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What a 19th-century French aristocrat can teach us about freedom

James Poulos on Tocqueville and the art of being free in America.

Freedom Graffiti Tunisia Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“We grow up too quickly in some ways and too slowly in others. And so has our country.” James Poulos

America is a weird country with a weird history and a weird culture. We live frenzied, fortunate lives and spend most of our time lost in diversion. We’re both unfulfilled and unfree, rebellious and conformist.

This is the argument James Poulos, a columnist at the Week and the Federalist, makes in his new book, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us From Ourselves. Poulos believes that America is exceptionally weird, and he draws on the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist and historian who traveled to America in the 1830 and wrote Democracy in America, as a way of exploring this weirdness.

Tocqueville considered America a historical oddity, a democratic country without an aristocratic or feudal past. We were a political experiment, held together less by tradition than by an informal constellation of norms and civic associations. This, Tocqueville argued, colored our conception of freedom and democracy; it also produced peculiar pressures and anxieties, which Poulos says persist today.

In this interview, Poulos and I talk about those pressures and anxieties. I ask him why it’s so difficult to live freely and what the French author of a famous book about America can teach us about freedom.

Sean Illing

Tocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835 and the second in 1840. Why did he come here? Why did he write this enormous book?

James Poulos

In 1831, Tocqueville is sent to America by the French government to study the American prison system. Tocqueville was a very young, very smart aristocrat. He was interested in the changing social and economic conditions of his time, and in the global movement toward greater democracy and equality.

He saw America as a kind of laboratory of democracy. He sat down with John Quincy Adams a couple of years after his presidency and talked about slavery. He had access to the highest levels of American society. He was also able to go off the beaten path. He got to see America from the bottom up and the top down, and he got to see it through the eyes of an aristocrat that knew aristocracy was finished.

Sean Illing

What was his most relevant observation or lesson?

James Poulos

Tocqueville has many lessons for us, but the biggest one is that we are not fully in the democratic age, the age where the equality of conditions, mores, habits, and thought patterns have slowly set in. But we're no longer in the aristocratic age, the age of great structural inequalities that persisted over centuries and are based in the fabric of life. Things like hereditary wealth, things like noble titles, monarchy, feudal culture, generation after generation of people tied to their land. All the stuff you see in the Old World, a tight, intimate connection between religious institutions and political institutions. All that kind of stuff has passed away into the irretrievable past, but it hasn't been fully destroyed. Some of these things persisted into our transitional era.

Tocqueville observed that Americans are fortunate to not have an aristocratic past annihilated by a democratic revolution like Europe experienced, which caused a great deal of pain and anxiety. But he thought we had a very different kind of pain and anxiety. We feel the tweens of history. It's a long tweendom. This is not a brief moment.

As worried as we are that we're going to get spun out into some dystopia sooner rather than later, Tocqueville's warning to us is that this is a long period of weirdness as we become what we are as a nation, and there’s no escaping from it, and it is going to make us weird and encourage our weirdness.

Sean Illing

I understand that America’s uniqueness, culturally and politically, stems from our experimental nature. We’re a young country, without the baggage of the Old World, but also very much a work in progress. But what does all of this have to do with the kind of freedom we experience?

James Poulos

The best way to answer that question is to invite people to think about adverbs, the way or manner in which we do what we do. Sometimes freedom, if you think of freedom too much as a noun, it can become an abstract idea, or it can become, as social scientists might say, reified. If you go looking for freedom, it's like looking for the American dream. You're not going to turn a corner while you're walking down the street with your magnifying glass and go, “Holy shit, there it is, I found it!”

It is a posture and disposition but also a kind of practice that colors your being. I know this sounds quite abstract, and this is why coming to this inquiry with a decent amount of life experience is important, because we can only talk about it so much. There's this passage early in my book where I mention one of Plato's dialogues where Socrates says: Yeah, it's great to write this down and read it, but it's ultimately like having a conversation with a statue or a painting.

Sean Illing

You mentioned this historical “tweendom” phase a minute ago, but it’s not clear to me how this manifests in American life today. Your conception of freedom as an activity rather than a condition is apparent enough. What remains somewhat vague is how the peculiar character and history of America shapes or constrains our efforts to live freely right now, in this moment.

James Poulos

We grow up too quickly in some ways and too slowly in others. And so has our country. Look at the way Europeans tend to see us in a bad mood — as reckless, undereducated babies driving the future without a license. We left the aristocratic age first, and without any real trauma. But because of that, we've been able to stretch out our transition to the full-blown democratic age. We're truants from the logic of history as the Old World knows it.

In some ways, that opens up huge new vistas of chill and leisure only stylishly laced with brooding affectation. In other ways, though, it creates spaces where this crushing confusion and dislocation and emotional vertigo floods in. Sounds a lot like being a tween morphing into a teenager, or a teenager with unresolved tween issues morphing into a 20-something with unresolved teenage issues.

Sean Illing

And how does this emotional and historical vertigo bleed into our culture? How does it influence our view of money, religion, success?

James Poulos

With money, we develop this insanely weird notion that we deserve to make a decent living pursuing coming-of-age quests to discover our true identity in our true calling. We get trapped in that, yet we persist.

And that dilemma suffuses our sex lives and our love lives, which are largely shaped by the historically weird idea that romantic unions only last as long as neither partner's identity drama seems to diminish the other's. Another trap. No wonder we see teenage infatuation — and youth! — the Katy Perry way, as a precious get-out-of-psychic-jail card you can only play once when you get one.

It makes us all the more deeply weird and awkward about death, which calls us to attend maturely to mortality in a way that's apt to cripple us in what we feel are already heroically against-the-odds quests for what we fear is more significance than we deserve. Trap number three.

No wonder our sense of religion is so weird too, then, right? Ours is not a cathedral civilization. It's folding chairs and bad coffee. It's revival meetings in strip malls. The people with the biggest temples, the Mormons, have the "craziest" Christianity.

Tocqueville suspected we'd run ourselves ragged — a fourth, paradoxical trap — without a deeper, slower, more universal religious experience. He guessed all future Americans would either be secular or Catholic. But then he said the genius of Christianity was it offered the simple vision of equal souls loving God and loving their neighbors. If we help one another stay free of the traps we set for ourselves, there's a lot of room for wonderful weirdness in religion and well beyond.

Sean Illing

That last point about Christianity reminded of something else that interested me in the book, which is this paradoxical notion that individual freedom depends upon others. Living freely, you seem to suggest, means escaping from the prison of selfhood.

James Poulos

I think almost all of us are experienced enough to know that when you're excessively inward-facing or excessively outward-facing, it tends to not go very well.

There's a middle zone, a sweet spot, where we are pulled out of the solitude of our hearts, where bitterness and envy and rancor and self-flattery lives. But we're not propelled too far into the madness of the world. In that sweet spot resides true friendships, and not like the Facebook friends who you went to high school with, whose baby pics you occasionally like. The sweet spot is the zone of true friendship, and it's a site where being freely can appear for you in your life.

I think the more we sit with that idea, the more we discover that being freely is something we can do sometimes on our own, but we can't do it only on our own. We need to do it together.

Sean Illing

So freedom, in order to be fully exercised, needs to be recognized as such by other people?

James Poulos

I'd put it this way: If you look into someone's eyes for any extensive period of time, and they look into yours, you'll pretty quickly discover that the self is kind of a construct, and whatever your you-ness is, it shows up more for you outside of you than inside of you in real life.

If you're Descartes and you shutter yourself up in your house and you're a genius, then you can convince yourself it's some sort of thing that lives inside of your brain. But if you're not a mad genius shuttering yourself up in this house, what you'll discover is that your being is outside of your form. And that is how it can be that we're relational beings and how it can be that we have relationships and how it can be that we feel so close to other people.

Tocqueville says the heart can only be enlarged by the reciprocal effect of one of us on the other. That's not just a clever turn of phrase. I think that's a statement about our nature as human beings, a fixed point that often feels like a world that has lost its rudder.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to talk about freedom without also talking about conformity. One of the things that Tocqueville noticed about America is that despite our expansive freedom, the pressures to conform were overwhelming. This was both a good and a bad thing, but also a quintessentially American thing.

James Poulos

Competitive conformity is real, and it's especially real here. But Tocqueville saw the general phenomenon going global, to the many places where the protective and redemptive qualities furnished by our unique American character weren't present.

Peter Thiel talks about "the convergence of desire" — any exclusive nightclub around the world is basically the same experience, same drinks, same songs, same fashion, same goals. We Americans are particularly advanced in our experience of the complex of conformity. But the pressure to conform is becoming less distinctive as a rule, which makes us more indifferent to our fate as individuals in some ways and more anxious about it in other ways.

Author James Poulos.

Sean Illing

Do you think most Americans live in a kind of self-imposed unfreedom?

James Poulos

Surely most of us would wind up saying something like this about ourselves in a safe enough space to speak vulnerably. This is the root of the grievance culture — this stricken cry of, "You can't expect me to do X or Y, my hands are tied, my constraints are beyond my agency." It crosses all political categories.

Which is why we're not even trying to persuade those who disagree with us anymore. It's just, "Shut up, it's my turn at the mic, it's my turn to be the world."

Sean Illing

What undergirds this obsession with attention or gratification?

James Poulos

I think beneath the sound and fury and the mic grabbing and mic dropping is a profound and crushing sense of true guilt. That despite how poorly we feel we were prepared for the trappings of the world we were thrown into, it's ultimately on us to deal with it, and we're failing; we can't hack it. We know in experience what Tocqueville saw so seemingly long ago, that we're increasingly isolated and thrown back on our own resources, shut up in our weeping hearts, and we blame ourselves, and we want absolution.

We don't want to expose ourselves to others as we are and be thrown back by that inexorable wall of indifference. I wrote The Art of Being Free because I couldn't figure out any better shot for right now at helping us crack that fear and crack that indifference.

Sean Illing

What’s the closing message of this book? What’s the truth you want the reader to confront?

James Poulos

That's a great question. I want the reader to confront the truth that being human is good news. But it’s also hard to be human, and in some ways it’s even harder to be an American. I know it sounds strange, because there are many people around the world who are in much, much worse situations than nearly all Americans. But being American involves being constantly exposed around the clock to new kinds of dilemmas and challenges and struggles. It's hard on the mind, and it can wear away the soul as well.

We need to forgive ourselves for that, because if we don’t forgive ourselves, we’re screwed. I think we have to rediscover the art of forbearance in order to get some traction on the art of being free. We have to look at each other and recognize that we are in a hard predicament, and in so doing, we also need to understand that it's okay. Our longings and our dreams are always going to be bigger than our little lives can satisfy. That melancholy cannot be expunged from human life. There will be tears. Sometimes there will be tears of joy, and sometimes there will be tears of great disappointment.

Nevertheless, it's still good to be human. It's still good enough. We don't need to become subhuman. We don't need to become trans-human. If we go looking for technology to fix us or make us free, we will get burned. We have to reckon with our humanity and reconcile ourselves to our humanity and we have to understand that although identity is important, who we are is important, the most important thing about who we are is that we're human. Even more important than who we are is how we are, because it's on us to choose how we are. I think if we focus on those things, life is manifestly worth living.

Sean Illing

So much of life today conspires to make us less free, less alive, less happy, more self-conscious, less other-oriented. But maybe it's always been that way. Maybe it's not new.

James Poulos

It's probably always been that way, but the noise is piling up all around us. The internet has not particularly helped us in this way. The mid-20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to this as the “thrownness” of the world, the frantic way we fill up the world in order to compensate for what sometimes feels like a yawning emptiness within. That is a problem because the alternatives can lead us down a very dark road. Heidegger was definitely right about how bad it is to try and fill up the world.

Sean Illing

Heidegger was certainly right that our instinct is to shrink from our own being, from our own freedom, and just give ourselves over to the crowd, to the “they-self,” as he called it.

James Poulos

Tocqueville is aware of that too. At the end of a chapter on religion in America and why Americans are so religious, he says that you almost get the impression in America that religion is so strong because it's so popular, not because of some other reason. It's kind of a backhanded compliment. But on the other hand, it raises the question of what happens when the public's mood changes? What happens when there's some other shiny object that offers us a false escape from the hell of selfhood? I don't think the answers to that question give us much to be excited about.

There are all kinds of problems with the way organized religion has interfaced with politics, and doctrinal ideology tempts us to give up reconciling ourselves to the weirdness of life. Comprehensive doctrines create the illusion that we can just disappear into a way of life and not have to play the game.

Sean Illing

And yet here we are, playing the game of selfhood and freedom, without the balm of a unifying religion and under the sway of a shallow but pervasive culture.

James Poulos

Well, it's ultimately in our hands now. It's not going to be politics that saves us. It's not going to be science that saves us. It's not going to be one particular church that saves us. We are going to continue to be stuck in this milieu, and we have to reckon with that.