Tocqueville taught me the importance of the university to democratic society. His noble book, Democracy in America, gave voice to my inchoate sentiments. His portrait of the intellectual life of the Americans is the mirror in which we can see ourselves. But because the broader perspective he brings is alien, we do not immediately recognize ourselves.
In my experience, students at first are bored by Tocqueville’s account of the American mind. But if they are really made to pay attention, they are finally riveted and alarmed by it. No one likes to believe that what he can see is limited by circumstances, no matter how easily he recognizes this fact in others. Tocqueville shows how a democratic regime causes a particular intellectual bent, which, if not actively corrected, distorts the mind’s vision.
The great democratic danger, according to Tocqueville, is enslavement to public opinion. The claim of democracy is that every man decides for himself, the use of one’s natural faculties to determine for oneself what is true and false and good and bad is the American philosophic method. Democracy liberates from tradition, which, in other kinds of regimes, determines the judgment. Prejudices of religion, class, and family are level, not only in principle, but also in fact, because none of their representatives has an intellectual authority. Equal political right makes it impossible for church or aristocracy to establish the bastions from which they can affect men’s opinions. Churchmen for whom divine revelation is the standard; aristocrats, for whom the reverence is for antiquity or the power; fathers, who always tend to prefer the rights of the ancestral to those of reason — are all displaced in favor of the equal individual. Even if men seek authority, they cannot find it where they used to find it in other regimes.
Thus, the external impediments to the free exercise of reason have been removed in democracy. Men are actually on their own in comparison to what they were in other regimes and with respect to the usual sources of opinion. This promotes a measure of reason. However, since very few people school themselves in the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest encouraged by the regime, they need help on a vast number of issues. In fact, all issues, in as much as everything is opened up to fresh and independent judgment, for the consideration of which they have neither time nor capacity. Even the self-interest about which they calculate — the ends — may become doubtful. Some kind of authority is often necessary for most men, and is necessary at least sometimes for all men. In the absence of anything else to which to turn, the common beliefs of most men are almost always what will determine judgment.
This is just where tradition used to be most valuable. Without being seduced by its undemocratic and anti-rational mystique, tradition does provide a counterpoise to a repair from the merely current and contains the petrified remains of old wisdom — along with much that is not wisdom. The active presence of a tradition in a man’s soul gives him a resource against the ephemeral, the kind of resource that only the wise can find simply within themselves. The paradoxical result of the liberation of reason, is greater reliance on public opinion for guidance — a weakening of reason. Altogether, reason is exposed at the center of the stage. Although every man in a democracy thinks himself individually the equal of every other man, this makes it difficult to resist the collectivity of equal men. If all opinions are equal, then the majority of opinions, on the psychological analogy of politics, should hold sway. It is very well to say that each should follow his own opinion, but since consensus is required for social and political life, accommodation is necessary. So, unless there is some strong ground for oppoisition to majority opinion, it inevitably prevails
This is the really dangerous form of the tyranny of the majority. Not the kind the actively persecutes minorities, but the kind that breaks the inner will to resist because there is no qualified source of non-conforming principles and no sense of superior right. The majority is all there is. What the majority decides is the only tribunal. It is not so much its power that intimidates, but its semblance of justice.
Tocqueville found that Americans talked very much about individual right, but that there was a real monotony of thought and that vigorous independence of mind was rare. Even those who appeared to be free thinkers, really look to a constituency and expected one day to be part of a majority. They are creatures are public opinion, as much as are the conformists: Actors of non-conformism in the theater of the conformists, who admire and applaud non-conformity of certain kinds — the kinds that radicalize the already dominant opinions.
Reason’s exposedness in the rational regime is exacerbated by the absence of class in the old sense, based on principles of convictions of right. There is a general agreement about the most fundamental political principles, and therefore doubts about them have no status. In aristocracies, there was also the party of the people, but, in democracy, there is no aristocratic party. This means that there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles, as well as no respectability for them. There were, in the past, parties representing ecclesiastical interests against those of monarchs or aristocrats. These too provided a place for dissenting opinions to flourish.
In the heat of our political squabbles, we tend to lose sight of the fact that our differences of principle are very small, compared to those over which men used to fight. The only quarrel in our history that really involved fundamental differences about fundamental principles was over slavery. But even the proponents of slavery hardly dared assert that some human beings are made by nature to serve other human beings, as did Aristotle. They had to deny the humanity of the blacks. Besides, that question was really already settled with the Declaration of Independence. Black slavery was an aberration that had to be extinguished, not a permanent feature of our national life. Not only slavery, but aristoracy, monarchy, and theocracy were laid to rest by the Declaration and the Constitution.
This was very good for our domestic tranquility, but not very encouraging for theoretical doubts about triumphant equality. Not only were the old questions about political theorizing held to have been definitively answered, but the resources that nourished the diversity concerning them were removed. Democratic conscience, and the simple need to survive, combined to suppress doubt. The kinds of question that Tocqueville put to America, the answers to which allowed him to affirm the justice of equality more reasonably and more positively than most of us can do, came out of an experience that we cannot have. It is direct experience of an alternative regime and temper of soul — aristocracy. If we cannot in any way have access to something like that experience, our understanding of the range of human possibility is improverished, and our capacity to assess our strengths and weaknesses is diminished.
To make that range of possibilities accessible, to overcome the regime’s tendency to discourage appreciation of important alternatives, the university must come to the aid of unprotected and timid reason. The university is the place where inquiry and philosophic openness come into their own. It is intended to encourage the non-instrumental use of reason for its own sake. To provide the atmosphere where the moral and political superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt. And it preserves the treasury of great deeds, great men, and great thoughts required to nourish that doubt. Freedom of the mind requires not only or not ever especially the absence of legal constraints, but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities. The makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside. It is not feelings or commitments that will render a man free, but thoughts. Reasoned thoughts. Feelings are largely formed and informed by convention. Real differences come from differences in thought and fundamental principle. Much in democracy conduces to the assault on awareness of difference.
From Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.
What do you think? I’m skeptical about quite a bit of what I read in Bloom’s book, have major differences with some of it, and sometimes don’t recognize the picture he paints of America’s students — but this passage had me riveted, I must admit.