How One Philosopher in 1840 is Capable of Explaining America Today

As with all brilliant writing, one must share it if possible. This time it happens to be about a Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859), a philosopher who observed American society during his time and wrote two volumes called Democracy in America. De Tocqueville strove to explain every facet of American society and every underlying current at his time, but who would have known his work could be so relevant 175 years later?

My experience is with Volume II, covering everything from religion and public opinion to search for perfection, materialism, and gender equality. As with other works, I strive to portray a few interesting ideas from the text, but overall, as a book recommendation, it encourages a whole reading, at least in chapters. Here are some of his ideas:

Democracy Leads to Lack of Freedom of Thought
De Tocqueville was certainly not arguing against democracy, but he was noting on the phenomenon that may occur. The more equal people are in a nation, the more equal they feel to their fellow citizens and the more trust they may have in their opinions, enabling them to take them without question.  “In the US the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals” relieving them from having to make their own. Therefore, this increases the power which the majority holds over the mind, causing it to be a standard, and leading to lack of tolerance for individual thought.

Free Religion or Politics, Not Both
It’s often a wonder why a country such as the US, so liberated in many aspects, is still in the tight grips of religion. In De Tocqueville’s time, he had the chance to compare everything to the Enlightenment on the other side of the ocean. He remarks that Christianity seldom interferes in the political sphere so it is capable of holding a tight and unchanged grip, unlike similar establishments on the other side. Furthermore, he writes religious freedom (people not being firmly set on a religion) is incompatible with political freedom, because people need stability, which needs to be created by either a strong ruler, or a strong religion.

Search for Perfection
Why does the poor citizen of a hopeless village in Europe seem to be happier than the well taken-care-of middle-class American? You may read a tiny chapter on this here: “Why the Americans are So Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity.” De Tocqueville explains this is due to the fact that in the US, classes are in much closer proximity to each other, and therefore people perceive much greater mobility for themselves and are more likely to spend their lives chasing it. It seems “Man is endowed with an indefinite faculty for self-improvement” but not everyone is meant to reach the top.

Why Political Freedom Can Be Self-Destructive & Enlightened Self-Interest
Much like his worries on public opinion in a democracy, De Tocqueville also sees a path in a democracy for people to get too concerned with their private affairs  and he says “the better to look after what they call their own business, they neglect their chief business, which is to remain their own masters” and that “a nation that asks nothing of its government but the maintenance of order is already a slave at heart, the slave of its own well-being, waiting only the hand that will bind it.” Luckily, this problem is able to be addressed by the realization of the people that “chief business is to secure for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of those possessions which they have already acquired.” With that many Americans seem to have an “enlightened self-interest,” meaning even though their private concerns are of top priority, they recognize that they must participate in the political system as well, to protect their interests.

There is much more to be mentioned, but that’s why books are written, to be read. It is a striking work and hard to believe it’s not written for today as it glosses over so many problems we may think are only of this day. Timelessness is always a virtue, though one must wonder, is it the book, which is written to about democracies in general terms, or is it just history repeating itself in a country that hasn’t truly changed?

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