Reading Aristocratically

The following is a draft of an article that brings together some of the themes I have been exploring on this blog in relation to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.

The word aristocracy calls to mind a harshly regimented and deeply hierarchical society controlled by a hereditary elite that oppresses and exploits those below them in social rank. From the standpoint of the egalitarian values that have become ascendant in the industrialized West, the aristocrat can only appear as a parasite and a predator. Unfairly enjoying privileges that he did nothing to earn or merit, he lives off the labor of those below him in the social hierarchy and keeps them in servitude by threats of violence, with the aid of superstitious religious beliefs that reconcile the poor to harshness of their lot. Haughty, arrogant, idle, reactionary, entitled, and unproductive, he embodies all that stands in the way of progress, justice, and enlightenment. For the democratic mind, aristocratic ages conjure up images of incessant strife brought about by the jockeying for power among ambitious nobles and an illiterate peasantry that the nobility intimidates from pressing for justice or for their rights. Yet, for Alexis de Tocqueville, best known for his defense of democracy, one of the hallmarks of aristocracy is intellectual freedom. It was the aristocracy that is responsible for creating a context in which extraordinary individuals, including those with common backgrounds, could cultivate and perfect their talents. Moreover, the category of the aristocratic, even in the absence of an aristocratic elite exercising political power, remains crucial to the creation and transmission of culture in democratic ages. In this article, I will make the case that the idea of the aristocratic is – and ought to be – a critical factor in the study of the humanities. I will argue that the hierarchies bequeathed by aristocracy are vital to the life of the mind, and that democracy itself cannot survive without them. Indeed, it is in the idea of the aristocratic where one finds the key to moving beyond the repetitive, circular, and predictable debates in which the discipline of literary studies currently finds itself caught.

In his lengthy and detailed examination of American democracy, Tocqueville gives an account of the most distinctive and significant features of the new type of society exemplified by the United States. Focusing on how the values, outlooks, and dispositions of democratic society diverge from those of the aristocratic Old World, his study is rich in contrasts. In the words of Claude Lefort, Tocqueville’s writings are distinguished by an “astonishingly free speech,” borne out by the initiative he takes to move beyond the “circle of his theses” and “overturn his own affirmations,” “gladly head[ing] down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place” (Writing 35). His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to bringing out the complexity and dynamism of the new and unprecedented social realities he analyzes. Tocqueville’s approach is to balance out his admiration of a certain aspect of either democracy or aristocracy by reflecting on the intellectual or moral costs exacted by this particular virtue or advantage. He opposes democracy and aristocracy and finds that placed side-by-side they present an arresting either-or: one is good for fulfilling certain ends that are difficult or destructive for the other to achieve. Democracy is well-suited for creating prosperity, limiting suffering, cultivating peaceful habits, establishing benevolent institutions, and spreading physical and material well-being across the population. Democratic people dedicate their energies toward overcoming practical necessities, not only in their pursuit of wealth but also in their service to public associations that advance the common good. But these virtues and advantages come at a considerable price, for they entail neglecting or relinquishing altogether the virtues and advantages proper to aristocracy, chief among which Tocqueville counts freedom of thought. Mingled in his praise of American democracy for the undoubted improvements it has enabled its citizens to make to their lives and to the enlightened institutions it has founded is the stark assertion that “there no freedom of thought in America.”

What does Tocqueville mean by this? Why does he regard democratic society, in which the citizens enjoy political liberty and economic opportunity, as lacking in freedom of thought? And what is it that makes aristocratic society, in which the freedoms and ambitions of the common people are curtailed by a harsh social hierarchy, more conducive to the composition of subtle and compelling literary and philosophical works, including those that oppose, criticize, or even ridicule the established authorities? Tocqueville observes that the terrors of the Inquisition failed to prevent the dissemination of subversive and heretical books attacking the Catholic religion. In America, by contrast, “even the thought of publishing such books” does not occur to anyone in the first place (299). Louis XIV may have been the absolute monarch over France, but it was at his court that Molière’s plays ridiculing the courtiers won acclaim and it was in his palace where La Bruyère resided while writing his scathing portraits of the nobility. The “dominating power” in the United States, however, “does not understand being mocked like that,” taking offense at the “slightest reproach” and reacting in anger toward the “smallest sharp truth.” The lack of appreciation of satire and comedy and the quickness of people to grow enraged over mild criticisms are proof for Tocqueville of the power of mass opinion in democratic society. The people in a democracy, according to the French nobleman, wish to abide in a state of “everlasting self-adoration.” The writer in a democratic society thus feels “obliged” to “praise his fellow citizens.” If he has the temerity to offer unwelcome truths, he will be shunned by his peers and deserted by readers who may agree with his viewpoint but are fearful at the prospect of being banished from respectable society.

The democratic culture about which Tocqueville writes pertains to the United States during the 1830s, when the Founding Fathers had passed into history and the common man had come to take on a greatly expanded role in the system of representative government. Life in America was still overwhelmingly rural, and the country had only recently incorporated two states west of the Mississippi River. But while many of his observations relate to a historical period in which the mores and culture of the United States were quite different from those of the pluralistic, multicultural, sexually emancipated, and high tech capitalist nation of today, Tocqueville’s remarks about the lack of intellectual freedom in democracy have nevertheless revealed themselves to be prescient, as they address the power of mass opinion in a society where the defining value is equality. His point that intellectual freedom languishes in democracy while flourishing in aristocracy also bears out that the difference between democracy and aristocracy, even in a “complete democracy, where the seeds of democracy have never been down,” remains a crucial distinction even in modern times, in which the conditions of one’s birth no longer translates automatically into political power (Nature 15). Chief among the ways in which aristocracy continues to be meaningful for modern democracy is the influence of religious belief on the lives of democratic citizens, as Tocqueville defines religion not in terms of its theological content but provocatively as a “bequest from aristocratic times” (633). For according to Tocqueville’s way of thinking, we might call aristocratic any belief or practice or form of life that retains some element of hierarchy, in which some people have authority over others, such as the relations between teachers and students, or insists on some objective standard of performance or conduct within a given profession or other field of endeavor. Indeed, democracy and aristocracy for Tocqueville are not only names for differing types of political regimes, but also designate two antithetical orientations of the soul, two incommensurable ways of regarding oneself and the world (Nature 18-19).

Democratic man, whose defining value is equality, strives to become equal to his nature. Aristocratic man, whose defining value is superiority, seeks to overcome his nature and raise himself above it. Democratic man is concerned foremost with not obeying any will that is not is own, and likewise with not compelling others to do what they would not will for themselves and what he himself would not wish to do (Nature 20). Aristocratic man by contrast is driven by the pursuit of excellence, which often entails the sacrifice of his comforts and well-being as well as requires the service of others. Democratic society accordingly fosters skepticism toward any belief or commitment that draws the individual away from physical well-being and material prosperity – it tends to discourage the pursuit of the heroic virtues or the cultivation of religious devotion alike. Aristocratic society, led by a class that whose privileges grant its members “an elevated sentiment of their individual value” and “an impassioned taste for independence,” is distinguished by extraordinary achievements, whether in the realm of politics or in that of culture (qtd Nature 18). Although aristocratic society is the product of military conquest and aristocratic rule operates by means of the social hierarchy resulting from it, it nevertheless nourishes intellectual eros in ways that, Tocqueville fears, might no longer be possible in democratic society (Nature 68). For aristocrats, Tocqueville writes, may “commit actions that are tyrannical and very cruel,” but they also set forth an exalted image of the “dignity, power, and nobility of man,” which elevates the “tone of society in general to a very high level” (533). Aristocratic society “easily imagines glorious delights for man and sets splendid goals for his desires.” The reverence and admiration for “dignity, power, and nobility of man” extends across the whole of society and creates an atmosphere that encourages and stimulates the endeavors of thinkers, artists, and scientists, drawing “the natural impulse of the mind toward the highest regions of thought” and heightening “the love of truth to a sublime, almost divine level.”

Tocqueville describes the love of knowledge made possible by aristocracy as a “burning, proud, and disinterested passion for what is true” (532). Such a sublime conception of thought, which refuses any compromise with earthly rewards and even with the interests of society, finds for Tocqueville the most profound and incisive expression in the writings of the religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal marshaled all his intellectual energies to devote himself to the task of uncovering the “most hidden secrets of the Creator,” a quest he pursued with such all-consuming intensity that he perished of “old age before his fortieth year” (533). “Such extraordinary efforts,” Tocqueville marvels, can have “no ordinary cause,” nor could the prospect of winning “some great source of profit” or “self-glory” have been compelling enough to instill in Pascal the unrelenting drive to attain the profound insights with which he unmasked the illusions and self-deceptions governing the social and spiritual lives of men and women. The figure of the seventeenth-century religious thinker marks for Tocqueville a pivotal point of distinction between aristocracy and democracy. For not only does one find in Pascal a soul whose search for truth as well as devotion to virtue render him indifferent to the prizes and rewards of earthly gain that are the most readily conceivable inducements to action in democratic society. Pascal, who exemplifies the noblest possibilities for intellectual passion in aristocracy, represents a human type that is quite unlikely to emerge in a democracy: “The future will demonstrate whether such rare, creative passions are born and develop as readily in democratic as in aristocratic societies. My own opinion is that I can hardly believe it.”

The greatest limitation of democracy thus consists of the constraints that it places on the intellect. The life of the mind in a democratic society is stifled not only by the obligation of thinkers, reformers, and would-be free spirits to praise the opinion of the majority, but also by the fact that the intelligence of its brightest minds is directed overwhelmingly toward the resolution of practical problems. Such uses of the intellect have brought about great innovations in technology and undoubted improvements to the public welfare, not to mention increasing the nation’s prosperity. The emphasis on progress and improvement in democratic society, however, has the effect of subjecting the intellect to constant downward pressure: “That instinctive drive which draws the mind to the highest realms of the intellect fights a vain battle against self-interest which drags it down to the average” (534). The improvements to the lives of the majority achieved by democracy are thus the fruits of beliefs, dispositions, and habits that are in essence inimical to the freedom of the intellect, which, to be truly free, must pursue an art or science for its own sake and be capable of opposing the belief in the “greatest good of the greatest number” whenever it comes into conflict with the quest for truth. Indeed, it is the very efficacy with which democracy is able to achieve its ends that serves to dampen and discourage intellectual passion. The citizens, discovering that they are able to “resolve” without difficulty the practical problems they encounter in their daily lives, become convinced that “there is an explanation for everything in the world and nothing is beyond the limits of intelligence” (494). They thus grow resistant to the idea that there are higher realms to which the intellect might aspire and that there are worthy pursuits that have nothing to do with the improvement of material well-being or the public welfare. The very success of democracy in improving the lives of the majority thus discourages any effort to think beyond any system of values which has as its aims the reduction of suffering, the expansion of well-being, and the spread of prosperity.

Tocqueville’s gravest concern for democracy is that “this worthy and legitimate search for prosperity” will lead democratic man to “lose the use of his most sublime faculties” and thus to “debase himself” (631-632). But if the wealth and general well-being enjoyed by the majority dissuade the citizens in a democracy from the pursuit and cultivation of sublime intellectual ambitions, the idea of equality proves no less insidious for the cultivation of the freedom of thought. Equality has the effect of making the citizens similar to each other, so that when they “scrutinize each other carefully,” they fail to see anyone standing out from them by bearing “any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority” (494). Uncertain as to whom to believe, whom to disregard, and what way of life to adopt, they are thus “constantly” thrown back onto “their own rationality” as the “most obvious and immediate source of truth,” which in turn fails to satisfy their desire for certainty. Manent stresses the influence of Pascal on Tocqueville’s portrait of a psyche unsettled and disconcerted by having outgrown tradition while not “daring” to “rely on his own reason or that of another” (Nature 60). Tocqueville’s answer to how men in a democracy resolve this bind is famous – the similarity between them that robs them of confidence in each other serves to arouse in them “an almost unlimited trust” the collective body that they make up together (501). But it is not foremost in a spirit of solidarity and mutual obligation that democratic man resolves to belong to the majority, but rather the need to console and persuade himself that there is a way to assert his independence that does not put his self-esteem at risk: “This very equality that makes him independent delivers him alone and defenseless into the hands of the majority” (501).

One should emphasize here however that the activity of conforming to mass opinion is not felt by democratic man to be a kind of submission or surrender to a greater power. It is far less wounding, Tocqueville observes, for individuals who believe in equality to surrender to the will of society than to the authority of a specific individual or a particular elite: “Every individual tolerates being tied down because he sees that it is not another man nor a class of people holding the end of the chain, but rather society itself” (806). Not only does taking recourse in mass opinion relieve democratic man from the state of anxiety entailed in having to think and judge for oneself, but it also convinces him that the opinions of the majority are in fact his own, and that by adopting the opinions of the majority he may think and judge for himself. Indeed, democratic man experiences his renunciation of authority and independence as an affirmation of his pride and self-esteem. Tocqueville describes how this illusion takes hold: “Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world” [“Chacun se renferme donc étroitement en soi-même, et prétend de là juger le monde” (III.1)] (494). His choice of words is quite interesting. He does not say that democratic man “judges the world,” but instead that he “claims” or “intends” (“prétend”) to judge the world. It might come easily and naturally enough to democratic man to “withdraw” into himself, but the subsequent act of “judging” the world, Tocqueville stresses, is a hesitant and unsteady operation. It is as though there is something in democratic man that prevents him from fully identifying with the judgments he makes, dooming him to a chronic unease about the freedom that by means of which he is to assert the core of his being. Lacking an unsparing drive to knowledge and the steadiness of the will to be truly independent, he elects to appear independent instead. The choice of seeming over being here is key – democratic men yield all the more eagerly to the power of mass opinion “because obedience to the power of the majority is the only thing that allows them to entertain the illusion that they are obeying their own will” (Nature 22).

Yet, this “illusion” also connects democratic man to a great and crushing power, one far more encompassing and inescapable than one’s lord or king or bishop. As Manent observes, the conformity of democratic man to the viewpoints of the majority is something qualitatively different from conformity as it is traditionally understood. It is not a matter of bowing to an opinion because those around one espouse it, but rather of assuming that what makes an opinion worthy and rightful is because it is “commonly held” (Nature 42). Mass opinion in democratic is thus grounded in the conviction that “what is most just lies with the idea of the strongest.” The quality of an idea or an argument accordingly matters far less than how well it expresses the will of the majority. Manent states firmly that the “social power” exercised by mass opinion has implications that are ominously totalitarian:

“This very thing by which democratic men resemble each other more and more, this very thing through which they think and perceive themselves, this very thing that is dearer and more intimate than themselves, is nothing human. They can only think it and represent it to themselves in positing it as outside themselves, an irresistible force that pushes and calls to them, a power so much more penetrating than it would be were it their own: the necessity of history, mass power without limit, the irresistible grip of society” (Nature 44).

But what then is the mechanism that enables men and women to feel free while obeying a power, that, though it may welcome them, nevertheless remains something outside themselves? What is it that enables this spiritually crushing and “irresistible” social power to fulfill those who wield it at a deeply personal and “intimate” level? For Tocqueville, the magic of democratic mass opinion resides in the fact that it is based not on belief but on skepticism, or rather, serves as the belief that licenses skepticism. It is the skeptical nature of the judgments approved by mass opinion which convince the individual that he is thinking independently when he adopts its stances and heeds its valuations. And it is skepticism that gives him the feeling that he is liberating himself when, with the audacity he borrows from mass opinion, he attacks what he regards as the limits to his freedom, striking at targets that have been marked out for him in advance by mass opinion itself.

The contemporary reader would expect people who think and judge for themselves to be more skeptical than not. After all, asserting one’s intellectual freedom entails challenging established pieties and mocking the hypocrisy of the powerful, as Tocqueville himself mentions in reference to the heretics who defied the Inquisition or the writers who ridiculed the court. But the difference of democratic skepticism from aristocratic satire and ridicule is that the former is concerned less with accurately depicting the objects of its critical gaze than with enabling the individual to relate on a basis of equality with what he criticizes. For democratic man’s desire for equality extends beyond the society he inhabits – the past too must also be brought into line in accordance with the same values that flatter and reassure him that no one is better than him (“Democracy’s Debt” 96). Thus, extraordinary individuals as well as their achievements must be brought lower, to the same level as one who writes about them in the present. The most common method for pulling down the great is to expose their flaws, transgressions, mistakes, and weaknesses, although the critic is typically incapable of performing the same acts that brought them renown. “Equality encourages every man to be his own judge of everything,” but it tilts the intellect towards the search for the weaknesses when confronted with the work of an authority (maître), rather than an engagement with its strengths (530). For as Pascal himself points out, it is the vices of the great that give us the impression that they are in fact our equals, not least when we realize that their virtues are beyond our reach: “The example of Alexander’s chastity has not made so many continent as that of his drunkenness has made intemperate. It is not shameful not to be as virtuous as he, and it seems excusable to be no more vicious” (Pensees 33).

Such leveling would strike an aristocratic individual as both insipid and arrogant, a galling combination of complacency and hubris that openly courts disaster, yet this tendency easily becomes a defining element of the intellectual culture in a mass age. Writing almost a century after Tocqueville on the subject of what he calls “mass man,” José Ortega y Gasset notes that when this human type, which actively imposes mediocrity on all that is excellent, reads a book, he does so not with the objective “of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head” (Revolt 12). For the democratic individual seeks to impose equality where distinctions in rank and more importantly differences of quality still hold. Regarding himself as “perfect,” he sees no need to go outside of himself, and the point is lost on him that it is the feeling of “insufficiency” in human beings which spurs them to undertake the most extraordinary acts or take up the search for truth (Revolt 69). The real target of democratic skepticism is the idea of superiority, which holds that excellence can only be achieved against the backdrop of lack and incompleteness. By attacking the concept of superiority and the hierarchy it produces, democratic man feels that he is mounting a defense of equality against the forces that threaten to abolish it, or to abolish the consciousness of it. He is moreover able to assert his freedom without suffering the solitude or bearing the rancor that a genuine exercise of freedom would impose on him. His condemnation of traditional hierarchies, which have long already been on the wane, serves to satisfy his desire to be original, enlightened, and morally correct at the same time, since he can pose as the defender of freedom against corrupt and regressive forces that seek to hold on to the superstitions and customs by means of which they have controlled society, all the while remaining safely within the bounds of mass opinion.

Thus, the development and expansion of such a skeptical spirit, far from undermining the social power of mass opinion, instead strengthens its grip over democratic men and women. It locks them into a horizon in which even the most impassioned and energetic forms of dissent nevertheless still appeal to democracy and equality, calling in effect for “a more complete uniformity, a more advanced resemblance” to an inescapable “social ideal” (Nature 44). The inherent tendency of democracy is thus to foster and promote subjectivism in the individual, increasingly closing him or her off from possibilities for gaining insight, undergoing transformation, or rising above the limits of the self that demarcate who he or she is currently. Instead, “each individual sees, wants to see, and can only see, similar individuals around him” (Nature 42-43). It is in this drive towards subjectivism that Tocqueville perceives the seeds of a future despotism that would arise from the will of the people themselves. For the “withdrawal” of men and women into the narrow confines of an existence which easily satisfies their needs and in which they are able to give themselves wholly to the pursuit of modest and orderly pleasures will not be enough to make them debauched, but it may “soften” their “souls” and “silently loosen their springs of action” (620). The way would then be paved for a kind of “organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement” under a government that would not lord over its subjects or “break” their “wills,” but resort to gentler methods of ensuring compliance by coaxing, restraining, dulling, frustrating, and nudging its subjects. It would not order men and women to do what they do not wish to do, but would invariably stand in the way of whatever actions they choose to perform (806). The people would be rendered passive and lose any conception of the active life, their spirit and initiative withering under a “network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic spirits cannot reach the light.”

It thus becomes clear that for Tocqueville, democracy does not only refer to a specific type of regime defined by the involvement of the broad mass of citizens in the task of governing the state. More significantly, it names a never-ending process of leveling and equalization that seeks to extend itself across the whole of society. In the words of Sheldon Wolin, democracy in Tocqueville’s eyes designates a “massive social pressure resulting from actions of countless free individuals,” the “weight of diffused power… that is quantitative in character because derived from the uniformity that, paradoxically, accompanies individualism” (Wolin 98). The process of democratization does not come to a close with the establishment of a democratic form of government, but rather continues to press forward and lay siege to whatever inequalities might still be operative in society “as if the Revolution had not yet achieved anything” (“Political Philosopher” 113). It is a “constant movement toward ever-greater equality of conditions” that for all its restless dynamism remains incapable of conceiving what its “destination” or “final end” might be. If it strikes down hierarchical structures or dissolves traditional social relations, it does as a blind reflex, paying no need to what benefits they provide to society or to the question of what might replace them. The individual’s desire to assert his will, but in a manner that supports the opinions of the majority, is not part of a collective program that aims to reconstruct society or reshape social relations in specific ways. Indeed, in accordance with George Santayana’s observation that the specific and the concrete are what liberal freedom defines itself against, democratic man stands ever in need of tradition, or at least the specter of it, or else he would not be able to assert his emancipation, which is always an emancipation from a more benighted past (Soliloquies 174). Thus, the sometimes stunning changes achieved by the drive to equality in the more advanced stages of democracy are the result of pushing very hard against a wobbly and tottering structure.

The future of democracy thus points toward the deterioration of thought. This deterioration of course does not affect scientific reason as directly it does those areas of the mind that have to do with theoretical reflection. The dominant forces in democratic societies promote a worsening subjectivism, in which individuals become ever more deeply mired in their opinions and less and less capable of conceiving of and seeing the world from perspectives substantially different from their own. Tocqueville is of course not the only critic of modernity to pursue this line of thought. For Santayana, the modern concept of liberty rests on a kind of “higher snobbery,” which dismisses those who do not “desire” what the “best people” desire as “arrested and perverse.” For the modern believer in progress, “The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall” (Soliloquies 181). The liberal idea of progress thus reveals itself to be the ideology of the affluent, who presume that in an increasingly prosperous world marked by unceasing technological advancement, everyone will wish to become like them and will act according to the same incentives and motivations that guide them. Ortega y Gasset’s plebeian “mass man” is likewise afflicted by the similar failing of not only refusing to learn from those who have greater knowledge and understanding and but also of turning his obstinacy into a point of pride. There is a ready “stock of ideas” for mass man to adopt as his own, in accordance with the prevailing moods of society. They provide him with opinions that he may assert before the others and fulfill his need to feel that he is in tune with the leading values of the time, so that he comes across no inducement to move beyond what he currently believes: “As he feels the lack of nothing outside himself, he settles down definitely amid his mental furniture” (Revolt 69). In the case of Ortega y Gasset as with Santayana, what closes off the mind from insight and understanding is the immense productivity of modern industry and the stunning achievements of modern technology, which serve to free the population as a whole from the scarcity that defined the long and immemorial centuries before the modern age. But not only does modernity conquer scarcity, it also destroys the memory of scarcity and of the splendors of the culture that arose under the conditions of scarcity.

The distinction between aristocratic man and democratic man thus rests in large measure on the fundamentally different economic and technological conditions to which they belong. Indeed, the way of thinking that characterizes democratic man or mass man is unthinkable without the tremendous changes brought about by modern industry, changes that are far-reaching so to have produced an anthropological divide between him and his aristocratic predecessor. Ortega y Gasset observes that the “average type” that comes of age in a technologically advanced civilization is incapable of recognizing the forces and events that made that civilization possible – the curse of modern men and women is that they lack any “feeling for great historic duties,” including the ones that produced the world they inhabit. They have been “hurriedly inoculated with the pride and power of modern instruments, but not with their spirit,” so that while they are capable of mastering the techniques of industrial society, they are not able to recognize how their civilization fits into a more encompassing historical and cultural framework (Revolt 51). So if democracy serves to stultify individuals, or rather, enables human beings to stultify themselves and encourages them to take pride in their very lack of insight, then what is it that enables aristocratic society to support and nourish the highest intellectual capacities? It is, unsettlingly enough, the very inequality of aristocracy that makes possible its great achievements in the realm of thought. Since the guiding principle of aristocracy is superiority, which legitimizes what democratic individuals condemn as a harsh social hierarchy, the aspiration to rise above oneself and others extends more organically and shapes more thoroughly the pursuits of art and knowledge. The fact that some men have the power and right to govern others means that individuals who occupy lower positions in the social hierarchy can exercise an equivalent influence by achieving renown in their chosen field of endeavor. As Manent points out, “the image and idea of the power of one man over others occupy the imagination of this society” and serves as the template by which some individuals may exert a similar power over others on the basis of their “personal talents and merits” rather than “their conventional social positions” (Nature 77). For the “inegalitarian” nature of aristocratic society is what makes it possible for “great personal influences” to unfold and be exercised within it. The recognition and acceptance that some men are superior to others, whether in valor, wisdom, or piety, means that people take for granted that men ought to influence one another.

For it is the recognition of the superiority of another that draws men and women out of themselves, whereas the belief in equality tends to lock them into the “isolation of their own hearts” (588). In an unequal society, where stark differences in social position are taken for granted as the norm, the recognition of the superiority of another will be far less wounding than it would be in democratic society, which, in the words of Manent, “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Nature 79). But one can expect that the admiration for those who have cultivated an extraordinary talent or achieved great renown would come more easily from people who are accustomed to living in a society shaped by clear hierarchy. The harshness of differences in social rank has the consequence of making people more attuned to the differences between them, so that they are able to recognize more fully the virtues and actions of extraordinary individuals. Because they do not feel overwhelmed by the need to defend their self-esteem against the presence of a superior mind, they are thus more inclined to take to heart his or her discoveries and insights:

“The importance of the idea of individual superiority comes from the following consideration. Individuals who, for example, can recognize in some other individual the capacity to penetrate into the nature of things, to look for truth, are thus able to get outside themselves in a way that gives them access to a world beyond the narrow circle circumscribed by their nature and limited experience. Through the mediation of the superior individual, they leave their egos behind and come to encounter things in accord with the directions he has indicated” (Nature 77).

The immense disparity between the educated and the uneducated in an aristocracy, Tocqueville notes, is a key reason for why the ideas of the intelligent are received without the trepidation and anxiety they arouse in democratic societies: “When conditions are unequal and men have dissimilar outlooks, there are a few very enlightened, learned, powerfully intelligent individuals while the masses are very ignorant and extremely limited” (500). But the fact that the well-educated and highly knowledgeable are few in number make the others “naturally inclined to take as a guide for their opinions the superior reason of one man or one class.” In contradistinction to democratic men and women, those who are governed by an aristocratic elite are accordingly not susceptible to a belief like the “infallibility of the masses.”

Thus, broadly speaking, we might say that in an aristocracy, men and women take for granted that the intelligent and knowledgeable should influence the rest of society, while in a democracy, people are prone to believe that the intelligent and knowledgeable are not really brighter than they are, or that they possess the right not to take their insights and theories seriously, especially if their ideas cause them distress. For the self-esteem of democratic man demands that the theory of equality be applied to the intelligence (288). Thus, a society that has become perfectly democratic, that is to say, purged or emptied of all aristocratic content, would be one in which it would be impossible for one individual to influence another. It would call to mind the quasi-satirical portrait of democracy in Plato’s Republic, where fathers are fearful of disciplining their sons, teachers flatter their students instead of correcting them, and even beasts of burden grow accustomed to not giving way to the humans on their path (562e-563c). In an aristocratic society, by contrast, everyone, including the notables, expects to encounter someone or something higher than himself or herself. Max Scheler notes that “the noble man’s naïve self-confidence” is what makes him capable of admitting that “another person has ‘qualities’ superior to his own or is more ‘gifted’ in some respects – indeed in all respects” (Ressentiment 54-55). The aristocrat is the one who is willing to take delight in and feel elevated by the virtues demonstrated by others, including by those who are below him in the social hierarchy. The feeling of superiority, offensive as it is to the egalitarian spirit, is nevertheless what enables him “calmly to assimilate the merits of others in all the fullness of their substance and configuration” (Ressentiment 54). For though he might appear haughty and aloof, he nevertheless recognizes that excellence is something that exists independently of his will and so resists the temptation to devalue what is excellent by identifying it with his own desires and interests. Aristocratic man, unlike his democratic counterpart, is distinguished by his determination to see people and things as they are, rather than according to how well they flatter his self-image. He sees others in that sense much like a great realist novelist, perceiving clear-sightedly the virtues of his enemies and the vices of his friends.

The idea of superiority thus not only directs the gazes of men and women toward what is above them, but also prompts them to look more deeply into their hearts, certainly more deeply than is possible when one’s most pressing and vital need is the protection and defense of one’s self-esteem and vanity. The expectation that the intelligent and capable few are to exert a powerful influence over the others reinforces the idea there is “objective order” that is outside one’s self and “to which one does not have access in ordinary life” (Nature 78). Even if one takes the view that the psychic frameworks by which we experience the world are overwhelmingly subjective, it is not hard to see that the belief in a “natural order” that is at the same time elusive and can only be grasped or glimpsed through the endeavors of those minds blessed with exceptional insight is likely to have a positive effect on the intellect, sharpening it and making it more subtle in detecting delusions that are inconspicuous as well as confusions that are hidden. Moreover, the centrality that the idea of superiority gives to the capacity of the individual to influence his fellows means that the act of gaining an insight or encountering a truth is understood in a fundamentally different way than in modern democratic societies. Whereas we are accustomed to ascribing to ourselves the latitude to determine not only what lessons we might learn from a text but also the extent to which these insights might affect us, an aristocratic perspective would hold that one has not gained an insight unless it changes one’s perspective at a profound level. Indeed, the mark of an insight, as a form of knowledge that is superior to the knowledge we already possess, is that it is capable of altering our beliefs and outlook, and even our values. For to give the work of an extraordinary intellect like Pascal its due, one must open oneself to the possibility of having one’s perspective altered by his discoveries, even to the point of reconsidering one’s most intensely-held convictions. While it is not necessary to adopt wholesale the values and stances taken by Pascal, one ought, at the very least, be able, in the words of Manent, “seriously to spell out reasons why, once thoroughly thought through, one does not convert” (Nature 77).

The activity of reading in an aristocratic sense thus calls for the transformation of one’s perspective. Reading should be initiatory, leaving the reader changed in a profound and irrevocable way, in a manner akin to how archaic rites of initiation “shake and mark” the initiates (Oedipus 117). One is obliged to change one’s perspective when coming across wisdom and insight, or else it is not wisdom or insight that one has encountered. It is, however, not a matter of surrendering to the intelligence of the text, but rather of presenting as thoughtful a resistance as it is in one’s power to mount against its arguments, which serve as the means to arrive at a deeper understanding of the text. Confronting the alternatives – conversion, or a refusal to convert based on a solid and considered understanding of what one is refusing – the reader is to come to a decision based on serious reflection and the careful weighing of the author’s arguments. One will thus have fallen short if one falls back on a predetermined response that is conditioned and constrained by the theoretical positions and political outlooks that one already holds. For the proper relation that a reader should have to a great work is not uncritical admiration but rather the readiness to rethink one’s beliefs and assumptions by putting them to the test against the arguments and the insights of an extraordinary mind. But the act of revisiting one’s beliefs and changing one’s mind by discarding the ideas and attitudes which one has come to realize are ill-founded need not be a painful or humiliating process. For thinker like Friedrich Nietzsche, such an alteration to one’s worldview, far from being an experience of distress, is an occasion to celebrate a “festival” of the spirit: “How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own!” (Daybreak 449).

The conviction that reading ought to be a transformative activity from which we should emerge with our viewpoints changed is a far cry from the expectations and attitudes that inform literary and cultural criticism in the present. The scholarly approach that has become dominant today involves the “interrogation” of the text by the reader to discover the ways in which it is complicit in sustaining oppressive political structures, unfortunately very rarely breaks new ground or has something worthwhile to contribute even to the domains of politics where it seeks to intervene. As Rita Felski observes, the “literary text is hauled in to confirm what the critic already knows, to illustrate what has been adjudicated in other arenas” (Uses 7). For scholars in the humanities who pursue the method that Joseph North terms “historicist-contextualist,” the significance of literary texts lies in their value as “diagnostic instruments determining the state of the cultures in which they were written or read” (Political History 1). Literary works are valued chiefly for the service they provide to the scholar in carrying out the sociopolitical project of criticizing the existing order (Limits 5). But the politicized scholarship that has become widespread in the academy makes virtually no effort to persuade readers who do not already share the political stances of its authors. Nor is this criticism marked by efforts to conceive of the subjective positions of either its opponents or the objects of its criticism and to see the world from those vantage points which would in fact be truly other to the perspective of the politically-engaged critic of today. Rather than political arguments that could engage those who have different or opposing perspectives, one finds instead the reiteration of familiar opinions that do not support the pursuit of understanding but rather serve to reinforce an ideological monopoly. Moreover, in the interest of maintaining this monopoly, literary scholars allow their analyses to be constrained by the predetermined conclusions their political opinions compel them to reach, curtailing any line of thought that veers into heterodoxy and pressuring them to back away from insights that might challenge these ideological stances. It is as though they have fully internalized the belief that everyone is locked into the political opinions they hold, so that there is nothing left to do apart from restating interminably what one already believes.

The lack of interest in persuading others and the inability to imagine and inhabit the perspectives of one’s adversaries would be grave defects for an aristocratic intellect. The act of intellectual “transmigration,” which Ortega y Gasset calls “the supreme form of sport,” demands the acceptance of one’s own “insufficiency,” which the pride of democratic man presses to him deny since it involves the encounter with something superior to him (Revolt 69). He shrinks from endeavoring to reconstruct the standpoint of his opponents because he senses obscurely that to do so would put his intelligence to the test. For as Nietzsche points out, the way in which one “interprets and reproduces” the viewpoint of one’s adversaries “betrays the natural measure of every intellect,” revealing whether one is “naturally subtle or feeble” (Daybreak 431). The mark of a “perfect sage,” he continues, is his instinct whereby “without knowing it” he “elevates his opponent into the ideal and purifies his contradictory opinion of every blemish and adventitiousness” before engaging him in battle. It is not difficult to see that this is a risky maneuver commits one to playing a dangerous game. If the fatal tendency of democratic intellect is to dissolve into dogmas where it never encounters anything other to itself, then the risk of the aristocratic intellect is that by focusing on the strongest and most profound aspects of the thought of its opponent, it may lead one to become persuaded by his or her arguments. But the act of seeking out the most intelligent points of an opponent’s position, far from comprising a gesture of masochistic submission to his or her opinions, dislodges from our current perspective and provokes in us the detachment which allows us to make contact with the otherness that would otherwise remain beyond our reach.

We have the misfortune to find ourselves caught at a more advanced stage of the atomization brought about by the idea of equality, whereby it is easy for us automatically to project onto others the condition of spiritual and intellectual isolation into which we are locked. One not only suffers from limited vision, but assumes that others are blind in exactly the same way. With regard to the practice of literary and cultural criticism, what hides in this blind spot is the fact that superiority continues to serve as a measure of valuation in spite of the egalitarianism that has become obligatory for everyone to endorse. For the major schools of thought in literary criticism share the view of the text as a passive and neutralized object, whereby the superiority of the reader over the literary work defines the act of reading. The text is easily available for the dissection that would expose the covert ways in which it does the unseemly work of coercive political regimes. It is no less a powerless entity for deconstructionist critics who decry all attempts at understanding the literary work as a violation of its essential otherness, which in effect disconnects the idea of otherness from the capacity to transform those who encounter it. The old-fashioned approach of aesthetic appreciation likewise presumes that the text is a passive object of enjoyment. Even the work of recent critics such as Felski and North that call for alternatives to the kind of politically-driven critique that has become the dominant paradigm looks for a solution in the variety of “uses” that one might make of literature, which also assume the inferiority of the text in relation to the purposes to which it might be put.

What is accordingly missing from the attitude that one can “use” literature is the acknowledgement that the text was produced by someone with an intelligence higher than our own, and with greater insight. This is not to argue that it will always be the case that the author of a literary work will have an intellect superior to that of the reader, but rather that the most insightful and worthwhile criticism will proceed from the assumption that the work is the creation of a superior mind. But it is easy to forget in a hyper-democratic age that our initial recognition of the superior intelligence of the book to ourselves, far from being an indignity or a humiliation, was an experience of wonder, astonishment, and gratitude. As Nietzsche observes in “Schopenhauer as Educator,” the belief in culture arises from our having been inspired by the force of an uncompromising love, “for it is love alone that can bestow on the soul, not only a clear, discriminating and self-contemptuous view of itself, but also the desire to look beyond itself and to seek with all its might for a higher self as yet still concealed from it” (Untimely Meditations 163). For was not practically every literary critic in her youth initiated into the love of books in this way? And what better basis is there for a defense of the humanities than returning the spirit in which one first took up the study of literature, to those times when one sought eagerly to be transformed by what one read? And what discipline can mount a credible defense of itself, if it cannot impart any sense of the passions that drove one to take up the study of it as a vocation in the first place?

The destructive effect that democracy has on culture is that in striving to achieve political equality, it condemns superiority in every other realm, much to the detriment of the intellect, which loses the structure by means of which it can surpass itself. Moreover, it is by allowing for inequality in certain spheres that democratic societies are able to preserve their freedom, as they stand ever in need of countervailing forces against the relentless drive to make what is different into what is equal. As Philip Rieff points out: “Democracy depends upon the perpetual rediscovery that the world is not ourselves, that there is a not-I who is master of our limits, both imaginatively and in social action” (Deathworks 175). For Hannah Arendt, it is this element of otherness is what makes for the experience of “depth” among human beings, which can only be “reached” by the “remembrance” of what is other to the modern age (Between 94). For the intellect in the age of hyper-democracy, to become capable of changing one’s mind is the first step beyond what binds one to the confusion of the dispirited.


Works Cited:

Arendt. Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

________. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Gardner, Stephen L. “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy. Eds. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Goux, Jean-Joseph. Oedipus, Philosopher. Trans. Catherine Porter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Lefort, Claude. Writing: The Political Test. Trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner.  Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

_______. “Tocqueville, Political Philosopher.” The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville. Ed. Cheryl B. Welch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

_______. Untimely Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

North, Joseph. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. W. F. Trotter. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.

Rieff, Philip. My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Santayana, George. Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.

Scheler, Max. Ressentiment. Trans. William W. Holdheim. New York: Schocken, 1972.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. Trans. Gerald E. Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Wolin, Sheldon. Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.



5 responses

  1. Late 18th century writers–I’m thinking specifically of Franklin and Crevecoeur–celebrated “mediocrity.” By the early 19th century there’s a shift to concern about the middle. You can see it in the Romantics, including Americans RWE and HDT. You can also see it JF Cooper whose work tries consistently to reconcile a political democracy with a social aristocracy.

  2. Fellow Tocqueville scholar/lover here, Mr. Paik. Saw this via Titus Techera fb. Simply one of the best essays on Tocqueville, and on Great Books education I’ve ever read. Surprised and delighted to find your using Nietzsche as the ablest defender of what I’d previously considered the application of the Golden Rule to political debate and (less so) to intellectual debate. Someday we should talk–I have a big Tocqueville/Plato-centered book on Poetry, Political Philosophy, and Democracy’s Fate trying to take shape in my soul… …your essay also pointed out some possible resources for that. You can check out my older work by looking up my dissertation–Carl Eric Scott, “The Inconstant Democratic Character: A Comparison of Plato’s Republic and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

    1. I look forward to talking about your project – I am especially curious to find out where you think democracies are headed. Thanks for getting in touch.

      1. Carl Eric Scott

        Top prospects for the rest of the 21st-century, mainly for the American case: 1) muddle-through pretty much as at present–would mean that in retrospect, certain current fears prove overblown, 2) gradual descent into progressivist democratic despotism, which is basically Toc’s mild despotism, with the addition of a mutually-enforced (often via social media) ideological element–requires repeated Dem victories initially, and a progressivist SCOTUS, 3) in reaction to prospect of progressivist democratic despotism, right-wing populist hard despot–Sulla a model for the rationale, 4) in reaction to prospect of right-wing despot, progressivist hard despot, 5) period of dueling despots/despot-plots, which is a kind of civil war, but with little popular say, 6) largely bloodless civic dissolution into two confederacies, via “big sort” migrations and secessions–but the trick here is which side is the seceding party and which is the rump–if it is the right-wing states trying to secede from the left-wing ones, the dissolution is unlikely to happen peacefully, lawfully, and democratically.

        Note that I don’t think the typical right-wing fantasy one sees in all the comment sections, of outright civil war with all the gun-owners playing a heroic role (and beating the left to a pulp–there’s the truly hateful element of the fantasy), is even in the running. People who talk that way do not understand democratic and administrative dynamics–they are letting their guns block their thinking about those things. I accept their general point that widespread gun ownership makes despotism in general more difficulty in America, and makes any coup-attempt in the present situation (already a fantasy given the loyalty of America’s armed services) utterly foolhardy, but they don’t want to think about how a gradually arriving, and popularly approved, democratic despotism could isolate gun-owners and out-wait them. “So, you have the private guns? We have the communications. And, we get to deploy the professional guns. Anyhow, we’ll just wait for your type to die off.”

        No one knows or can know, but the top probabilities are with 1).

        Still, certain underlying dynamics at work, the sorts of things we who are interested in political theory tend to focus upon, point to 2). For most of the world, if that’s the way things head, that’s that, for a time. Not sure, however, whether 2) can really happen in America without provoking widespread and highly effective resistance, which unfortunately, is most likely to produce 3).

        The best case scenario for 3) is that like Sulla, or better, a classic Roman dictator, the hard-despot steps aside, and says, “Okay, I’ve restored the Constitution, with a few enhancements/safety-guards added, now it’s up to y’all.” Of course, the problem is, once anyone utilizes the military and the intelligence agencies like that, the temptation on the part of various actors to do so again becomes hard to resist.

        One can go insane trying to think through the various scenarios. I think what’s most relevant for the present is to try, like Tocq., to present “salutary fears” about the prospect of 2), but in a way far more specified and limited than Tocq. And, most importantly, to do so in a way that does not endanger overall morale. Trump’s nomination and election (BTW, I’ll vote for him in 2020 if he’s the nominee, but it remains the case that his electoral viability is a great shame for liberal democracy) shows us what happens when people adopt non-salutary fears about the immediate future as gospel truth, or in general are trained to think and talk about these things with no epistemic humility. Sober talk about the fact that coming generations may really have to deal with the scenarios of 3-6, and about what can be done now, in terms of associational and intellectual preparation, is what will be most helpful. Against that, drama-talk–typically posing as face-the-facts sobriety–used either for strategic rhetorical purposes (a la “Decius”), or simply indulged in for the poetic/apocalyptic delight, is the great competitor and danger.

        I’m repeating here some of what I wrote in three posts for NRO’s Postmodern Conservative blog–the titles all have the words “Roman Lessons” and “Late Republic Studies” in them.

        And I end with a repetition: at least for the 21st-century, due to the weight of past expectations, and daily economic and internet inter-connections, the most likely scenario remains 1).

        So that’s my answer to your immediate curiosity–not that I wouldn’t prefer to talk about the poetic, philosophic, religious, and liberal-ed issues that dominate your essay, issues which will prove the ultimate drivers of the future.

      2. Carl Eric Scott, thank you for the detailed response. I am largely in agreement with the likely paths ahead that you set forth. As you point out, “muddling through” is the best option, and it seems to me, moving forward, that trying to improve the chances that we do muddle through is the best kind of politics. Doing so would lead us to emphasize what people hold in common, especially bread and butter issues such as jobs and income equality, more than symbolic ones that are at the center of the culture wars.

        I do see signs that give hope that the people are tiring of the culture wars. People who considered themselves leftists and activists are no longer defining themselves in those ways. For example, Cassie Jaye, who made the documentary The Red Pill, no longer regards herself as a feminist after learning about the discrimination suffered by men. Rod Dreher lately has been putting the spotlight on ex-progressives who changed their views because they grew sick of the witch-hunts and of the constant harassment of those who do not fall totally in line with the program.

        Social media unfortunately tends to exacerbate the culture wars because the polarization they produce are good for clicks. And the mainline churches are no longer the unifying force they once were. But as Tocqueville hypothesized, it is not possible for a people to be unbelieving and to be politically free at the same time. The culture that the dominant trends of the present are setting in motion is one that I think will be drastically different from the culture of today. We could see the emergence of a kind of ruthless rationalism along Hobbesian lines, centering on the need for physical safety from the consequences of social disintegration. The “mildness” of democracy, which it inherited in part from Christianity, would be replaced by a cold pagan outlook on life and death, producing a kind of caste society based on ugly stereotypes. Such an outcome would proceed from the recognition of the need to stay competitive with a rising China.

        The triumph of progressivism by contrast would lead to greater income equality, but I am not certain whether it would create a readiness to accept a more modest role for the US as a world power. Missionary zeal is now firmly lodged in the progressive side, which would lead the US to alienate its allies and worsen relations with neutral states.

        But what I find makes prediction so murky is that, contra Tocqueville, American democracy has reached a point where it is possible to say that the people are disobeying their interests. At the same time, it is unclear whether the typical mechanisms of social and civilizational renewal can kick back in, because the task of salvaging civilization appears to many people as more trouble than it is worth.

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