The Closing of the Western Mind

Hey guys, another paper from my political theory class. I hope you will like it and, as always, plagiarism is not cool.

As the West moved ever towards a more egalitarian organization of society, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Flaubert were among those who stood up to point out flaws and problems with the new system. Though they write well before the current generation, they seem to capture the psychology of the current man with much diligence. Tocqueville points out that the modern man has lost his sense of “belonging,” which has led him into a never-ending race to succeed, a term which more often than not has a monetary meaning. From this arises a monotony of thought and action, which, though it hides a burning passion underneath, leads most to boredom and a sense of uneasiness with one’s self. Flaubert diligently depicts the life of Emma Bovary, a product of the Romanticism that many seek as an escape from the monotony of modern life, and the downward spiral that ends in her taking of her own life. In looking at both authors, one sees that they complement each other perfectly in pointing out the possible demise of our societal organization.

It is useful to mention, before beginning the argument, that the word “boredom” is not present in most ancient languages, certainly it is absent in both Classical languages. Boredom usually exhibits itself when the task at hand is, or is perceived to be, well below the skill set of the agent. Within Christian thinking, when every action is seen as a way to praise God[1], such feeling is illogical, because no task is too small or too meaningless to not require someone’s full attention, respect, and engagement. However, as the West moves ever farther from Christianity and classical philosophy, that mode of thinking is no longer appealing to most people.

Tocqueville points out that, due to the increased potentiality for upward mobility in a democracy, most people strive to enter into the highest socio-economical class. He points out that in the US there has a very fluid socio-economical structure and that love of money permeates over much that Americans do.[2] However, when Americans do acquire wealth, Tocqueville posits, they seek to use it in order to fulfill their small desires rather than fall into debauchery as the wealthy in aristocratic societies would.[3] The fact that Americans, or most of them, do not seek palaces and other similar lavish displays of wealth, but rather a fulfillment of small, daily pleasures, points to something about the character of the democratic soul, i.e. the constant need for entertainment. One very poignant case study concerning this is literature.

Whereas the classical and medieval school system was commonly founded on the study of Classical languages (whether they were the contemporary language or not), Philosophy, and Theology, students who concentrate in Classical Studies, Philosophy, or Theology in American universities today are a dying breed. Of course, it would be highly unusual to see a young adult or even someone older read Plato or a comparable religious writer for pleasure, if they were not assigned to do so for school or work. On the other hand, it is quite common, so much so that such books are considered common knowledge, to see the same people reading Harry Potter and other such books. There is not one environment that most Americans will find themselves in today where a mention of “Gryffindor“ or the like will be met with a puzzled look by most people in it.

Tocqueville points out a change in the aim of literature which had exhibited itself only in the US by the publishing of both volumes of Democracy in America, but which is now widespread throughout Europe as well. Differently from ancient books, modern “democratic” books are easier to read, do not require much outside knowledge of the subject matter, and are supposed to provide entertainment.[4] If someone were to attempt to read an ancient epic, such as the Aeneid—in English— they would need to at least read the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to fully understand the plot. If they read it in Latin, after years of studying Latin grammar, the language in which the Aeneid is written would still pose a challenge to them, due to its metrical, almost chant-like structure. It was, and it was meant to be, hard for native Latin speakers. In addition, its aim was to explore the story of the founding of Rome, but everyone knew the ending. If someone somehow happened to miss it, Jupiter proceeds to spoil it in Book I. On the contrary, if someone were just beginning to read the first book in the Harry Potter series and someone told them that Harry defeats Voldemort in the end, Ron and Hermione marry, and that Severus Snape ends up being one of the “good guys,” much of the enjoyment of the book would be spoiled.

In Chapter XIII of the Second Volume, Tocqueville mentions the character of democratic literature, “Habituated to an existence that is practical, contested, and monotonous, they need lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors that instantly pull them from themselves and introduce them suddenly, almost violently, into the midst of the subject.”[5] The underlying reason for needing such literature is grim. Modern life is characterized by boredom, what Jean-Paul Sartre would later call the “nausea” of being alive. The need for escapism in this environment, the need for the novels, which Emma Bovary will find as necessary as food, is quite obvious.

Another very important problem with the new democratic wave is what Tocqueville calls “the tyranny of the majority.” He is quick to point out, “I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”[6] It is not just that the majority controls the legislature, but that once public opinion is set on one side of an issue, all people who disagree with that view are, very gently, pushed out and outcast. Of course, this presents a real danger should there ever be a need to have radical reform, whether legal or otherwise. In addition, seeing how the modern philosophers who can be regarded as the intellectual founders of the US and democratic society in general were speaking against public opinion without being made outcasts because of their beliefs, the environment they created may not provide quite the same convenience to the next generation of forward thinkers. Needless to say, this is very disadvantageous and dangerous to our society.

Perhaps because of the fear of rejection, modern society exhibits the characteristic of drawing people toward their immediate family and acquaintances into individualism. Individualism leads one to their immediate family and those like one’s self, thereby creating a microcosm and leaving the greater society aside.[7] With such a thought as its base, it is really easy to see how “the greater good,” is not such a popular phrase in the US anymore. The danger of such a sentiment is the fact that it withdraws the democratic man not only from his ancestors—democracy by itself is successful in doing that—but also from the greater understanding of his descendants—not just his children, but “the next generation” at large—and confines him to his immediate self and “the solitude of his own heart.”[8]

The end product of such a society reduces a nation “to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”[9] It is not very difficult to see how problematic this is. The same system that is supposed to be the peak of individual freedom can turn into being the end of all freedom. In the end, if, as Tocqueville posits, if the people cling to equality more quickly than liberty, it is possible to have a society of individuals who are perfectly equal, but are slaves. In fact, Flaubert allows us to see a very small glimpse into Tocqueville’s nightmare in the person of Charles Bovary.

There is no one passage that captivates this utter mediocrity about Charles Bovary, but the whole book is a testament to it. He is unceremoniously brought up, he studies for a meager position and gets a meager job—he can help out people with small problems, but Charles in no doctor, he can make no difference in a life or death situation—and never seeks an opportunity for advancement, he monotonously does his job, his first marriage is frighteningly monotonous and his relationship to Emma is just as monotonous, and his death is very anti-climactic. One would be hard-pressed to find a “peak” moment in Charles’ life where he is the agent. Of his own accord, Charles does all that he is asked for and no more. It is quite obvious that a book completely about Charles’ life would be the dullest thing to ever be written. A fitting description of Charles is, “… [his] conversation was as flat as a sidewalk, and it was traversed by a steady stream of the most commonplace ideas, all wearing their usual garb and appealing to neither the emotions, the sense of humor, nor the imagination,”[10] Nonetheless, Charles is a decent person, but his chief fault is that there is no mental capacity low enough to find him interesting or entertaining.

Opposite Charles is Emma, who is looking for all the right things in all the wrong places. Her tragic fault is her devotion to novels. She is introduced to them at a very young age and it seems that they shape her view of reality, or at least the ideal life. However, they are filled with, “love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in country houses, … dark forests, palpitating hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, skiffs in the moonlight, … and gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one really is, and always ready to shed floods of tears.”[11] On the other hand, she marries Charles Bovary, who is very little interested in much of these. It is important to point out that Emma casts herself in the role of most of the aforementioned female characters and seeks for a mate that would fulfill the male characters’ requirements, but never finds one.

In the end, the root of Emma’s deep problem is Romanticism. She is looking for the perfect love story, in fact, she imagines marriage as a prolonged honeymoon. If things were as she wished, it would necessitate a perfect world. She expects a romantic cottage in the mountains, waterfalls, lemon trees, birds singing and idealized idyllic life all around (which is especially ironic since he was horribly bored with living in a farm), and star gazing,[12] seemingly forever. Needless to say, this sounds like a description from a cheap romantic novel that would be available in grocery stores today. One can be nearly sure that Flaubert meant it to sound that way. This is Emma’s expectation in life and it is quite clear from it that she is not grounded in reality. Therefore, those who would attempt to please Emma are implicitly, trying to materialize a dream.

With this outlook on life, it is to be expected that Emma could not find a person that could fulfill her desires. Charles is good and faithful, but he is “flat as a sidewalk,” Rodolphe simply gets tired of her and throws her away. One cannot know how she would have felt if she had seen his collection of lockets and letters from his other lovers, but he would have fallen from her graces very quickly after. Finally, Leon is a gentle soul, but Emma vastly overestimates who or what he is and, in the end, he throws her away so as not to mar his image after a promotion.  Emma tries more than once to turn to her duties as a mother to the daughter she bore Charles and to Charles as a husband, but her motivation is so low that she gives up after she hits the smallest obstacle. She tries to seek help in the Church, but Fr. Bournisien, who is just as materialistic as her, simply does not understand that she needs spiritual, not material help.

Try as she might to live out the ideal life as prescribed by Rousseau, Emma simply cannot. Her frantic search for a place that does not exist, a place without worries, i.e. Paradise on earth, leads Emma to suicide. Her last action of defiance is against herself, as she swallows handfuls of arsenic. Rousseau’s ideal fails her. The return to a more glorified state, with her desires as her moral compass leads her to, on the objective scale, two illicit affairs, a neglected daughter who will soon be sent to a cotton processing facility, and Charles, who will soon discover her love letters and die of heartbreak because of them.

The only other character in Madame Bovary that seems to have the same drive as Emma is Dr. Lariviére. Whereas Emma has no hard principles to hold herself by, the doctor “practi[ces] virtue without believing in it.”[13] This enables him to have a successful practice and to be productive in general. Even though the doctor seems to be just as disillusioned as Emma—hence his disbelief in virtue—he turns his efforts toward a selfless endeavor to salvage what he can of human life, whereas Emma not only makes life miserable for those around her, most notably her daughter and her husband, but also takes her own life. Whereas the doctor has imposed upon himself hard moral principals, Emma decides to follow her subjective feelings and they lead her to the abyss.

By buying into Rousseau’s theory, Emma gives in to an ideal that can never be fulfilled. This imposes an even more dangerous form of individualism on her than the individualism exhibited in Charles, i.e. he not only turns his attention from society at large to his own back porch, but he does away even with the back porch and keeps everything in. This is because he is a product of his flawed society, but Emma’s individualism is idealistic and self-imposed. It is quite obvious that Emma could care less about the greater good. In line with that, she goes through life simply hunting for feelings, looking for ways to entertain herself and relieve her eternal boredom. Because she is concentrated on feelings, she can place no stable value on anything. In addition, she is very severely uneducated, but she thinks of herself as the most refined being on this side of the planet. This last fact is mirrored in Mr. Homais, who is, like Emma a true child of the Enlightenment. Though Homais says that he believes in the God of Socrates, he knows very little about Socrates and philosophy, because if there were ever people who thought they were very wise but were not, Emma and Homais would make prime candidates.

Emma’s utter failure in trying to live out her idealistic, individualistic life, coupled with the monotonous, unexciting, and downright meaningless life of Charles show two seemingly opposite, but deeply similar ways in which democracy can spell the doom of a nation. Whereas Charles clings to equality, in a sense, and is turned into a sheep that can be weaned whichever way one chooses, Emma’s sense of individualism pulls her away from being able to have any positive impact on society. Needless to say, both these need to be avoided and it seems that a basic grounding in ethics, which the doctor exhibits, whether he believes in the underlying metaphysical foundations of it or not, is the cure to such problem. In the end, it seems that Aristotle was right after all when he said that any form of government could work, democracy included, as long as its constituents were selfless.


[1] A famous 4th century prayer mentions “Instill in us… thinking and doing only those things that are pleasing to you…” (Lit. acc. St. John the Chrysostom) though not emphasized in our current times, St. Paul is very adamant that we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes, 5: 17), which is to say to dedicate every action to God.

[2] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part I, Chptr. III, pg. 50

[3] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Chptr. XI, pg. 509

[4] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Chptr. XIV, pg. 450

[5] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Chptr. XIII, pg. 448

[6] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part II, Chptr. VII, pg. 244

[7] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Chptr. II, pg. 482

[8] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Chptr. III, pg. 484

[9] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part IV, Chptr. VI, pg. 663

[10] Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary, Part I, Chptr. VII, pg. 40

[11] Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary, Part I, Chptr. VI, pg. 36

[12] Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary, Part I, Chptr. 7, pg. 39

[13] Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary, Part III, Chptr. VIII, pg. 316

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