Thursday, March 13, 2014

Solid but Low: The Challenge for Honor

This is a quote from Martin Diamond's essay, "Ethics and Politics: The American Way," which sums up the challenge for honor in modern liberal democracy. The new policy is Madison's solution to the problem of faction--the large commercial republic which thrives and relies upon self-interest.

"From the point of view of the generality of mankind, the new policy delivered on its promises. In comparison with the pre-modern achievement, it raised to unprecedented heights the benefits, the freedom, and the dignity, enjoyed by the great many. But the cost must be recognized, precisely in order to continue to enjoy the blessings. Again in comparison with the pre-modern perspective, that cost is the solid but low foundation of American political life. And foundation must be understood quite literally: American institutions rest upon it. Those who wish to improve American life, specifically, those who would improve the relationship between ethics and politics in America, must base such improvement upon the American foundation; and this means to come to terms with the "policy" that is an essential part of that foundation. Revolution or transformation, that is something else. But if the aim is improvement, it must be improvement that accepts the limits imposed by the "genius" of the particular political order; it must be improvement that makes America her better self, but still her own self."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

No Downton Abbey in America

Tocqueville has some interesting things to say about the relationships between masters and servants, which would have reasonably been included in a discussion of the aristocratic family, but which are not included in the American family. Tocqueville deals with this in a chapter entitled "How Democracy Modifies the Relations Between Master and Servant," and his treatment of this difference sets the tone for his later treatment of women and men, parents and children, in the American nuclear family. In America, as everywhere else, there are rich and poor, master and servant, he admits. But in America these differences come without distinctions. In other words, while in aristocracies, rich and poor, master and servant, form distinct classes, in America you can be rich one year and poor the next, and vice versa. In America, you can spend part of your  life as a servant and part as a master, because of the opportunities that exist in the American economy and the frontier, and the relative lack of barriers to upward mobility. Because if this, as you would expect, with the end of these distinctions comes the end of a type of honor built upon those distinctions.

Tocqueville describes the mentality of the servant class in an aristocracy as having its own peculiar honor, its own particular virtues. There is a sort of "servile honor" that takes pride in filling the role, usually handed down from generation to generation, settled on the same lord's estate. There is a hierarchy among servants too, with those on the top capable of a very refined sense of honor in their loyalty to their lords and the fulfilling of their duties, and those on the bottom, mere "lackeys," not respected by their fellow servants and incapable of honor.  Among the best of servants there is "strong pride, and self-respect [that] makes him capable of heroism and actions out of the ordinary." They see themselves as appendages of their masters, so that their personal interests are absorbed into his, a quality that Tocqueville finds "both touching and ridiculous."

So there is a loss of a kind of servant-honor, and there is a loss of a certain kind of kinship, too. Because the same families, servants and masters, are settled on the same estates for generations, they are intertwined as a kind of family. "Long-shared memories unite them, and however different they be, yet they grow alike." But in America, there is a completely different phenomenon and a different feeling between masters and servants. There, there is no such thing as generations of servants (except in the case of slavery in the South, but Tocqueville deals with this separately, and which I too plan on dealing with in a separate chapter in my book). The connection between master and servant is considered more temporary. The nature of masters and servants is considered to be the same, so that the only difference between them is that one has more money and so can hire the other. 

Reminiscent of Marx's lament in the Communist Manifesto that in capitalism there is no relationship between man and man than the "cash nexus," or "naked self-interest," which has destroyed spiritual and chivalrous notions of superior and inferior, Tocqueville notes that the master-servant relationship is seen by both parties as a matter of contract: "Within the terms of the contract, one is servant and the other master; beyond that, they are two citizens, two men." What both gain is the mutual respect that comes from equality. What they lose is the sense of loyalty and identity that the aristocrat's servants could have. The servant obeys because he has contracted to do so and because he is being paid, not out of any sense of honor or moral obligation. 

Tocqueville opines of American master and servant, "It would be silly to suppose that there could ever be between these two men such warm and deep emotions as are sometimes kindled in the domestic service of aristocracy, nor should one expect striking examples of self-sacrifice."

So, democracy permanently breaks these types of bonds and in effect destroys the larger definition of the household or family that includes any servants attached to it. In many American families there would not have been any servants anyway, but Tocqueville's observations could be applied, if somewhat loosely, to other relationships within the family, including the extended family and inter-generational obligations. In Part I of Democracy in America, for instance, Tocqueville writes this in connection with the change from primogeniture to equal inheritance, and its effect in America:

In an aristocracy, "a man seeks to perpetuate himself and, in some sense, to make himself immortal through his great-grandchildren. Where family feeling is at and end, personal selfishness turns again to its real inclinations. As the family is felt to be a vague, indeterminate, uncertain conception, each man concentrates on his immediate convenience; he thinks about getting the next generation established in life, but nothing further. Hence a man does not seek to perpetuate his family, or at least he seeks other means than landed estates to do so." When combined with the equality, movement and change within American society that destroys the older master-servant relationship, the equal inheritance of property brings about the veritable end of the inter-generational family.