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Books by James Spurr. Trivia About One Sloop and Slo No trivia or quizzes yet. Not only does the human mind come to discover in the world only one creation and one creator, this first division of things still bothers it, and it readily tries to enlarge and to simplify its thought by containing God and the universe in a single whole.
If I find a philosophical system according to which the things material and immaterial, visible and invisible that the world contains are no longer considered except as the various parts of an immense being that alone remains eternal amid the continual change and incessant transformation of everything that composes it, I will have no difficulty concluding that such a system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather because it destroys it, will have secret charms for men who live in democracy; all their intellectual habits prepare them for conceiving it and set them on the path to adopt it.
It naturally attracts their imagination and fixes it; it feeds the pride of their mind and flatters its laziness. Among the different systems by the aid of which philosophy seeks to explain the world, pantheism seems to me the one most likely to seduce the human mind in democratic centuries. Equality suggests several ideas to the human mind that would not have occurred to it otherwise, and it modifies nearly all those that the mind already had. I take for example the idea of human perfectibility, because it is one of the principal ones that intelligence can conceive and because it Edition: current; Page: [ ] constitutes by itself alone a great philosophical theory whose consequences are revealed each moment in the conduct of affairs.
Although man resembles animals in several ways, one feature is particular only to him alone; he perfects himself, and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the beginning. So the idea of perfectibility is as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but equality gave it a new character.
When citizens are classed according to rank, profession, birth, and when all are compelled to follow the path on which chance placed them, each man believes that near him he sees the furthest limits of human power, and no one tries any more to struggle against an inevitable destiny. It is not that aristocratic peoples absolutely deny man the ability to perfect himself.
They do not judge it to be indefinite; they conceive of amelioration, not change; they imagine the condition of society becoming better, but not different; and, while admitting that humanity has made great progress and that it can still make more progress, they enclose humanity in advance within impassable limits. So they do not believe they have reached the supreme good and absolute truth what man or what people has been so foolish ever to imagine that? As castes disappear, as classes come closer together, as common practices, customs, and laws vary because men are mixed tumultuously together, as new facts arise, as new truths come to light, as old opinions disappear and as others take their place, the image of an ideal and always fleeting perfection presents itself to the human mind.
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Continual changes then pass before the eyes of each man at every moment. Some changes worsen his position, and he understands only too well that a people or an individual, however enlightened, is not infallible. Other changes improve his lot, and he concludes that man, in general, is endowed with the indefinite ability to improve.
His failures make him see that no one can claim to have discovered absolute good; his successes inflame him in pursuing the absolute good without respite. Therefore, always searching, falling, getting up again, often disappointed, never discouraged, he tends constantly toward this immense grandeur that he half sees vaguely at the end of the long course that humanity must still cover. The sentiment of his own weakness leads him each day to exaggerate the power of the human species. You cannot believe how many facts flow naturally from this philosophical theory that man is indefinitely perfectible, d and the prodigious influence Edition: current; Page: [ ] that it exercises on even those who, occupied only with acting and not with thinking, seem to conform their actions to it without knowing it.
I meet an American sailor, and I ask him why the vessels of his country are constituted so as not to last for long, and he answers me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress each day, that the most beautiful ship would soon become nearly useless if it lasted beyond a few years. In these chance words said by a coarse man and in regard to a particular fact, I see the general and systematic idea by which a great people conducts all things.
Aristocratic nations are naturally led to compress the limits of human perfectibility too much, and democratic nations to extend them sometimes beyond measure. It must be recognized that, among the civilized people of today, there are few among whom the advanced sciences have made less progress than in the United States, and who have provided fewer great artists, illustrious poets and celebrated writers.
Some Europeans, struck by this spectacle, have considered it as a natural and inevitable result of equality, and they have thought that, if the democratic social state and institutions came at some time to prevail over all the Edition: current; Page: [ ] earth, d the human mind would see the enlightenment that illuminates it darken little by little, and man would fall back into the shadows. Those who reason in this way confuse, I think, several ideas that it would be important to separate and to examine apart.
Without wanting to, they mix what is democratic with what is only American. The religion that the first emigrants professed and that they handed down to their descendants, simple in its worship, austere and nearly primitive in its principles, enemy of external signs and of the pomp of ceremonies, is naturally little favorable to the fine arts and permits literary pleasures only reluctantly.
The Americans are a very ancient and very enlightened people, who encountered a new and immense country in which they can expand at will, and that they make fruitful without difficulty. That is without example in Edition: current; Page: [ ] the world. So in America, each man finds opportunities unknown elsewhere to make or to increase his fortune.
Greed is always in good condition there, and the human mind, distracted at every moment from the pleasures of the imagination and the works of intelligence, is drawn only into the pursuit of wealth.
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Not only do you see in the United States, as in all other countries, industrial and commercial classes; but, what has never been seen, all men there are busy at the same time with industry and with commerce. I am persuaded however that, if the Americans had been alone in the universe, with the liberties and enlightenment acquired by their fathers and the passions that were their own, they would not have taken long to discover that you cannot make progress for long in the application of the sciences without cultivating the theory; that all the arts improve by their interaction, and however absorbed they might have been in the pursuit of the principal object of their desires, they would soon have recognized that to reach it better, they had to turn away from it from time to time.
The taste for pleasures of the mind is, moreover, so natural to the heart of civilized man that, among the cultured nations that are least disposed to devote themselves to it, there is always a certain number of citizens who develop it. This intellectual need, once felt, would have soon been satisfied. But, at the same time that the Americans were led naturally to ask of science only its particular applications, of the arts only the means to make life easy, learned and literary Europe took care of going back to the general sources of truth, and perfected at the same time all that can work toward the pleasures of man as well as all that must serve his needs.
At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World, the inhabitants of the United States particularly singled out one with whom a common origin and analogous habits closely united them. They found among this people famous scientists, skilled artists, great writers, and they could reap the rewards of intelligence without needing to work to accumulate them.
A STORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
I cannot agree to separate America from Europe, despite the Ocean that divides them. I consider the people of the United States as the portion of the English people charged with exploiting the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, provided with more leisure and less preoccupied by the material cares of life, is able to devote itself to thought and to develop the human mind in all aspects.
So the situation of the Americans is entirely exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be put in the same situation. Their entirely Puritan origin, their uniquely commercial habits, even the country that they inhabit and that seems to divert their intelligence from the study of the sciences, letters and the arts; the proximity of Europe, that allows them not to study them without falling back into barbarism; a thousand particular causes, of which I have been able to show only the principal ones, had to concentrate the American mind in a singular way in the concern for purely material things.
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The passions, needs, education, circumstances, everything seems in fact to combine to bend the inhabitant of the Edition: current; Page: [ ] United States toward the earth. Religion alone makes him, from time to time, turn a fleeting and distracted gaze toward heaven. So let us stop seeing all democratic nations with the face of the American people, and let us try finally to consider them with their own features. You can imagine a people among whom there would be neither caste, nor hierarchy, nor class; where the law, recognizing no privileges, would divide inheritances equally; and who, at the same time, would be deprived of enlightenment and liberty.
This is not an empty hypothesis: a despot can find it in his interest to make his subjects equal and to leave them ignorant, in order to keep them slaves more easily. Not only would a democratic people of this type show neither aptitude nor taste for the sciences, literature and the arts, but also you may believe that it will never show them. The law of inheritance would itself undertake in each generation to destroy fortunes, and no one would create new ones.
The poor man, deprived of enlightenment and liberty, would not even conceive the idea of rising toward wealth, and the rich man would allow himself to be carried along toward poverty without knowing how to defend himself. A complete and Edition: current; Page: [ ] invincible equality would soon be established between these two citizens. No one would then have either the time or the taste for devoting himself to the works and pleasures of the mind.
But everyone would live benumbed in the same ignorance and in an equal servitude.
When I come to imagine a democratic society of this type, I immediately think I feel myself in one of these low, dark and suffocating places, where lights, brought in from outside, soon grow dim and are extinguished. It seems to me that a sudden weight overwhelms me, and that I am dragging myself along among the shadows around me in order to find the exit that should lead me back to the air and daylight.
But all of this cannot apply to men already enlightened who remain free after destroying the particular and hereditary rights that perpetuated property in the hands of certain individuals or certain bodies. When the men who live within a democratic society are enlightened, they discover without difficulty that nothing either limits them or fixes their situation or forces them to be content with their present fortune.
So they all conceive the idea of increasing it, and, if they are free, they all try to do so, but all do not succeed in the same way. The legislature, it is true, no longer grants privileges, but nature gives them. Since natural inequality is very great, fortunes become unequal from the moment when each man makes use of all his abilities in order to grow rich. The law of inheritance is still opposed to the establishment of rich families, but it no longer prevents the existence of the rich. It constantly leads citizens back toward a common level from which they constantly escape; they become more unequal in property the more their enlightenment increases and the greater their liberty is.
In our time a sect celebrated for its genius and its extravagances arose; it claimed to concentrate all property in the hands of a central power and to charge the latter with distributing it afterward, according to merit, to all individuals. You were shielded in this way from the complete and eternal equality that seems to threaten democratic societies. There is another simpler and less dangerous remedy; it is to grant privilege to no one, to give everyone equal enlightenment and an equal independence, Edition: current; Page: [ ] and to leave to each man the care of making his place for himself.
Natural inequality will soon appear and wealth will pass by itself toward the most able.