Friendship in Democracy and in Tocqueville’s Democracy

49 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2010

Date Written: August 6, 2010


If, as David Walsh has argued, the strength and weakness of the liberal order is its inability to articulate the moral impulse upon which it stands, then Alexis de Tocqueville offers the most profound reflections upon this paradox as well as exhibiting the symptoms of it. Tocqueville recognized that democratic theory could not reveal the basis as deeply as the practice of self-government, as seen in his famous observation of its fruits: “Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.” This paper considers the tensions of the liberal order, as identified and reflected by Tocqueville, by considering his thought in light of friendship and its relationship with the theory and practice of self-government. It will argue that Tocqueville looked to something resembling the ancient understanding of friendship, which the ancients viewed as something “beyond theory,” as a means of ennobling the individualism of the democratic self. However, democrat modes of thinking undercut the very notion of “ennobling,” which suggests limits on the capacity of democrats at least to understand themselves. Tocqueville’s own sense of personhood, which owes much to Pascal, also led him to distrust friendship and to be unsure of the depths upon which it rests. The paper concludes with a consideration of how Tocqueville understood his own political science as an attempt to understand practices whose nature lies beyond the capacity of theory to understand.

Suggested Citation

von Heyking, John F, Friendship in Democracy and in Tocqueville’s Democracy (August 6, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

John F Von Heyking (Contact Author)

University of Lethbridge ( email )

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