Opposing Perceptions

 The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As an American, a defensive wall shot up while reading pieces of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  “In what Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts,”
the American culture was attacked for a lack of fine arts.  Tocqueville picked apart American culture, but focused only on several specified aspects.  He included example after example sharing why the aristocracy was good and the democracy was bad, and he refused to stop to question or look at this view from another angle.  While he does create many valid points, the negative portrayal, should make one question the point of view he is coming from. Most likely, born into a rich aristocratic family, the benefits of a democracy do not appear as lucrative to him as they would seem to individuals of another class.  To him, art is defined by the amount of money behind a piece, affordable by only the richest individuals.  It is not attainable to the average citizen.

Tocqueville expresses that “in democracies there is always a multitude of persons whose wants are above their means and who are very willing  to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires altogether,” but is this really a bad characteristic in society?  Perhaps the definition of what these members in American society value has changed.  Certainly the social structure is different, but so is the way of life.  For example, technological advancements were starting to grow with more speed.   Tocqueville’s sentence could be rewritten as “in democracies there is always a multitude of persons who’s striving to reach above their means and who are very willing to take up happiness with imperfection than chase their desires forever.”  The value of nice things may have appeared to have dropped, but in all reality, the importance of these things in society may have changed.

Similarly in “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times,” political pamphlets are expressed as a negative aspect, however it is just a reflection of the time period.  Tocqueville is not incorrect in his assessment of what may be found in an American library, but the fact that few texts have been written by American authors at this point should not be alarming.  Political pamphlets benefited many members of society, not just the wealthy members.  For many years, literacy was something only for the upper class, without proper systems of education, the working class did not have a reason, or the means to learn.  It adds up that lengthy texts were not created for an American audience as the majority of readers had no need and could not afford these texts.  Political pamphlets along with many short stories and newspapers would have provided a much more valuable source of information to a majority of readers.  Tocqueville does try to get into the mind of a literary individual within a democracy versus an aristocrat but again, the standard he appears to believe in does not have any room for individuals of lesser education.

In Tocqueville’s perspective, the arts and literature was highly valued.  Other individuals may say that happiness or love would make one wealthy.  These people were most likely not friends with Tocqueville.

Ralph Waldo Emerson seems to indirectly display an opposing view in his essay “History”.  Here he displays an understanding between history and memory.  It is interesting to consider Tocqueville within a class other than his own.  If he had spent significant time with the very Americans who he seemed to disagree with at every turn, would he have written the same way?  “What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know,” Emerson wrote in “History,” and perhaps this line would change the way of thinking for Tocqueville.

As a fellow American, it is safe to say that Emerson would have had a strong sense of patriotism for his country.  This love of a country is often viewed to be much more powerful than the items held within it.  However, it is 2017 and America may relate more closely to the life Tocqueville expressed than ever before.  The working class is growing while they continue to loose money, meanwhile, the 1% is gaining money with fewer and fewer people owning it.  Celebrities spend thousands of dollars on designer outfits, and drive cars with zero practicality.  While art and literature may not be vital parts of society for these individuals, the social hierarchy may be moving towards a modern day aristocratic society- similar to Tocqueville’s nineteenth century experiences.


Author: srobeardemocracy

Welcome! I am an Elementary Education and American Studies major at Keene State College. I believe that the two majors complement each other nicely as American Studies broadens perspectives, teaches history, and enhances reading and writing skills- all important in the classroom. I love the wonder and amazement found in young students and am looking forward to contributing to the development of their lives. Although I can't wait to be in the classroom full time, traveling first is high priority. Ideally, I will attain a masters degree in California (or just move out there for the heck of it).

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