Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, May 25, 2012

TOCQUEVILLE: The Power of the Majority (Unlimited Power…)

This reading is taken from Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (parts of chapters 15 and 16).  Even today it’s about the best analysis of American society we have available.  What makes this book not just a good one, but a great one?  It’s great because of the questions it raises; it’s clear and powerful language; and the logical way it unfolds.  What are some of the questions Tocqueville deals with?  In this section he looks at the power, whether for good or bad, of majority rule.  There are both strengths and weaknesses to letting the majority decide political questions.  Tocqueville doesn’t try to pre-judge whether it’s better to have a democracy or a king.  He just tells it like he sees it: the moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and more wisdom in a great number of men collected together than in a single individual… Here’s a question that philosophers have been debating right from the start: Can a group of people generally make better political decisions than one person can do alone?  Some philosophers (such as Rousseau) claim that the only legitimate source of power is “the People.”  Even if the People sometimes make mistakes they will soon learn to correct them.  Other philosophers (such as Plato) say it depends on who the people are.  Plato believes that only “the best” should rule society and there may be only a small group of people or even only one man (or one woman) fit to rule.  So where are we most likely to find wisdom: in a large group (democracy), a small group (aristocracy) or one person (monarchy)?  This is a hard question.  Tocqueville doesn’t pretend to have the answer.  But he does help clarify the problem of majority rule when he asks: if it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? In other words, if your argument against kings is that a king might misuse his power; why do you think you’ll be able to trust a whole group of people with the same kind of power?  As Tocqueville points out: men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength.  He seems to think that majorities can be corrupted by power just as much as individuals can be corrupted by power.  Whether this is true or not is left to the reader to decide.  But Tocqueville can be powerfully persuasive himself just by the language that he uses.  Here’s how he describes the chilling effect that a majority holds over people who disagree with the majority viewpoint: You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow-citizens if you solicit their suffrages, and they will affect to scorn you if you solicit their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence in comparably worse than death.  This is great prose.  Tocqueville describes what happens to people who wander outside the boundaries of majority group-think.  In other places and times you might be executed for thinking too differently or too boldly.  This is what happened to Socrates.  In America that will never happen.  You won’t be executed but will be handed an even worse fate: you’ll be considered a little strange and then probably ignored completely.  Tocqueville doesn’t just describe how this might happen; he shows you what it would be like, what it would sound like.  This is a great book because it deals with substantial philosophical issues.  It’s a great book because Tocqueville writes in noble and uplifting language.  And it’s great because it proceeds logically to talk about the power of majorities to do both good and bad.


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