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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Contractual History: The Proximity Between Men

What proximity do American men have to one another? Tocqueville constantly turns this question over throughout part II of Democracy in America. On pages 574-577, he explicates an illuminating liminal case of men’s interactions. He gives an account of the relationship between the master and the servant in democratic societies. The master and servant, once unified by history and mores under aristocracy, now turn to nothing but a contract to keep them together. Since the servant always knows he can “become the master,” he only offers his master his body and not his soul—for if he gave him his soul, he would close the possibility of becoming the master, thus revoking the equality granted to him by democracy. The contract, in replacing history as the link between master and servant, holds their souls apart. They cannot unify their interests.

In aristocratic society, the master and the servant unite their souls into one. Though they belong to different classes, “time in the end binds them together. Long-shared memories unite them, and however different they be, yet they grow alike.” The two unite through history—they share generational links, coevolving through time. The master “comes to think of his servants as an inferior and second part of himself,” causing him to “take an interest in their fate,” and the servant too “see themselves in almost the same way….sometimes identify[ing] themselves so much with the master personally that they become an appendage to him in their own eyes as well as in his.” The servant, “trained from infancy to thoughts of obedience,” primed to see himself as nothing but subordinate and ready to give his soul away, offers himself to the master.2 The master graciously accepts—the two unite their interests and blend their wills.

Democratic society eliminates both the servant’s priming of obedience and the historical bond between families. Rather than see himself as fundamentally degraded from infancy, the servant thinks he “may at any time become the master, and he wants to do so.”1 There is no hierarchy beckoning the servant to offer his soul to the master. “Within the terms of the contract,” writes Tocqueville, “one is servant and the other master; beyond that, they are two citizens, two men.”1 The master and the servant see one another as full equals. One is a ‘master’ and the other a ‘servant’ only in terms of paper. Their hierarchy is just a contract.

The master and servant are indifferent to one another. Neither “see a profound difference between them” and they “hardly ever have common interests.” Their “bodies constantly touch, but their souls remain apart.”4 The master and servant care little for the will of the other, though their physical . By means of this indifference, the servant retains his soul—he does not give up his interests to that of the master, remaining independent outside of the contract. Clutching his soul at a distance, the servant keeps the possibility of “becoming the master.” He remains equal to his master by caring little for him, by remaining separate yet similar to him.

In democracy nothing but the contract binds the servant to the master. The contract replaces history in binding the master and the servant together, constituting the content of the tie of their dynamic. Obligation fails to penetrate beyond motion—contracts can only go as deep as what servants do, and not what they think. The bond of the contract, by remaining at the level of the body, must be a transient tie. It cannot unify the two men’s interests.

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