Love of General Ideas

“Men in democratic centuries love general ideas because they eliminate the need to study particular cases. General ideas pack a lot into a small volume, so to speak, and yield a great deal in a short period of time. So when, upon cursory and superficial examination, such men come to believe that several objects share some feature in common, they call a halt to their research and, without considering in detail how the objects in question may be similar or different, hasten to subsume them all under a single formula so as to move on to something else. One of the distinctive characteristics of democratic centuries is a taste for easy successes and instant gratification. This can be seen in intellectual pursuits as well as other areas of life. Most people who live in ages of equality are bursting with an ambition which, while keen, is also lackadaisical. They want to achieve great success instantaneously, but without great effort. These contradictory instincts lead directly to a search for general ideas, with which they flatter themselves that they can paint vast subjects with little effort and commend the attention of the public without difficulty. I do not know, moreover, whether they are wrong to think this way, for their readers are as afraid of delving into things as they are and usually look to works of the mind only for facile pleasures and effortless instruction.” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Goldhammer Translation)


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