Why do all my friends live in different states? Why have I lived in four cities in the last six years? Why have I moved right at the moment when I have made new friends and begun to feel at home? Why did I see my grandparents only a few times per year as a child? Why is my extended family spread out across the United States? Why are these questions relevant to every person that I know? Why are they most true for the most successful members of society, who get fancy degrees and work high-paying jobs?
Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, completed in 1840, answers these questions. As a philosopher of loneliness, Tocqueville diagnoses the condition from which we modern people suffer. To read him is to better understand America, the West, and one’s own soul. Like all great philosophers, his words are compelling not merely as propositional logic; they reveal the secret strings that organize human life; they show us to ourselves.
Tocqueville sought to understand the democratic age, what we now call modernity. Not only would this age give birth to a new kind of political regime and economic order, it would alter the souls of the people living in it down to their dispositions, habits, and mental world. Tocqueville thought that the democratic man would have new strengths and new challenges to overcome, compared with the premodern man. Alongside his new freedom and comfort, he would struggle to sustain the lasting bonds to family, community, and place that make life worth living. He would be lonely. The democratic man, in other words, is me. And countless studies confirm that I am not alone (no pun intended). Contemporary Americans move constantly, have fewer friends than ever, and lack lasting community.
According to Tocqueville’s analysis, modern people are lonely and adrift because they are restless; they struggle to stay in one place long enough to form abiding relationships. To attenuate this tendency, Tocqueville suggests that democratic people voluntarily reattach themselves to other people, primarily through local government, religious affiliation, voluntary associations, and family life.
Restlessness versus Roots
The modern world is a place of rapid change and a frantic pace of life. “Scarcely have you descended on the soil of America when you find yourself in the midst of a sort of tumult,” writes Tocqueville, “a confused clamor is raised on all sides … around you everything moves.” Restlessness takes many forms: market commerce, democratic governance, ceaseless migration, and more. New products and services come into the world daily; new markets emerge in far-off places; new laws are enacted; people move away, change jobs, and seek happiness elsewhere. Tocqueville observes, “a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years, and he sells it while the roof is being laid … he embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere.” Americans are always on the move.
Tocqueville contrasts the frantic movement of democracy to the calm of a premodern village. Villagers were not rushing around trying to make a fortune; they were not changing professions and moving residences; new laws were rarely enacted; new products rarely came into common use. With a social position fixed in advance, inherited, or determined by law and custom, people of all classes were more commonly tied to their families, their towns, and their neighbors much more concretely than people today. When one’s social position is not going to change, the rational option is to settle in and make the best of your station, rather than strive for an impossible future. This comparison does not aim to wax poetic about the supposed superiority of the past; Tocqueville does not shy away from describing the pervasive inequality, poverty, and powerlessness of the premodern world. It was, nevertheless, a more communal, stable place.
The modern world, on the other hand, is a place of instability and uncertainty. When social class is not fixed in advance by law, all are faced with the unsettling possibility of being either rich or poor. Examples abound of people rising and falling along the economic ladder. Under these conditions, it is natural to be anxious. Tocqueville documents the psychological toll this continuous uncertainty brings about: “the chance of succeeding stirs them, the uncertainty of success irritates them.” Unpredictability, he writes, is “tormenting and fatiguing to souls.”
This precarity leads to restlessness. Competition is fierce when everyone wants the same thing and considers themselves equally capable of achieving it. Evolutionary biology offers a useful illustration to demonstrate this phenomenon. Among biologists, there is a hypothesis describing the process of evolution known as a “Red Queen Race,” drawn from Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice runs fast but ends right where she started. The Queen retorts “here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” The anecdote is used to illustrate how a species must furiously adapt just to maintain a stationary, stable position. A species must continuously evolve lest it be overtaken by the many other species that evolve successfully. Since the winners are not known in advance, the only chance of survival is adapting. The world of democracy works on the same principle. Without hereditary class distinctions, everyone is trying to get ahead by adapting and seeking opportunities for advancement. The only way to not fall behind is to keep moving.
The restlessness that Tocqueville describes applies not only to wealth and fortune-seeking but to all elements of life. Democratic people move not just for more money, but because they have heard, for instance, that there is a better climate down south. They change jobs because another field might better align with their interests. They try out a new hobby and then drop it quickly. They leave their church and join the one up the road with the better pastor, or they try a new denomination, or they become atheists and stop going to church altogether. What Tocqueville calls the philosophic method of the Americans – the habits of thought that are inculcated by democratic society – further encourages restless experimentation in all matters of life. Americans instinctively reject the wisdom of parents and priests; if all are equal, why defer to the judgment of someone else? The democratic man rejects inherited ways, instead living experimentally, trying out a myriad of options and judging the value of each by his own lights. If authority cannot be relied on, the only way to learn about oneself or the world is to experience and experiment with a variety of different places, careers, hobbies, and religions.
In a world of continuous change, it is difficult to maintain relationships with other people. Family members, friends, and coworkers are constantly being left behind as people move away, change careers, or give up hobbies to start new ones. Human relationships require continuity, time, and frequent contact. They grow slowly and quickly evaporate without these essential ingredients. Transience teaches people to invest less into relationships they know will be jettisoned eventually for opportunities elsewhere. Shallow connections make sense when change is imminent.
In democracies, individuals chase well-being across the country. If they start a family, they do so in their new locale. The networks that are left behind are never as close-knit as the ones in the premodern world. Most grew up in nuclear families that had themselves splintered away from extended family. It is easier to move away from your hometown when there was not much of a community there in the first place. If, on the contrary, moving means leaving behind one’s entire family network and decades of friendships, the cost/benefit calculus is different. And it is not only young adults who are quick to relocate; parents and grandparents also restlessly move with the hope of improving their station. Most people pass through many different places without landing permanently in one.
All of this movement leads to an isolating individualism. Individualism “disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends,” where he “willingly abandons society at large to itself.” Democracy has a fracturing effect on people, who, spurred by dreams of great happiness, focus their efforts on securing a pleasant future for themselves and their family, rather than immersing themselves in the wider community of a neighborhood, town, state, or country.
A transient life not only makes lasting relationships with contemporaries difficult, it also makes tangible connection to past or future generations nearly impossible. Intergenerational community was a ubiquitous part of predemocratic life, where families remained in the same place for centuries. A man who works on the same land as his great-grandfather, or who owns the same estate that will be handed down to his great-grandson, or eats dinner every night with his grandparents, has an intuitive sense of gratitude and obligation to past and future generations. He sees himself on a connected line of ancestors, and has life-long relationships with many relatives. His soul, then, is habitually oriented toward bettering the lives of family members, both dead, living, and not yet born. Seeing himself as part of a family lineage – of landowners, or carpenters, or tradesmen, or tenant farmers – he intuitively recognizes himself as a part of something larger than himself and his immediate family.