Freedom and Materialism

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Often we hear people wondering what it is that holds Americans together. We are so diverse ethnically, religiously, politically, and philosophically; many worry that we will break apart and turn against each other.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who visited America in the 1830s and wrote Democracy in America, came to believe that materialism is one of the things that keeps America together. “The taste for well-being,” he wrote, “forms the salient and indelible feature… It is the constant pursuit of small pleasures which keeps America from disorder and mob rule, which is their life-affirming passion. The love of well-being shows itself to be a tenacious, exclusive, universal, but contained passion. It is not a question of building vast palaces, of vanquishing and outwitting nature, of depleting the universe … to satiate the passions of a man; it is about adding a few toises to one’s fields, planting an orchard, enlarging a residence, making life easier and more comfortable… These objects are small but the soul clings to them.”

In the end, Tocqueville had confidence in Americans’ ability to defend their democracy, because he saw they had something to love. He saw, says Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, that”the pursuit of happiness is still our most radical idea.” A chapter in Democracy in America considers how the love of the good things of life was what gave Americans’ love of liberty an object. What Tocqueville saw as exceptional in America, writes Gopnik, “was that luxury and liberty, citizenship and consumerism, . . . set up housekeeping side by side.” In his passage “How the Taste for Material Enjoyments Among Americans is United with Love of Freedom and with Care for Public Affairs,” Tocqueville

“It is the constant pursuit of small pleasures which keeps America from disorder and mob rule, which is their life-affirming passion. “

 

wrote that “Americans see in their freedom the best instrument and the greatest guarantee of their well-being. They love these two things for each other.”

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