The inconstant democratic character: A comparison of Plato's “Republic” and Tocqueville's “Democracy in America”

Carl Eric Scott, Fordham University


I compare the two works and find (1) that their two accounts of democratic character prove to be remarkably similar on a number of key points, and (2) that the similarity of inconstancy reveals the most fundamental aspect of the democratic character for both. Additionally, my comparison establishes that the two accounts similarly describe the basic democratic idea and its theoretical development. Plato tells us that the democratic man, in accord with his resolution to treat all his passions equally, lives a life that seeks to encompass all the various ways of life into one. This character trait, which I call inconstancy, is quite like what Tocqueville describes as the restlessness typical of the democratic person. This is seen particularly in the lives of 1830s Americans, who continually change residences and career paths, who feverishly pursue material acquisitions, and who are generally subject to ever-changing desires. My thesis is that for both Plato and Tocqueville the central aspect of the democratic character is this inconstancy. I show why we can compare them on this subject despite their different historical situations; this requires explanation of how both link a conception of the socio-political unit, the “regime” and the “social state” respectively, to the democratic character and idea. I then analyze the presentation of inconstancy in each by means of close readings of the relevant sections. In the course of doing so, I demonstrate a number of fundamental similarities but also highlight a number of important differences. Perhaps the most important of the latter is the way Tocqueville links inconstancy to modern social dynamism and to Pascal's conception of inherent human unhappiness. I nonetheless demonstrate the existence of common conception of democratic character centered upon inconstancy. I conclude by showing how this conception works with each thinker's judgment of mankind's overall political prospects, and that these judgments are not as pessimistic as is often assumed. The dissertation leaves us with the distinct impression that whatever the differences between the ancient and modern versions of democracy, it is grounded in a perennial idea and produces a perennial character.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Scott, Carl Eric, "The inconstant democratic character: A comparison of Plato's “Republic” and Tocqueville's “Democracy in America”" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3353779.