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Materialism And Religion In Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy In America

1602 words - 6 pages

In Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville explains the dangers of democracy and explains the virtues that temper these dangers. In this paper, I will look at two issues Tocqueville discussed extensively in late 19th century American democracy and posit what Tocqueville may say about these issues today. The points I will discuss are materialism and religion. In a democracy, such as America, the individual’s opportunity to succeed makes him more likely to become attached to material and money. However, in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, this danger is tempered by religion, which quenches the lust for material by reducing its importance in comparison to good mores. These two elements of American democracy are a small portion of the “Habits of the hearts” of Americans; they are two ideas that complement each other to make democracy appealing and possible anywhere and everywhere. Is this the case today? Is the American’s relationship to materialism and religion similar today to what it was when Tocqueville visited America?
Tocqueville wrote that Americans are inherently more materialistic than European peoples for three reasons. First, Americans have freed themselves by rejecting “a territorial aristocracy” of hierarchical societal structures on the “soil of America.” By doing so, “the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed,” therefore causing “the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world” to haunt “the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.” Second, in an egalitarian society, where every citizen has an equal opportunity “the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it.” The smallest of differences in material wealth became the most significant factors in distinction from others in American society. “Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete,” thus; attributing to mass consumption and conspicuous wealth of the American. Third, Tocqueville attributes American materialism to unlimited access to land and natural resources. Tocqueville finds it difficult to describe the “avidity with which the American throws himself on the vast prey offered him by fortune.” The American “fearlessly braves the arrows of the Indian and the diseases of the wilderness; he goes prepared to face the silence of the forest and is not afraid of the presence of wild beasts.” To Tocqueville Americans are passionate spirits with a fervor “to arrive” to the Western Territories. The flames of this passion are sparked by the fear of arriving “too late…finding no room left.”
Today, the observations Tocqueville made and I reiterated above are still driving forces behind American democracy. First, American culture still rejects elitism in any form, whether academic, merit-based, or of birthright. Today in America, politicians from all backgrounds and...

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