Liberalism, Democracy, and Character: Mill, Nietzsche, Tocqueville and the Problem of Democratic Character

Doctoral Dissertation


Against claims that concern for character has no place in liberalism, I contend that the liberal tradition does and always has recognized the importance of citizens’ character and, further, recognizes that there is a problem of character in liberalism. This problem is that liberal institutions, just like any regime, require a particular character in citizens to properly function, however, these institutions do not spontaneously encourage this character. Recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the importance of character to the liberal tradition from its inception, however, I argue that the problem of character in liberalism has drastically changed since this inception and this change has been neglected. This change is due, in particular, to a fundamental societal transformation: democratization, specifically the increasing demands for equality that became prevalent after the French Revolution. I turn to John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Alexis de Tocqueville, three thinkers who recognized the momentousness of democratization, to show the distinctive nature of the problem of character in a democratic age and to present solutions that show what would be required to address this problem. One central change that democratization has prompted is, to modify a phrase from Tocqueville, the intellectualization of freedom. The greatest threat to freedom in a democratic age is not anarchy or government, but society and the subtle and pervasive pressure it places on thought. That is, the greatest threat to freedom is the citizens themselves and their own habits of sentiment and intellect. This change elevates the importance of character formation because it is this character itself that causes concern. I present Mill and Tocqueville’s solutions to this problem and, though it is unclear that they can resolve the problem today, argue that they demonstrate the extent of the problem and so point to what future solutions must face.


Attribute NameValues
Author Vince Bagnulo
Contributor Catherine Zuckert, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Political Science
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2017-07-07

Submission Date 2017-07-17
  • Virtue

  • Democracy

  • Alexis de Tocqueville

  • Character

  • Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Liberalism

  • John Stuart Mill

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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