Man: the lonely animal.

Author:Mitchell, Joshua
 
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In a letter composed just three years before his death, Tocqueville wrote: "This profound saying could be applied especially to me: it is not good for man to be alone." When I tell my students that the whole of Democracy in America was written under the aegis of this sentiment, under the shadow of what could be called a philosophy of loneliness, they listen. Tocqueville's concern, I tell them, was the emergence of a new type, homo solus, the lonely man; and with how this new type would understand himself and his place in the world. And, so, my students approach Tocqueville's Democracy in America with a sense of urgency. They soon discover that it is a book that reads their own hearts, for few things are more haunting to them than the spectre of loneliness. They seek to understand Tocqueville, so that they may understand themselves; for in Tocqueville's writing they find an account of the etiology of the disease from which they suffer. Man, the lonely animal. That is why I ask my students around the globe to read his book. And because teachers of the history of political thought are called not only to diagnose disease but to indicate wherein health may lie, I ask my students to read Democracy in America so that they may also discover Tocqueville's cautious hope that such loneliness need not be the final word about their future.

While loneliness has been chronicled in all ages, Tocqueville thought that it would be an especially acute problem in the democratic age, because the antidote that the aristocratic age before it had offered would no longer be available. That antidote was the "links," as he called them, which tied each to everyone else. In his words:

Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. ... Each man is [thereby] thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart (508). (1) The character of these links is not easily understood in the democratic age, which explains why they cannot be easily reconstructed. In the democratic age, man is largely gathered together by having interests in common. In the aristocratic age, man is largely bound together through loyalty and obligation. Interest involves conscious, ongoing calculation and negotiation between individuals; loyalty and obligation entail range-bound and durable relations between roles.

It is difficult for my main campus students to imagine the ties of loyalty and obligation. I routinely ask them, for example, whether what they do at home in the way of "chores" is undertaken because the family into which they have been born requires it. The description already anticipates the answer. Very few raise their hands. The formulation itself seems odd to them. More than any generation that has come before, they expect and receive money for the chores they do, and are seldom moved to action without it. When they are young, they are called upon to attend various family gatherings, and do so; but from adolescence onward it is increasingly difficult to concentrate their attention on such matters. Already they are on their way to breaking their attachment with their parents. Loyalty and obligation can hardly be fortified if sons and daughters begin to leave the family fold shortly after they reach puberty. And because the lesson of self-interest has often been instilled long before that, it only seems natural that it should be extended and amplified when their eyes shift elsewhere. To this should be added Tocqueville's concern that as the administrative reach of the state extends itself further and further into everyday concerns, the real sway of the family is bound to diminish. When sons and daughters anticipate that the state will keep their affairs in order from cradle to grave, they soon come to think of it as the real source of their sustenance and regeneration. That, too, encourages them to think largely in terms of their immediate interests. Nothing can really dissuade democratic man from thinking narrowly about himself if the state has taken away from him the cumbersome task of living with his family and his neighbors.

My students in Qatar, on the other hand, tell a different story. They are ever-cognizant of the family name they bear, and of both the loyalty that must be displayed and the obligations that must be borne. These do not diminish with age. Many of them, especially the women, spend evenings and weekends involved in family celebrations that routinely include first and second cousins. These gatherings bring coherence to the extended family and reconfirm its standing within the larger body social. This attentiveness to family obligations often has deleterious consequences for their studies, though in vain does the teacher implore them to place their own self-interest at the forefront. Many do not understand themselves first and foremost as individuals but rather as bearers of a family name. More accurately, while they are increasingly coming to think of themselves as individuals, they nevertheless continue to understand themselves as occupying a specific and largely unalterable role in their families and, by extension, in their societies. They occupy roles, yet they think of themselves increasingly as individuals. Therein lies their difficulty.

In America, Tocqueville thought that the state would tend to gradually undermine the family; that is why he wrote that all our efforts should be directed at fortifying it. In parts of the Middle East, on the other hand, the extended family has become further entrenched by the development of a strong state, since it is through a state patronage network that families receive their bounty. Thus, in parts of the Middle East my students are pulled both toward the de-linked condition that characterizes the democratic age and towards the roles they occupy as members of this or that family. This tension cannot increase forever without consequence.

To think of oneself as an individual rather than to understand oneself as a role is really a rather remarkable historical achievement, which my main campus students largely take for granted. The Latin term, persona, supposes a distinction between the actor and the mask he puts on. In the aristocratic age, the mask, the role, largely mediates relations. The individual behind the mask may strain to find the right way to wear it, but it cannot ever be wholly removed. In the democratic age, when everything is on the move, the mask seems ill-fitting and has the appearance of an awkward artifice. If donned at all, it is seldom worn for long. It is often intentionally removed, and sometimes stripped off by others. In bemused moments it is treated ironically; when it appears grotesque to its wearer, a caricature of the beauty and purity of the individual behind the mask, the tender and never-ending search for "authenticity" commences. The individual, alone and without durable linkages to others of the sort that roles can provide, searches for "meaning" in a world that seems inhospitable to his "needs."

When permanence in the social order is assured, then man can be at home in the role he occupies; when no such permanence exists, as is the case in the democratic age, man finds what permanence he may by thinking of himself as a disembodied individual who steps into the fray, hopefully at his own discretion, from some seemingly immovable vantage point. My students in Qatar are not yet fully exposed to this fray. Their families, and the still largely fixed location of their families in society, provide them with a stability that for my students on the main campus is almost unimaginable. Both groups discover a measure of permanence, though they find it in different locations: the one in the roles they occupy in their families; the other by hovering over the world as individuals. That is why the language of "authenticity," so prevalent in America, is scarcely heard in the Middle East.

There are implications for decorum that follow from the distinction between roles and individuals, which are worth mentioning. In the Middle East, students in class are usually quite cognizant of the standing of their families in relationship to others. In America this is true to a much lesser extent, if at all. In some parts of the Middle East, for example, it is impossible to form a PTA because certain families will not condescend to talk to or even be seen with other families of lesser stature in the same room. That does not happen in America, though other tensions certainly exist. In the classroom this familial stratification sometimes takes the form of one student deferring to another when a teacher poses a question. For an American disposed to believe, say, as Thomas Jefferson did, that an aristocracy of talent--a "natural aristocracy" as he called it in his 1813 letter to John Adams--was the only one that can finally be tolerated, this can be maddening to witness.

On the other hand, there is also something quite heartening about manners that are scripted in advance. Knowing that they speak not simply for themselves but for their families, when they disagree with their classmates, it is with the cognizance that their families are in some way intertwined outside of the classroom as well. This would never enter the minds of my students on the main campus. They are there to debate and dispute, which makes the character to their discussions sometimes harsh and abrupt. They do not know each other's families, and speak only for themselves, at this moment, with little concern for their relations, past, present or future. Decorum is hard to maintain when only the present moment matters. My students in Qatar are no less prone to short attention spans than my students on the main campus; their lives have taught them, however, that they do not only speak for themselves, that they occupy a role in their families which mediates all that they say and do. For that reason, they are...

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