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In light of Carl’s just criticism that my recent relatively pro-Southern posts seem to have dissed the Puritanical contribution to what’s best about America, I’m posting a hunk of a paper I’m doing on something like Tocqueville and Thomism in Light of Walker Percy:

The Puritan and the American aristocrat are, when it comes to justice and moral legislation, opposite extremes. But they unite in opposing the materialism of the solitary “I” or self-obsessed individual that is the purely middle-class American. They were clear on who they are and what they’re supposed to do as members of a class or community. And they agreed that education is, most of all, about the soul—for the cultivation of a being not determined by the impersonal forces that surround him or defined merely by the requirements of earning a living. The Puritans and the Southerners were about, in different ways, civilization. Restlessly opposed to civilizing influences, Tocqueville shows, were middle-class Americans who thought of education as merely indispensable for acquiring technical skills, and who identified philosophy and science with technology or the transformation of nature with bodily need in mind. The American individualist is constantly running from civilization to some solitary place on the frontier. The individualistic or emotionally self-absorbed American, on his own, resists having his heart and soul enlarged by a particular “city” or political and religious society.

The aristocrat, in Tocqueville’s eyes, is about reading the Greek and Roman authors to learn how to govern himself and others, and to learn the proud truth about what it means to be a rational man born to use his leisure to take pleasure in discovering the truth for its own sake. Aristocratic science, Tocqueville observes, is about pleasures of the soul, democratic science about pleasures of the body. The truth, the aristocrat believes, is pleasurable because it enhances his self-conscious pride in his soulful human greatness; the democrat is too skeptical about the soul or immaterial being to believe that he can know anything more than what he can use to sustain his biological being. About himself, the democratic “I” only knows that he’s not nothing, and he’s stuck with sustaining his characterless and so anxiously displaced being on his own. But the aristocrat, as they say, knows that he’s somebody, a being with the significance of both individuality and being securely located in a particular place or class. So he has confidence in his personal capabilities, and that he, as a moral and political being, can have a real effect on the world.

Tocqueville recommends that, in democracy, those following literary careers should read the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. We can easily say, after reading Percy, that Tocqueville recommends for democratic writers a kind a Stoic education. That way our writers will acquire aristocratic habits of mind, and they’ll learn how to read books written with care for a small audience that has the leisure to read closely. The danger is that metaphysics and theology would lose ground in democratic language, and words will become more exclusively technical, commercial, and administrative. A corresponding danger is that people will lose confidence in being able to rule themselves and others, and so the very words they use will suggest their passive, fatalistic dependency. One antidote to this abstract and shallow impoverishment of democratic language is elevated by the best aristocratic books. They can be expected to infuse democratic language with words that express the distinctions and longings democracy can’t help but neglect. Democratic prejudices or partial truths will be countered by aristocratic prejudices or partial truths. The truth is, Tocqueville says, that aristocrats unrealistically exaggerate, for example, the effect of great men on historical change, just as democrats—with their impersonal theories all about “forces”—unrealistically or dogmatically deny that effect.

But Tocqueville doesn’t recommend close study of the Greek and Roman authors for most Americans. It will arouse in them longings that can’t be satisfied in the routine of middle-class life, making them more restless and more dangerous than they need be.

So in most cases, it appears, Tocqueville is, in democratic times, for technical education supplemented by religion and some involvement in local politics. He’s with the Puritans insofar as he notices that everyone has the needs of the soul, which get distorted and disoriented when they’re ignored. But that doesn’t mean that, on education, he was as idealistically egalitarian as a Puritan. Because the Puritan idea was radically Christian, it couldn’t distinguish between a class suited for what we call liberal education and a class suited for work in the ordinary or technical sense of the term. Both liberal education and work—truth and justice or leisure in the aristocratic sense and productivity in the middle-class sense—are for everyone. From Tocqueville’s view, the Puritans expected too much of ordinary people.

Tocqueville, insofar as he criticizes the Americans for the lack of great literature and free thought, is for the development of some higher education in America. And he seems to be close to the suggestion that American higher education, outside of the sciences, should be some combination of aristocratic and Christian books. What’s best about the greatness of proud, aristocratic individuality should be tempered by Puritanical devotion to egalitarian justice, and vice versa. Surely American education, in his eyes, wouldn’t be some combination of aristocratic prejudices and democratic technology. The Christian element, surely, would have to be more than mere dogma; otherwise the educated American would only embrace Christianity for its political utility, with no sense of why he or she should be devoted to the proposition that all men are created equal. Surely he makes it abundantly clear that the Lockean/Cartesian defense of that proposition is inadequate.

Remember that Tocqueville’s final discussion of American Christianity is about how that religion is our country’s most precious inheritance from aristocratic times, indispensable for sustaining the most sublime features of human nature in democratic times, a dogmatic antidote to the scientific dogma of materialism, the carrier of the idea of immortality which is at the foundation of every human accomplishment that withstands the test of time, the primary source of the democrat’s understanding of the aristocratic truth about the human soul—and about the excellences we all have that make us privileged beings in nature. He almost begins his great book on America by praising the Puritans’ idealistic devotion to egalitarian justice and ends it with his own choice for God’s justice over his own preference for aristocratic greatness, while suggesting that he’s doing his best to reconcile greatness with justice. The synthesis of the perspectives of the Greek and Roman authors with the God of the Bible reminds us, of course, of Thomism. And Tocqueville actually says that the Americans will become Catholics or atheists, because the compromises between the Protestantism he observes and American Cartesianism are incredible or unsustainable. They will be resolved with either a Catholic or more personal view of authority or an atheistic or at least consistently impersonal or pantheistic direction.

So Tocqueville seems, from one view, most attracted to a kind of Catholicism purged of any connection with the prejudices of aristocratic injustice, which wouldn’t be so different from the Puritanism he described purged of a kind of un-Christian political fanaticism, a Puritanism transformed by a criticism based on both the purely Christian and aristocratic views of freedom. Tocqueville would be most for a religion that corrected classical magnanimity—with its devaluing of the lives or freedom of most human beings—without obliterating it. He’s for preserving the real truth it teaches about human greatness and the real—if quite imperfect and finally ambivalent—pleasures of political life.

The dialectic between pride and anxiety or magnanimity and something like humility—between overvaluing one’s personal significance and experiences of utter personal contingency or insignificant emptiness—is what animated Tocqueville’s own life. It’s the one that expresses what’s true about both the aristocratic and too radically Christian (in his eyes, Pascalian) experiences of the human soul. In Tocqueville’s most truthful reflections about himself, he found his pride in personal, political significance and virtue to be genuine, but his anxiety about his real significance equally so. And he presents the most characteristic human experiences as the pride or greatness of statesmanship (purely aristocratic truth) and the anxiety in the face of the truth about the personal contingency of us all (purely democratic truth). For anyone who really tells the truth to himself about himself—as Tocqueville says he does in his Souvenirs, self-confidence never exists without self-doubt, and so no display of human greatness is completely free from diversion.

The Delayed Contribution of the South

But we have to remember Tocqueville doesn’t highlight the ways the southern aristocracy could contribute to a more general American understanding of who we are. He doesn’t describe the southerners as particularly attached to Greek and Roman literature (although they were) or elevating the general quality of American language. He says there’s no American literature worth talking about, and he doesn’t, as anyone would today, talk about the distinctiveness of southern literature. That’s probably because, as Percy observes, the southerners expended all their literary energy in the decades immediately prior to the Civil War defending race-based slavery, a singularly indefensible cause for any decent man.

Tocqueville saw the South as doomed—and rightly so—and as making no contribution to our country’s or the world’s increasingly modern future. And so he really can’t explain why the study of the Greek and Roman authors won’t just wither away in America or why American education wouldn’t become progressively more purely technical or utilitarian. From Percy’s perspective, Tocqueville’s American seems to need a more literary version of the aristocratic South than he could actually find.

The thought that the South might make an enduring contribution to curbing American pop Cartesianism, it seems, couldn’t be taken seriously until after the Civil War. The South, we might say, is liberated to make that contribution by being freed of the monstrous task of defending slavery in thought and deed. Orestes Brownson, in the unjustly neglected The American Republic, said, immediately after the war, that the true interpretation of the American Constitution, the one that does justice to the whole truth about the material, political, and spiritual dimensions of being human, combines southern particularity with northern universality. The South is all about the assertion of the particular individual—by itself a tyrannical assertion—but an assertion that displays emphatically part of the greatness of who each of us is. The South is, in this sense, too personal.

The North—both in its materialism and in the fanaticism of Puritanical abolitionism—is too universal or general or destructive of human distinctiveness. The particular individual is dissolved into a kind of abstract humanitarianism—a seductive doctrine that preys upon the weakness of the displaced “I” in an anonymous world. Northern abolitionism, in Brownson’s expansive understanding, culminates in the homogeneity of both materialism and pantheism. But the North, of course, is also strong on the universal principles of justice, on not exempting proud individuals from the social and political responsibilities we are all share.

So Brownson suggests, thinking along lines remarkably similar to Tocqueville, that the proper combination of southern particularity—or its concern for particular persons and places—combined with northern universality—especially at its highest levels of coming to terms with our shared embodiment and equality under God—is pretty much the real truth about who we are as whole human beings. So it turns out, Brownson concludes, that America is the most Catholic of nations. I say this only in passing because his admirably subtle philosophic and poetic attempt to convince Americans of that fact didn’t catch on anywhere. I do say it in passing to show that a strongly anti-slavery, Yankee, very deep and fairly astute thinker could say that the aristocratic South was partly right in its criticism of the emptiness of American Cartesianism.

We know, of course, that the Southern aristocrats returned to power for a while after the Civil War. They lost the war but through what amounted to a successful terrorist movement forced the Union troops out of their states and restored “white rule.” The southern Stoics viewed themselves as ruling the blacks and ordinary whites paternalistically, as gentlemen who by nature and education deserved to rule. Their class was displaced in the early 20th century by more “populist” or angrily racist and vulgarly democratic political leaders, and the stoic self-consciousness morphed into being members of an honorable class that had ruled, fought nobly against overwhelming force in a great war, and had been involved in a futile effort to resist its inevitable decline and fall in a democratized world where there would be no place for them. Freed up from having to defend slavery, their literary efforts turned to the articulation of the experience of sustaining oneself in a world where one had been morally and politically dispossessed. It became a criticism of a world in which those in charge were incapable of recognizing who they are.

It’s at that point that the Southern Stoic’s situation became remarkably like Tocqueville’s himself, without the Christian appreciation of the justice of equality. And it’s at that point that Walker Percy, having been raised by a deeply poetic and philosophical and basically dispossessed Stoic, is well positioned to blend together the Stoic criticism of the American middle class on behalf of greatness and the the Christian criticism of Stoicism on behalf of justice understood as our equality as unique and irreplaceable, lovable beings under God.

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