Excerpt from De la démocratie en Amérique, by Tocqueville, on the conception of work by the Indians
Illustration from 1914
of native North Americans
“Men who have once given themselves up to the idle and adventurous life of hunters feel an almost insurmountable distaste for the constant and regular labor which cultivation requires. This can be seen within our own societies; it is even more apparent among those peoples for whom the habits of hunting have become national customs.
Independently of this general cause, there is one no less powerful and which is found only among the Indians. I have already indicated it; I believe I must return to it.
The natives of North America do not only consider work as an evil, but as dishonor, and their pride fights against civilization almost as obstinately as their laziness.
There is no Indian so miserable who, under his bark hut, does not entertain a superb idea of his individual worth; he regards the cares of industry as debasing occupations; he compares the farmer to the ox that plows a furrow, and in every one of our arts he sees only slave labor. It is not that he has not conceived a very high idea of the power of the whites and the greatness of their intelligence; but, if he admires the result of our efforts, he despises the means by which we have obtained it, and, while suffering our ascendancy, he still believes himself superior to us. Hunting and war seem to him the only care worthy of a man. The Indian, in the depths of the misery of his woods, nourishes the same ideas, the same opinions as the nobleman of the Middle Ages in his fortified castle, and he lacks, to complete resembling him, only to become a conqueror. Thus, singularly enough, it is in the forests of the new world, and not among the Europeans who populate its shores, that the old prejudices of Europe are found today.
Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy in America, Volume 1, Chapter X, 1835
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Analysis of this excerpt on the Indians’ conception of the work
In this excerpt, Tocqueville shows the Indians’ contempt for work. As a result, the Americans deny the Indians the right to own the land, because the Indians do not work on the land.
Thus it shows that the Indians consider work as an evil and dishonor. This disgust for work would come from pride:” a superb idea of one’s individual value“.
For them, to cultivate the earth is degrading: the men who work are like an“ox who traces a furrow”, i.e. exploited, like a slave.
However, the Indians do not fail to admire the results of the work, what the work allows producing. But the result may be admirable, but it was only obtained at the cost of work, and this work is despised:“if he admires the result of our efforts, he despises the means by which we obtained it”. It is thus a question of distinguishing between the result produced by the work, and the work itself, i.e. the means to produce this result. Thus, the end would not justify the means as far as work is concerned.
Tocqueville, in concluding that among the Indians“the old prejudices of Europe are found today” seems to justify the idea that the same conceptions of work were found among Europeans, notably the nobles of the Middle Ages.
→ Corrected Topic – “Dogmatic Beliefs” — Tocqueville, On Democracy in America
→ Analysis of the link between democracy and the study of science – Alexis de Tocqueville