Despite his Jesuit education, which often serves him so well, Tocqueville appears to miss the memo on magnanimity, that virtue by which we humbly accept the greatness to which God and nature call us.
Responding to “moralists” who “complain constantly that the favorite vice of our period is pride,” Tocqueville asks us to look deeper.
When we do, we see that “the same man, who cannot bear either subordination or equality”—that is, the man of the highest modern ambitions—“nonetheless despises himself to the point that he believes himself made only for appreciating vulgar pleasures.”
This moral failing has political implications, for it is the pursuit of “small and vulgar pleasures with which [to] fill their souls” that citizens are enticed to surrender “the use of their free will” to “an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment,” seeking “only to fix them irrevocably in childhood.”
As with Dante’s Lucifer, our misguided efforts to rise higher only succeed at trapping us more firmly below.
Since our abasement stems from a false idea of what is great, Tocqueville believes, combatting it requires moralists to “try hard to give [modern citizens] a more vast idea of themselves and of their species; humility is not healthy for them; what they lack most, in my opinion, is pride.”
As the example of Lucifer demonstrates, Tocqueville’s choice of terms here in infelicitous. To form a proper idea of that part of ourselves that surpasses material comforts demands that we humbly submit our rebellious wills to the laws of God and nature, which will direct us toward true greatness.
Submission to divine authority poses no danger to a genuine sense of human dignity, for, as Tocqueville himself implies, a true father does not seek to fix us forever in childhood.
As St. Paul explains, “as long as the heir is a child,” he is “under tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father.” Though he may appear at this stage to be a mere servant, he is in fact being prepared to take charge as “lord of all” his inheritance.
The good news is that we, though servants of God in a very real sense, have been given God’s own Son, and “the Spirit of his Son,” “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:1-7).
The Son whose Spirit we possess is called “Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty” (Is. 9:6). He is a slave to no “vulgar pleasures” and to no “tutelary power.” Rather, “he shall eat butter and honey, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good” (Is. 7:15).
As adopted sons of the same Father, we are to do the same.
We have been offered the power to become sons of the God whom “all kings of the earth shall adore” and “all nations shall serve” (Ps. 71:11). Who can give us a vaster idea of ourselves than this?
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