Tocqueville on materialism

In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.

The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.

Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be[] satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.

Thus, even in Jacksonian America, Tocqueville discerned the beginnings of what a later European-born observer of the American scene was to call our “turbo-capitalism.” See Edward N. Luttwak, Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in a Global Economy (1999). Tocqueville’s contention that the pursuit of wealth does not make the Americans happier is supported by a substantial (if disputed) body of later social science, much of it generated by the work of the economist Richard Easterlin. See Richard Easterlin, The Economics of Happiness, 133 Daedalus 26, 32 (2004) (“The survey evidence indicates that over the life cycle, family and health circumstances typically have lasting effects on happiness, but that money does not.”); Richard Easterlin, Does Money Buy Happiness?, 30 The Public Interest 3, 10 (1973) (describing the “hedonic treadmill”); see generally Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000).

To be sure, Tocqueville also finds the American “search for prosperity” to be “worthy and legitimate.” Democracy at 631-32. Indeed, in their unceasing pursuit of wealth, the Americans may even come close to being heroic (id. at 473-74):

The American sailor sets sail from Boston to buy tea in China. He reaches Canton, stays a few days, and then returns. He has circumnavigated the globe in less than two years and has seen land only once. Throughout a voyage of eight or ten months, he has drunk brackish water and lived off salt beef; he has struggled constantly against the sea, illness, and boredom but on his return he is able to sell a pound of tea for a penny less than the English merchant and thus his aim has been achieved.

I cannot better express my thoughts than by saying that Americans endow their way of trading with a kind of heroism.

Tocqueville is right: there is, indeed, a form of nobility in this. We can see it as well in Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (original ed. 1840), which describes the young Dana’s voyage on the brig Pilgrim from Boston around Cape Horn to (then Mexican) California. Dana details the hardships that the ordinary sailor encounters on such a merchantman – ceaseless and grueling work, poor food, dangerous seas, sadistic flogging and sudden death from being swept overboard. These sufferings are borne for the sake of selling “everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fireworks to English cart-wheels,” at “nearly three hundred percent upon the Boston prices.” Ch. XIII. The stakes for which the game is played seem disproportionately trivial in relation to the courage and stamina displayed in pursuing them. But as Tocqueville acknowledges elsewhere, those who live in democracies are “led to commerce, not only because of the promise of profit but because they like the emotions evoked.” Democracy at 643. Most of them “love risk and fear death much less than obstacles.” Id. at 765.

If Tocqueville recognizes some aspect of grandeur in trade, his description also sounds, if faintly, a note that is heard later and more loudly in Joseph Schumpeter: “the only sort of romance and heroism that is left in the unromantic and unheroic civilization of capitalism [is] the heroism of navigare necesse est, vivere necesse not est.” “Seafaring is necessary; to live is not.” Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942).

Heroic or unheroic, Tocqueville feared that the unfettered pursuit of wealth will finally cause the Americans to “lose the use of their most sublime faculties” and thus “debase” themselves. Democracy at 632. “Democracy encourages the taste for physical pleasures which, if excessive, soon persuades men to believe that nothing but matter exists.” Id. The more people are apt to believe in materialism, the more likely they are to be held captive by “these very pleasures” that produced that belief. Id. This is “the vicious circle into which democratic nations are driven.” Id. Only the Americans’ “ancient religious opinions” can restrain their “love of physical pleasures.” Id. at 632-33. Hence wise American “legislators and all worthy and enlightened men living in democracies” (i.e., American rulers and the intelligentsia) must take care to try to “preserve [these religious opinions] as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times.” Id. at 632, 633.

Tocqueville’s analysis here should give us pause. If the search for prosperity is overwhelmingly powerful in democratic America, and if prosperity tends to bring religious disbelief with it, then how can America hope to avoid the gradual loss of its traditional faith without abandoning its desire for wealth? Furthermore, how could any kind of political intervention check this trend if, as Tocqueville himself has argued, the instrumentalization of religion for political ends necessarily tends to weaken religion’s hold? Tocqueville acknowledges the difficulty: “If it is easy to see that, in democratic times especially, it is important to support the ascendancy of spiritual views, it is not so easy to say how the leaders of democracies must act to achieve this ascendancy.” Id. at 634.

To his credit, Tocqueville does not simply throw up his hands in despair of an answer. His answer is, if I may so put it, to out-Machiavelli Machiavelli. Seeing the utility of religious belief – especially in the immortality of the soul – political leaders should “act every day as if they believed in it themselves.” Id. at 634. To be successful Machiavellians, they must govern as faithful believers would govern, and not as (banal) Machiavellians would govern. “[O]nly by conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great matters can they congratulate themselves that they have taught their citizens to know, love, and respect it in small matters.” Id. at 634-35.

Tocqueville seems to be teaching that a great democratic statesman does not practice a public, political morality which is distinct from a private, religious morality: his political morality is religious morality writ large.

Thus Tocqueville answers a question he had raised earlier in Democracy (at 612): “I only see around me people who daily wish to teach their contemporaries in word and deed that what is useful is always right. Shall I never come across any who are trying to convey how what is right can be useful?”

Tocqueville is himself the teacher whom he could not find elsewhere: what is right is also useful.

In my next postings, I will consider Tocqueville’s views on two forms of revealed religion and their relationship to American democracy: first, American Protestantism; then, American Catholicism.

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