Greatness and Individualism in Tocqueville

Tocqueville agrees with Rousseau that compassion is a necessary corrective to self-interest. But he does not rhapsodize over sympathetic feeling for one’s fellow creatures in the Rousseauian style; he is rather cool about compassion (DA II, 3.1-4). Compassion is as much an extension of self-interest as a corrective, and as such it is limited to temporary acts of kindness. The suffering of others, in fact, can add to one’s own sense of impotence, thus to the deepest ill of democratic equality, which Tocqueville calls “individualism,” the self-isolation induced by the belief that an individual by himself can do nothing within a mass of people ruled by vast social forces.

– from Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, the “Editor’s Introduction” to their translation of Democracy in America

Mansfield and his wife discuss Tocqueville’s love of greatness in the Introduction, and argue this makes him a complicated critic of democracy, esp. as he sees democracy defined as a “social state” where all things tend toward equality.

It is that “greatness” misinterpreted by a few idiots that I would say is the largest threat to democracy today. I remember how she got all her values from her father, and how he meant well, but “meaning well” meant little more than being a total tyrant for the sake of a presumed security. Her ability to see the good beyond the immediate satisfaction of her psychological needs was clearly hampered by his reduction of a greater good to “feeling secure.” And I have seen tyrants like him on a micro scale all throughout American society – I know one very well personally. Every man’s home is his castle, and the ability to critique what goes on in each individual home has been removed from our society’s grasp, as we cater to privacy and thus the paranoia of the individual first.

Now if I say that “greatness” misconceived is the problem, that seems to put me at odds with the above quote. For the above quote seems to say that timidity is the problem of individualism.

I think the notion I’ve put forth and the notion above are easily reconcilable, though. The key is to see that underneath ruling like a tyrant there is nothing but fear, and a warped “pride” in having some control over that fear.

Hence, we see people put others who don’t “work hard enough” (this invariably means “doesn’t make enough money”) or do “bullshit things” (i.e. be religious, become an artist, do theoretical physics) down all the time with a certain defensiveness in their tone. They’re worried – they know full well that they don’t quite understand how they were successful, they just became successful. One wants to put oneself in the best position to defend against the forces that seem to randomly define life.

Therefore, one’s best is never good enough, and must be focused in areas which the market seems to favor. Fortune rules the “thought” of our mini-tyrants, even as they proclaim their own greatness. And they do proclaim their greatness – they always have a plan that is more sensible than anyone else’s. I know all of you know the sorts of people I’m talking about.

I’ve often said the greatest blessing of our capitalist system is the freedom to go into business for oneself, to feel free to do things in the market and accept the defeats that inevitably come, and savor the victories. I like to think blogging is my attempt to stake my own claim to standing for myself. Yes, I like the coursework and the degree I’m working towards, but while institutions are wonderful, sometimes it’s nice to be able to stand apart because others have empowered me, and reach out to still more. This new medium is what you make of it, and it feels great to have the more serious audience I have here.

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