It’s Tocqueville’s Birthday!

I know it’s hard to believe, but I woke up this morning not knowing that. And then I saw on my Facebook (often a surprising source of wisdom) this post from my student Ben Riggs:

In honor of Alexis de Tocqueville’s birthday:

“I do not need to travel across heaven and earth to find a marvelous subject full of contrast, of grandeur and infinite pettiness, of profound obscurities and singular clarity, capable at the same time of giving birth to pity, admiration, contempt, terror. I have only to consider myself. Man comes out of nothing, passes through time, and goes to disappear forever into the bosom of God. You see him only for a moment wandering at the edge of the two abysses where he gets lost.”

That is, of course, the single most important passage in Democracy in America. Why? It’s where Tocqueville tells us what he thinks the real truth is about who we are. 

It’s in the chapter of democratic poetry, where Tocqueville explains that the tendency of democracy is to discredit the illusions that were at the foundation of aristocratic poetry. The big issue! Does democracy leave anything left for poets to works with? Sure! Democracy allows us “a glimpse of the soul itself.” Or “man . . . viewed in the depths of his immaterial nature.” No democratic movement in thought can deconstruct the soul. As Tocqueville says, whatever we think or do, “man remains.” That means that “human destinies, man, taken apart from his time and country, and placed before nature and God with his passions, doubts, and unheard-of prosperity, and his incomprehensible miseries, will become the principal and almost unique object of poetry for these [democratic] peoples.”

We remain caught between complete ignorance and complete self-knowledge. And so we remain poetic:

If man were completely ignorant of himself, he would not be poetic, for one cannot depict what one has no idea of. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain idle and would have nothing to add to the picture. But man is uncovered enough to perceive something of himself and veiled enough so that the rest is sunk in impenetrable darkness, into which he plunges constantly and always in vain, in order to succeed in grasping himself.

There is nothing more wonderful than the lost being who wanders for a moment between two abysses. Isn’t that the whole point of the poetry and science of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos? The being who wonders necessarily wanders. And that being will always be marked by singular greatness and incomprehensible misery. Is this all Pascal? Well, a lot of it is. But Tocqueville and Percy add some stuff too.

You’ll notice that I mean this as a message of reasonable hope that the ”big data” surveillance systems of Google and Big Government — of Silicon Valley left-libertarian corporatism — will never capture the whole truth about who we are. The humanities will never become “digital.”

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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