The Slothful Tyrant

In the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns us about a new and sinister form of oppression to which modern democratic peoples are susceptible: “the tyranny of the majority.”

In olden times, abusive rulers used harsh punishments to coerce their subjects, and even just rulers were surrounded by flatterers seeking to harness public authority to their own selfish ends.

And yet, Tocqueville marvels, “thought is an invisible and almost imperceptible power that scoffs at all tyrannies.” Let the fuming tyrant, or scheming courtier, do his worst: those whose bodies and estates they destroyed might well become heroes, while the cause they stood for went from strength to strength in countless souls whose aspirations governments could never hope to suppress.

By comparison, majority tyranny is (usually) less fearsome in a material sense. Aside from momentary fits of mob violence or public alarm, masses of men are rarely capable of sustaining murderous hatred and directing it at a given target long enough to overcome the appeal of stalwart dissidents.

If majority tranny is milder, however, it is nonetheless more effective, for the simple reason that it is all-pervasive. Since the tyrant may be lurking anywhere, and in anyone, the soul that aspires to what is true, good, and beautiful—but politically incorrect—may be cut off from any and all privileges and rights of society.

Since men fear ostracism at least as much as death itself, that is enough to cow most. As an added bonus, there are the plentiful rewards one may hope to gain by flattering this many-headed master. Together, Tocqueville thinks, these dynamics are enough to produce a “general debasement of souls.”

In the second volume of Democracy, Tocqueville describes a new form of tyranny, uniquely capable of crushing souls: “administrative despotism.” Since this despotism is grounded in a bureaucratic mechanism controlled by a pseudo-aristocracy of corporate and government heads, it would initially appear to be something different from and even contrary to majority tyranny.

On second glance, Tocqueville’s two warnings are tightly intertwined. Administrative despotism is built on the majority’s tyrannical stranglehold over souls, combined with the manipulation of majority opinion by so-called elites.

The dynamic is complex in practice, but simple in principle. The assumption that all opinions must be approved by the majority, combined with the majority’s apathetic abandonment of complex thinking and decision making to those who pass themselves off as benevolent experts, enables the power-hungry few to achieve a more pervasive control over society than ever before.

We must remember that the deadly sin known as sloth (acedia) is not confined to laziness in physical or lucrative labors. More vitally, sloth is an unwillingness to make the effort necessary to perfect human nature, in its moral, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.

For the individual, sloth leads to spiritual death. When indulged by modern democratic majorities, it makes the difference between a free republic and reflexive obedience to regulatory puppeteers.

The only remedy for sloth, and hence the only hope for our republic, is for each and every citizen to turn, body and soul, to the cultivation of charity and its accompanying virtues.

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