In the spring of 1831, a 26-year-old French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, spent nine months traveling the U.S. observing the customs of Americans, a people busy and energetic and very different from his own social circle. Back in Paris, he retreated to the attic of his parents’ home and wrote what became known as Democracy in America, a book that continues to startle readers today for its prescient insights into American culture and political life.
Tocqueville saw much to admire in America but noted habits that could undermine democracy and lead to its demise. Much like the modern popes, he remarked on Americans lust for life, not bad in itself, but tending to a devaluation of things more sublime:
But while man takes delight in this honest and lawful pursuit of his own well-being, it is to be apprehended that in the end he may lose the use of his sublimest faculties, and that while he is busied in improving all around him, he may at length degrade himself.
Tocqueville believed that “[M]aterialism among all nations is a dangerous disease of the human mind; but is more especially to be dreaded among a democratic people…” Democracy, with its opening of opportunity to all, could spur an insatiable taste for physical gratification, which would inevitably eclipse a more lofty cast of mind.
For Tocqueville, religious belief and practice stood as the only sure defense to a society where material wealth and advancement would come dominate all other considerations. Without a sense of the transcendent, something beyond our reach and more important than the things of this earth, we would descend to the level of brutes, only concerned with the pleasures of the moment.
Paradoxically, according to Tocqueville, the obsession with present pleasures would, over time, weaken the ability of men and women to envision and then complete long-term projects, essential to the continued well-being of any organized and prosperous society.