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Thursday, December 17, 2015

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Americans Are Restless (The Pursuit of Happiness)

Alexis de Tocqueville begins his essay with this observation.  “In certain remote corners of the Old World you may sometimes stumble upon little places which seem to have been forgotten among the general tumult and which have stayed still while all around them moves.  The inhabitants are mostly very ignorant and very poor; they take no part in affairs of government, and often governments oppress them.  But yet they seem serene and often have a jovial disposition.”  He could very well have been describing the Denmark portrayed in Isak Dinesen’s short story Sorrow-Acre.  In that story the young aristocrat named (ironically?) Adam had learned about “the great new ideas of the age: of nature, of the rights and freedom of man, of justice and beauty.”  The Declaration of Independence is filled with these great new ideas so Adam “wanted to find out still more about it and was planning to travel to America, to the new world.”  He didn’t go but what would he have found in this brave new world called America?

Tocqueville gives the answer.  “In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world…”  If he had stopped there Adam would think America was a newly created paradise on earth.  But then Tocqueville goes on to say “yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures.”  This sounds confusing and Adam might ask if “the pursuit of happiness” laid out in the Declaration was a blessing or a curse.  Tocqueville answers: both. 

It’s easy to see how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can be a blessing.  How can it also be a curse?  The Declaration promises all of its citizens liberty but it doesn’t necessarily promise all of them happiness.  It only promises them the pursuit of happiness.  Many of them won’t find it, even in America.  Why not?  Equality is a political goal never dreamed of in Adam’s homeland of Denmark; in fact, it’s not even viewed as a possibility.  In America things are different.  Americans view equality as both desirable and possible.  So they focus their political energies on accomplishing this goal.  Even though he admires America in many ways Tocqueville is skeptical this idea will ever work.  Because, he says, “men will never establish an equality which will content them.  No matter how a people strives for it, all the conditions of life can never be perfectly equal.”  People may strive for equality but they will never fully attain it.  If we substitute the word “happiness” for the word “equality” we come up with the same answer.  People may strive for happiness but they will never fully attain it and for much the same reason: “the conditions of life.”  And this, in Tocqueville’s opinion, is why Americans are often so restless.  Men will never be perfectly equal and they will never be perfectly happy.  But that doesn’t stop Americans from trying.  The “pursuit of happiness” is in America’s DNA.

This conclusion can be either depressing or an inspiration.  It’s depressing if the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of pleasure.  If that’s the case then Tocqueville thinks Americans will “never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.”  They’ll seem “serious and almost sad even in their pleasures” because they’re thinking about all the things they’re missing.  But Aristotle has a different idea of happiness.  He says “the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.” (IGB3, On Happiness)  Activity is certainly in America’s DNA.  Tocqueville thinks this makes Americans “restless.”  But if the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of excellence and virtue then the Declaration is an inspiration for everyone.  Tocqueville says these kind of citizens “do not give a moment’s thought to the ills they endure.”  They’re too busy building a better world to worry about the things they’re missing.  Tocqueville’s genius lays out the perennial pursuit of happiness, American-style.


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