Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Chapter V

Democracy and Technology

RURAL democracy, as a component of American history, is engaged in a contrast which sharpens its significance. For centuries the agricultural communities of the South have presented a picture of oligarchy, with owners of huge estates dominating landless toilers of the soil describable, according to circumstances, as slaves, colored people, poor whites, sharecroppers, and Mexicans. This undemocratic system, in spite of its enduring power within the southern states, had comparatively little influence on the nation as a whole. In the national Conscience it was defeated by another pattern of rural life, viz., the democratic one, famously exemplified by the early New England towns. A democratic polity, deriving its energy from the daily practice of self-government on the independent farm: this American ideal was voiced, with a kind of definitiveness, by a gentleman farmer from the South and a slave-owner, Thomas Jefferson; but at the time of the Revolution there was no obvious ground for believing that the southern society would remain stubbornly oligarchic, and the abolition of slavery was expected to take place in the near future.

The pattern of rural democracy has continued to exercise influence throughout the history of the American people. There is a paradox here, since the United States soon developed large-scale industry and unique phenomena of urban concentration. But to explain the paradox it suffices to remark that the rise of American industrialism was contemporary with a gigantic process of expansion in space. In most respects the settlement of the West was the work of an agricultural society free from aristocratic influences and little affected by government interference. The conquest of the western wilderness maintained, through a series of generations, conditions similar to those which presided over the formation of the first northern colonies. Amid untamed and prehistoric nature, men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lived, by the millions, in isolated communities which could afford to ignore much of what was going on in the industrial cities and in the capitals of the world.

The political ideal of the Americans, in so far as it makes democracy dependent upon the ways of rural life, gives verisimilitude to the theory that a technological society does not admit of democratic government. This theory is old. Over a century ago Saint-Simonism set forth, in an atmosphere saturated with romantic kindness, the construct of a society shaped by the power of technology; the undemocratic character of this construct proceeds, in part, from a keen understanding of sociological trends which were to prove profound and lasting. During the Fascist years we had many opportunities to recognize, in the psychology of industrialists and business leaders enthusiastic about broad plans of "organization," the spirit of the Saint-Simonists. But the atmosphere of brotherly love had dried up in the meantime.

As to the reasons for the traditional belief that small communities of landowning farmers constitute the soundest foundation for democracy, it seems that they can be summed up in the following three propositions: (1) Rural life favors an ideal of happiness and thereby discourages lust for power; (2) it gives citizens the best possible chance for training in self-government; (3) it favors community feelings. We propose to examine, in comparative fashion, the merits of rural life and those of technological society with regard to this three-point basic program: the dedication of man to the pursuit of happiness, as opposed to his being driven by the lust for power; the training of citizens in autonomy, as opposed to their being subjected to the mores of servitude; and the establishment of strong community feelings, as opposed to the prevalence of individualistic loneliness.

One of these points calls for preliminary elaboration. The contrast between pursuit of happiness and lust for power expresses familiar experiences. However, its meaning involves one of the deepest mysteries of moral life. The pursuit of happiness comprises every pursuit, whether of power or of anything else. Happiness is the all-embracing and naturally determined object of all acts of will, and in a certain sense it is improper to set in opposition happiness and, say, power, since no one seeks power except inasmuch as he places his happiness in it.

Yet it would be poor psychology to content one's self with the consideration that all seek happiness and diverge only with regard to the thing in which happiness is placed. One day, as Zarathustra sat on a stone before his cave and silently gazed, "his animals went thoughtfully around him and at last stood in front of him. 'O Zarathustra,' they said, 'dost thou peradventure look out for thy happiness?' 'What is happiness worth?' he answered. 'I ceased long ago to strive for my happiness: I strive for my work.'"{1}

Who would question the psychological relevance and the profundity of the contrast set here between dedication to one's happiness and dedication to one's work? True, it can be properly said that Zarathustra places his happiness in his work; but this valid remark does not destroy the significance of the contrast. Maritain wrote that it is the distinction "of our humanistic civilizations to place happiness in happiness, the end of man in human happiness."{2} The expression "placing happiness in happiness" is not absurdly redundant. Clearly, there is a sense in which every object of desire falls under happiness and a sense in which some objects of desire set themselves in opposition to happiness. But specifying these senses involves great difficulty.

Let it be said that happiness has the character of a form by the necessitating energy of which we will all that we will. This form admits of a diversity of contents, and, because of the imperfection of human freedom, such diversity extends to the ultimate end; for some men happiness consists in wealth, for others it consists in power, and for others in pleasure, etc. Now some contents are such that the form of happiness applies to them smoothly and harmoniously. Other contents seem to revolt against it, and they bring about the feeling that, when happiness is placed in them, not happiness but something else is striven for. Zarathustra's statement voices a perfect example of such a clash.

Suppose that we are trying to understand the psychology of an artist frantically dedicated to his art. We are struck by the ruthlessness with which, for the sake of the work to be produced or perfected, he gives up leisure, pleasure, sleep, and duties. We shall not be astonished if we learn that his life is haunted by some great misfortune, such as the death or the permanent absence of a beloved person; and we shall be aware of expressing a perfectly intelligible situation by saying that he is seeking in his work a consolation, a compensation for his failure to achieve happiness. One truth would be expressed by the proposition that, having failed to find happiness in love and family life, he is seeking happiness in artistic creation. And another truth is expressed by setting in contrast happiness, which he no longer seeks, and the work of art for which he dies. The lust for power would lend itself to a similar description. When a person shows an unusually domineering disposition, the first hypothesis to be tried is that he is unhappy and seeks in the manipulation of his fellow-men a substitute for the happiness that he cannot obtain. In some cases a life of pleasure would also suggest a similar description. If a man disregards all the prudent calculations recommended by the Epicureans and delivers himself up to pleasure in reckless fashion, without consideration for society or for his own survival, our first guess is that his striving for pleasure originates in bitterness about frustration of his hope for a happy life.

In these three examples the thing striven for is plainly incapable of procuring happiness. Further, it clashes with the form of happiness in such fashion that sentences contrasting happiness and work, happiness and power, happiness and violent pleasure, are obviously meaningful. The understanding of such contrasts is made easier by the supplementary consideration of cases in which no opposition appears between the form of happiness and the content to which it is applied, even though the thing striven for is no less incapable of procuring happiness. One example would be a life of pleasure moderated by skilful calculation and enjoyed in the company of friends; genuine happiness cannot be found in such a life, which contains much evil and inevitably some crime. But nobody would say that the man who chose this way of living has, like Zarathustra, given up happiness. We merely consider that he erred by placing happiness where it cannot actually reside. The form is applied to the wrong content, and there is no more to be said. A similar description would hold in the case of one who places his happiness in the peaceful satisfaction of his intellectual curiosity and the unloving enjoyment of his culture. Let attention be called, finally, to a most striking example found in Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary. The writer has just shown that happiness cannot be genuine unless it achieves independence from the past and the future by transcending time. Then he goes on to describe an experience that he had often had at Saint-Pierre Island, as he was lying on the bottom of a drifting boat or sitting near the shore of the lake or near a whispering rivulet:

What is it that one enjoys in such a situation? Nothing external to one's self; nothing, except one's self and one's own existence; so long as this state endures, one is, like God, self-sufficient. The feeling of existence, stripped of all other emotion, is by itself a valuable experience of contentment and peace, which would suffice to render this existence dear and sweet to whoever succeeded in freeing himself from all the sensual and earthly impressions which ceaselessly distract us from it and spoil, here below, its sweetness. But most men, agitated as they are with continual passions, are little acquainted with this condition and, having had no more than an imperfect experience of it for a very short time, retain only an obscure and confused idea of it, which conveys no realization of its charm.{3}

Placing happiness in sheer and naked existence is a metaphysical mistake of the first magnitude and of great profundity -- of such profundity, indeed, that the metaphysician at once recognizes in it the kind of error from which much can be learned. The plenitude that happiness implies is not found in naked existence but rather in the climax of actuality reached by the rational being in the ultimate exercise of his best activity. In no undistinguished fashion Rousseau misplaces happiness; but the illusion-causing content to which he applies it, far from rebelling against the imposition of such a form -- as in the case of the work of art, of power, and of violent pleasure -- produces, by uniting with the form of happiness, an inebriating harmony.

From these examples the distinctive features of two types can be tentatively disengaged. Among the objects that human desire strives for, some unite smoothly with the form of happiness, and some bear the appearance of being at variance with it. One characteristic of the first category of objects is that they are or seem to be in line with human nature. Not everybody is willing to confess that he wants to be happy. Willingness to be happy implies acceptance of nature such as it is and such as we did not make it. Many would find it intolerably humiliating to be suspected of seeking happiness simply and unpretentiously, like children, like uneducated people, like saints. Zarathustra phrased the catchword of many an artist: these gentlemen are too proud to be happy and find it more becoming to strive for their work. A second attribute of the thing in harmony with the form of happiness is that it is necessarily interior to man. It may be health, it may be the feeling of being alive, it may be the sentiment of existence, and it may be pleasure -- though not of the violent kind -- or culture -- though not of the perverse description; but it cannot be a thing exterior to man, such as a work of art. Third, the object in congenial relation to the form of happiness is enjoyable in peace. Things that cannot be enjoyed except in violent action, in painful tension, in excruciating conflict, or in agonizing privation do not stand very well the form of happiness. Fourth, things in harmony with the form of happiness are enjoyable in common.

Nothing is more instructive, in this last connection, than the psychology of solitary life. In solitude the Christian exercises the highest form of sociability; by delivering him from the impediments that lower systems of social relations involve, solitude disposes him to live more intimately in the communion of the Divine Persons and in the communion of the saints. As for the romantic seeker of solitude, he commonly indulges in bitterness and misanthropy. Yet his soul is filled with expectation. His real purpose is not to live in uninhabited wilderness; as he steps out of the society of men, he means to step into another society, whose members would be more reliable than human beings: the reliability of the things of nature is as complete as the natural determination of their operations. But loving fancy endows things of nature with the character of personality; they finally turn out to be regarded as thoroughly reliable persons. The meaning of romantic theism is sometimes uncertain because it is not always possible to decide whether the name of God, in romantic language, refers to the transcendent cause of nature or to a community of natural energies personified by the idealism of the solitary wanderer.

{1} F. W. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Werke, 1. Abt.. Vol. VI [Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1896], p. 343).

{2} Jacques Maritain, Pour la justice (New York: Éditions de la Maison de France, 1945), p. 20: "Nous savons que les démocraties se proposent, selon one formule chère à l'Amérique, la poursuite du bonheur, tandis que les régimes totalitaires se proposent la poursuite de l'empire et d'un pouvoir illimité, en asservissant à ces fins tout ce qui est dans l'homme. À vrai dire l'homme ne peut rien désirer sinon en désirant le bonheur, mais il place son bonheur ici ou là; et c'est le propre de nos civilisations humanistes de placer le bonheur dans le bonheur, la fin de l'homme dans le bonheur humain.

{3} J.-J. Rousseau, Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Cinquième promenade (Paris: Bibliothèque indépendante d'édition, 1905).

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