Tocqueville on the Arts and Sciences, and the Life of Letters and Writing
By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2021. All rights reserved.
The United States of America of the early nineteenth-century, the subject of Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville’s classic work of history and political theory, was a nation in constant motion and movement. Almost any American of the era about which Tocqueville wrote, could begin life in complete obscurity with little or no money, social prestige, or honor, and then quickly amass a small fortune and position of repute in American society, and then almost as quickly as he acquired it, lose this very same fortune and renown, returning to the modest economic position and place from which he began. All of these changes and transformations practically any American could experience and endure within the space of a single lifetime. Most of the wealthy in the American society Tocqueville observed, studied, and wrote about, began life poor, and there were few guarantees that the wealth and status acquired by one generation would pass on to the next generation without being completely diminished and even obliterated.
Never before in the history of the world had there existed a nation in which there were so many industrious, striving, ambitious people directing their considerable talents and abilities toward the amassing of wealth and prosperity, either in the realm of manufacturing or the agricultural settlement of what was then a massive wilderness known as the frontier. The America Tocqueville observed first hand and preserved for prosperity in his seminal work Democracy in America, was a nation consumed by material striving and economic ambition, a land where almost anyone could realize the dream of obtaining at least a modest amount of wealth and affluence. The resulting and ever-present economic commotion and activity was one of the central themes in Democracy in America. This theme was eclipsed in importance in the book only by another theme occupying the center of almost every chapter, that of the influence of the spirit of equality on all aspects of American life. Equality shaped American life, from business to government, from agriculture to the settlement of the vast western frontier, to the nature of international relations and the diminished prospects for war which fortune and fate had blessed the Americans with by situating their democracy in a land of natural abundance far away and almost in isolation from potential enemies and rivals. At no time before in world history had there been a nation in which comparable amounts of both equality and prosperity had coexisted together in a land seemingly blessed by providence to become one of the great powers on earth.
In fact, the chief motivation behind Tocqueville’s writing of the book, was to educate his fellow Europeans, and in particular his French countrymen, about this new phenomenon of ascendant equality which was, during their lifetimes, transforming all aspects of life, and particularly economics, social relations, politics, and government in both France and many other places in Europe, and which was the most fundamental fact about American society explaining almost all of that nation’s various aspects of life and fields of human endeavor.
Unlike the rising equality in Europe, equality in America was not primarily the result of bloody revolution or political conflict, but was instead a constant condition of American life which that fortunate country had been blessed with from the time of its very origins in Puritan New England. The original Puritan founders of this land where equality predominated from its very inception, were themselves characterized in all of their social, economic, and political relations with a kind of equality derived from their similar levels of economic condition and the levels of education required to obtain this almost universal prosperity existent among their fellow Puritans. Due to this happy coincidence of a variety of social and economic factors characterized by equality, the Puritans possessed the requisite amounts or education and prosperity required for self-rule and government. These American progenitures were blessed by the existence of a vast wilderness enabling practically any ambitious settler to create for himself in a matter of weeks, the kind of vast landed estate which the aristocrats of Europe could only hope to acquire by inheritance or strategic marriage. This same America quickly moving forward through the wilderness was blessed by a spirit and reality of equality among the English founders which would profoundly shape all aspects of American life, including social life, economics, politics, government, culture, and religion.
One of the multitude of areas of American life Tocqueville believed was profoundly shaped and formed by the spirit and reality of equality was the character of writing and letters in this New World, as well as the related status of the arts and sciences in America. The art, craft, and business of writing was examined in detail in Democracy in America, and it is this topic which will be the focus of this present essay. What follows this brief introduction here will be a thorough analysis of the manner in which equality and democracy, according to Tocqueville, shaped and determined the quality, or the lack there of in American writing and letters, as well as the arts and sciences more broadly conceived. Throughout my analysis I intend to stay focused on the relationship between the spirit and reality of equality on the one hand, and American arts, sciences, writing and letters on the other. In so doing, I will not neglect to examine the sometime humorous insights into the nature of these relationships, which are both interesting and revealing of what was distinct about the America of Tocqueville’s time, enabling one to comprehend the profound and preeminent role equality has played in the shaping of nearly all aspects of American life.
The question of the quality and character of American writing, according to Tocqueville, must be understood in the context of his broader analysis of the American aptitude and taste for science, the arts, and literature. While the pursuit of these intellectual callings in America produced fewer profoundly important works compared to what was the product of intellectual endeavors in the aristocratic societies of Europe, the American example proved that a democratic people could indeed possess an aptitude or taste for science, the arts, and literature.
Tocqueville began his analysis of this question with the observation that few of the civilized nations of his time had made less progress than had the United States in the higher sciences, or had produced fewer great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers (Tocqueville 454). Of the many causes of this dearth of great intellectual pursuits and works in the United States, the first one Tocqueville pointed to was the severe and strict religion of the Americans, with its roots in the Puritanism of New England. The religion of the Americans was hostile to eternal symbols and ceremonial pomp, and therefore discouraged the cultivation of the fine arts. Indeed, due to the opposition of American religion to all such pursuits, the Americans only reluctantly made room for the pleasures of literature.
Far from being primarily concerned with harnessing the arts and literature to adorn and beautify the quest for religious understanding, the Americans, when they were not in church, focused their energies on increasing their fortunes out of the vast wilderness of the North American continent. A breathless cupidity closed off from their minds the pleasures of the imagination and intellectual labors. Rather than being dedicated to the search for wisdom and understanding of the purpose of human life, the typical American was more concerned with the pursuit of wealth (455).
The industrious spirit of the Americans existed not just at the individual level. The entire community and practically every region of the United States was engaged in productive industry and trade (455). Science was not completely neglected by the Americans, but it was only pursued for its beneficial impact on industry, trade, or the useful arts in order to make life more comfortable. Theory was devalued in favor of the practical uses the cultivation of scientific knowledge could discover (455).
In Europe, by contrast, educated and literary people undertook the search for basic principles of truth, while not neglecting to also direct themselves to the improvement of those areas of knowledge conducive to the pleasures in order to satisfy the ordinary wants of most people (455). Content to rely on the treasures of the mind taken from England when it came to their interest in theory, the Americans rarely strove to produce such works of depth themselves (455). The accessibility of European thought enabled these commercially focused descendants of the Puritans to neglect the study of theory and first principles, without relapsing into barbarism (456). The desires, needs, education, and material circumstances of the Americans all united to draw their minds earthward. Only religion, on occasion, made them turn a transient and distracted glance toward heaven (456).
The nature of egalitarianism in American society significantly determined the manner in which the Americans viewed the products of the mind. Enlightened men living in a democracy discovered that nothing could confine them, hold them, or force them to remain satisfied with their economic and social status with such a society (456). While legal equality was not impossible to mandate by law and custom, the natural inequality which always existed among humans enabled the fortunately gifted ones to amass great fortunes and thereby become unequal. This phenomenon occurred when every person exerted all of his unequal talents and abilities to pursue the same goal of his fellow citizens, the goal of getting rich. (457). When great privileges were accorded to none, but equal enlightenment and independence were granted to all, this left each individual with the ability and desire to make a place for himself in the world. In such a situation, natural inequality soon made itself felt, and the result was that wealth passed spontaneously into the hands of the most capable (457).
In the absence of hereditary wealth, class privileges, or the advantages of good birth, and when everyone relied on his own self to advance in society, then it became clear that the chief source of the disparities in the fortunes of individuals lay in the disparities existent in the minds of all of those people engaged in constant competition and striving for success. Due to these facts, whatever led to the imagination, expansion, or adornment of the mind, rose instantly to a high value (457-458). Even the most common people then could clearly perceive that knowledge had utility (458).
In such a state of affairs, even vulgar people with no taste for the charms of intellectual pursuits, made some effort to acquire knowledge, because they could see the material benefits it led to. Because people of different social classes mixed more freely in a democracy than they did in an aristocracy, the diffusion of knowledge and enlightenment reached those who would have had no opportunity to be exposed to it in an aristocracy (458). So, while it was true that people living in democratic ages were naturally predisposed to be indifferent to science, literature, and the arts, it was also true that in the quest for material gain, such people cultivated knowledge in their own fashion, bringing their own peculiar qualities and defects to the task (458).
The American interest in science was concerned with the application rather than the theory of it. The reasons for this were as follows. Equality made each person believe himself to a suitable judge of everything, giving him a taste for all that was tangible and real, while leaving him with a contempt for tradition and formalities (459). Tocqueville divided science into three parts. There were 1) theoretical principles and the most abstract conceptions whose application was either unknown or remote; 2) general truths, still based in theory, but which led directly and immediately to practical applications; 3) methods of application and means of execution. Each of these divisions of science could be studied separately, but reason and experience taught that none of them could prosper for long if entirely separated from the other two (459-460). In America people, with a clear, free, original and creative turn of mind, cultivated the practical side of knowledge, but hardly anyone in the United States was devoted to the theoretical and abstract side of human knowledge (460). In this land of universal tumult and the incessant conflict of jarring interests, where all seemed to preoccupy themselves with an endless chase for wealth, the requisite sense of calm required for the profound cultivation of the intellect did not exist. There was no aristocratic class in America with the leisure required for theory.
Great revolutions were not more common among democracies than among other types of societies. Revolutions were perhaps even less common in democracies. But within democratic nations, the constant slight but troublesome restlessness, the constant jostling of people against each other, disturbed and distracted the mind without stimulating or elevating it (460). Since everyone was engaged in an active striving kind of life, the darting speed of a quick, superficial mind was at a premium, while slow, deep, profound thought was not valued (461). Only a few rare individuals contained within their souls an inextinguishable burning love of truth. For these few, theory was the food on which their spirits fed continually without satiety. Such souls contained within them an ardent, proud, disinterested love of truth, leading them to seek the abstract sources with which their thought became pregnant (461).
In aristocratic ages, vast ideas were generally entertained of the dignity, power, and greatness of humankind. These opinions influenced those men of leisure who cultivated the sciences, facilitating the natural impulses of the mind to strive toward the highest regions of thought. Such people were naturally prepared to conceive a sublime and almost divine love of truth (462).
While in aristocratic ages the chief function of science was to give pleasure to the mind, in democratic ages the chief function of science was to give pleasure to the body (462). These same Americans who have never discovered a general law of mechanics had changed the face of the world by introducing a new machine for navigation (463). The entire extinction of the transcendent lights of the mind has not been witnessed in America, and even there a few new flames of devotion to science have been kindled. However, while great discoveries were bound to be frequent, great discoverers would be few.
The inequality inherent in aristocracy led people to confine themselves to the proud and sometimes sterile search for abstract truths. Equality and the institutions of democracy led people to look only for the immediate and practical applications of science (463). In a nation like the United States, the great need was to keep people interested in theory, since they could be counted upon to look after the practical side of things for themselves. The contemplation of first causes should have been encouraged, rather than the minute examination of secondary effects (464).
The example of China in the early nineteenth century, showed what would result from the blind following of the traditions and methods of ancestors without understanding them. The absence of true science in the China of old put a limit on the nation’s further development (464). Tocqueville admonished his French compatriots not to console themselves by thinking that the true “barbarians” were still a long way off. Due to the spread of the spirit of equality in Europe, some people might let the torch of wisdom be snatched from their hands, while others would stamp it out themselves (465).
The cultivation of the arts was not entirely neglected by the Americans, but their aim in doing so was different from that which motivated those living in aristocratic societies. Democratic people pursued those arts which made life comfortable, rather than those arts which adorned, reflected, and magnified the beauty of life. The Americans tended to prioritize usefulness over beauty, and when they did strive for beauty, it was not for beauty’s sake, but instead to make beauty itself useful.
Craftsmen and artisans in aristocratic ages emphasized doing things as well as possible, but those in democratic ages strove to do things as quickly and as cheaply as one could. Craftsmen in aristocratic societies worked for a strictly limited number of customers who were hard to please connoisseurs. Only perfect workmanship provided such craftsmen with the best hope of profit. In democratic societies, in contrast, there was a crowd of citizens whose desires surpassed their means, and who consequently gladly agreed to tolerate imperfect substitutes rather than to do without the objects of their desires (466). In aristocracies, the craftsmen charged very high prices for a few buyers of exquisite taste, but in democracies, they realized they could get rich more readily by producing cheap products available and affordable for all. When only the rich wore watches, they were almost all excellent, but in the age of equality, most watches were mediocre and only a few were excellent, although everyone had one of his own. Workmen laboring in democratic ages made many shoddy things very quickly, knowing that the customers would tolerate them. The true worth of such products was quite low, even while they each contained a misleading and false appearance of brilliance entirely unconnected with their true value. The hypocrisy of virtue existed in every age, but the hypocritical false appearance of luxury was peculiar to democratic centuries (467).
A similar pattern emerged for the fine arts in democracies. The Renaissance painters depicted mighty subjects over their heads and far away in time, so that imagination played a role in the creation, perception, and interpretation of their masterpieces. Democratic painters focused on the precise representation of everyday life, whose details were always before their eyes. They depicted trivial objects from every perspective, though nature surrounded them with far too many originals.
There were a few exceptions to the above-mentioned proclivities of artists and craftsmen living and working in democratic ages. The Americans had a tendency to build many petty monuments, but also some others that were very grand. In a democracy, the individual citizens appeared small, but the nation which they all together compose seemed to be great. The democratic imagination was uninspired at the thought of the person as an individual, but this imagination expanded beyond all limits at the thought of the state (469). Consequently, the Americans had erected a magnificent capital city, full of grand buildings with pompous names, like the Capitol, which houses the Congress of the United States. The Americans sought to reproduce the example of Rome in the city of Washington, but in reality, this industrious people, who left nothing but a few lead pipes in the ground and some iron rails on top of it, might have mastered nature better than the Romans (470).
The literary characteristics of the Americans were also profoundly shaped and determined by the spirit of equality and democracy. One could readily find a great number of books crowding the shelves of the typical American bookstore, but only a small number of authors of note who had earned reputations which anyone had heard of (470). Rather than publish books refuting each other, the various parties and factions in America focused on publishing innumerable pamphlets which circulated at an incredible rate, but only lasted for a short time, and then died. Along with such pamphlets which lasted but a day, the Americans published a multitude of elementary treatise teaching the rudiments of human knowledge, and also a great quantity of religious books (470). Only a small number of American authors wrote remarkable works, earning them a deserved notoriety in Europe as great writers.
The Americans paid less attention to literature than any other civilized people, even though many Americans took an interest in things of the mind. Without dedicating their lives to study, writing, and scholarship, the Americans at least entertained their leisure with books (471). England supplied the Americans with most of the books they required. Almost all-important English books were republished in the United States, and there was hardly a pioneer’s hut in the midst of the wilderness which did not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare (471). The small band of Americans devoted to a life of letters were mostly English in origin and also in way of thought (471).
The Americans of the era about which Tocqueville wrote had not yet developed and produced any great literature. The only truly American writers were the American journalists. While these journalists were not like the great writers of Europe, they spoke their country’s language and made themselves heard. The American writers were entertaining, but they did not shape mores as the great European writers did.
In an aristocracy, both literature and politics were almost entirely confined to the aristocratic class and those nearest to it (472). Such people were a small, unchanging group, who banded together in agreement on certain guiding principles directing their efforts. Their literature was shaped by strict canons and rules that could not be broken, a firm and traditional code laid down by their ancestors (472). In cultivating things of the mind, they learned to understand literature as an art which was loved in the end for its own sake. They took a scholarly pleasure in seeing that the rules and canons were obeyed. Living their entire lives in comfortable circumstances, the aristocrats conceived a tase for choice pleasures full of refinement and delicacy. They wanted to be amused rather than moved deeply, and to be interested without being carried away (472).
To the aristocrats, style was almost as important as thought, and form was as important as substance. Polished, measured, and sustained, their style had more dignity than vivacity. Writers focused on perfecting what they wrote, rather than on writing too much. Such men of letters, sometimes thinking of none but themselves, and writing only for themselves, lost sight of the rest of the world completely, making their work farfetched and a sham (472). Desiring to speak a language different from the language of the vulgar, they ended up creating a brand of aristocratic jargon hardly less far removed from pure speech than was the simple dialect of the common people. This distance from the reality of the masses was the natural peril for literature among aristocrats (473).
Although people in democracies were prepared by old traditions and present culture to enjoy the pleasures of the mind in their limited amount leisure, the classes were so intermingled and confused in democracies, that there was no cohesive and well defined literary and intellectual class as there was in an aristocracy. Both knowledge and political power were infinitely divided up and scattered all around. The motley multitude with intellectual wants to be supplied held no traditions or common habits to create links between their minds, and they lacked the power, desire, and time to forge a common understanding (473). Authors arose from this heterogeneous, stirring crowd, and they were required to cater to the requirements of this same crowd to earn profit and renown. In a constantly evolving democracy, each generation constituted a new people, so it was difficult to establish fixed rules of literature among them. Any rules they agreed upon could not be long lasting (473).
Since people focused on the serious business of life in the pursuit of material gain, literature in a democracy was a passing relaxation, rather than the central joy of one’s existence immersed within the profound depths of literary delights. Democratic peoples lacked the deep enough comprehension of literature required to appreciate its refinements (473-474). They liked books which were easily acquired and quickly read, without the necessity of learned researches being required to understand them. Preferring facile forms of beauty which were self-explanatory and immediately enjoyable, and above all else, unexpected and new, American readers liked to plunge, almost by violence, into the middle of the subject.
The literature of a democracy never exhibited the order, regularity, skill, and art found in aristocratic literature. Despising and neglecting formal qualities, democratic writers were intent upon writing quickly instead of perfectly. Short works were more common than lengthy books, attention to detail was neglected, wit was more valued than erudition, imagination, and depth. A rude, untutored vigor of thought, full of variety and fecundity was the result, and authors strove to astonish rather than to please, and to stir up the passions rather than to charm the tastes of their readers (474).
During times of transition from aristocracy to democracy, there were short, but brilliant periods of literary development in which fertile books were written without excessive exuberance. The writing of such brief periods was animated without being confused, as was the literature of eighteenth-century France. Such were the multitude of connections between the social and political conditions of a nation and the inspiration of its writers. One who knew the one was never completely ignorant of the other (474).
Democracy not only gave the industrial classes a distinctive taste for literature and letters, but it also reshaped the character of literature by giving it an industrial spirit (475). Moderate renown and great wealth were cheaply obtained by popular writers in a democracy. As long as the people had a taste for their work, democratic writers never needed to aspire to be admired as great writers. Mediocre talents sufficed to satisfy the ever-growing crowd of readers always wanting something new. This ensured the sale of many new books that nobody esteemed highly. Such books were the work of the kind of writers who viewed letters as simply a trade or profession. While there may have been a few great writers in a democracy, for each of these rare souls one could count thousands of industrious but untalented idea mongers (475).
To remedy this state of affairs concerning literature and letters in a democracy, Tocqueville suggested that the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature would be peculiarly useful. The concept of the “people” must be recognized as different in antiquity than it was at the time Tocqueville wrote. Ancient Athens contained perhaps 20,000 citizens in a population of over 350,000. Those who were not citizens were slaves who performed most of the functions performed in the Europe and America of Tocqueville’s time by the lower and even middle classes. Consequently, Athens, even with her universal suffrage, was in reality an aristocratic republic in which all the nobles possessed an equal right to government (476). A similar situation existed in ancient Rome. The persistent conflict between the patricians and plebeians was really an internal dispute between the older and younger branches of the same family. Both the patricians and the plebeians belonged to the aristocracy and had an aristocratic spirit (476).
During Greek and Roman antiquity, books were scarce and laborious and expensive to copy and circulate. Consequently, literary tastes and habits were concentrated among a small group of the literary aristocracy. In contrast, contemporary democracies treated literature as an industry in which books were written hurriedly and casually, rather than being carefully and slowly crafted works of art intended for connoisseurs interested in reading and studying works seeking an ideal of beauty (476).
The best antidote against the inherent defects of democratic times was the contemporary study of the aristocratic literature of antiquity. To emphasize the study of such works enabled the good qualities natural to the classical age to blossom unintended (476). Education for most people in a democracy was scientific, commercial, and industrial, since the interests of both the individual and the state required such an education (476-477). Greek and Latin should not be taught in all the schools, but rather had to be left to those destined by nature or fate to adopt a literary career necessitating the study of the classics. Instead of teaching the classics in a multitude of bad schools where they would be an ill-taught extra standing in the way of sound instruction of the sciences, commerce, and industries, it was better to leave the pursuit of classical education to a few excellent colleges or universities. There ambitious students striving for literary excellence could refresh themselves at classical springs, and thereby partake of the most wholesome medicine for the mind (477).
Poetry also took a different form and character in democracies and aristocracies. Tocqueville defined poetry as the search for and representation of an ideal (483). Consequently, he believed that the poet’s function was to beautify reality rather than to portray it accurately or precisely. Good poetry offered the mind loftier images to inspire one towards the direction of beauty and goodness, rather than being left trapped in the mundane here and now of daily existence. Tocqueville tried to discover whether among the activities, feelings, and ideas of democracies, there were any leading to a conception of the ideal, and for that reason to be viewed as the natural sources of poetry (483).
The taste for ideal beauty and the pleasures derived from seeing it expressed were livelier and more widespread in aristocracies than in democracies (483). Equality turned one’s attention away from the description of the ideal, and also provided less to be described. This was because the soul’s main focus in democracies was directed to economics, business, and the bettering of one’s lot in life. While the imagination did not perish in a democracy, its central function was to conceive what was useful and to portray what was actual (483).
Aristocracies also favored poetry because such societies always were inclined to see intermediate powers between God and man. In contrast, faith was as much in motion as the ever-changing laws in a democracy. This left a sense of doubt among democratic poets which brought their imagination back to earth, shutting it up within the confines of the actual, visible world (483). So focused were people in democracies on their economic condition, democracy engendered an instinctive distaste for what was old. In aristocracies, in contrast, everything looked grander and more mysterious as it receded into the distance of time (484).
Because class distinctions in aristocracy were so pronounced, both the refinement of the upper class, and the misery of the lower class were suitable subjects for poetry. The diffusion of equality over the earth has dried up this traditional spring of poetry (484). Poets in a democracy could not make a particular individual the subject of their poetry, because being of medium size, and seen clearly from every angle without any sense of mystery, the individual never had the making of the ideal (484). In the long run, democracy turned one’s imagination away from externals such as the beauty of nature and led people to concentrate on themselves alone. People amused themselves momentarily by looking at nature, but they became truly excited when thinking about themselves. Ideas of progress and the indefinite perfectibility of the human race focused the democratic imagination on the future and its possibilities knowing no bounds. As a result, no one bothered to think about the past at all (485).
The past was shut to poetry in democracy, but the future was open wide. Democratic poets wrote about the people as a whole, not about individuals. Democracies saw themselves more vividly than did other nations. This created wonderful possibilities to the painters and artists of the ideal. Therefore, while there were no great American poets, the Americans were not completely devoid of poetic ideas (485). Hardly giving a thought to the beauty of nature, the Americans of Tocqueville’s time saw themselves as marching through the wilderness, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature rather than deriving inspiration for poetry from it (485). There was nothing more petty, insipid, full of paltry interests, and anti-poetic than the daily life of an enterprising American. Nonetheless, among the thoughts that directed his life, there was always one full of poetry, and that was like a hidden sinew giving strength to the whole frame. In America people were always on the make and intermixing. The various nations were assimilated, enabling one to form the picture of a vast democracy in which a nation counted as a single citizen. For the first time in human history all mankind could be seen together in broad daylight (486). The existence of the entire human race, its vicissitudes and its future became a fertile theme for poetry.
When people began to see beyond the limits of a single country and began to see humankind as a whole, God showed himself more clearly to human perception and his full and complete majesty was revealed. Consequently, in democracies people were disposed to think of a vaster conception of divinity itself, and God’s interventions in human affairs appeared in a new and brighter light (486). A trace of the universal and consistent plan by which God directed humankind became evident once people perceived the entire human race as one great whole (486). This transformation of religious thinking might become a rich source for poetry which could blossom in democratic times. Democratic poets would strive to link the events they commemorated with God’s grand plan for the universe. When poets revealed this thought, they would be admired and understood because the imagination of all of their contemporaries was following the same road to universal insights (486).
The poets needed to look beyond external appearance and facts in order to discover the soul itself. These hidden depths of the spiritual nature of humankind were the fittest subjects for the poet of the ideal (486). The poet needed only to contemplate himself in order to discover that a person comes from nothing, passes through time, and disappears forever in the bosom of God. An individual is for only a moment, wandering on the verge of two abysses, and then is lost (487). Human nature was revealed enough for an individual to know something of himself, and also hidden enough to leave much in impenetrable darkness. Within this darkness, one groped forever in vain, trying to understand that part of the self forever concealed behind a veil (487).
Old memories, traditions, legends, and supernatural beings were no longer believed to be real in democratic times. But humankind itself remained, and poets required no more than humankind alone for their inspiration. Human destiny and humankind itself, were not tied to time or place. Instead, they stood face to face with nature and with God. The passions and doubts, the unexpected good fortune and incomprehensible miseries of humankind were for democratic peoples the chief and almost sole subjects of their poetry (487). The democratic writer, through exaggeration, illuminated the dark corners of the human heart (487). Equality then did not destroy all the subjects of great poetry. Equality made them fewer, but more vast (487).
Before I proffer an evaluation of Tocqueville’s characterization of the differences and distinctions between the arts, sciences, and letters, and particularly the writing in aristocratic ages and democratic ages of equality, I must first of course concede that I benefit from the clarifying view of the hindsight afforded to me here in the year 2021, reading and writing about a book published in 1835. Obviously, hindsight is 20-20, and writing literally centuries after Tocqueville did, I would be unfair and unjust to his legacy to fault him too severely for the errors in his characterization of the writers working in a democratic age of equality. For some reason Tocqueville was not prescient enough to foresee the emergence out of American democracy of the great American writers, such as Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Poe, Crane, and later such American masters as Frost, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, London, O’Conner, Joyce Carol Oates, Wright, Baldwin, Bellow, Plath, and numerous other American writers of tremendous depth and talent absent from my obviously inexhaustive list. American democracy did not fail to produce great writers or intellects in the arts and sciences, in spite of the obsession with economic gain and advancement characterizing the American spirit from the earliest of colonial times.
Rather than completely stymying and eliminating the potential for the production of great works of the mind, this very economic striving was a kind of live drama ever present in American life, providing a multitude of subjects for art, science, and literature. The rise of the great American colleges and universities fostered the serious study of the arts and sciences, much of it in the kind of theoretical sense of scholarship which Tocqueville believed was more pronounced in aristocratic times than the democratic times consumed by a focus on the practical side of knowledge. The top American universities and colleges are today, arguably the leading institutions of higher learning in the world, another eventuality which Tocqueville did not, and perhaps could not foresee.
Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s analysis of these matters, while not perfectly clairvoyant, remains poignant and in some sense accurate, especially in light of the recent disturbing trends in American education and intellectual life, and particularly where these pursuits are located in our institutions of higher learning. American higher education has witnessed a precipitous and sharp decline in the study of and focus on the Western canon, a phenomenon coupled with and linked to a broader movement away from the humanities and social sciences, and toward professional studies in fields like business, finance, law and other subjects deemed by today’s students to be of greater practical value than the quest for in-depth knowledge within the arts, sciences, and letters. This trend is pronounced even at the most elite schools, with institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and MIT nowadays filled with ambitious but practically minded students aiming for financially rewarding careers on Wall Street, and in business, or law, rather than being determined to write the next great American novel, or work of history, philosophy, or what have you.
This is not to suggest that the United States is absent enough intellectually minded students desiring to become writers. Every passing year sees a steady rise in the number of schools offering programs and degrees in creative writing, poetry, and creative non-fiction. In fact, the competition for admission to the best of these programs is often as fierce as the competition for admission to the top business and law schools. Unfortunately, most of the graduates of these writing programs will find commercial success for their writing and the securing of employment within the academy as teachers of writing, to be elusive goals, out of reach for all but the most fortunate graduates. This reality is even more certain for the students committed to the writing of serious literary fiction, poetry, and other forms of “high art”. The sad truth is that if these students want to prosper as writers, they are required to dumb down and simplify their work in order to produce writing more palatable for the reading public.
Here we can see that Tocqueville’s incisive critique of democratic tastes in literature remains relevant and revealing. The typical American reader of our time has little patience with, tolerance for, or interest in tackling great works of literature of the kind which were produced in aristocratic ages. Having little interest in the sophisticated and sublime, but difficult to read and digest works of serious literary fiction, they prefer watered down pulp. This is of course what they want when they are actually setting aside time for reading, instead of being distracted from intellectual pursuits by the ever-present allure of the easier to comprehend information always available via ubiquitous technologies like the internet, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, and all the multitudes of content offered on smart phones, tablets, computers and other devices. The sad truth is that immensely talented writers, intent on writing in the highly sophisticated style of a Melville, Faulkner, or Hawthorne, will have no hope of publishing or reaching a mass audience in today’s market for literature. This much of Tocqueville’s understanding of the impact of the limitations of a democratic audience on the nature of writing in a democracy rings as true today as it must have in 1835. Elitist though it may be, Tocqueville’s comprehension of the nature of our problem comes with some solace to the stubborn would-be man of letters such as myself and others who, like me, can at least comfort ourselves with the observation that we are not entirely alone in our refusal to let go of our attachment to the both the reading and writing of literature in the high style of our aristocratic-like art.
Tocqueville, Alexis De. George Lawrence, Translator. J.P. Mayer, Editor. Democracy in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.