Friday, May 02, 2008

The Rich Are Different

A palate cleanser between rants about the treatment of Jeremiah Wright (I take attacks on pastors, especially UCC pastors, rather personally, it seems) and getting back to the question of the "either/or" (which will return us to Jeremiah Wright, but not in the ways we've become accustomed to).

In America, the passion for material well-being is not always exclusive, but it is general. While not everyone experiences it in the same way, all feel it. Minds are universally preoccupied with meeting the body's every need and attending to life's little comforts.

Something similar is becoming more and more apparent in Europe.


When wealth is settled on certain families by inheritance, we find large numbers of men who enjoy material well-being, but not as an exclusive taste.

What grips the heart most powerfully is not the peaceful possession of a precious object but the imperfectly satisfied desire to posses it and the constant fear of losing it.

In aristocratic societies, the rich, never having known any condition different from their own, have no fear of changing it. They can scarcely imagine anything else. For them, therefore, material well-being is not the purpose of life. It is a way of living. They look upon it, in a sense, as synonymous with existence and enjoy it without thinking about it.

Since the natural and instinctive taste for well-being that everyone shares is thus satisfied without difficulty and without fear, the souls of men [sic] turn elsewhere and harness themselves to some grander, more difficult undertaking which animates and engages them.


In nations where the aristocracy dominates society and keeps it immobile, the people eventually become accustomed to poverty as the rich do to opulence. The latter do not concern themselves with material well-being because they possess it without effort, the former do no think about it because they have no hope of acquiring it and do not know it well enough to desire it.

In those kinds of society, the poor man's imagination is directed toward the other world. Though gripped by the miseries of real life, it escapes their hold and seeks it satisfactions elsewhere.

By contrast, when ranks lose their distinctions and privileges are destroyed, when patrimonies are divided and entitlement and liberty spread, the longing to acquire well-being enters the imagination of the poor man, and the fear of losing it enters that of the rich. A host of modest fortunes are amassed. Those who possess such fortunes enjoy sufficient material gratifications to conceive a taste for them and not enough to be content with them.

Hence, they are forever seeking to pursue or hold onto pleasures that are as precious as they are incomplete and fleeting.

In casting about for a passion that might be natural in men spurred on as well as constrained by the obscurity of their origins and the modesty of their fortunes, I find none that suits them better than the taste for well-being. The passion for material well-being is essentially a middle class passion. It grows and spreads with that class; it becomes preponderant when the class does. From there it reaches up into the upper ranks of society and descends among the people.

In America I found no citizen so poor that he did not gaze with hop and longing upon the pleasure of the rich, or that his imagination did not savor in advance goods that fate obstinately refused to grant him.

On the other hand, I never found among wealthy Americans that proud disdain for material well-being that can sometimes be seen even in the most opulent and dissolute of aristocracies.

Most of those wealthy people had been poor. They had felt the spur of need. They had waged a long battle against hostile fortune, and though victory was now theirs, the passions that had accompanied the struggle survived. They remained as though intoxicated amid the petty pleasures they had pursued for forty years.

Not that one does not find, in the United States as elsewhere, a fairly large number of wealthy people who, having inherited their property, find themselves effortlessly in possession of an opulence they did not acquire. Yet even they seem no less attached to the gratifications of material life. Love of well-being has become the national and dominant taste. The mainstream of the human passions runs in this direction and sweeps everything along with it.
--Alexis DeTocqueville

No comments:

Post a Comment