So I appreciate a couple of criticisms I got of my semi-ironic presentation of Tocquevillian WAVISM below. That wavism, we can say, can be reduced to the proposition that democracy emotionally deconstructs LOVE. You can find a similar kind of wavism in Allan Bloom’s CLOSING, which is all about how accounting for why the EROS of sophisticated Americans these days is so lame. John Lewis, in the thread below, responds, not without evidence, it’s rather hopelessly romantic or selectively nostalgia to say aristocracy was actually good for love.
AND Tocqueville himself observes in places that democracy in America has actually been good for conjugal and paternal love. I’m working on a lecture I have to give next Saturday on The Person, the American Constitution, and the Family. Here’s the part that talks up love American style. It goes without saying (because it’s always true) that what I’m saying is rough and tentative. So, as usual, I welcome your gentle criticisms and suggestions for improvement:
Lets begin with the PERSON. That we all have irreducible person identities was basically a Christian discovery. St. Augustine rejected the respectable theologies of the Greeks and the Romans. They were CIVIL THEOLOGY and NATURAL THEOLOGY. The Greeks and the Romans had POLITICAL GODS that thought of people as citizens, or parts of a city. But we all know, St. Augustine said, that were more than that. The Greeks and Romans also had a natural theology—the law of nature and natures God—that considered each of us, like everything else, as parts of nature. But we know were more than that too—we dont, for example, think that Darwin or the species explains it all when it comes to me, when it comes to personal freedom in general.
The truth is that were all free persons. Were all more than political and biological beings made in the image of the creative, personal, and relational God. For the Christians, a free person is also a relational one, as God himself is relational. The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to show us that God is both personal and relational. As free and relational persons, we are able to relate to, to love God without losing our personal identities, without becoming parts of God. As free and relational persons, we are made to relate to, to love our spouses and our children without losing ourselves in our family. It is impossible to be a free person, the Christians taught, without being relational, but being relational isnt about losing oneself in a whole greater than oneself. And for us, being personal enhances—rather than opposes—being embodied or being biological. The opposite of the Christian understanding of the personal logos thats the ground of being is pantheism.
Now Americas founding philosopher—John Locke—accepted the Christian insight that were free persons, or not citizens or parts of nature deep down. So he was against civil theology, and he thought the point of being free is change nature with the person in mind. But Locke also thought that being relational gets in the way of being free. Love sucks because it turns us into suckers; it causes each of us to forget who we really are. So Locke tried hard to turn our loving relationships into contractual ones—ones in which each persons consents because he or she calculated concerning whats best for him or her personally. The one Christian doctrine Locke emphatically rejected was THE TRINITY. His Deism was all about God being personal and not relational. Thats the God in whose image we were made.
So in thinking about the family, Locke tried to free persons as much as possible from the tyranny of love, especially patriarchal love. Children dont have to obey or even care for their parents once theyre grown up, unless they see its in their self-interest. Thats why Locke advises parents they better get rich; theyll pretty much be on their own in their old age. And the only way they compel their grown kids’ obedience—or even their reliably expect them to come by with the grandkids once in a while— is by threatening to withhold the inheritance.
Locke also said that marriage is a contract between two free and equal people. If theres a conflict on the meaning of the contract, then wives are free to take their husbands to the court. Now Locke does say parents are stuck with staying together until the kids are grown, and he assumes, in the absence of contraceptive technology [and same-sex marriage], that having sex will lead to babies. But when the kids are grown, parents are perfectly free to go their own ways. Marriage, for Locke, is not a relational necessity that completes me, as the movie says, as a person. Its more for convenience. Locke doesnt quite take all the love out; he assume parents or at least moms will love their children. But its amazing how much of being relational he does take out of personal life. I will repeat my controversial view that Locke, from his personal view, cant have any principled objection to contraception. And he wouldnt have seen the relational imperative gays now assert in demanding same-sex marriage.
Now we cant say, especially when it comes to marriage and the family, that America has been a Lockean country. Our Founding, if not so much the Constitution of 1787, is partly Lockean and partly Calvinist (or a form of Trinitarian Christianity). We see that influence even in the Declaration of Independence, where the more Calvinist members of Congress turned Jeffersons Natures God into also a judgmental and providential—or much more personal, if not Trinitarian—one. More importantly, laws regarding marriage and the family, under the Constitution, were reserved to the states, where they were much more Common Law and Christian than Lockean.
Our Lockean Founders knew they were being really unjust by perpetuating the institution of race-based slavery. But they were bothered barely at all by the exclusion of women from economic and political life. As Tocqueville reminds us, women were understood to be free to become wives and mothers, and husbands were to be the economic and political actors for the family. Divorce for most of our history was between tough and impossible; it was assumed that marriages would generate lots of kids, and marital sexual fidelity was the rule protected by law and custom. Women were stuck with their husbands, but they could usually count on their husbands sticking by them. America, through most of its history, was a nation of families, or, more precisely, a nation of free and relational persons who found much of their fulfillment through the family—and not so much as citizens.
The main impact Lockeanism had on ordinary lives in America, Tocqueville explains, was actually quite good for love. Virtually all Americans understand themselves as middle class. Theyre free persons who must work for themselves. That means they typically dont have the manors and servants we see on DOWNTON ABBEY. The American family becomes a nuclear family stuck together in a relatively small house sharing all the chores of life. One result is that fathers and sons become physically and emotionally closer; the authority of the father recedes, but the personal love between dad and son grows.
In America, Tocqueville observed, love and marriage very routinely go together. American women are men and women are free to marry for love. Marriages arent arranged for reasons having nothing to do with personal inclination. And so American men dont have the excuse aristocratic men do to have illicit affairs, and Tocqueville adds that theyre too busy for that sort of thing anyway. (They did have, he admitted, a weakness for prostitutes.) American women promote chastity by telling men the good news that if you love me enough to have your way with me, then youre free to marry me.
Returning for a moment to DOWNTON ABBEY: The deeply aristocratic Earl of Grantham marries a very rich American woman for her money. It was the only way he could think of to sustain indefinitely his way of life. His American wife, Lady Cora, didnt marry for money. And she taught her husband how to have an American marriage: They fell in love, shared the same bed, and had loads of fun having regular sex. She taught her husband how to practice the virtue of marital fidelity without too much effort. And she constantly knocked herself trying to convince the Earl of Grantham to put whats best for his children as free persons over the prejudices of his class. The American taught the aristocrat to do what aristocrats rarely did: Have a personal, relational, loving marriage and family, without even having Christian belief.
Europeans, such as Tocqueville, are often stunned by how seriously chastity and fidelity have been taken in America. They often attribute our sexual morality to our Puritanical repression. Tocqueville, of course, knew that our Puritanical inheritance is only part of the story. We could add here, quickly, how long the Catholic Church flourished in relative purity in our country, free from the politicized distortions of aristocracy or some form of civic theology. We should wonder more than we do about how routinely American priests and nuns from working-class backgrounds kept their vows.