Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare (Community)

Alexis de Tocqueville agrees with John Locke that property ownership is fundamental to the formation of political societies.  Locke wrote that “the great end of men’s entering into society being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety…”  Tocqueville agreed and noted “in no other country in the world is the love of property keener and more alert than in the United States.”  But Tocqueville looked at America and also saw a deeper bond which held the United States together.  It was a strong sense of community.  This communal chain had one especially weak link and Tocqueville once wrote prophetically that “if there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil.”  A civil war did in fact take place not long afterwards and it almost tore the country apart.

Aside from that catastrophe the United States has been the most stable democratic system the world has ever known.  It has been so stable that Tocqueville almost sounds prophetic when he proclaimed “I can easily, though vaguely, foresee a political condition, combined with equality, which might create a society more stationary than any we have ever known in our Western world.”  Except for the Civil War America has not been plagued with the conflicts that swept European democracies throughout the ages.  Tocqueville goes on to say that “one hears people say that it is inherent in the habits and nature of democracies to change feelings and thoughts at every moment.  That may have been true of such small democratic nations as those of antiquity. But I have never seen anything like that happening in the great democracy (America) on the other side of the ocean.”  What accounts for this relative stability of the American political system?  In Tocqueville’s view it’s because “men’s main opinions become alike as the conditions of their lives become alike… it must, I think, be rare in a democracy for a man suddenly to conceive a system of ideas far different from those accepted by his contemporaries.”  This uniformity of opinion creates a strong bond when citizens affirm the authority of the U.S. Constitution and have faith in the essential soundness and goodness of American political ideas.

But the uplifting political idea stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” also has a downside.  Political equality is the stated goal.  However, Tocqueville worries that “the general idea that any man whosever can attain an intellectual superiority beyond the reach of the rest is soon cast in doubt.  As men grow more like each other, a dogma concerning intellectual equality gradually creeps into their beliefs.”  In theory any American citizen can become President of the United States.  Can any American citizen therefore become another Plato or another Sophocles?  Tocqueville doesn’t think that’s likely in a democracy because “in aristocracies men often have something of greatness and strength which is all their own.”  In our recent readings Plato and Sophocles were great thinkers on their own terms and neither of them had much confidence in democracy.  Tocqueville explains that “in democracies public favor seems as necessary as the air they breathe, and to be out of harmony with the mass is, if one may put it so, no life at all.”  The modern era of social media seems to confirm his opinion.  Many young people today judge their worth by the number of “likes” they get on their cell phones.  Plato and Sophocles didn’t need “likes” to confirm what they were doing.  They already knew they were doing good work and didn’t need confirmation from fellow citizens.  In democracies popular culture is often an overwhelming influence and the average citizen thinks “he must be wrong when the majority hold the opposite view.”  Only very strong minds, in Tocqueville’s view, can swim against the tide of popular opinion and most Americans prefer the comforts of a community with shared values.  This is both America’s best strength and its worst weakness.


Post a Comment

<< Home