For most of the 20th century, Americans have been in love with self-help books. There’s one for every possible need, and to the degree brick-and-mortar bookstores still exist, someone alert to the relative space given to different genres can’t help but notice that self-help occupies much more real estate than it did two decades ago. What’s worse is that this shift always seemed to come at the expense of the theology and philosophy sections.
The trouble with self-help understood in the conventional way is that it tries to reduce virtues into to-do lists that confirm the way we already want to live. What has never been popular are books that inspire real thought or that challenge us while still being accessible to a wide audience. Books that invite the reader into complexity—much less ones that ask them to contemplate a great thinker—tend not to work, or to sell. It’s easier to point to the latest “thought leader’s” TED talk or seven steps for success.
In The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves, James Poulos hasn’t just tried to write a book about the great forces that animate democratic souls, he’s attempted to persuade his readers that Tocqueville is the truest guide to navigating our social life while also giving us advice on how to live. It’s a daunting challenge, and to his credit he mostly succeeds in making it work.
At the outset, though, Poulos offers an unconventional introduction. It’s less an outline of the book and more a story about how one should approach reading it:
This is a weird book for people who feel like they might be a little crazy. . . . It is weird in that it utilizes a concept familiar from the internet’s junkier precincts: this one simple trick will solve your stubborn problem! But instead of a trick, it offers another book . . . [a]nd, finally, instead of proposing to resolve the strange situation of democracy in America, as that book does, this book proposes that our situation can really only be ameliorated.
We’re a people in love with proposing solutions to what is essentially insoluble. But Poulos suggests that this is one piece of what makes modern democracy a fundamentally crazy experience. And he tells his readers that this is a book written not for people who think they could use a bit of help in understanding some discrete problem or other in their lives, but for those alert to the elements of our life together that work to unravel our sanity.
In academia at least, most people will give you a litany of possible sources for the strange maladies of democracy in America, but they’ll usually presuppose that the fix we’re in has a material cause. Such clear lines of causation have an appeal all their own—and Tocqueville predicted we’d feel it ever more strongly as time went on. Against the very democratic tendency to seek straight-line explanations of events, Poulos is identifying our condition as a spiritual one, albeit one with strong ties to how we work, what we consume, and where we live.
This isn’t an academic book, and anyone looking for a scholarly exposition of these ideas will probably be put off by Poulos’ wild swerves between popular and high culture and his intentionally-jarring shifts in language and tone. The reader will find some intriguing concepts laid out conversationally. Some are familiarly Tocquevillean, like the dangers presented by the march of equality. Poulos tells us that to fruitfully engage with Tocqueville we’re “going to have to set aside the idea that inequality is the most important aspect of American life.” He says the rush to tear down inequalities is a significant cause of our psychic woes. But where he is most insightful is in extrapolating ideas from Tocqueville and a range of supporting philosophical and literary characters.
The underlying equality of democratic life tends to push us in ways that most people can’t quite name or rationalize. We live crazily, he tells us, in the sense that we all experience to some degree
a kind of internal motion that feels beyond our power to control, not just because our relationships often have that effect on us but also because, deep down, we know that not really being in charge of ourselves is part and parcel of the life we live.
Moreover, we’re constantly bouncing between extremes of the soul, an oscillation between “a lively-to-frenetic state of outwardness at one end, and a restful-to-paralytic state of inwardness at the other.” In the midst of these manic shifts, we behave selfishly and melodramatically, fleeing from various kinds of religious, political, and social authority that might moderate our condition.
Early in the book, Poulos notes that California is the apex of this frenetic way of living (and as someone who grew up not too far from where he did, this point struck me as particularly apt). He argues that the elements latent in democratic society that Tocqueville saw slowly coming to pass in Jacksonian America have come to their “most characteristic quality in a place like Los Angeles.” What’s characteristic about Los Angeles? It’s the place to which people move to break away from their past and seek stardom or fortune, and where their equality drives them to greater extremes. Poulos explains:
Tocqueville understood that the South nourished a considerably different type of American than the North. I invite you to confirm through your personal experience that the West Coast has added another twist to the story. It’s true, per Tocqueville, that our common American character does prevail sociologically over our sectional differences—and that Californian society, especially around Los Angeles, does open an especially habitual kind of access to experiencing the superabundance of equal identity even amid abundant unequal difference.
His Californian outlook suffuses the book, and in some sense offers the most interesting amendments to Tocqueville’s prophecies: it is probably the state above all others where people grow to maturity believing they must shake off the inheritances of family, culture, and religion, a condition that causes us no end of grief. California does offer some very Tocquevillean spectacles. When I think about the state in the 1990s, I recall the majority of people constantly driven by fads and relentlessly monotonous in pursuit of the American Dream.
Poulos says a great deal about the art of living well in the context of these manic forces, but not that much about the stereotypically Tocquevillean art, that of association. The book spends far more time trying to work out a way to describe what is at work in our hearts while we associate with others or don’t. While Democracy in America is a tale of how equality works itself out in history and how associations can combat this, Poulos is more interested in helping us understand ourselves first.
Friedrich Nietzsche makes a number of brief appearances in this book, and Poulos uses the author of Beyond Good and Evil to intimate that a ruinous path of attempts at self-creation is the fate of anyone who doesn’t take on board the Tocquevillian (which is to say, friendly) critique of democracy in America. Substantively the book isn’t Nietzschean—but stylistically it is:
“I can change,” we constantly remind our disapproving friends and lovers. We never say we can be changed.
This is a crucial distinction, one worth pondering. The book is filled with aphorisms of this sort that bear reflection. On faith, Poulos observes:
The promise of formal religion… is not to obliterate these indefinitely imperfect realities…, it is simply to reconcile us to those things—not by fleetingly blissing us out in some kind of all-and-nothing trance, but by gifting us with the grace to prevail, fully present, in the face of the trials that must necessarily arise in a time so far out of joint.
The trouble with democratic souls is that we try to find or invent faiths that “solve” this for us, and instead we turn to nihilism and pantheism. Neither satisfies:
Not only do they actually fail to explain it all; they fail to discipline us—in the original, religious sense of making us disciples. Both nihilism and pantheism are too vague, empty, and abstract to give us the gift of discipleship.
With passages like this, Poulos both enriches Tocqueville’s account and helps us think through our predicament.
Less enjoyable are Poulos’ dizzying jaunts through high and low culture, with prose that is clotted with references to musicians, novelists, philosophers, and films. Some are insightful, others distracting, and a few are downright bizarre. To provide just one example, Poulos writes that
We miss sheltering ourselves from danger and doubt behind the canopy of the settled past, and we yearn to repose in the durable comforts of more than a shifting, mirage-like sense of the future, we are pulled by compulsion and competition out into what cleric Richard John Neuhaus once chastisingly called the “naked public square.” Zach de la Rocha [the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine], a man who would seem to share nothing in common with Richard John Neuhaus, strangely agrees. “The front line is everywhere,” he sang on “No Shelter,” Rage Against the Machine’s contribution to the soundtrack for Godzilla (1998).
He presents comparisons like this as hooks upon which we can focus our attention. Understood this way, the fact that not all of them are successful isn’t a tremendous problem—indeed, for the most part they open a door to readers of different age ranges and experiences. (And led me to discover a few new artists and authors I hadn’t seen before.) Yet some readers will be put off by them entirely, which is unfortunate.
The Art of Being Free is written with heart and with a good sense of humor (he tells us to read the footnotes because they were “baked with love”). What we really have here is a worthy companion to another book that aimed to provide true “self-help”: Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos (1983). Just like Percy did, James Poulos offers a pointed reminder that the only things that can help tame the crazed democratic soul are the bonds of love and community, and that preserving them gives us a shot at a kind of victory in this life.