The Fear of Falling, the Ardor to Rise

From Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, Goldhammer Translation:

I hope to have written the present work without prejudice, but I do not claim to have written it without passion. It would hardly be possible for a Frenchman to write about his country or contemplate his times dispassionately. I confess that as I wrote about the various segments of the old society, I never entirely lost sight of the new. I sought not only to diagnose the illness to which the patient succumbed but also to ask how it might have been saved. I proceeded as doctors do when they examine defunct organs in the hope of discovering the laws of life. My goal was to paint a portrait that would be not only strictly accurate but also perhaps educational. Thus, each time I discovered in our forefathers one of those manly virtues that we so desperately need but no longer possess–a true spirit of independence, a yearning for greatness, faith in ourselves and in a cause–I tried to call attention to it. Similarly, when I found in the laws, ideas, and mores of that earlier period traces of the ills that, after devouring the old society, still eat away at the new, I took pains to point them out so that readers, apprised of the damage already done, might better understand the ravages that might yet lie ahead.

Because men are no longer tied to one another by bonds of caste, class, guild, or family, they are only too apt to attend solely to their private interests, only too inclined to think exclusively of themselves and to withdraw into a narrow individualism that stifles all public virtue. Despotism, far from combating this tendency, makes it irresistible, for it deprives citizens of all common passions, all mutual needs, all necessity to reach a common understanding, and all opportunity to act in concert. It immures them, as it were, in private life. They were already apt to hold one another at arm’s length. Despotism isolated them. Relations between them had grown chilly; despotism froze them.

In this type of society, where nothing is fixed, everyone is racked constantly by the fear of falling lower in the social scale and by the ardor to rise. And since money, even as it has become the principal mark of class and distinction, has become unusually mobile, passing constantly from hand to hand, transforming the status of individuals, and raising or lowering families, virtually no one is exempt from the constant and desperate obligation to keep or acquire it. The most common passions are therefore the desire to acquire wealth in any way possible, a predilection for business, the love of gain, and the lust for material comforts and pleasures. These passions have spread readily to all classes, even those in which they were previously alien, and if nothing stops them they may soon enervate and degrade the entire nation. But it is of the very essence of despotism to encourage and spread such debilitating passions, which help it achieve its ends. They divert attention from public affairs, occupy the imagination of the people, and make them shudder at the very idea of revolution. Despotism alone has the power to create the secrecy and the shadows in which greed can thrive and dishonest profits can be amassed in defiance of dishonor. Without despotism these selfish passions would be strong; with it they rule.

Only freedom can effectively combat the flaws natural to societies of this type and keep them from sliding down a slippery slope. Only freedom can rescue citizens from the isolation in which the very independence of their condition has mired them. Only freedom can compel them to come together and warm each other’s spirits through mutual exchange and persuasion and joint action in practical affairs. Only freedom can save them from the worship of Mammon and the petty vexations of their private business, enabling them to sense the constant presence of the nation above and alongside them. Only freedom can substitute higher, more powerful passions for the love of material comforts and supply ambition with goals more worthy than the acquisition of wealth. Only freedom, finally, can create the light by which it is possible to see and judge the vices and virtues of humankind.


%d bloggers like this: