Tocqueville as Self-Help Guru: A review of James Poulos’s The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves

What can a 19th century French nobleman possibly teach us about cultivating virtue, culture, freedom, and equality in contemporary American society? Quite a bit, it turns out.

While Alexis de Tocqueville’s epoch-shaping, exquisitely chronicled visit to the United States took place nearly two centuries ago, the viscount’s profound insights into la vie americaine continue to resonate today.

Tocqueville’s key intuition, around which James Poulos’s clever, quirky, and engrossing book revolves, is that “nothing is more fertile in marvels than the art of being free, but nothing is harder than freedom’s apprenticeship.”

In search of evidence for his thesis—i.e. that “nothing’s more wonderful, and…nothing is harder to learn how to use, than freedom”—Poulos, a Los Angeles-based writer and musician, trawls popular cultural trends, interrogating our contemporary religious, monetary, sexual, and recreational habits.

“Do not read [Tocqueville’s Democracy in America] as a political book,” Poulos adjures his readers. “It isn’t one.” Instead, Poulos’s exposition “foregrounds Tocqueville and backgrounds politics.”

“In this book,” Poulos promises, “along with Tocqueville, we will completely dismiss the notion that the only valid (or possible) purpose of social thought is to identify, discredit, combat, and eventually destroy inequality.” He largely keeps this promise, exposing the flawed understanding of the American system by its contemporary European critics.

Poulos’s is undoubtedly the first book to fuse Tocqueville’s transcendent insights with contemporary memes; by juxtaposing favorites like “LOL,” “FOMO,” and “sorry not sorry” with 19th century French aristocratic norms, and by drawing parallels between the Big Lebowski, David Bowie, Daft Punk, the Wu Tang Clan, and the Puritans, Poulos (perhaps surprisingly) creates a compelling narrative.

Take, for instance, the seemingly unprecedented change currently convulsing American society. While rapid deindustrialization, an accelerating democratization of the media, and the breakdown of social and political mores may appear unique to our times, Tocqueville identified this “Great Transition” nearly 200 years ago as a gradual, creeping, inexorable evolution from aristocracy to democracy. As Poulos summarizes it, “a larger slowness transcends, unifies, and defines” all of these changes.

In fact, the Tocquevillian clash between democracy and aristocracy triggers a certain creative destruction and breeds “great optimism and dynamism” alongside insecurity, fatalism, and malaise. Far from characterizing only recent developments, this tension has permeated the American experience for centuries.

The relationship between classes nicely illustrates this continuity. The wealthy, Tocqueville posits, “never form a body with its own mores and way of enforcing the same; no opinions peculiar to their class restrain them, and public opinion urges them on.” As distant from us ordinary Americans as the super-rich may seem, we all still inhabit a common universe. “We constantly fear the rich have ‘gamed’ or ‘rigged the system,’” Poulos explains, precisely “because we know as well as they do that we’re all playing the same game.”

Yet even if we’re different from the rich only in degree and not in kind, that degree can be massive, stoking inequality and its attendant vices of envy and insecurity. The very fact that the pursuit of money—ever fungible and transferrable—is equally available to all Americans serves to exacerbate economic inequality.

We must persist nevertheless, Tocqueville and Poulos enjoin us. “We won’t be free from the crazy monetariness of life, just as we can’t be free from its fleetingness. But we can be free amid it.”

Sexuality presents similar challenges. There, too, we seek “to square our hunger for individuality with our fear of the isolation and anonymity that individuality so often brings.” This tension permeates not only marriage and its attendant trials but all romantic relationships, monogamous, open, or one-off (what Tocqueville called “ephemeral and clandestine connections”), as well as the severing of those bonds through divorce and other break-ups.

Only a stable home, in every sense of the word, can resolve this tension. “From a Tocquevillean standpoint,” Poulos posits, “sanity and shelter are far more important for men and women than upward mobility, social prestige, or any of the other measuring sticks that often control our behavior in public life.” Achieving such sanity and shelter, of course, remains a paramount struggle in our unsettled age, but in a stirring and deeply personal conclusion dedicated to his son, Poulos gestures toward a possible victory.

Alexis de Tocqueville (courtesy WikiMedia Commons)
Alexis de Tocqueville (courtesy WikiMedia Commons)

Poulos’s prose occasionally tends toward the overwrought and rambling, and his predilection for italicizing key terms can be distracting. His chapters on faith and play meander, and his treatment of death through the lens of Batman isn’t entirely convincing. Mostly, if informal, discursive writing aren’t your thing, then The Art of Being Free may not be for you.

Still, in total, Poulos offers an absorbing, counterintuitive approach to understanding the maddening, triumphant, unsettling, optimistic nature of American civic life through the lens of a 19th century sage. As today’s generation might say of Tocqueville, that aged well.

About the Author
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Ra'anana, Israel. He and his family recently made aliyah from San Diego.
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