Alexis De Tocqueville: Ceaseless trepidation

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Then [Jesus] said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

“A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach, that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications…

At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. The spectacle itself is, however, as old as the world; the novelty is to see a whole people furnish an exemplification of it. Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret inquietude which the actions of the Americans betray, and of that inconstancy of which they afford fresh examples every day.

He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach it, to grasp it, and to enjoy it. The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode.”

Alexis De Tocqueville (1804-1859) in Democracy in America, volume 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1899) 622-623.

My friend, John Stanley, alerted me to Fred Smith’s blog post on this topic, so I went back to this classic source to read it in context and offer a more lengthy quote. Though De Tocqueville was not a Christian mystic, which is the segment of authors I am reading these days, he is referred to often as a “seer” for his wise perceptions about society and, particularly, the wealthy and prosperous.

De Tocqueville yet again does not disappoint! Over 150 years ago he sketched this picture of America. See why people give him the “seer” label? Notice what language describes the person gripped by greed and materialistic gratification. They exhibit “secret inquietude” or restless dissatisfaction daily which results in “ceaseless trepidation” which in plain terms is fear! Choosing generosity over materialism is also choosing peace over debilitating anxiety!

I plan to take this book with me when I teach and speak in Australia in the first half of June. In various settings, I want to ask Aussies to share their reaction to it. Why do this? I am finding that when adult learners hear such graphic pictures of reality, they become motivated to consider their own situation and choose a different course. Jesus warned us about this long before De Tocqueville, and today I echo the warning. Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!