Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 3, 1-17)

Are Americans soft-hearted idealists or hard-headed realists? Are we a people of cleanliness and friendliness or basically a bunch of slobs? Of course we’re not the same Americans that were living in the 1830s. Lifestyles have changed as much as the technology. But Tocqueville asks a question that is just a valid today as it was back then: Are we more sensitive than our fathers? Some folks would say absolutely. Just look how far we’ve come in civil rights, women’s issues and gay pride since the 1950s. Therefore we’re much more sensitive about these kinds of things than our fathers were. Other folks would say absolutely not. Just look at the movies and music today, not to mention the trash coming over the Internet. You call that being more sensitive? Would you want your mother to see and hear that stuff? The freedoms which are a democracy’s strength can also be its Achilles Heel. Tocqueville believed that freedom affected the way people behave in both aristocracies and democracies. His final analysis was: “Nothing does more harm to democracy than its outer forms of behavior. Many people who would be willing to put up with its defects cannot tolerate its manners.” Well that’s his opinion. He’s a Frenchman and you know how snooty they can be. But Tocqueville goes on to say, “In their relations with foreigners Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism…” Who, me? I’m not offended. Tocqueville understands that too. He points out that “Americans share a vindictive temperament…They hardly ever forget an offense but are not easily offended. Their resentment is as slow to kindle as it is to go out.”

One of the reasons Americans share a vindictive temperament is because we’re not really sure where we stand in the world’s eyes. We live in a society that’s constantly shifting and the rules keep changing on us. Tocqueville points out that “In the Middle Ages men believed in the immortality of families, social conditions seemed fixed forever, and the whole of society appeared so stable that they imagined that nothing was ever going to change within it. In times of equality men think in quite a different way. They readily imagine that nothing lasts and are haunted by the idea of instability…In democratic ages when everything is unstable the most unstable of all is the human heart.” In spite of all its problems the people living in the Middle Ages at least knew where they stood. Americans aren’t so sure where they stand – even in their own families: “From the moment the young American nears manhood the ties of filial obedience slacken from day to day. Control of his own thoughts soon extends to his own behavior. In America there is no real period of adolescence. At the close of boyhood the man appears and begins to trace out his own path.” Very few boys know where the path to manhood will take them.

If it’s hard on the boys it’s also hard on the girls. These “boys” are potential marriage partners. In aristocracies girls don’t have to worry because “In aristocratic countries, marriage aims rather to unite property than individual persons.” That’s not very romantic to Americans. What kind of marriage is that? Americans want to choose their own spouses thank you very much. But the fact is many American girls pick their husbands when they’re barely out of adolescence themselves. They have to grow up fast and Tocqueville admires that. He tells us “No free society ever existed without morals and…morals are made by women.” American girls have to be both soft-hearted idealists and hard-headed realists at the same time. Otherwise they may end up marrying a slob.


Post a Comment

<< Home