Habit of Mind in Search of a Medium

“He has perpetually occasion to rely on ideas which he has not had leisure to search to the bottom; for he is much more frequently aided by the opportunity of an idea than by its strict accuracy; and, in the long run, he risks less in making use of some false principles, than in spending his time in establishing all his principles on the basis of truth. The world is not led by long or learned demonstrations; a rapid glance at particular incidents, the daily study of the fleeting passions of the multitude, the accidents of the time, and the art of turning them to account, decide all its affairs.”

Conservative diatribe against the tenor of political discourse?

Traditionalist invective against new media and the decline of journalism?

Reactionary complaint against the culture of blogs and social media?

Curmudgeonly rant against all things digital?

Not exactly.

This was from the pen of Alexis de Tocqueville writing in the early nineteenth century about the habits of mind induced by America’s democratic society.

Apparently ours was a temperament waiting for a medium to match.

3 thoughts on “Habit of Mind in Search of a Medium

  1. OUCH! I think I prefer the thought of us being that city on the hill, beckoning all to freedom and liberty. ;) I have printed this quote out and put it on my kitchen bulletin board. Can’t wait to see what conversation this sparks over the holiday. Thanks!

    1. I should add that Tocqueville was on the whole quite friendly toward the American experiment. He was, however, just the sort of friend one would want, not unwilling to kindly point out faults and potential problems. He was a fair and sympathetic critic. Another reason why his writing stands the test of time.

      You’ll have to let us know if any interesting conversation arises!

  2. This is really interesting on two parts–one because I wrote a paean to Hitchens the other day and I praised him for wrestling ideas to their bottoms. I also identified in him the revelation that haunted me from the moment I first read him: I wrote it as “Ideas are the whores of power.” But I was getting at what de Toqueville is here when he writes: “or he is much more frequently aided by the opportunity of an idea than by its strict accuracy” which is to say, ideas are only useful insofar as they are politically expedient, and that expediency is more important than either accuracy or truth. Interesting, indeed!

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