1. The persistence of major social institutions is taken for granted. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tocqueville did not anticipate the disappearance or the radical transformation of the family, the church, or the state. He anticipated that they would be modified but he did not underestimate their resistance to change.

2. The stability of human nature is taken for granted. No one was more sensitive than Tocqueville to fluctuations in human happiness and to the effects of new ideas, but he did not expect men and women to become much better or worse or otherwise different than history had shown them to be.

3. Social change is conceived as long-term. Tocqueville was almost alone among his contemporaries in ascribing the visible transformations of nineteenth-century society to trends that had been running for many generations; for example, he traced the trend toward equality-democracy back more than six hundred years.

4. Material resources and constraints are always taken into account in reckoning future possibilities. Tocqueville was considerably more respectful of economic facts than, for example, Marx and Engels.

5. The future is not held to be fully determined by the past. For Tocqueville, the future, viewed from the present, was an amalgam of probabilities based on past events and of contingencies arising from the exercise of free will. “Providence has,” he wrote, “in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong and free, and so are peoples.”

6. The causes of a historical event are not extended beyond the simple antecedents of the event by invoking social forces or other abstractions to account for them. “I detest” said Tocqueville in his Souvenirs, “those absolute systems which represent all events of history as depending upon great causes linked by the chain of fatality, and which, as it were, suppress men from the history of the human race.”

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