Who Can Save the Democratic Mind?
In an interview published by Christianity Today, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield called Democracy in America “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” Surprisingly, its author was neither a democrat nor an American, but a French aristocrat. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to study its prisons, yet his journey through the young democracy inspired a prescient work. Among other impressive predictions like the Civil War and the Cold War, Tocqueville predicted the shift in modern education toward hostility for the Western tradition and agenda-driven pragmatism. He also argued for classical education as a corrective for our modern moment all the way back in 1840.
According to Tocqueville, democracy is not just a form of government but the total equality of conditions—material and spiritual. It “gains no less dominion over civil society than over government: it creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests usages, and modifies everything it does not produce.”
Democratic education is no exception. So what values should direct American teaching? Pragmatism, mass consensus, and pantheism are the most popular answers.
Pragmatism decides what is true based on what works. Therefore, most American educational theorists obsess over “objective learning outcomes” and “skills-based assessments.” It’s much easier to measure increased ACT scores than it is to measure “taste for the infinite” or “greatness of soul.” Tocqueville would observe that Americans’ obsession with STEM-focused education is mostly about applied science—useful science—not done for its own sake.
Mass consensus allows the American to melt into the cultural zeitgeist of popular opinions. Tocqueville writes,
When the man who lives in democratic countries compares himself individually to all those who surround him . . . he is immediately overwhelmed by his own insignificance and weakness. . . . [T]he majority takes charge of providing individuals with a host of ready-made opinions, and thus relieves them of the obligation to form for themselves opinions that are their own.
Socrates had to go down to the Piraeus to hear mass opinion, then he interrogated it. Americans can check what’s trending on Twitter, choose to retweet the opinion they adopt, then never think about it again.
“Pantheism” for Tocqueville means a unity that “contain[s] God and the universe within a single whole.” This includes the liberal belief that all roads lead to God, as well as moral relativism. Why do “spiritual but not religious” Americans yearn to hear that the Universe has their backs? It’s again a consequence of equalizing conditions. We see ourselves as less unique and more the same as the mass of humanity. Consequently, Americans view exclusive claims about God and morality to be hubristic. Who am I to say that my religion is better or truer than someone else’s? Am I really saying that I am so special as to have found THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life? Tocqueville writes that the idea of a unified spiritual truth “naturally attracts [the American’s] imagination and fixes it; it feeds the pride of their mind and flatters its laziness.”
What can save the democratic mind? For Tocqueville, one answer is education in Greek and Latin literature. He notes that Athens and Rome were not republics in the modern sense because they had slavery. The modern democrat is a man who is free like an aristocrat but works like a slave. Moreover, pre-Gutenberg literacy was scarce and books expensive. Therefore, classical authors never catered their books to please a mass audience. They wrote to other learned men who were free to pursue leisurely study.
Tocqueville tells us that ancient literature was not perfect. It lacked variety and rarely abstracted; lots of specific individuals do courageous things in particular places. However, ancient authors also wrote meticulously and placed each story element carefully.
Tocqueville also notes that while the brutal violence in the Iliad might disrupt public order in Viking society, it can be helpful in timid, commercial democracies. Since most American writing is geared toward a mass audience, it reinforces rather than challenges the prejudices of the day. On this point, Tocqueville agrees with C.S. Lewis who noted a century later in “On Reading Old Books” that “[e]very age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.”
But Tocqueville goes further than Lewis when he explains that democracy changes language itself. Americans change language because democracies love change and novelty rather than the tried and true. Americans create new words all the time. As the late Peter Lawler summarized this point,
If a thought isn’t useful for a free being who works, then it couldn’t possibly be true. That’s one reason Tocqueville explains why language and democratic times tend to become techno-standardized or flat and ironic; metaphysics and theology in particular lose ground.
Far more American students could explain a “cloud network” than “propitiation.”
Far and away the most common way Americans change their language is by shifting the meaning of an existing word or phrase. Consider the embattled term “racist”; is a racist someone who believes in the supremacy of his own race or someone who consciously or not perpetuates systemic structures that advantage his own race? Tocqueville says linguistic shifting is a convenient and lazy rhetorical technique, but it creates doubt in the reader. He wonders if he really understands the meaning of the words he reads.
The Greek and Latin classics counterbalance with clarity. They particularly benefit writers, philosophers, and theologians. The ancient, courageous virtues of Sophocles, Homer, and Vergil correct the direction we moderns lean. Moreover, since Greek and Latin are “dead” languages (or as we say at my school, “eternal”), their meaning cannot change with the whims of democracy. Reading Greek or Latin can be even more harmonious than reading English because, while there may be multiple translations, the original meaning is crystallized. As Tocqueville himself concluded, “[T]here is no good language without clear terms.”
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