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  • Compassion and the Softening of Mores
  • Clifford Orwin (bio)

In Volume II, Book III of Democracy in America, 1 Tocqueville contemplates the the homogenization of society (which he presents as synonymous with its democratization) and its consequences for mores (moeurs). As men become equal, they become the same; the French word égal conveys the sense of “sameness” as well as “equality.” These chapters thus invite us to consider, with the benefit of the hindsight denied Tocqueville, whether democracy is in fact a oneway street leading to increasingly universal sameness, and more generally, whether its effect on mores has been as Tocqueville predicted.

In Chapter 1, Tocqueville makes the striking claim that democracy in and of itself necessarily acts to soften mores. He illustrates this point in a powerful passage in which he quotes from the letters of Mme. de Sévigné. Throughout Democracy in America Tocqueville speaks of aristocracy not only as democracy’s predecessor but as its foil, as the great (if obsolete) contrasting alternative. Yet this is the only place where he presents an aristocrat speaking in her own voice. Here alone can we eavesdrop on aristocrats talking among themselves.

Mme. de Sévigné, he tells us, was a kind and loving woman. Yet along with much affectionate chitchat, her letters, written from the country to a grown daughter, recount the miseries imposed upon the local peasants by a ruinous tax increase and describe with satisfaction the atrocious punishments inflicted on those who resisted it. She even jests at the expense of the wretched victims. Thus Tocqueville compels us to feel the difference democracy makes. For it is almost unthinkable, [End Page 142] he notes, that any of his readers a century and a half further along the road to democracy would respond so callously to human suffering, and simply unthinkable that any who did would so openly express it: “The mores of society at large would forbid it” (II, 165).

Mme. de Sévigné, Tocqueville insists, simply did not regard peasants as members of the same species. She saw them as servants, as responsibilities, or as threats, but not as human beings. Her compassion, like her loyalties, was immured within the walls of class. She lacked all humanity in the strict sense of that term; her fellow feeling was not available to human beings as such. With the coming of democracy, by contrast, the tight bonds of caste and of feudal obligation stemming from it have fallen away; we respond to one another directly as human beings. Where all are more or less the same and equal, people readily identify with one another, and with one another’s misfortunes. The Americans, says Tocqueville, are the readiest of all people to succor their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (ch. 4).

This qualification is significant. Aristocracy, not democracy, is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. The obverse of compassion is individualism, and Tocqueville stresses that there is no contradiction between the two (ch. 4, also see ch. 13). As men become more equal and alike, they also become more isolated and more preoccupied with their own affairs. Compassion is the sole force that naturally tends to unite human beings whom almost everything else in democracy conspires to dissociate. By beginning his account of the influence of democracy on mores with compassion, Tocqueville puts democracy’s best foot forward.

Yet we might also conclude that compassionate urges—despite, or perhaps because, they are so impeccably democratic—pose a threat to liberty. In Tocqueville’s time, Americans practiced organized compassion through their voluntary associations. Since then, however, the general democratic tendency toward concentrating power in the hands of the central government has led to a situation in which compassion has been institutionalized in vast state-financed bureaucracies of caring. In fact, the main argument used to justify the “mild despotism” of which Tocqueville warned (II, iv, chs. 6–7) is that it is more compassionate. Today the man fallen among thieves will not be left to huddle in a ditch pending the mercies of a Samaritan who may not be making his rounds that week. But the price he will pay for the greater...