In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States while the country was still spiritually and philosophically close to the founding, but changing and expanding rapidly. The Frenchman compiled his observations in Democracy in America, still perhaps the most trenchant commentary on the American republic.
Tocqueville offered a vast array of perceptive insights about America. His question to an American sailor, as to why American ships were not built to last many years (as were European ships) pointed to a powerful faith in progress. The sailor, with a hint of disdain, claimed that “the art of navigation makes such rapid progress daily” that even the best ships would soon be useless. Planned obsolescence came early to America.
Tocqueville noted that, in that period, Catholic priests in America “keep their distance from public affairs.” They “show less taste for small, individual observances. . .[and] cling more to the spirit of the law and less to its letter.”
That tendency might have been one source of what later came to be called “Americanism” in the Church. But Tocqueville saw Catholicism as advancing in America, where many people had a “hidden instinct” that gave them a “secret admiration” for the unity of the Church.
Beyond seeking to understand America, Democracy in America had a larger purpose: to explore the implications of a grand historical change in the West from an age of aristocracy to one of equality. America was at the forefront of the new era, a case study of the new “democratic revolution.”
Tocqueville admired equality and its potential. But he saw perils as well.
He accepted the importance of dogmatic or fundamental beliefs both to individuals and to the political community, “for without common ideas there is no common action.” The most important of such beliefs are those of religious faith.
There will be religious authorities in any country, acknowledged or not. We will always have our gods. But Tocqueville worried that as equality accelerated, mass opinion would replace religious precepts – and become dogma. The power of mass beliefs “makes them penetrate souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on the intellect of each.”
Mass opinion, however ephemeral and even volatile, becomes a kind of democratic faith. This is dangerous because when “religion is destroyed in a people, doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.” This condition “cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the springs of the will and prepares citizens for servitude.”
Other dangers lurk in the era of equality. Equality gives people a taste for free institutions even as it intensifies individualism and exclusive concern for private interests.
Tocqueville saw two ways that this combination could play out in the loss of freedom. One was anarchy, but that was unlikely as most people simply don’t want a chaotic life.
The more subtle and more likely path to losing freedom lay through a paradox: as people demanded more and more individual autonomy, they would also demand a powerful central government to ensure that their neighbors could not interfere with their cherished rights.
The despotism that Tocqueville famously foresaw for free nations in times of equality was not the tyranny of absolute monarchs. It ruled “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Such people are strangers “to the destiny of all the others.”
This despotic government is not openly cruel. It is more like a schoolmaster: “absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing and mild. It would resemble paternal power. . .except that it seeks only to keep [men] fixed irrevocably in childhood. . . .It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the sole agent and arbiter of that.”
Its effects on citizens are devastating:
It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes 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 shepherd.
Its subjects show their human nature as rational and political or social animals only occasionally; they vote for representatives. Those brief moments of exertion 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 humanity.”
A wretched condition, which predominates in broad swaths of western societies including academia, media, the corporate world, the arts, and for many in our political class.
We are now at a point characterized by what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as a new paganism, hardened against the possibility of any dogma that limits our autonomy – which is to say against any moral order that we do not ourselves create, and a God who loves us and demands that we accept Him on faith for our salvation.
Today, we reject reason and destroy the language that expresses it. We blindly cancel that which we don’t like. We are not merely shepherded into our condition. We seek it eagerly.
Tocqueville could discuss the age of equality clearly because in his time it had a coherence, and aimed at a good of its own. Our day seems devoted to nothing, to lack coherence and substance, which makes it difficult to penetrate or rationally address.
Many observers have tried to diagnose this condition, some drawing on Tocqueville, but none so far with his uncanny prescience. Our age needs a new Tocqueville. And shepherds strong enough to lead us from the godless illusions of equality to the lost truths of dogma.
*Image: Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850 [Château de Versailles, Versailles, France]