America is only a few months away now, and preparations are in full swing. I’m currently pursuing several literary paths to gain a more acute understanding of my European predecessors and their take on that promised land of dreams and opportunity. One such predecessor is Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote his “On the Democracy in America” way back in the 1830s.
Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont originally travelled to America on behalf of the French government to conduct a survey of the American prison administration. However, curiosity and fascination got the better of them, and they decided to probe deeper into the mysteries of the young nation. Beaumont wrote the novel Marie about afro-american slavery, whereas Tocqueville went on to write his magnus opus about the democratic institutions of America.
“On the Democracy in America” is an overall enthusiastic – if somewhat theoretical – piece of writing. Tocqueville is clearly impressed with the democratic mindset of the Americans, and he constantly compares it to what he considers the dull and dated mindset of the more aristocratically inclined Europeans. But his praise isn’t blind. Every now and then, worry and anxiety creeps in between the lines. The following is an excerpt from chapter 21, entitled “Why great revolutions will become more rare”:
As I stand amidst the ruins of our revolutions, do I really dare speak it? Do I dare say that revolutions are not what I fear the most for coming generations? If we continue to wander restlessly around our own narrow circles of domestic interest, we may ultimately shut ourselves off from those great and powerful public emotions which perturb nations – but which also develop and renew them. Seeing how property changes hands continually – how wealth is pursued with incessant ardor – I cannot but fear that we might reach a point where every new theory is considered a threat, every innovation an irksome toil, and every social reform a stepping-stone to revolution. Then the race of men shall refuse to move any further, afraid of being moved too far.
I dread the day when man shall no longer be able to control his cowardly love of passing joys, when he shall lose interest in the future of himself and his descendants – the day when he shall prefer to glide along the easy current of life rather than make an effort to change its direction according to his own will.
It is a common belief that modern society is a changing society. However, I am afraid that it will become too rooted in its own institutions, in its own prejudices and mannerisms, and that the evolution of man will stop in its tracks. The human mind will forever circle the same point. New ideas will no longer present themselves. Man will ultimately waste his powers on small, isolated matters of no consequence, and though in constant motion will cease to advance.
You might call it too simple or too pessimistic – but as always with Tocqueville, there’s something to it that I just can’t help but feel rings true. I know that prophecy tends to be a lot like astrology – generalized and ambigious – but at least this time I’ll have the retrospective advantage of checking it all out for myself.
So to all the people who have accused my trip to the US of being as defocused and derailed as the life of your average modern man: here’s the enquiry to keep us all together on our tacky toes! Has the old American dream stopped Western civilization in its tracks, or do we still have places left to go? Attempted answers will be available soon at: