The Meaning of Equality

Equality is one of the key concepts in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. “Nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people”, he wrote. Yet, what did he mean by equality?

Today, we spoke to Professor Allan Silver, who has been teaching sociology at Columbia University for almost 50 years and who calls himself a “Tocqueville enthusiast”. Professor Silver said that equality for Tocqueville was a condition of society that assigns equal dignity and respect to all. The French writer was less concerned about equal political rights or equal economic status.

It is important, Professor Silver pointed out, to remember the historic context in which Democracy in America was published. Tocqueville wrote the two volumes of his book at a time when aristocracies still ruled in most European countries. One’s position and status in society was defined at the moment of birth. In the United States that Tocqueville visited, this was not the case.

In this excerpt from our conversation with Prof. Silver, he explains why equality, as Tocqueville understood it, is a “passion” and why it can never be fully achieved.

(Sorry about the poor audio quality.)

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