In my last posting, I discussed Tocqueville’s view that religious belief in “natural” to human beings, but that religion loses its hold when it is instrumentalized to serve a political purpose. On that view, it would seem to follow that religion should be secure in a nation like the United States, where the government seeks to avoid any entanglement with religion. However, Tocqueville also thinks that American democracy has a tendency to corrode religious belief, so that our democratic environment is not as hospitable to religion as it might have seemed. The primary reason why American democracy is predisposed to unbelief, Tocqueville seems to say, is that it gives rise to “materialism.” In this posting, I shall probe that thought.
The religious sentiment is not, for Tocqueville, the only or even the dominant passion within the human heart. “What most sharply stirs the human heart is not the quiet possession of a precious object but the as yet unsatisfied desire of owning it and the constant fear of losing it.” Democracy in America at 616 (Bevan trans.). In an aristocratic society, where the opportunities for gaining wealth are limited, neither the rich, who already enjoy material prosperity, nor the poor, who have no hope of attaining it, are driven by this passion. In that type of society, “the mind of the poor man is cast forward to the next world; his imagination is cramped by the wretchedness of real life, yet it escapes to seek for joys beyond.” Id. at 617. But in more open and egalitarian societies, where the poor have the chance of becoming wealthy and the rich have more cause to fear the loss of their fortunes, both rich and poor will be “constantly engaged in the pursuit or the preservation of these precious, imperfect, and fugitive delights.” Id. Hence both the hedonism and the restlessness of American society; hence also the threat that American affluence poses for American religion. “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate.” Id. at 340.
Tocqueville is both impressed and dismayed by the Americans’ unrelenting drive for wealth. “The passions which stir Americans most deeply are commercial not political ones or more accurately they transfer into politics the methods of business. . . . One must go to America to understand the power of material prosperity over political actions and even those opinions which ought to be governed by reason alone.” Id. at 333. The American pursuit of wealth is “feverish;” it leaves them “ceaselessly tormented.” Id. at 623. Yet their enjoyment of their acquisitions is shadowed by a “secret anxiety.” Id. at 624. They cannot rest content. “In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and will rent it out just as he was about to enjoy its fruit; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest.” Id. at 623. Thus we find “unusual melancholy” and “distaste for life” “in the midst of plenty.” Id. at 625-26. “The man who has set his heart exclusively on the search for the good things of this world is always in a hurry for he has only a limited time to find, grasp, and enjoy them.” Id. at 624. The thought of his mortality “floods his mind with agitation, fear and regret; it holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness.” Id. Yet if Americans could finally “be satisfied with their physical possessions alone,” that would bring them ruin rather than repose: “they would gradually lose the skill of producing them and would end up enjoying them without discernment or improvement like the animals.” Id. at 636.