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What Would Tocqueville Do?

James Poulos's The Art of Being Free is a perceptive, though flawed, Tocquevillian analysis.

The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves, by James Poulos (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

The modern world differs from antiquity and the Middle Ages, a disjuncture Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835, 1840) proposes to explain and illustrate. In the past, societies were organized on the assumption that men were naturally unequal. However, the Christian idea of human equality provided the impetus for a “democratic revolution,” or a gradual reordering of the world based on the equality principle. Democracy in America shows what a difference equality makes by constantly contrasting modern, democratic forms of politics, work, family life, and the arts and sciences with their old, aristocratic counterparts.

Tocqueville doesn’t merely describe the democratic “social state” advancing in America and throughout the “Christian universe.” Insisting that the development of “equality of conditions” is an irreversible phenomenon that presents opportunities as well as dangers, he attempts to encourage and equip his readers to assume responsibility for mitigating the natural shortcomings of democracy while pursuing what goods it has to offer. Individuals who engage effectively in this project of self-government practice the “art of being free.”

Journalist and social theorist James Poulos believes that, after all these years, a young French aristocrat is still the best guide to understanding both democracy and America. In The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves, he promises a fresh, updated telling of Tocqueville’s narrative that is accessible to a non-academic audience.

Poulos takes Tocqueville’s “primary fact”—equality of conditions—as his point of departure and proceeds to explore how this fact conditions contemporary approaches to such realms of life as faith, money, play, sex, love, and death. (He intentionally passes over the political implications of equality of conditions because Tocqueville himself tended to view politics as derivative of other forces at work in history and society.) The point of these investigations is thoroughly Tocquevillian: to study how the characteristic feature of our age shapes us and to prepare us both to accept what we can’t change about modern society and to combat any ills that our social condition produces.

The Art of Being Free does contain most of the elements necessary to succeed as a “Tocqueville-for-our-times” book. However, these elements are extracted with such difficulty from Poulos’s self-indulgent, rambling prose that his effort to update Tocqueville falls far short of its potential.

To bring Tocquevillian insights to bear on his chosen themes, Poulos considers a dizzying variety of examples from everyday life and pop culture as well as from the great authors such as Shakespeare. The high and the low receive equal time and appear in “crazy combinations.” A single two-page spread in the chapter on “Change,” for example, features Britney Spears, Tocqueville, Katy Perry, Richard John Neuhaus, Zach de la Rocha, Horace Mann, and Hannah Arendt. The same chapter opens with a discussion of Zach Galifianakis’s online comedy talk show, Between Two Ferns, and includes a short section that references The Big Chill, The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, Seinfeld, The NeverEnding Story, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  

Considered individually and in context—at times following a quick Google search—these references and the others that crowd around them are invariably apt. They suggest a familiarity with American pop culture and an insight into the contemporary zeitgeist that, when combined with Poulos’s deep knowledge of Tocqueville, might make him uniquely qualified to write a vividly illustrated book of the sort he has attempted. At the same time, the manner in which Poulos utilizes these examples—schizophrenically bouncing from one to the next, often with inadequate or opaque explanation—is indicative of a larger problem with the book.

Poulos’s undisciplined, free-association writing style frustrates access to his basic narrative, and this in a book that targets a non-academic audience. Just as the reader is forced either to look up or pass over some of his many references, she must also either skip or pause to unfold many of his sentences. If she opts for unfolding, she must then labor to connect the sentences one to another. Consider the following excerpt from the chapter on “Faith”:

The chic minimalism and fashionable detachment feted today to disrupt conventional materialism isn’t enough. That alone, Tocqueville would say, can’t really escape the psychodrama–the melodrama—that penetrates far deeper than a floor-to-ceiling whitewash or an enlightened garage sale can reach.

Deciphering this is not easier than reading Democracy in America, but perhaps easy is not the point. Perhaps these sentences contain something especially profound that the reader would benefit from unpacking herself, though it is more likely that Poulos simply has not translated his ideas into consistently intelligible prose. An unfortunate consequence of Poulos’s style is that it orients the reader toward the author’s own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities rather than toward the phenomena he seeks to describe.

The book’s tone is West Coast casual and gratuitously vulgar to an extent that is—how to put it?—not cool. Presumably in an effort to communicate more effectively with his non-academic audience, Poulos drops f-bombs, insists that the reader “deal with it,” and thematizes the “circle jerk.” Tocqueville, he admits, would never speak of anyone being “change’s bitch.” While these expressions are generally given some intellectual content, it is hard to imagine that this attitude will be widely appreciated by readers who are also expected to be familiar with the meaning of “quiddity.” It is an odd way of conceptualizing the generally educated reader.

These weaknesses of style and execution are truly a shame, for underneath it all, Poulos does clearly perceive how a Tocquevillian might approach various realms of contemporary life.

Fundamental to Poulos’s analysis is the claim that the democratic social state tends to make us “crazy.” Craziness is the experience of “a kind of internal motion that feels beyond our power to control,” in part because “deep down, we know that not really being in charge of ourselves is part and parcel of the life we live.” We eat, pray, work, and love, all the while feeling that life has a “fundamentally unworkable, ridiculous character.” But why?

Tocqueville’s term for craziness is “restlessness” or “restiveness.” In his view, equality of conditions makes us restless because we have the responsibility of establishing and maintaining our own material position in the world. In their heyday, aristocratic regimes assigned each man a place in society that he generally occupied from birth until death. As a result, neither the rich aristocrat nor the poor peasant was preoccupied with material well-being, as both would remain as they were as a matter of course. By contrast, in a society without fixed ranks or formal barriers to economic mobility, everyone—rich and poor alike—is intensely concerned with material well-being: “…[T]he longing to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor man, and the fear of losing it, to the mind of the rich.” No one has a secure position in society, thus the prospect of gaining or losing ground is on everyone’s mind. Aware of the “brevity of life,” men tend restlessly and relentlessly to pursue material comforts that might become their own: “In addition to the goods he possesses, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten. This thought fills him with troubles, fears, and regrets, and keeps his soul in a sort of unceasing trepidation that brings him to change his designs and his place at every moment.”

Aggravating this anxious striving is the fact that, no longer subject to the constraints of aristocracy, individuals must now compete with everyone else for place and advantage. Their desires expand with the arrival of equality and opportunity, but “they come up against the competition of all.” This obstacle to advancement does not always serve to heighten frenetic activity and restlessness, however. Fulfilling only with difficulty any desires or ambitions that are not readily satisfied, men are often “easily discouraged.” As a consequence, once they’ve secured for themselves a certain degree of material prosperity, they are inclined to withdraw from the larger society—where they must inevitably struggle—into a domestic space of comfortable living and friendly faces. Tocqueville designates this withdrawal “individualism.”

Poulos considers how the related tendencies of democratic craziness and individualism show up in the real world. Take Americans’ habits of “play.” While the stress of our insecure material position and the necessity of competing with others make it difficult for us “unplug” entirely from the workaday world and enjoy our leisure, the very pressure of this situation requires some form of relief. However, our play tends to be either extremely crazy or extremely vegetative.

First, the crazy. Many Americans counter the intensity of work with intense play. They relish, for example, the “physicality and extreme experience of sports.” They work out, engage in escapist “daredevil pursuits” involving cords and boards, play organized team sports, and get caught up in the universe of professional athletics.

Americans’ play-hard tendencies are not confined to the arena of sport. In fact, Poulos observes, “[W]e tend to make semiprofessional sports out of everything.” Today’s “bohos, tech bros, disaster tourists, and social good nomads jet-setting and backpacking their way from festival circuit to conflict zone and back” are not unlike the mid-century Americans whom sociologist David Riesman observed vacationing on Cape Cod. The latter ‘“appear to lead strenuously artsy and crafty lives…playing energetic tennis, taking exhausting walks,…and in the evening attending lectures, the experimental theatre, and colloquia in private houses…they are gainfully improving themselves in body and mind.”’

Crazy is exhausting, though, and Americans will not always fill their leisure time with hustle and bustle. Sometimes the beleaguered American wants only to hang out on the couch and watch Netflix or scroll through his Instagram feed. We can easily access simple, undemanding comforts such as these, and Tocqueville recognized that, with their tight schedules and limited resources, democratic citizens would gravitate toward such pleasures. The danger here lies not in occasionally binge-watching House of Cards but in habitually retreating from life’s craziness into the “sensible safety” of a universe defined by material comforts and populated exclusively by our “friends and family” network.

To be sure, there can be too much of the wrong kind of craziness, the kind that causes us to be too busy to pause and ask the “big” existential questions about who we are. Yet at the same time, Poulos insists, we don’t want to overcorrect to the point that we become “too boring to feel crazy.”

Trying to avoid craziness altogether is a serious mistake because, like an excess of craziness, it carries us away from who we really are as human beings. Craziness is not, it turns out, a uniquely democratic phenomenon. Rather, the human condition itself is essentially crazy or restless. Man is mortal and has only a short time to enjoy the things of this world and to figure out who he is and where he’s going. He exists “for only a moment,” Tocqueville says, “wandering, lost, between the limits of the two abysses.” The fundamental human situation thus involves man’s being stuck in a position that he has not chosen and requires him to answer the question of how he ought to live in light of his mortality. Or as Poulos puts it, the “craziness of life is constitutive,” so it is neither possible nor desirable to “chill” entirely.

We can and should, however, ease up a bit. Proportionate “chilling” involves pausing to think about “where we exist in historical time” and acting in a manner that accords with our true interests, even if doing so requires that we resist the spirit of the age. In the case of play, this might involve refusing to get caught up in “the fruitless frenzy in work or play.” After all, our ceaseless attempts to master both or reconcile them perfectly in the present only leave us vulnerable to the siren song of individualism. We must resist the democratic tendency to be consumed by the present moment and instead follow Tocqueville’s advice to orient ourselves toward the future. In doing so, Poulos argues, we’ll gain perspective on our situation and be better equipped to fashion the kinds of long-term plans that will make it possible for us to enjoy non-frenzied “fruitful labor and fruitful play.”

While Poulos struggles to hit the right note with his audience, he is correct that this sort of Tocquevillian analysis complements other, more scholarly treatments of Tocqueville. The Art of Being Free aims beyond the Academy and strives to teach Americans who might pass on Democracy in America to see their lives in Tocquevillian terms. However imperfect, the effort is a testimony to the enduring relevance of Tocqueville as well as an intentional response to his view that democracy cannot survive without “friends” willing to tell her the truth in order to save her from herself.

Sara Henary is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Missouri State University, where she teaches courses in political theory and American politics. Her scholarship has appeared in such publications as The Review of Politics and The Science of Modern Virtue, and she is currently completing a book manuscript tentatively entitled John Locke on Nature and Politics. She has also written for The Millions and Modern Age.



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