(Collage by Joy Olivia Miller; painting of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau {PD}; page from the original working manuscript of Democracy in America courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Man, the lonely animal

Joshua Mitchell, PhD’89, reflects on how students from Washington to Iraq differ in their understanding of Tocqueville’s “lonely man” in the democratic age.

In a letter composed just three years before his death, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “This profound saying could be applied especially to me: it is not good for man to be alone.” When I tell students that the whole of Tocqueville’s magisterial work Democracy in America was written under the aegis of this sentiment, under the shadow of what could be called a philosophy of loneliness, they listen.

Tocqueville’s concern, I tell them, was the emergence of a new type, homo solus, the lonely man, and with how this new type would understand himself and his place in the world. This makes my students around the globe approach Democracy in America with a sense of urgency. For five of the past seven years, I have been in the Middle East—three in Qatar, helping Georgetown establish its School of Foreign Service there, and two in Iraq, helping to build the nascent American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. In the course of those overseas duties, not an hour went by when Tocqueville’s thinking about the movement from the aristocratic age to the democratic age did not occupy my imagination.

So in the Middle East as in Washington, DC, I assign Democracy in America. On both campuses, my students soon discover that it is a book that reads their own hearts, for few things are more haunting to them than the specter of loneliness. They seek to understand Tocqueville, so that they may understand themselves; for in Tocqueville’s writing, they find an account of the etiology of the disease from which they suffer: man, the lonely animal. And because teachers of the history of political thought are called not only to diagnose disease but also to indicate wherein health may lie, I encourage them to attend to Tocqueville’s cautious hope that such loneliness need not be the final word about their future.

While loneliness has been chronicled in all ages, Tocqueville thought that it would be an especially acute problem in the democratic age, because the antidote that the aristocratic age before it had offered would no longer be available. That antidote was the “links,” as he called them, which tied each to everyone else. In his words: “Aristocracy has made of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks the chain and sets each link apart. … [Democracy] constantly leads [each man] back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.”

The character of these links is not easily understood in the democratic age, which explains why they cannot be easily reconstructed. In the democratic age, man is largely gathered together by having interests in common. In the aristocratic age, man is largely bound together through loyalty and obligation. Democratic interest involves conscious, ongoing calculation and negotiation between individuals who gather together and then disband; loyalty and obligation entail range-bound and durable relations between roles.

It is difficult for my students on Georgetown’s main campus to imagine the ties of loyalty and obligation. I routinely ask them, for example, whether what they do at home in the way of “chores” is undertaken because the family into which they have been born requires it. The formulation itself seems odd to them. More than any generation that has come before, they expect and receive money for the chores they do and are seldom moved to action without it. When they are young, they are called upon to attend various family gatherings and do so; but from adolescence onward, it is increasingly difficult to concentrate their attention on such matters. Already they are on their way to breaking their attachment with their parents.

My students in Qatar, on the other hand, tell a different story. They are ever cognizant of the family name they bear and of both the loyalty that must be displayed and the obligations that must be borne. These do not diminish with age. Many of them spend evenings and weekends involved in family celebrations. This attentiveness to family obligations often has deleterious consequences for their studies, though in vain does the teacher implore them to place their own self-interest at the forefront. Many do not understand themselves first and foremost as individuals but rather as bearers of a family name. More accurately, while they are increasingly coming to think of themselves as individuals, they nevertheless continue to think of themselves as occupying a specific and largely unalterable role in their families and, by extension, in their societies. They occupy roles, yet they think of themselves increasingly as individuals. Therein lies their difficulty.

My students in Washington face a different difficulty. To think of oneself as an individual rather than to understand oneself as a role is really a rather remarkable historical achievement, which they largely take for granted. The Latin term persona supposes a distinction between the actor and the mask he puts on. In the aristocratic age, the mask—the role—largely mediates relations. The individual behind the mask may strain to find the right way to wear it, but it cannot ever be wholly removed. In the democratic age, when everything is on the move, the mask seems ill fitting and has the appearance of an awkward artifice. If donned at all, it is seldom worn for long. It is often intentionally removed and sometimes stripped off by others. In bemused moments, it is treated ironically; when it appears grotesque to its wearer, a caricature of the beauty and purity of the individual behind the mask, the tender and never-ending search for “authenticity” commences. The individual, alone and without durable linkages to others of the sort that roles can provide, searches for “meaning” in a world that seems inhospitable to his “needs.”

The exceptional condition from which my American students suffer is de-linkage of the sort that no other nation in history has known. That de-linkage gives rise to many of the peculiarities in American society that my students from the Middle East observe from afar even if they don’t fully understand. “It is not good for man to be alone.” From that luminous beginning follows the whole of Tocqueville’s healing art in Democracy in America. Loneliness, he assures us, need not be the final word. Bleak as the condition of the American polity can at times appear to be, it can always be renewed through the face-to-face relations that are sorely needed if democratic freedom is to endure.

Adapted from Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age (University of Chicago Press, 2013) by Joshua Mitchell, © University of Chicago. Joshua Mitchell is professor of political theory in the Department of Politics at Georgetown University. His books include The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future (University of Chicago Press, 1995).