Let’s be reasonable…

My, oh my, what a summer! The semester is already over, thank goodness. It was fun and I learned a lot, but it was  intense. I am sorry not to have been able to spend more time reflecting on the books that we read; there were some splendidly dry readings about which we were all very excited and I wish I could explain why.

I suppose the text that I enjoyed the most and most carefully studied was Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. If you haven’t ever read it, please consider doing so…at least parts of it (it’s quite long, several volumes). It was so illuminating about the early years of the United States and about the kind of ideas and factors that shaped the country and the people. Tocqueville has a beautiful style–I know that I quoted some passages about the Mississippi River earlier–and it’s a rather philosophic work, full of more general observations about people and communities, faith and morals, the ends and goals of a good life.

I wrote my final paper about the role and scope of reason in America. Tocqueville discusses reason quite often, citing its use as a primary attribute of individual Americans and the graduating levels of political authority. You might be thinking,  “big deal, we’re reasonable, dah…” or “yea right, Americans aren’t reasonable” depending on your level of optimism or pessimism, or your current political outlook…

I myself would really like to agree with Tocqueville that Americans are reasonable; that “Providence has given to each individual, whoever he may be, the degree of reason necessary for him to be able to direct himself in things that interest him exclusively” and “Such is the great maxim on which civil and political society in the United States rests” (381). It’s a very appealing ideal, and we could argue whether it’s actually true today, but I am more interested, at least for now, in how Tocqueville means this to be true and in what sense it is limited by other aspects of the American character and political system. (I am going to borrow extensively from my final paper for this post!)

Tocqueville is a French aristocrat writing in the 1830s, and so much of his discussion of America is colored by and contrasted with his experiences of aristocracy. He sees the world moving, whether people like it or not, towards democracy, or an equality of people, away from a social and political hierarchy that is determined by birth and enshrined in the law, e.g. aristocracy. He is trying to convince his fellow French aristocrats to accept democracy and to try to shape it toward something good, instead of fighting against something inevitable. He acknowledges that democracy and aristocracy each have their own goods and evils. To name a few important differences: democracy is more just; democracy leads men to be free to pursue and determine their own happiness; aristocracy enables the highest classes to pursue and cultivate the arts, sciences, literature, philosophy, etc, and so produces true brilliance and exquisite refinement. He thinks that some of these goods are mutually exclusive.

Reason also characterizes democracy and Tocqueville even emphasizes that “if reason appears to you to be more profitable than genius” then “equalize conditions and constitute the government of democracy.” Here, he is specifically contrasting democracy with aristocracy, which offers brilliance and genius.

He seems to use brilliance or genius to suggest the cultivated and elevated intellectualism that only a few men in a society could pursue. Reason, on the other hand, appears to be more widespread and innate. It is not something cultivated through leisure and reflection; it is exercised like a muscle through practical pursuits. He writes that a doctrine “universally accepted” in America is that “the individual is the best as well as the only judge of his particular interest.” From this, we can say that reason in the American democracy is a process of judging or discerning logically.

Because in a democracy people are free to pursue their well-being and there are no set limits to how high they can aspire, Tocqueville argues that well-being becomes the dominating passion in such societies. So focus on self-interest is a natural consequence of democracy and reason becomes the process of judging, “What is good or bad for me?” rather than “What is true or false?”

Yet, how is it that Americans primarily weigh the conditions and choices around them through their own self-interest and still manage to cooperate toward the common good? In response to this apparent conflict, Tocqueville underscores that Americans do not abandon reason to the government, but that “will and reason are applied in making a common undertaking succeed.” He insists that their reason and experience leads them to connect their own good with dependence on other people and in the general preservation of order and rights. The American comprehends the extent to which his own well-being depends upon the prosperity of the whole and judges accordingly.

Until now, I have not considered how the reason of the individual is affected by other people, but this is a crucial aspect of Tocqueville’s understanding of the American democracy. He emphasizes that, when conditions grow more equal among men, those in a democracy will seek sources of truth in themselves and other people who are like them instead of sources “above humanity” (408).

As democracy loosens traditions and the bonds of generations and distinct classes and brings men to consider themselves more equal intellectually, Tocqueville argues that people inevitably come to depend more and more upon their own judgment to arrive at opinions and beliefs. Thus, naturally, the American resists outside authority and general theories. But because the individual is limited due to life span, time, and energy and cannot possibly submit everything to the effort of his own reason, Americans must derive some truths from other sources whether or not they like to admit it. One of these sources is common opinion or majority opinion.

Not only is common opinion the sole guide that remains for individual reason among democratic peoples; but it has an infinitely greater power among these peoples than among any other. In times of of equality, because of their similarity, men have no faith in one another; but this same similarity gives them almost unlimited trust in the judgment of the public; for it does not seem plausible to them that when all have the same enlightenment, truth is not found on the side of the greatest number (409)

This effect of the collective opinion is profound and mysterious. How does the individual judge and perceive what the common or majority opinion is? Does the individual participate in shaping the common opinion as he considers it? Is it a reflection or sum of individuals’ reason, or is it the result of something else?

The moral authority granted to the majority presumes more “enlightenment and wisdom in many men united than in one alone,” and grants preference to the interests of a greater number over a lesser. Tocqueville also explains it as the “theory of equality applied to the intellect,” which I take to mean that if the intellects of all are assumed equal, then there is no reason to trust one man’s opinion as superior to a group’s.

Ascribing enlightenment or judgment to the majority seems to imply reason at work, given the way those attributes are tied to reason on the level of the individual.  One would expect that if they are led to desire the good of the country through their own interest, then reason would be active in discerning that good.

There’s a problem, though: Tocqueville almost never seems to describe the action or opinion of the people in terms that imply reason. Very often, he attributes to them emotions, passions, desires, or instincts, saying blatantly in one passage that the “people feel much more than they reason,” at least in regard to the future. He argues that, even in America where revolutionary passions are rarely felt, nonetheless the challenge that the democracy faces “in defeating the passions and silencing the needs of the moment in view of the future” is evident in “the least of things.”

I find that this tension between Tocqueville’s portraits of the individual and the people is more difficult to resolve vis à vis his descriptions of the “tyranny of the majority.” According to this theory, the passions of the majority actively threaten the reason of the individual: he warns that there is “no freedom of thought” in America and that faith in common opinion might become so great that it would constrain “individual reason within narrower limits than befit the greatness and happiness of the human species.” Tocqueville paints the democratic common opinion as a form of oppressive influence that “imposes” beliefs and “penetrates souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on the intellect of each.”

I cannot help but wonder what is going on in the mind of the individual when it feels this immense pressure from the majority opinion. Are not they participating somehow in creating or instantiating that opinion through their own reason? And, yet, their reason is simultaneously oppressed by it?

One answer to that tension might be that the people are not really responsible for the majority opinion, but that it is shaped and given to them by some authority, like political leaders or the press. This certainly is possible, except that he depicts the leaders as very much beholden to the people. Another perspective to take is that the passions of the majority are able to rule because, ultimately, passion rules in the individual. As Tocqueville himself clarifies, reason is not at the helm of the soul; it might lead the obsessive seeking for well-being along paths it has determined as better or worse but reason is “powerless to moderate” it.

The rule of the passion for well-being often leads the reason to the wrong conclusions or for individuals to abandon reason altogether in political action and opinion-making. Given that the passion for well-being is therefore the master, the individual might abandon his reason to the common passion because he senses that it is in his best interest to do so. To go along with the crowd, to seem “with the times” and “with the people” instead of opposed to them—these are powerful social markers that a person might have great interest in cultivating.

Finally, if the majority opinion reflects emotion or passion more than reason, then that might justify the power it has over the mind of the individual.

Human passions acquire intensity not only thorough the greatness of the goal they want to attain, but also through the the multitude of individuals who feel them at the same time. […] In a great republic, political passions become irresistible not only because the object that they pursue is immense, but also because millions of men feel them in the same manner and at the same moment (151).

In the face of these kinds of collective passions, reason in America appears as a weak guarantor of free self-governance. I wonder if this is because self-interest is a very fragile ruling principle for reason in the first place. Already being so narrowly confined by the passion for well-being, I do not see how reason in the simple sense of judging what’s “good or bad for me” could ever withstand the greater pressure exerted by the majority. Tocqueville also recognizes this strain upon reason in America, and the framers of the Constitution, too, seemed aware that it would exist and tried to compensate for it. How did they predict that there would this tendency in the people such that reason stops calculating when their minds move to consider what everyone else in the country thinks and feels? Did they effectively balance the tendency?

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