Agitation amid abundance

Seeing as y'all enjoyed the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau last week, I thought I might follow up today with something from his intellectual heir, French thinker and political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville is Rousseau's heir not because they were countrymen (Rousseau was actually Swiss) but because, despite writing more than 75 years after Rousseau, Tocqueville animated his forebear's thinking in a manner still discussed today.

In the mid 18th century, Rousseau's famous doctrine of "popular sovereignty" was looked upon by many Europeans as "a far-flung utopian ideal", says Professor Steven B. Smith in his Yale University lecture series Political Philosophy.

However, "for Tocqueville, this ideal had become an altogether political reality that had taken shape in the backwoods of Jacksonian America", Smith says.

Tocqueville was an aristocrat, who grew up in post revolutionary France, studied law in Paris and "in 1830, for reasons that are not altogether clear, when he was 25 or so ... received a commission from the new government of King Louis Philippe to go to the United States to study the prison system there", Smith says.

It was during this stay of just under a year that Tocqueville collected the information and observations for what was to become Democratie en Amerique aka Democracy in America.

Says Smith: "Democracy in America, to put it simply, is the most important work about democracy that you will ever read. To compound the irony, the most famous book on American democracy was written by a French aristocrat who might have been deeply foreign, if not hostile to the manners, customs and habits of a democratic society. And from the time of its first publication in 1835, the book was hailed as a masterpiece."

Since then, the work's stature has only grown, particularly in the US, where in 2004 it was inducted in to the prestigious Library of America series, which publishes classic US literature - something of a coup for a Frenchman, wouldn't you say?

In the book, Tocqueville makes endless fascinating observations about American democracy but it is in volume two of the work that he opens up the big guns and, notes Smith, "focuses on what the democratic social state has done to us, how it has transformed us as individuals".

The aspect I thought I'd highlight today is one of three Tocqueville identifies as being the psychological ingredients of the democratic individual (that's you and me); those being compassion, restiveness, and self-interest.

Restiveness, aka, restlessness, anxiety, or as Tocqueville describes it in the French - inquietude is used to "indicate the sort of perpetually dissatisfied character of the democratic soul", says Smith.

"In many ways, the democratic soul, like democracy itself, is never complete. It is always a work in progress. And this feeling of perpetual restlessness for Tocqueville is tied to the desire for well-being and, by that, he means particularly material well-being," says Smith.

Now, we all know how much crap gets heaped on Generation Y for never being satisfied, jumping from jobs and relationships and brands, so consider that the following passage was written in 1840 to describe Americans of the day and see if you recognise the flavour.

"In the United States," writes Tocqueville, "a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years and sells it while the roof is being laid. He plants a garden and he rents it out just as he was going to taste its fruits.

"He clears a field and he leaves it to others to care for the harvesting. 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.

"Should his private affairs give him some respite, he immediately plunges into the whirlwind of politics and when, toward the end of a year filled with work, some leisure still remains to him, he carries his restive curiosity here and there within the vast limits of the United States.

"He will thus go 500 leagues in a day in order better to distract himself from his happiness. Death finally comes and it stops him before he has grown weary of this useless pursuit of complete felicity that always flees from him," writes Tocqueville.

"To distract himself from his happiness" - what a great line, eh?

As Smith points out, Tocqueville is no doubt needling Americans with this phrase but says this "democratic restiveness" has been noted before, 2000 years prior, by Plato.

"Does it not sound as if it is modelled almost exactly after Plato's description of the democratic soul in Book VIII of The Republic? A person who is constantly moving, constantly restless, constantly unable to concentrate or to bear down on the one or very few things that give life a sense of wholeness and meaning and integrity?"

Listening to Professor Smith, the truth of that last sentence exploded in my chest because I - and I'm sure you do as well - recognise its veracity completely.

Embroider your life all you like with career, cars and clothes, but it's most certainly the simple, ancient pleasures that fulfil us, that regenerate us, that make us feel complete: family, friendship, love, our children ... if you can make those things work, if you can "concentrate and bear down" on them, you will be a happy person.

I remind myself of this fact constantly, focusing on things I used to consider mundane and now find a bliss I can return to time and time again.

The biggest thrill of my weekend? Listening to my daughter and mother talk to each other as they had a tea party inside a tent I'd bought for my little one.

I've realised the contentment I've always sought is all around me; I just have to embrace it.

Smith puts it this way: "Tocqueville writes here, it seems, with a kind of disdain for a life understood as a constant and, in his view, self-defeating pursuit of happiness. The desire for well-being becomes the right of the democrat and the more one desires happiness the more it eludes our grasp."

Or, as Tocqueville puts it: "One is at first astonished to contemplate the singular agitation displayed by so many happy men in the midst of their abundance."

Yeaaaaaaaah, get that inta ya.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.