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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Individualism and Self-Interest According to Alexis de Tocqueville

Individualism and Self-Interest According to Alexis de Tocqueville
The concept of individualism and self-interest was discussed on the last sections of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Accordingly, these concepts conjure the image of the 20th century United States, where self-interest, isolation, and despair exist within the society, serving as contributing factors to the development of despotism and tyranny. But how did de Tocqueville actually came up with these ideas on his book? This is the question that this paper seeks to answer by discussing the dynamics of self-interest and individualism according to the interpretation of the author.

 In order to further understand the author’s explanations, it is important to define the central themes of self-interest and individualism first. Individualism is the assertion of one’s own personality and will, but for de Tocqueville, individualism has a deeper meaning; it is a feeling of calmness which could dispose a citizen into isolating himself from the majority of the community, including family and friends. We can see that self-interest for de Tocqueville has a very different meaning, but what made his definition interesting is that he linked it with how the aristocratic responsibilities and dependencies affect the image of society in the 19th century United States (507). De Tocqueville stated that aristocracy, just like how tyranny and despotism works, could encourage other members of the society to withdraw from the masses and to support themselves individually. This concept undermines the goals of a participatory government, mainly because the community is afraid that aristocracy could bring something more than just ruling and creating laws for the people.

Self-interest, on the other hand, is the outcome of individualism, according to de Tocqueville. But self-interest has both negative and positive effects for the society. For one, it could result to non-enlightenment and unawareness, which is very close to being selfish in the long run (525). But when self-interest is properly understood, it could bring about change in the society, by knowing the difference between what is good for the general public and what is not. Self-interest, therefore, is a learned behavior that could be constructive and destructive at the same time – it can create virtue to foster self-advantage, which is very important in a democratic country like the United States. Virtue is what makes people outstand among the others when it comes to making decisions for the benefit of everyone, and not just for the unenlightened self-interest of some (526).

One important relationship of self-interest and individualism to the American democracy, according to de Tocqueville, is that it allows various political powers to be constructed. But these powers could either be positive or negative, depending on the interpretation and conceptualization of self-interest and individualism. For instance, there are individuals that, instead of spreading the power and freedom of expression to the people, are centralizing the power to make up the people, which could result to tyranny and despotism. De Tocqueville feared that even in a democratic country like the United States, despotism could still arise especially when power gets out of control and become centralized in one hand. Therefore, in order to maintain balance and harmony in a participatory government, the combination of powers should rest upon the individual rights of the people through development of education and creation of virtue. We could conclude this by backed up with de Tocqueville’s position that “…because union with his fellows seems useful to him and he knows that that union is impossible without a regulating authority, each individual is assumed to be as educated, virtuous and powerful as any of his fellows” (66).

Work Cited

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 1969. New York: Anchor. Print.

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