Democracy has done a lot for humankind. It made people feel equal and equally important. It made them feel free.
As I have just finished reading a great book by Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety, I wanted to highlight two specific insights from the book that caught my attention regarding the relationship between democracy and human happiness and well-being.
Let’s start with the basics: when you feed people with the illusion that they are all equal and when you make them legally and morally equal, they will pay attention to other people: how others behave, what they do, what they achieve. Whatever others have achieved (earned a diploma, started a business, etc.), I will expect I can achieve the same. We are equal, right? If they could do it, why couldn’t I do it too?
“Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity?”
Alexis de Tocqueville was touring North America in 1830, and his notes are published as the famous Democracy in America.
His observations on how putting people in equal positions effects the state of mind are captured in the chapter “Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity”, and it is worth quoting in its entirety.
The equality of conditions leads by a still straighter road to several of the effects that I have here described. When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position. When men are nearly alike and all follow the same track, it is very difficult for any one individual to walk quickly and cleave a way through the dense throng that surrounds and presses on him. This constant strife between the inclination springing from the equality of condition and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind.
It is possible to conceive of men arrived at a degree of freedom that should completely content them; they would then enjoy their independence without anxiety and without impatience. But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented. Whatever efforts a people may make, they will never succeed in reducing all the conditions of society to a perfect level; and even if they unhappily attained that absolute and complete equality of position, the inequality of minds would still remain, which, coming directly from the hand of God, will forever escape the laws of man. However democratic, then, the social state and the political constitution of a people may be, it is certain that every member of the community will always find out several points about him which overlook his own position; and we may foresee that his looks will be doggedly fixed in that direction. When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.
Among democratic nations, men easily attain a certain equality of condition, but they can never attain as much as they desire. It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on. At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment from their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted its delights, they die.
To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances. Complaints are made in France that the number of suicides increases; in America suicide is rare, but insanity is said to be more common there than anywhere else. These are all different symptoms of the same disease. The Americans do not put an end to their lives, however disquieted they may be, because their religion forbids it; and among them materialism may be said hardly to exist, notwithstanding the general passion for physical gratification. The will resists, but reason frequently gives way.
In democratic times enjoyments are more intense than in the ages of aristocracy, and the number of those who partake in them is vastly larger: but, on the other hand, it must be admitted that man’s hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself more keen.
In Status Anxiety, de Botton follows up on this:
The differing notions of poverty within aristocratic and democratic societies were especially evident, Tocqueville felt, in the attitude of servants towards their masters. In aristocracies, servants often accepted their position with good grace; it was not impossible for them to harbour, in Tocqueville’s words, “high thoughts, strong pride and self-respect.” In democracies, by contrast, the propaganda of the press and public opinion relentlessly promised servants that they, too, could reach the pinnacles of society and make their fortune as industrialists, judges, scientists or even presidents. Although this sense of unbounded opportunity could initially excite a surface cheerfulness in them—particularly in the younger ones—and though it did encourage the most talented or luckiest among them to fulfil their goals, as time passed and the majority failed to raise themselves, Tocqueville noted that their mood darkened, bitterness took hold of and choked their spirit, and their hatred of themselves and their masters grew fierce.
The rigid hierarchy that had been in place in almost every Western society until the late eighteenth century, denying all hope of social movement except in the rarest of cases, the system glorified by John of Salisbury and John Fortescue, was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points—and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.
Understanding of life in the Middle ages
What stems from this is that if we ever feel depressed because we haven’t achieved something, our expectations are to blame. Ideas of democracy and equality fed us with an illusion that we can become whoever we want to be if we try hard enough.
Of course, this illusion doesn’t need to be devastating. As Daniel Kahneman points out, it could be a good thing for an entrepreneur to be overconfident about his odds of success as it can improve his perseverance. After all, if there weren’t enough of the brave people (say, entrepreneurs) who wanted to try out new things and create new technologies, I would probably be writing this on a piece of paper and you probably wouldn’t be able to read it online.
And while being optimistic about life’s opportunities is good in terms of us trying out new things and pushing ourselves and societies forward, psychologically it’s beneficial to know that we weren’t always like this. Long before our time, people rarely understood life in terms of pushing it as far as you can, no matter what. We used to be much more at ease in the face of adversity.
Here is Alain de Botton talking about the view of life in Middle Ages:
Resignation regarding the necessary hardships of life was for centuries one of mankind’s most important assets, a bulwark against bitterness that was to be cruelly undermined by the expectations incubated by the modern worldview. In his City of God (A.D. 427), Saint Augustine consolingly codified unhappiness as an immutable feature of existence, part of “the wretchedness of man’s situation,” and poured scorn on “all those theories by which men have tried hard to build up joy for themselves within the misery of this life.” Under Augustine’s influence, the French poet Eustache Deschamps (circa 1338–1410) described life on earth as a
An age of tears, of envy and of torment,
A time of languor and of damnation …