Restlessness




Accept            -               Aspire
Static               -               Dynamic




[…] in the second volume of Democracy in America, he presents the energy of democratic society as fueled, in large part, by a certain kind of unhappiness. This unhappiness did not have the character of misery or despair; rather, Tocqueville observed a pervasive unease. The name he gave to this unease was restlessness (inquiétude).

For Pascal, restlessness is an expression of the human need for God. It derives from man’s desire to be immortal. Since man cannot be immortal, “he has decided to prevent himself from thinking about it.” All men have a “secret instinct to seek external diversion and occupation, coming from their feeling of constant wretchedness.”

[...] Tocqueville identifies two main sources of modern restlessness: the democratic preoccupation with material well-being and democratic envy.

Tocqueville argues that, in places untouched by progress, in which one finds a poor and uneducated populace, one finds hardship but also tranquility and resilience amid difficult circumstances. In America, where there is great material prosperity, relatively speaking, and great hopefulness of achieving still more prosperity, one finds widespread discontent.

He describes Americans moving, changing, and shifting from one place to another, from one occupation to another, from one life to another. He describes people buying land and houses only to sell them quickly and changing professions multiple times in their careers.

The phenomena he describes here overlap quite extensively with the universal change and motion that he praised in volume 1. What had been described as expressions of dynamic energy now become expressions of dissatisfaction and discontent.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.441-2, 447
 



[...] it is an essential characteristic of the personal and modifiable technics of Man, in contrast to the genus technics of animals, that every discovery contains the possibility and necessity of new discoveries, every fulfilled wish awakens a thousand more, every triumph over Nature incites to yet others.

The soul of this beast of prey is ever hungry, his will never satisfied - that is the curse that lies upon this kind of life, but also the greatness inherent in its destiny.

It is precisely its best specimens that know the least quiet, happiness, or enjoyment.

[Oswald Spengler]
Man and Technics, p. 58



To rise in the social scale, even in calm and normal times, the prime requisite, beyond any question, is a capacity for hard work, but the requisite next in importance is ambition, a firm resolve to get on in the world, to outstrip one's fellows.

Now those traits hardly go with extreme sensitiveness or, to be quite frank, with ‘goodness' either. For 'goodness' cannot remain indifferent to the hurts of those who must be thrust behind if one is to step ahead of them [….] If one is to govern men, more useful than a sense of justice and much more useful than altruism, or even than extent of knowledge or broadness of view—are perspicacity, a ready intuition of individual and mass psychology, strength of will and, especially, confidence in oneself.

With good reason did Machiavelli put into the mouth of Cosimo dei Medici the much quoted remark, that states are not ruled with prayer-books.

[Gaetano Mosca]
The Ruling Class, p. 449-50
 



Lucretius and Epicurus did not promise this kind of complete knowledge at all and took no interest in the technology that might grow from it. Their belief in chance went deeper, making them much more radically sceptical.

They had no confidence in any practical attempt to improve human life. Epicurus himself actually despised the pursuit of theoretical knowledge for its own sake as one more distraction from the pursuit of inner peace and warned his followers against it. 'Set your sail, O happy youth,' he cried, ‘and flee from every form of education.'

Lucretius is indeed more interested in details about atoms, but for him too knowledge itself is not the aim. Knowledge is a means not an end, a means to inward peace, not to improved outward activity. Primarily it is a cure for anxiety, a path to ataraxia, peace of mind.

What the Epicureans were preaching was essentially a fatalistic quietism. They did not think that human happiness could be increased at all either by political activity or by the satisfactions of love, or indeed by knowledge either.

Instead, they put their faith in a stern limitation of human ambition, a concentration on what little is possible to us here and now.

They thought that people who had once fully grasped that they could not change the world at all, either by sacrificing to the gods or by any other kind of effort, would cease their anxious striving, would compose their minds, would be able to enjoy the satisfactions that life actually gave them in the present, and would console themselves for their sorrows by admiring the cosmos.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.37-8
 



Contrasting free societies with those that are not free, Tocqueville writes that the former are “all bustle and activity,” while the latter are static and self-satisfied. In the former, “improvement and progress are on everyone’s mind.”

He thus seems to have judged that the constant change to which Americans were exposed made them adventurous and innovative, and this drove them to success in commercial pursuits. Even Lawler, whose book The Restless Mind greatly illuminated the influence of Pascal’s profoundly negative view of restlessness on Tocqueville, acknowledged that “Tocqueville sees greatness in the restlessness of the Americans.”

While Tocqueville spoke admiringly of the energy he observed in Americans, and of the lively, vibrant pace of their economic and political life, his praise for the spiritual effects of the “universal movement” occurring in America culminates in the suggestion that it gives rise to excellence in commercial pursuits. 

That is certainly noteworthy, but Tocqueville himself did not regard excellence in commercial pursuits as the highest kind of human excellence.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.446



‘Ambition’ and ‘stagnation’ are peculiarly modern, Faustian concepts.

The son of a 12th century blacksmith does not have ‘ambitions’ to become a blacksmith - he understands that to become a blacksmith is his lot in life, and so has no uncertainty in this regard. He does not need to aspire to the role - he needs merely to show the requisite level of application and industry, and his destiny will be secured.

Ambition is only relevant within a dynamic system, in which individuals are ‘mobile’ and free to choose their lot; and in which there are few limits on the size of your chosen lot.

From the perspective of modern man, the 12th century blacksmith is ‘unambitious’ - he has no desire to improve or change his lot, and so appears to be content to ‘stagnate’ - which is really just a modern way of saying ‘staying the same over time.’

We can, then, see the celebration of aspiration and ambition as a sign of a wider dissolution, encapsulated by the ubiquitous pattern of runaway growth - all of which is driven by the Faustian bio-spirit and its incessant push towards infinity.