Thursday, July 11, 2013

de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

I said I was going to read Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and I have been, but due to my particular aversion to the details of American government, I started with Volume 2, and now I'm half way through Volume I. I'm also reading a recent biography of Tocqueville at the same time, Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty, by Lucien Jaume. Plus, I'm reading a book for review for The European Legacy, On Philosophy: Notes from a Crisis, but that's another story.

The second volume is all about the way Americans think and behave--their religion, habits, mores, culture, virtues and vices, their successes and their failures. That's where I will find the most material that bears on honor. Now, in general, Americans come off as kill-joys, hard-working, industrious, individualistic, small-minded (in the sense of not reaching high but scrambling after small and low goals, but never being satisfied), materialistic and religious at the same time (but rejecting mysticism, it's a rational religiosity for the most part). There is a lot there to digest, and I've been making notes on what has changed and what has stayed the same since Tocqueville observed the American character. In that brew there will be a lot that can be related back to the issue of honor.

Tocqueville understands very well the old aristocratic view of honor and how that cannot be sustained in a society whose main driving force is equality. Equality is what drives everything in America, from his point of view, so it is more important than the particular political system of democracy, and much more powerful in his view than the sacred rights we say we hold dear. You cannot have any old-fashioned aristocratic honor in an age of equality, because that old honor absolutely relied on inequality--between the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, male and female. It relied on the idea of different roles and duties for different people based on their "natures." The push of equality levels everything--it rails against the idea that different people have different "natures."  As we have seen in later years, even sexual differences, based upon physiology, are downplayed or eliminated with practice and policy.

I have argued, however, that some differences seem to stubbornly remain, despite our desire to eliminate them--there are still powerful and weak, rich and poor, and yes, there are remaining differences between men and women. The message of the old honor, that of the obligation of those who have an advantage not to take advantage and to help those who do not, we do not like because of our love of equality. To flip that around--we do not like it because of our dislike of any type of superiority.

Tocqueville's commentary tries to show us what Americans (at least at his time) were doing to replace aristocratic honor with a type of honor compatible with equality. In Chapter 18 of Part III of Part 2 of Democracy in America, he tackles the issue directly: "Concerning Honor in the United States and Democratic Countries." In my next post, I want to deal specifically with that chapter, which will help me focus on the main issue, and hopefully tie in what else I am gathering from Tocqueville's commentary on the American way of life.

When I went digging for a copy of Democracy in America, I didn't have to look too far on my shelves. I had a volume that was given to me by my dissertation director, Dr. Larry Arnhart, back in 1991. He wrote in it "For Doctor Laurie Johnson, From Larry Arnhart." Now there is a gentleman! Isn't it fascinating that I didn't understand the importance of Tocqueville's commentary until 2013 as I entered this latter phase of my journey into the status of honor in our society. I guess Arnhart knew where I was headed.