Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alexis de Tocqueville

So we just finished reading this really great book in seminar by Alexis de Tocqueville called "Democracy in America". Tocqueville was a Frenchman who traveled extensively in America in the early nineteenth century, and the book is a study of democracies generally, seen through the lens of American democracy. I want to quote some portions from it pertaining to various issues that I think are relevant today.

1. Religion

"One must recognize that equality, which introduces great goods into the world, nevertheless suggests to men very dangerous instincts, as will be shown hereafter; it tends to isolate them from one another and to bring them each of them to be occupied with himself alone.
It opens their souls excessively to the love of material enjoyments.
The greatest advantage of religions is to inspire wholly contrary instincts. There is no religion that does not place man's desires beyond and above earthly goods and that does not naturally raise his soul toward regions much superior to those of the senses. Nor is there any that does not impose on each some duties toward the human species or in common with it, and that does not thus draw him, from time to time, away from contemplation of himself. This one meets in even the most false and dangerous religions.
Religious peoples are therefore naturally strong in precisely the spot where democratic peoples are weak; this makes very visible how important it is that men keep to their religion when becoming equal." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part One, Chapter Five

"Legislators of democracies and all honest and enlightened men who live in them must therefore apply themselves relentlessly to raising up souls and keeping them turned toward Heaven. It is necessary for all those who are interested in the future of democratic societies to unite, and for all in concert to make continuous efforts to spread within these societies a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.
If one encounters among the opinions of a democratic people some of those harmful theories that tend to make it believed that everything perishes with the body, consider the men who profess them as the natural enemies of this people.
There are many things that offend me in the materialists. Their doctrines appear to me pernicious and their haughtiness revolts me. If their system could be of some utility to man, it seems it would be in giving him a modest idea of himself. But they do not make anyone see that this should be so, and when they believe they have sufficiently established that they are only brutes, they show themselves as proud as if they had demonstrated they were gods.
Materialism is a dangerous malady of the human mind in all nations; but one must dread it particularly in a democratic people because it combines marvelously with the most familiar vice of the heart in these peoples.
Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments. This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes me to believe that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor. Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are propelled. It is good for them to see the peril and restrain themselves.
Most religions are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul. That is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives from beliefs, and it is what renders them more necessary to such a people than to all others.
Therefore when any religion whatsoever has cast deep roots within a democracy, guard against shaking it; but rather preserve it carefully as the most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries; do not seek to tear men from their old religious opinions to substitute new ones, for fear that, in the passage from one faith to another, the soul finding itself for a moment empty of belief, the love of material enjoyments will come to spread through it and fill it entirely." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Two, Chapter Fifteen

"Up to now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim - one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.
So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.
Religion, which, among Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it...When [men] attack religious beliefs, they follow their passions and not their interests. Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic they extol than in the monarchy they attack, and in democratic republics more than all others. How could society fail to perish if, while the political bond is relaxed, the moral bond were not tightened? And what makes a people master of itself if it has not submitted to God?" -Democracy in America, Volume One, Part Two, Chapter Nine

So there are several problems that religion will counteract in a democratic society. The first is inordinate love of material enjoyments. Tocqueville says that in democracies, where every man is free to make his own way in the world, and that where a lot of people will begin to experience material well-being for the first time, people will tend to get much too attached to these things and will become base and self-seeking. He also says that they will spend so much time looking after their own personal interests and trying to get as much wealth as possible that they'll want the government to take care of more and more other things for them, leading to a big centralization of power and eventually, despotism. Religion will help with this because it will turn people's minds away from material stuff and make them realize their duties towards other men as well. Also, religion will keep the majority from passing laws that will be hurtful to people. Funny, huh. These days, politicians will tell you that they keep their political life separate from their religious life. According to Tocqueville, religion is important precisely because it will help men to legislate correctly.

2. The role of women

"There are people in Europe who, confusing the diverse attributes of the sexes, intend to make man and woman into beings not only equal, but alike. They give both the same functions, impose the same duties on them, and accord them the same rights; they mix them in all things - labors, pleasures, affairs. One can easily conceive that in thus striving to equalize one sex with the other, one degrades them both; and that from this coarse mixture of nature's works, only weak men and disreputable women can ever emerge.
This is not the way Americans have understood the kind of democratic equality that can be established between woman and man. They have thought that since nature had established such great variation between the physical and moral constitution of man and that of woman, its clearly indicated goal was to give a diverse employment to their different faculties; and they have judged that progress did not consist in making two unlike beings do nearly the same things, but in getting each of them to acquit its task as well as possible. Americans have applied to the two sexes the great principle of political economy that dominates industry in our day. They have carefully divided the functions of man and woman in order that the great social work be better done.
America, among the world's countries, is the one where they have taken the most continual care to draw cleanly separated lines of action for the two sexes, and where they have wanted them both to march at an equal pace but on ever different paths. You do not see American women directing the external affairs of the family, conducting a business, or indeed entering the political sphere, but neither do you encounter any of them who are obliged to engage in the rough work of plowing or in any painful exertions that require the development of physical force. There are no families so poor as to make an exception to this rule.
Neither have Americans ever imagined that democratic principles should have the consequence of overturning marital power and introducing confusion of authorities in the family. They have thought that every association, to be efficacious, must have a head, and that the natural head of the conjugal association is the man. They therefore do not deny him the right to direct his mate; and they believe that in the little society of husband and wife, as well as in the great political society, the object of democracy is to regulate and legitimate necessary powers, not to destroy all power.
[This is also]the sentiment that the most virtuous women express: the others are silent, and one does not hear in the United States of an adulterous wife noisily claiming the rights of woman while riding roughshod over her most hallowed duties.
It is true that Americans rarely show women the ready attentions with which one is pleased to surround them in Europe; but they always show by their conduct that they suppose them virtuous and delicate; and they have such a great respect for their moral freedom that in their presence each watches his discourse carefully for fear that they be forced to hear language that offends them.
As for men, I shall not hesitate to say it: although in the United States the woman scarcely leaves the domestic circle and is in certain respects very dependent within it, nowhere does her position seem higher to me; and now that I approach the end of this book where I have shown so many considerable things done by Americans, if one asked me to what do I think one must principally attribute the singular prosperity and growing force of this people, I would answer that it is to the superiority of its women." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Three, Chapter Twelve

This one pretty much speaks for itself. The only thing I have to say is, "Ah, for the good old days."

3. Big Government

"Equality produces, in fact, two tendencies: one leads men directly to independence and can drive them all at once into anarchy, the other conducts them by a longer, more secret, but surer path toward servitude." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Four, Chapter One

So what is this path toward servitude?

"Men who inhabit democratic countries, having neither superiors or inferiors nor habitual and necessary associates [such as were the members of one's class in an aristocracy], willingly fall back on themselves and consider themselves in is therefore never effortless for these men to tear themselves away from their particular affairs to occupy themselves with common affairs; their natural inclination is to abandon the care of the latter to the sole visible and permanent representative of collective interests, which is the state.
Not only do they not naturally have the taste to occupy themselves with the public, but often they lack the time to do it. Private life is so active in democratic times, so agitated, so filled with desires and work, that hardly any energy or leisure remains to each man for political life.
I have also had occasion to show how the growing love of well-being and the mobile nature of property make democratic peoples dread material disorder. Love of public tranquility is often the sole political passion that these peoples preserve, and it becomes more active and more powerful in them as all the others are weakened and die; this naturally disposes citizens constantly to give the central power new rights, or to allow it to take them; it alone seems to them to have the interest and the means to defend them from anarchy by defending itself." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Four, Chapter Three

And what will things be like eventually when people, not wanting to be bothered with anything but their own private interests, have let the government take over everything common or public?

"I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasure with which they fill their souls...above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.
Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposed itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the vain will you charge these same citizens, whom you have rendered so dependent on the central power, with choosing the representatives of this power from time to time; that use of their free will, so important but so brief and rare, will not prevent them from losing little by little the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting by themselves, and thus from gradually falling below the level of is in fact difficult to conceive how men who have entirely renounced the habit of directing themselves could succeed at choosing well those who will lead them; and one will not make anyone believe that a liberal, energetic, and wise government can ever issue from the suffrage of a people of servants...the vice of those who govern and the imbecility of the governed would not be slow to bring it to ruin; and the people, tired of their representatives and of themselves, would create freer institutions or soon return to lying at the feet of a single master." -Democracy in America, Volume Two, Part Four, Chapter Six

So there you have it, folks. Doesn't that make you want the government to keep taking care of everything for us?


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