Document: "Alexis de Tocqueville to Gobineau" (1853)

Source: John Lukacs, Tocqueville: The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau (New York: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 226-9.

Saint-Cyr, near Tours, 17 November 1853
I owe you a number of excuses, my dear friend, for not having written you immediately and for having left your last letter unanswered for ten or twelve days despite my best intentions. My first failure resulted from certain embarrassments caused in my mind by the reading of your book and by my confused sentiments of criticism and praise. My fortnightly silence was, moreover, a consequence of my obligation to read a number of books I had borrowed from the Paris libraries which had to be returned. And now the point. I shall proceed differently from others: I begin with the criticisms.

They relate directly to your principal idea. I must frankly tell you that you have not convinced me. Every one of my objections persists. You continually speak about races regenerating or degenerating, losing or acquiring through an infusion of new blood social capacities which they have not previously had. (I think these are your own words.) I must frankly say that, to me, this sort of predestination is a close relative of the purest materialism. And be assured that should the masses, whose reasoning always follows the most beaten tracks, accept your doctrines, it would lead them straight from races to individuals and from social capacities to all sorts of potentialities.

Whether the element of fatality should be introduced into the material order of things, or whether God willed to make different kinds of men so that He imposed special burdens of race on some, withholding from them a capacity for certain feelings, for certain thoughts, for certain habits, for certain qualities -- all this has nothing to do with my own concern with the practical consequences of these philosophical doctrines. The consequence of both theories is that of a vast limitation, if not a complete abolition, of human liberty. Thus I confess that after having read your book I remain, as before, opposed in the extreme to your doctrine. I believe that they are probably quite false; I know that they are certainly very pernicious. Surely among the different families which compose the human race there exist certain tendencies, certain proper aptitudes resulting from thousands of different causes. But that these tendencies, that these capacities should be insuperable has not only never been proved but no one will ever be able to prove it since to do so one would need to know not only the past but also the future. I am sure that Julius Caesar, had he had the time, would have willingly written a book to prove that the savages he had met in Britain did not belong to the same race as the Romans, and that the latter were destined thus by nature to rule the world while the former were destined to vegetate in one of its corners. If your doctrine were to relate merely to the externally recognizable differences of human families and through these enduring characteristics assign them to differences in creation, it would still be far from convincing to me but at least it would be less fantastic and easier to understand. But when one applies it within one of these great families, for example, within the white race, then the thread of reasoning becomes entangled and loses itself. What, in this whole world, is more difficult to find than the place, the time, and the composite elements that produced men who by now possess no visible traces of their mixed origins? Those events took place in remote and barbaric times, leaving us nothing but vague myths or written fragments.

Do you really believe that by tracing the destiny of peoples along these lines you can truly clarify history? And that our knowledge about humans becomes more certain as we abandon the practice followed since the beginning of time by the many great minds who have searched to find the cause of human events in the influence of certain men, of certain emotions, of certain thoughts, and of certain beliefs? If only your doctrine, without being better established than theirs, could serve mankind better! But evidently the contrary is true. What purpose does it serve to persuade lesser peoples living in abject conditions of barbarism or slavery that, such being their racial nature, they can do nothing to better themselves, to change their habits, or to ameliorate their status? Don't you see how inherent in your doctrine are all the evils produced by permanent inequality: pride, violence, the scorn of one's fellow men, tyranny and abjection in every one of their forms? How can you speak to me, my dear friend, about distinctions between the qualities that make moral truths operative and what you call social attitude? What difference is there between the two? After, for some time, one has observed the way in which public affairs are conducted, do you think one can avoid the impression that their effects are the results of the same causes which make for success in private life; that courage, energy, honesty, farsightedness, and common sense are the real reasons behind the prosperity of empires as well as behind the prosperity of private families; and that, in one word, the destiny of men, whether of individuals or of nations, depends on what they want to be?