Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 2 Part 2 Chapters 11 20 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 2, Part 2, Chapters 11–20 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11: On the Particular Effects That the Love of Material Enjoyments Produces in Democratic Centuries

As is often found in Democracy in America, the framework of this chapter features a contrast between aristocracy and democracy. In aristocracies, according to Tocqueville, excessive indulgence in material enjoyments results in corruption and depravity. In democratic nations, however, the love of well-being is typically a "contained passion." In a democratic society, the pressure to conform to "a certain moderate and tranquil style" is considerable, even among the most opulent.

Chapter 12: Why Certain Americans Display Such an Exalted Spiritualism

Here Tocqueville briefly discusses American itinerant preachers and religious fervor. He points out that religious follies, such as bizarre sects, are rare in Europe but very common in America. Mysticism, he says, is reasonably to be expected among "a people uniquely preoccupied with its own well-being."

Chapter 13: Why the Americans Show Themselves So Restive in the Midst of Their Well-Being

This chapter is one of the most striking sections of Part 2. The phenomenon Tocqueville explores here is "restiveness" (inquiétude in French)—unease or absence of calm. The basis for his discussion is the continual hurry of the Americans in their quest for well-being. With psychological acuity, Tocqueville points out that this predilection for change results in an insatiable quest. Nothing, he asserts, is ever enough. Americans cannot even achieve a satisfying degree of equality—they are always anxiously in search of more. Tocqueville explains, "That is why the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater." This is why, even amid their abundance, Americans often display a melancholy demeanor; it may also explain the more common incidence in America of madness, despite the rarity of suicide.

Chapter 14: How the Taste for Material Enjoyments among Americans Is United with Love of Freedom and with Care for Public Affairs

Tocqueville's main point in this section is the correlation in America between the love of freedom, hard work, and guaranteed material well-being. He points out that "there is perhaps no country on earth where fewer idle people are encountered than in America." But rather than allowing their interest in material gain to supersede their interest in freedom, "Americans see in their freedom the best instrument and the greatest guarantee of their well-being."

Chapter 15: How Religious Beliefs at Times Turn the Souls of the Americans toward Immaterial Enjoyments

Tocqueville begins this chapter by noting the "deep repose" and "solemn meditation" that characterize the observance of Sundays in America, in which "the commercial and industrial life of the nation seems suspended." Churchgoing is universal, and it is accompanied by Bible reading. Tocqueville avows his belief that religious practice is good for democracy, and he asserts that democratic governments should act in conformity with the doctrine of the soul's immortality, but that the imposition of a state religion "would always sooner or later become fatal to the Church."

Chapter 16: How the Excessive Love of Well-Being Can Be Harmful to Well-Being

In this brief chapter, Tocqueville repeats an idea that comes up often in this work: excesses are corrosive. Hence, too much devotion to material well-being, which would entail neglect of the needs of the soul, results in the decline or destruction of well-being.

Chapter 17: How in Times of Equality and Doubt, It Is Important to Move Back the Object of Human Actions

In this chapter, Tocqueville explores his own favorable attitude toward religion. Politically, religion encourages people to behave with a view to the future, an outlook that often results in happiness in this life. As religious faith decreases, people focus correspondingly more on the present, an attitude that sometimes furthers brutish indifference. Tocqueville advocates for governments to instruct citizens to seek success through long-term effort, which may also lead them back toward religious faith.

Chapter 18: Why among the Americans All Honest Professions Are Reputed Honorable

In democratic societies, not only is prejudice against work totally absent but there is also a positive prejudice in favor of work. As evidence, Tocqueville points to the fact that American servants (voluntary workers, as opposed to slaves) do not feel degraded by their work because the whole society is employed in work. Even the President of the United States works for a wage. Thus, in America, professions are neither high nor low: "Every honest profession is honorable."

Chapter 19: What Makes Almost All Americans Incline toward Industrial Professions

Tocqueville asserts that equality is correlated with tastes and habits that lead people toward commerce and industry. In this chapter, Tocqueville contrasts the nature and the rewards of agriculture with those of commerce. It is commerce that flourishes under democratic governments. No nation on earth has made more rapid progress in industry than America has. America is a country of a "multitude of small enterprises," rather than a small number of great ones. There is an economic downside, however. The simultaneous, nearly universal preoccupation with commerce in America means that the nation is extremely vulnerable to industrial crises.

Chapter 20: How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry

In this chapter, Tocqueville speculates on what seems a surprising turn of events: the possibility that commerce and industry, under certain conditions, could cause a return to political and social aristocracy. This could happen, says Tocqueville, if masters and workers settle into a complacent, stagnant relationship of command and obedience. Such a "manufacturing aristocracy" would differ in kind from past aristocracies, since the "haves" would feel no social obligations or ties by mores to the "have-nots." Such a manufacturing aristocracy, in Tocqueville's eyes, would be a much greater evil than a social aristocracy.

Analysis

Regarding Tocqueville's comments on "material enjoyments" in Chapter 11, readers should keep in mind that the notion of excess typically raises a red flag in Tocqueville's mind. In this sense, Tocqueville is a philosophical descendant of the Enlightenment, where the via media (middle course) is most often the best option. As the comic playwright Molière phrases it in an aphoristic couplet in his play Le Misanthrope (1666):

La parfaite raison fuit toute extrémité,
Et veut que l'on soit sage avec sobriété.
Perfect reason flees from all extremes—
It counsels wisdom with a sober theme.

The concept of the middle way has an ancient history, traceable at least as far back as the "golden mean" lauded by the ancient Roman poet Horace (65–8 BCE). Several centuries earlier, indeed, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) identified individual virtues as the midpoint between extremes of deficiency and excess.

American "spiritualism," as defined and discussed by Tocqueville in Chapter 12, has been the subject of many social analyses and literary treatments. One of the most memorable is the novel Elmer Gantry (1926) by Sinclair Lewis. Readers should not confuse Tocqueville's use of this term with the meaning of spiritualism as "communication with the dead" (as by a medium in séances), which also became fairly common in 19th-century America.

Chapter 13, devoted to American "restiveness" (inquiétude), reveals Tocqueville as an acutely penetrating psychologist as well as a political philosopher. Tocqueville memorably captures the "feverish ardor" and the endless, self-defeating cycle with which Americans pursue well-being and equality. Satisfaction continues to elude such quests, with the result that abundance is often tinged with melancholy. Although there is no evidence that Tocqueville owed any of these insights to the English man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709–84), Johnson's works were towering achievements of the European Enlightenment, and it is highly likely that Tocqueville was familiar with this author's essays. For comparable psychological insights, readers may consult the Johnson's periodical essays Idler 31 (1758) and Idler 48 (1759).

How realistic were Tocqueville's fears (Chapter 20) about the rise of a "manufacturing aristocracy" from industry? Here again, Tocqueville may be credited with considerable prescience. Economic, social, and political inequality are some of the most prominent themes in early 21st-century American life. A multitude of books and academic papers has appeared within the past decade on what Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize recipient who teaches economics at Columbia University, calls "the great divide." Tocqueville's fears would seem to be confirmed in an era when CEO pay at American corporations was 340 times the average worker's wage in 2015. Although the "1 percenters" are not often dubbed a new aristocracy these days, the contemporary landscape looks eerily similar to the picture Tocqueville delineated.

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