Signpostings

Relationships in a World of Individualism

  • rWorld

    The rWorld is about more than Dale Kuehne's book Sex and the iWorld.
    The rWorld is a New England based, non-profit (in formation), that is composed of a growing number of people and organizations from many faith and ideological backgrounds worldwide. We believe that much of the fulfillment for which women and men are looking can be found by enhancing the quality of our relationships. While the individual freedom we enjoy in the West is a gift, the love and intimacy for which humans yearn will not be found in self-serving materialism or hedonism, but in a variety of healthy relationships.

    Contact us if you'd like get involved:
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  • Dale Kuehne

    Sex & the iWorld

    Professor of Politics and The Richard L. Bready Chair for Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH.

    In this blog I'm highlighting signposts of the world in which we presently reside as a means of helping promote a civil, and meaningful dialogue about what kind of world in which we wish to live. I am particularly interested in exploring how might we reconcile the individual good and the common good, and where reconciliation isn’t possible, which should take precedence and why.

    I also blog at Sharewik.com

    [Content Caution]

It’s Déjà vu all over again (Tocqueville on America, Part 2)

Posted by Dale Kuehne on February 13, 2010

In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:

“In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.

The chief reason for this contrast is that [they are] forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.

A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.

In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure, he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics; and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness. Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him.

At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification of it.

Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily afford fresh examples. He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.

The recollection of the shortness of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things that he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode.

If in addition to the taste for physical well-being a social condition is added in which neither laws nor customs retain any person in his place, there is a great additional stimulant to this restlessness of temper. Men will then be seen continually to change their track for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Bk 2, Ch. 13

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10 Responses to “It’s Déjà vu all over again (Tocqueville on America, Part 2)”

  1. Bob McGill said

    ‘We have in technological society the problem of “sensible infinity”–i.e., the phenomenon of the myriad ways in which comfort and pleasure may be found. The quantitative possibilities for achieving pleasure and excitement are enormous–considerably greater than any human could ever achieve. The “boundlessness of desire” of which the Buddhist speaks is met in advanced technological society by the boundlessness of the means of satisfying desire. This “sensible infinity” is a cause of great despair in contemporary man. Since so many pleasures must be tasted, no pleasure can be fully experienced. Contemporary man is a superficial copy of Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic man.” The ever-not-quite character of existence weighs heavily upon him.’
    David L. Hall, 1973

  2. I take it you agree with his assessment of why we/they acted that way? AdT was a shrewd observer, but he ventures a bit into mindreading here.

  3. Lauren Fithian said

    Heading off to aerobics class to seek physical well-being and pleasure. Ah, but which one to choose? Maybe I’ll keep trying all the available classes so as to find my favorites in the limited time I have left to live. First, of course, I will eat a nutritious and pleasurable breakfast to have the fuel for the class. Ah, but what to eat? So many possibilities and so little lifetime to try them all. After class–work. Good thing there is an infinite amount of work to be done–plenty to choose from–including an infinite amount of humanitarian work. So much humanitarian work and so little lifetime to be part of accomplishing it. What’s a human to do? Keep going.

    I sit here at the computer and realize that I am happy. But I won’t stop here. I will continue to explore this world for perspectives that go beyond Toqueville’s depressing white male european perspective. There are sooooo many other perspectives–and so little lifetime to discover and hold them.

  4. Bob McGill said

    ‘Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.’
    Walker Percy, 1966

    (Maybe this doesn’t apply to women.)

  5. Bob, that is counterintuitive, but I think Percy gets it right. It reminds me of Chesterton’s ability to turn things around and see that the opposite of a commonly-held idea is more true. While we usually associate that with rabbinic pilpul, I seem to find it more in Roman Catholics in modern times.

    Whether it applies less to women I can’t say. The data set for women with abundant choices is limited – most of it is recent, and that which isn’t is confined to the wealthy. We may only now be acquiring the information which would allow us to speculate. The “hang on to your dreams, you can do anything” philosophy which has now been foisted on girls as well as boys is likely pernicious, however.

  6. Lauren Fithian said

    [How ironic that I tried to post another response via my iPhone and it did not work!]

    Bob–I guess I deserved the sarcasm of your parenthetical. The tone of my own response was fairly sarcastic.

    Assistant Village Idiot: I’m not sure what “social signaling” is, but since it is apparently not always “benign” it must not be a good thing. Regardless of the definition, your assertion that “social signaling” is the only or main intent of my comment is harshly (arrogantly?) dismissive. I think you and Bob and I disagree on some things–which makes this kind of discussion fun and thought-provoking. I grant you that I have difficulty getting a feel for the Toqueville passage. I have a feeling, however, that Toqueville had a difficult time overcoming his own acceptance of the deep-seeded and, yes, european, philosophy of his time–that one’s possibilities in life were determined by accident of birth. It almost feels like he wanted to find fault with an american spirit of adventure and excitement about new possibilities, while at the same time praising it.

    My impression is that we differ in our starting points. To me “possibility” is a good thing. It is associated with hope for something better than one’s current state of living. I am not able to see how having dreams about life and the philosophy that a person is capable of achievement are bad things. Do we want anyone to think that their own possibilities for living–such as choosing a profession or living in a particular locale are limited? I find that the philosophy of dreaming big and believing one “can do anything” is positive and life-affirming. This is far different from asserting that each of us should be able to engage in any specific BEHAVIORS we darn well please. Is that perhaps what you a referring to?

    I’m looking forward to further comment. I would like to understand what it means to say that hanging on to dreams and growing up with the philosophy that lots of avenues are open in life are pernicious in nature.

  7. Too many directions to go. I’ll limit my topics. Sorry if I miss the one that most intrigued you.

    First, I agree with your Toqueville assessment. As a privileged European (though more open-minded than most), he brought assumptions to his observations of Americans and did not quite understand us. I would maintain, very controversially, that Americans have always understood Europeans better than they have understood us, despite (or perhaps because of) their certainty otherwise. This continues to the present day.

    As to social signaling, it is something the human species does remarkably well. It is how we get by in the world. I took your mild challenge to Dale as a set of social statements (along with its surface content): that at least one reader was watching for white male biases, and others should be prepared for that; as it was stated lightly it was not inviting an argument but announcing that someone starting one could expect pushback; it was also a call to see if others were present who might share similar ideas.

    My reply had social signals as well: an announcement that someone was present who reads content closely and has a nonstandard approach; an intentional avoidance of saying “merely” or “only” so that offense is not given; a hint of invitation to a few tangential topics, if interested.

    For those who do this sort of analysis of self and others it is all very unremarkable. Most people have at least partial awareness of their signaling. We each belong to several tribes and signal them. While we all use the same words, the frequency or placement can be a giveaway. They are called code-words by opponents, but opponents by definition do not quite get it right.

    It is rather like birds chirping out their location. In an evangelical gathering someone might subtly add “sacrament” offhandedly into the discussion to announce a sympathy for other parts of Christian theology. If no one picks up, pro or con, nothing more is said. Not all who listen to NPR are political liberals, but those who work it into the conversation early usually are. Folks drop in hints about their professions, region, or interests.

    Sometimes people are quite miffed if someone notes their signals overtly, as if they are being called out. I don’t fully understand that, but I observe it. To me it’s intriguing and amusing when someone does it to me. Perhaps they have had bad experiences with people doing it to them before, either misunderstanding them or using it against them. Certainly when people disagree strongly they mean it to be insulting, hearing entire chords played when only single notes are struck.

  8. bonjour j’etais a la recherchche des cours de musique depuis quelques temps et j’ai trouv ca pour tt les gens que ca interresse. kicherchekoi.com il faut clicker dans la la partie cours de musique, c’est vraiment pas mal meme si vous cherchez autre trucs que des cours de musiques, ya egalement pour rechercher des amis et plein d’autre choses encore lol donc peut importe au moins pour une fois c’est pas que des gars qui cherche a vendre mais des gars qui recherche, nouveau 🙂

  9. Delightful, I passed this on to a friend of mine, and he actually bought me lunch because I found this for him, so let me rephrase: Thanks for lunch.

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