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Individualism And Its Place In Society

1186 words - 5 pages

In their literary journeys to describe a great society, both John Stuart Mill and Alexis De Tocqueville encounter the dilemma of how to engage the people of a nation so that they take an active interest in their country and themselves, "The greatest difficulty to be encountered does not lie in the appreciation of means toward an acknowledged end, but in the indifference of persons in general to the end itself" (Mill, 120). In response to the question how does a government keep its citizens locked in to the events occurring around them, Mill and De Tocqueville both offer different answers. De Tocqueville proposes the very American idea that free institutions (i.e. unions) keep the populace interested, further he feels that individualism has little or no place in democracy at all. In stark contrast, Mill suggests that the individuality of a human should be nurtured to an extent where, " 'Individual vigour and manifold diversity' combine themselves in 'originality'" (Mill, 121). The choice as to which of these two very different theories lays the foundation for a stronger democratic nation comes down to a decision of whether or not individualism has any benefit whatsoever on a society. In response to this choice, I must posit that Mill's society, which has a place for individualism emerges from this debate as the stronger of the two. While it would seem logical that every person be entirely immersed in the affairs of their home- (town, state, country, etc…) as De Tocqueville holds, Mill's thesis makes allowance for the simple fact that human nature does not always drive one to look to the wellbeing of the democracy. Rather, sometimes it is our simple nature and in fact (as Mill would say) obligation to look to ourselves from time to time and consider that nurturing of the individual must be as important as the developing of a nation. Somewhere John Locke is smiling. Alexis De Tocqueville states in Of Individualism In Democratic Countries, "Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart…" (De Tocqueville, 98). Thus, De Tocqueville's opening of the chapter is dynamic, snide, intriguing and ultimately, shortsighted. De Tocqueville uses very friendly sounding words like "community" and "society" to paint the picture of a very beneficial institution and way of life. Mill, however, uses a different and perhaps more accurate word, "custom." Mill rightly feels that the acting of an individual according to his society is no different than conformity. Mill says of custom, The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best (Mill, 122).Mill's argument here clearly states the benefits of individualism...

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