Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 1)

One of the main themes of Tocqueville’s book is the idea of equality. Without thinking too much about it the notion of equality permeates almost everything Americans do. It certainly affects the way we think and our overall outlook on life. Why is the notion of equality so powerful in America? Tocqueville explains that “Men who live in times of equality have much curiosity and little leisure time. Their lives are so workaday, complex, busy…that only a little time remains for thinking.” And because there’s not much time for thinking our thoughts tend to become superficial and our understanding of complex issues may be shallow. One of Tocqueville’s observations is that Americans look most of all for ideas that are useful. When considering religion many Americans begin with the question “What’s in it for me?” When considering philosophy many Americans begin with: “So what?”

This kind of straight-forward approach to life has its advantages and its disadvantages depending on your point of view. For example, Tocqueville believes that “Nothing is more vital to the study of the higher reaches of science than meditation.” What he means is that real scientific understanding requires lots of deep thinking. Unfortunately for Americans “Men living in democratic societies not only have difficulty with meditation but they entertain a naturally low regard for it. The state of society and the democratic institutions incline the majority of men to a constantly active life.” The disadvantage of this approach to science means that it loses much of its wonder and mystery for us. The great advantage is that we have turned scientific ideas into technological breakthroughs. We have learned to use nature for our own purposes. And that purpose is primarily for our own comfort. “Democratic nations…help to make life comfortable in preference to those which aim to adorn it. The useful will have preference over the beautiful and it is best for the beautiful to be useful.” In other words we sacrifice beauty for comfort.

Preferring comfort to all else sets a certain value on things. Because they like comfort democracies tend to develop a more materialistic outlook on life. This translates into a greater number of personal needs. So it’s not surprising that “one encounters in democracies a host of citizens whose needs are beyond their means and who would be all too ready to make do with an imperfect replacement rather than do without the object of their desire altogether.” Americans like nice things but we’re willing to make do with an inferior product if it helps us stay within budget. We may even put up with inferior books. Why spend $25 or $30 on a hardcover book when a $10 paperback will do just as well? Or why buy the book at all? Just save the ten bucks and check it out from the library. Which brings up a question dear to librarian’s hearts: what do Americans read? Tocqueville believes that readers in democracies have to be discerning readers: “Since they have only a brief time to devote to literature, they want to make the best use of it. They like books which are easily available, quick to read, and which demand no learned research for their understanding.” This is a rather odd interpretation of discernment. But it shows how the idea of equality leads to competition, which leads to hustle bustle to get ahead, which leaves little time for books. We only have enough time for little books. Democracy in America is a big old thick book and is tough going in spots. That may be the reason why Americans don’t read it much any more: it’s too big and too hard.


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