Home » (Experimental Thoughts) » Hasty Thoughts. Two Tenuously Related Passages. Of Equality. Of Despotism.

Hasty Thoughts. Two Tenuously Related Passages. Of Equality. Of Despotism.

Despotism, which is of a very timorous nature, is never more secure of continuance than when it can keep men asunder; and all is influence is commonly exerted for that purpose. No vice of the human heart is so acceptable to it as egotism: a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to assist him in governing the State; it is enough that they do not aspire to govern it themselves. He stigmatizes as turbulent and unruly spirits those who would combine their exertions to promote the prosperity of the community, and, perverting the natural meaning of words, he applauds as good citizens those who have no sympathy for any but themselves. Thus the vices which despotism engenders are precisely those which equality fosters. These two things mutually and perniciously complete and assist each other. Equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie; despotism raises barriers to keep them asunder; the former predisposes them not to consider their fellow-creatures, the latter makes general indifference a sort of public virtue.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II.2.IV

Equality, an essential element of the democratic society, does the work on individuals that a despot would try to do by many schemes.

Plato suggested that a democracy was the closest form of government to tyranny and that it needed only a few small developments in the State to become one. He deemed an excess of “freedom” to be the cause of a democracy devolving into a tyranny, though the evidence Plato cites describes what might more accurately be termed, by ourselves and by Tocqueville, an excess of “equality”:

The father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom [read: equality], and metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either. . . . And these are not the only evils, I said—there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. . . . The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other. . . . [A]nd I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at anybody who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty. . . . And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

—Plato, Republic VIII

Here, although Plato and Tocqueville might agree about the closeness of democracy and tyranny, we see a key difference in their explanations for the connection between these two. Plato sees the devolution into tyranny as dependent upon the people’s over-reaction against authority while they are drunk with the freedoms of excessive equality, whereas Tocqueville sees how equality does the actual work that a tyrant would have to do in order to take power. Put another way, Plato sees despotism arising out of the people’s passion and ignorance, whereas Tocqueville knows that pride and reasonable egotism are to be blamed for giving despotism such an easy foothold.


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