Tocqueville and the Tragedy of the Democratic Average

I agree that Tocqueville is not a prophet of American doom. But he does identify a tragic tradeoff: that there could be no first-best outcome in the wave of democratization he saw sweeping over the world. Or, at least not one that could simultaneously preserve the virtues of aristocratic society while providing the benefits of democratic society.

It is a recognition of this tragic tradeoff that I miss in the current debate among conservatives over liberalism and globalization more generally. The tragic sense in Tocqueville is not that he did not see great good in the coming democratic era. He did. But he also saw the world losing something irreplaceable with the eclipse of aristocratic society.

At the end of Democracy in America Tocqueville laments, “I scan my eyes over this numberless mass composed of similar beings, where nothing rises to a higher level or sinks to a lower one. The spectacle of this universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to long for the society that no longer exists.”

The society that no longer exists for which Tocqueville pines is, of course, aristocratic society. But he quickly adds that he makes “every effort” to resist this pining. In compensation for this loss, democracy brings “exceptional prosperity” to the world.

Yet the virtues and vices of each type of society, democratic versus aristocratic, are so different as to be almost incommensurable. Each is so different as almost to reflect “two distinct humanities, each of which has its particular advantages and disadvantages, its goods and its evils that are proper to it.”

Earlier, Tocqueville sketches the advantages and disadvantages of these two worlds. He first identifies what aristocratic society offers humanity that democratic society cannot:

Do you want to give the human spirit a certain nobility, a generous fashion of envisioning the things of this world? Do you want to inspire in men a sort of contempt for material goods? Do you desire to bring about or to maintain profound convictions and prepare great devotions?

Is it a matter for you of polishing mores, of elevating manners, of making the arts shine? Do you want poetry, éclat, glory?

Do you claim to organize a people in a way to act strongly on all others? Do you intend it to attempt great undertakings, and, whatever the result of its efforts, to leave an immense trace in history?

If such, in your view, is the principal object that men must propose for themselves in society, do not opt for the government of democracy; it would not lead you with certainty to the goal.

Democratic society, on the other hand, is not silent in the face of this charge. Tocqueville continues:

But if it seems useful to you to divert the intellectual and moral activity of man toward the necessities of material life, and to use it to produce well-being; if reason appears to you more profitable to men than genius; if your object is not to create heroic virtues, but peaceful habits; if you like to see vices more than crimes, and prefer to find fewer great actions, on the condition of encountering fewer cases of heinous crimes; if, instead of acting within the bosom of a brilliant society, it is enough for you to live in the midst of a prosperous society; if, finally, in your view, the principal object of a government is not to give the entire body of the nation the most strength or the most glory possible, but to provide for each of the individuals that make up the society the most well-being and to avoid the most misery; then equalize conditions and constitute democratic government.

This is a tragic choice. On the one hand, Tocqueville sees God on the side of universal prosperity. He states that explicitly. But, ah, he will miss the poetry, the brilliance, and the glory of aristocratic society, even as it came at the cost of greater ignorance, poverty, and cruelty.

For Tocqueville, aristocratic society offers humanity greater variance, but a lower mean. Democratic society offers humanity a higher mean, but lower variance. And that’s the rub of the incommensurability of the two worlds.

Democracy’s lower variance relative to aristocracy means less poverty, and that’s good. But it also means less poetry, éclat, and glory. While aristocratic society offers these benefits, they come at a heavy human cost. Yet despite the cost, they also represent humanity at its best. Trading these aspirations for a full belly, for Tocqueville, represents a loss, a tragic loss, of an important bit of what makes us truly human.

It is Tocqueville’s recognition of the tragic that I wish conservatism today would pick up more generally as we attempt to negotiate a way between market and political liberalism versus solidarity, today’s global iteration of the tension between gemeinschaft versus gesellschaft.

As for Tocqueville, however, I don’t disagree with his resolution of the choice in his mind, if not in his heart. It is a good thing to feed the body. At the same time, when reading these passages, I can’t help but sense that Tocqueville believes humanity is losing a real part of its soul in the transition he outlines. But is it the sort of profit where we gain the whole world but lose our souls?

Reader Discussion

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on March 20, 2018 at 11:12:29 am

Consider the Great Pyramid of Giza, built 2580–2560 BCE. Each of us is closer in time to Jesus, Caesar, and Cleopatra than they were to that pyramid. Yet it endures, and can even be seen from space. If your goal is to leave a mark that will be remembered, you should want to live in am aristocratic society like Ancient Egypt.

Which begs the question: How much should we value being remembered? Is that kind of aspiration ennobling--or just a prideful temptation away from the goal of loving our fellow man? When we consider how those resources might otherwise have been used, should we look upon the Great Pyramid as a timeless testament to the Pharaohs' shameful indifference toward their people's well-being?

In contrast, consider the early Christian communes: They practiced such radical humility and indifference to material possessions that we have very little material culture remaining--basically just some scroll scraps. Of course, being remembered was not a high priority for them, given their belief that the end of the world was imminent. Yet, ironically, some version of their worldview has endured even as Pharaoh's faded away. Go figure.

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on March 20, 2018 at 16:23:01 pm

Giving an answer to Prof. Rogers closing question, " But is it the sort of profit where we gain the whole world but lose our souls?" for Tocqueville possibly, but speaking as a Christian who views time given to us here in this life but "as a grain of sand on an ocean beach" is that minute as to compare to what Eternity will be in the next life to come. Yes, there are trade-offs in what choices we make as we try to leave this world a little better than when we first entered. Aristocracy was a monument to those living in a bygone era, the Great Pyramid to yet another but as we know both were built at great human costs. The true answer is that this world is "not our home" and because we are formed in the image and likeness of God, the Author of all things, attempting to gain earthly riches leads one to a fruitless future because upon death in this life it all remains here. What one is building that will transcend into Eternity, and the saving of one's soul, is the lasting epitaph which one should be endeavoring to achieve and leave. How one is remembered spiritually and in the thoughts of them whom he/she impacted while here, and not that which one leaves physically for the world to view, is a more profitable goal that is never divided up after one dies but continues to grow in the minds and spirit of those left behind to move forward. Tocqueville was witnessing the end of an era and the beginning of a new experiment in history. The idea, not a monument, is still here and growing in various ways but it too will come to an end. Is there or even will there be yet another idea greater than this one of democracy around the corner? Only God knows. Ideas, not monuments, make the lasting impressions in history.

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Gary R. Miller
on March 21, 2018 at 11:44:36 am

I enjoyed reading this very Tocquevillian post, which connects to my earlier post on Tocqueville not being a prophet of American doom. I had originally thought of titling it "the Greatness of Peter Lawler's Pascalian Tocqueville," but I'll admit that doesn't have much of a ring to it.
But the "Greatness" issue is what I was really trying to focus on, that for Tocqueville there are different KINDS of Greatness we'll be able to find in different ages (aristocratic, democratic, or whatever), because the human soul is always still there. Limiting yourself to only considering one type of greatness (such as Pyramid building) will lead you to say radical and inhuman things like Orson Well's character in "The Third Man" movie did ("in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.")

Peter Lawler argued that restaurants like Waffle House, McDonald's, and Panera Bread only SEEM like cheap places to get "a full belly," replacing more expensive and distinctive local cafes and diners of bygone times in America. But if you actually go to Waffle House at night (or McDonald's in the morning when old people go) and experience it, you'll find people talking and laughing with one another, the beginnings of community. That's a point that "Front Porch Republic" thinkers don't really get.

Funny examples like those show the broader point about Greatness for Tocqueville

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CJ Wolfe

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