Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Art of Being Free

How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves

James Poulos

St. Martin's Press




This is a weird book for people who feel like they might be a little crazy.

Maybe more than a little.

It is weird in that it utilizes a concept familiar from the internet’s junkier precincts: this one simple trick will solve your stubborn problem! But instead of a trick, it offers another book, written by a young French aristocrat practically two hundred years ago. Huh? And instead of a single problem, it swaps in the entirety of life itself! Your life, my life, all our lives (if we’re American, anyway). Yeah. And, finally, instead of proposing to resolve the strange situation of democracy in America, as that book does, this book proposes that our situation can really only be ameliorated. Ours is a crazy predicament that can’t be hoped, prayed, distracted, worked, or played out of existence. It’s so maddening because it can’t be solved. But what if that was okay? Maybe, just maybe, our predicament won’t break us if we choose—in an unexpected way—to give ourselves a break.

If no part of this wager or its assumptions ring intuitively true to you, this book is probably not going to work for you. Of course, you should try it out anyway. (What are you, a slave to probabilities or something?)

But if it does ring true, you probably do feel pretty crazy. You probably have a sense—vague as it may be—that the weirdness of American life and the intractability of its predicaments, large and small, are intimately, inexorably bound up with the craziness of everyday life. It’s entirely possible that the motto on our coinage, IN GOD WE TRUST, still captures the most popular response to that. But, increasingly, a more useful motto for us might be “DEAL WITH IT.”

This book is my attempt to DEAL WITH IT. One of its themes is that books, ironically, can only get us so far in dealing with it. That’s not just because reading a conversation is like talking to a painting, a saying Plato attributes to Socrates.* It’s because we Americans have a specific problem—our craziness—that’s baked into the fabric of our lives and the fiber of our being. That problem is especially poorly suited to “answers” you can think up, write down, and read in a book. Nevertheless, it would be truly insane to look upon books as devilish garbage that can only confuse and fail us. In fact, one unsettling way our craziness manifests is in our temptation to take a bipolar view of books. So many of them let us down, or wind up irrelevant on arrival, that our cynicism and disillusionment grow as fast as our quietly desperate hope that the next book, somewhere out there, will finally deliver the goods. Imagine how reassuringly more sane we could be if we spent a little time with a book that did manage to address our specific problem more directly and fruitfully than any other.

I would like you to consider that Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is that book, and it is the reason I have bothered to write the book you are reading now. After all, instead of writing this book, I could have hiked to the top of Griffith Park. I could have eaten a salad on the Malibu pier. I could have recorded a full-length LP with my band, or played baseball with my son, or worked part-time as an Uber driver to send my parents on a Greek vacation without putting a painful dent in my salad budget. But here I am, the author, and here you are, the reader. This experience is what we make of it. Let’s make the most.


In order to do that, before we get into the genius that is Tocqueville, I’d like to give you a kind of how-to guide: namely, how to read this book. To be frank, this is likely not much like other books you have read. Although it concerns heavy, intense, and very “intellectual” issues—what some philosophers call “matters of ultimate concern”—it is written for you, not philosophers. This is not even a book “just” for Tocqueville nerds. Many nettlesome debates underlying philosophy and political theory will simply be danced over, sometimes with questionable dance moves and unconvincingly sexy glances. In part, that’s because I’ve chosen to focus on capturing your imagination. In larger part, however, it’s because I found myself, several years ago, unwilling and unable to become a full-on expert in academic thought manipulation. Confronted with a choice of completing a doctorate in political theory or talking with “real Americans” about what the hell is happening to us in our crazy, mixed-up world, I opted for the latter. Some professors out there don’t have to make that kind of choice—which is nice for them, probably. For me, it’s paramount that the way I talk with you about our crazy, inescapable predicaments comes from a recognizably human place, and the best way I can do that is by living and writing as someone who doesn’t have to strain to convince you that we’re both blundering along in the same real world.

Nevertheless, although this is the kind of book where you will be invited to contemplate bad sex, having it all, and other canonical concerns of the age, this also is a book that is teeming with big words, sweeping concepts, and a perspective on our human past, present, and future, such that its scope can seem jarringly out of proportion to its ostensibly casual attitude. But if you can handle it in Shakespeare, who took that vertiginous contrast to amazingly dizzying heights, you can certainly handle it here. This ain’t Shakespeare. In fact, crazy combinations of high and low are more than just a reflection of real life. They are real life.

And here is my first and last trigger warning: even if you are a typical postmodernist, you might be taken aback a few times by the shifts in tone. Not only do the highbrow and the lowbrow mix in this book; the middlebrow jumps in too. Even worse (for some people), the profane and the sacred intermingle. This is a book that deliberately follows Tocqueville’s lead by taking religion and spirituality as seriously as it does theory and practice. If this makes you nervous, or fills you with dread that I am going to smuggle in an ideological agenda, I invite you to DEAL WITH IT and read on.

Seriously: what is the worst that could happen? I am not going to hypnotize away your commitments or principles. You will not be brainwashed or traumatized. This book is for souls mature enough to function in an interesting, productive, and, yes, risky conversational environment. Despite what you may have heard or sensed, the bar for entry here is actually pretty low. From beginning to end, I ask, with all the solicitousness of an online dating profile, that you be tall enough to ride this ride.

So here is your how-to guide for reading The Art of Being Free. First, do not read it as a political book. It isn’t one. There are lots of great political books about Alexis de Tocqueville and his globe-straddling masterpiece.† Some of them are even called The Art of Being Free! Mark Reinhardt’s The Art of Being Free, for instance, examines how Tocqueville, Marx, and Hannah Arendt can help us learn how to access the direct practice of democratic politics.1 Wendy McElroy’s Art of Being Free shares a bit more with mine; hers is designed to help people imagine ways of building and sharing free lives regardless of how little space there is for democratic politics.2 But McElroy makes zero reference to Alexis de Tocqueville, even though this book’s title is found verbatim in Democracy in America:

It cannot be repeated too often: nothing is more fertile in marvels than the art of being free, but nothing is harder than freedom’s apprenticeship.3

Unlike Reinhardt’s or McElroy’s books, mine foregrounds Tocqueville and backgrounds politics. That’s because—important theme alert!—Tocqueville is worth spending our life force on since he talks about things more fundamental than politics. Yes, the assumption here is that politics, including inequalities of power, are not what matter most in life. You should read this book with an awareness that both Tocqueville and I want you to consider setting politics aside while pondering these more basic, important matters—and if you can, when you think about it again, it will work for you in possibly surprising ways.

In fact, you’re even going to have to set aside the idea that inequality is the most important aspect of American life, even though doing so is a stumbling block for many people who ostensibly aren’t even concerned with politics. Sociology (Tocqueville’s discipline, and the one practiced in this book), for instance, has been largely captured by the view that inequalities are the most prevalent and most consequential things around. That view is so forcefully held and so apparently beyond criticism that it has become not only virtually synonymous with the dominant vision of what politics is for but virtually sacrosanct, too. For many sociologists, there just isn’t anything else to care about more than inequality, and there just isn’t anything else to do but to combat it politically. Consider the “theme statement” from a recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association:

No set of questions is more fundamental to sociology than those about inequality—what is it, why is it, how does it come about, and what can we do to change it?… Through what processes does this work? How can we intervene in those processes? How do these processes interact to create the intersectionality that people experience in their everyday lives?… Our task at these meetings is to locate the key junctures among these multilevel processes that provide the levers by which different sorts of inequalities among people and groups are systematically made or unmade in the contemporary context. This is the essential first step towards changing those inequalities.4

From a standpoint like Tocqueville’s, it’s certainly essential to attend to real-life everyday experience—not just as a social theorist, but as a human being. But when you do, as Tocqueville helps us understand, you can discover that wherever inequalities are dancing, underlying equalities are calling the tune. In this book, along with Tocqueville, we will completely dismiss the notion that the only valid (or possible) purpose of social thought is to identify, discredit, combat, and eventually destroy inequality.

But not because we will take a celebratory or Pollyanna-ish attitude toward inequality. Even if American society is often an inscrutable hodgepodge of shifting fortunes, status, and degrees of sanity, it often produces very clear winners and losers. However, Tocqueville and I both seek to emphasize the unique way American society produces such a widespread, shared experience of living life losingly—that the myriad social, cultural, economic, and political differences among us are worthy of analysis for (many) reasons other than inequality.

Second of all, be aware that this book is going to cover a lot of ground. Much as Tocqueville had to write Democracy in America based on a necessarily finite tour around America, we will be taking a moderately whirlwind tour of Tocqueville’s book. Although the thoughts therein open, I believe, onto potentially infinite vistas, I also believe there’s just no way to get access to that experience without adopting what Friedrich Nietzsche called a “Napoleonic tempo.”‡ Although this is not an overtly warlike book, we will be on the march, we will be expecting a certain degree of fitness, and we will be shooting at moving targets.

To keep up and keep your bearings, you’ll want to stay mindful of my big, basic claims about who we are. For instance, one of Tocqueville’s central claims is that our identity (how and how much we’re freely interchangeable) is way more important to our experience of life than our differences (how and how much we’re not). Even where it appears that our differences overwhelmingly define some aspect of life, Tocqueville wants us to attend fully to the underlying equality that in fact makes those differences manifest, relevant, and, often, incredibly annoying.

In this book, I want you to envision three basic characteristics of our underlying equality—but not by using adjectives, the way we so often do. I want us to use adverbs. Fear not, there’s a method to the madness here. Throughout this book we’ll be consciously rejecting today’s prevailing obsession with identity in the sense of whoness. Rather than focusing on who or what we are, we’re going to focus on how we are—because our howness tells us more of what we need to know about being than our whoness does. While we reflexively hear adjectives to declare what we are—I’m rich, I’m bored, I’m fine, I’m awesome—we can train our ears to hear adverbs announce how we are, even though it sounds odd or outlandish at first: I am, richly; I am, boredly, and so on. See the difference? So picture with me the following three elements of our equal howness. First, we are crazily. Second, we are selfishly. Third, we are melodramatically. Again, don’t worry: we won’t be taking at face value these three characteristic ways of how we all are. This whole book is a sort of extended inquiry into what the hell these defining adverbs mean, a query that can only be answered in reference to how they show up for us in our everyday lives.

After taking a quick look at the sources of our American predicament, I’ll close with an even quicker word about how different from Tocqueville we should occur to ourselves as being. And then we’ll be good to go.

Oh, yeah—one last thing. Read the footnotes. They were baked with love. Just for you.


So: you are probably mildly annoyed by a lot of things every day, including the fact that so many of them annoy you. But relatively high on your list of irritations is likely the crazy way that we talk about the craziness of American life. From one perspective, we have a good working knowledge of what we really mean. When we hear Patsy Cline or Aerosmith sing about being crazy, we know exactly what they’re saying. When people on the internet talk about their favorite friends or enemies or celebrities being “cray cray” (or just “cray,” or whatever neologism is currently on top in the competition for our imagination), we get it. They’re not talking about being clinically ill, although that might be a more or less incidental part of the “problem.” They’re talking about a kind of internal motion that feels beyond our power to control, not just because our relationships often have that effect on us but also because, deep down, we know that not really being in charge of ourselves is part and parcel of the life we live. Compound craziness: life has this fundamentally unworkable, ridiculous character, yet we ridiculously try to make it work, fighting fire with fire.

But while some of us—the most and least envied of us, I suspect—might be considered extremely crazy, most of us settle into a mid-tier equilibrium of crazily manageable unmanageability. Like sadism and masochism, full-on manic and depressive experiences are the exception. Most of the time we’re moving toward or away from one of the two poles of the human psyche or spirit: a lively-to-frenetic state of outwardness at one end, and a restful-to-paralytic state of inwardness at the other.

You would think that, in a world where autism is increasingly recognized as a spectrum of disorders with varying degrees of severity, our more formal talk about the craziness of American life would take on the same practical tone as the pop culture conversation. But if we shift our perspective, we suddenly don’t seem nearly as culturally self-aware as we pretend to be. On the one hand, we don’t take mental illness as seriously as we should. We laugh at endless news stories about people flipping out and acting bizarrely, nodding along in a creepy conspiracy of silence about how drugs or disease have driven them to distraction. Yet at the same time we take mental illness too seriously. We leap at the chance to label ourselves and others with this or that disorder—to our own detriment. However superficially hobbling, many of the “problems” we reflexively medicate today could in fact offer us the kind of lodestars in too-short supply in contemporary life—if we could just sit still with them for a moment. Instead of confronting us with the unsolvability of life, throwing our spread-thin selves back on our stretched-thin resources, disorders give us concrete problems that we can wrap our minds around—and that science, in the form of prescriptions, can throw its massive resources into. Instead of leaving us alone with the quiddity of life—the baffling mystery of how we can all be unique, yet our uniqueness can be so irrelevant—disorders give us an identity and a community. Instead of turning us loose on the chaos of life without a reliable rule book—or turning the chaos of life loose upon hapless and vulnerable us—disorders can actually order our existence, supplying us with the routines that arrange our horizontal movements and with steps that vertically structure our aspirations. Through sickness, health.

Wait a minute. In a social or cultural order that breeds disorder, disorder becomes a strategy for creating order? That massive paradox is characteristic of American life. And it is super annoying. We have enough paradoxes as it is! Our country is exceptionally strong yet powerfully gripped by fear, insecurity, paranoia, and occasional outright panic. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, our potent aversion to risk has made us dependent on institutions that are “too big to fail” and has wired us into a system where structural change, or even significant reform, is more or less impossible. What is happening at the level of society is also happening at the level of the individual. Allegedly, we Americans are more autonomous than ever. Many of us intuit that, in other ways, we’re more tethered than ever to our debt, our baggage, our issues—to sum it all up, our fate. Why would we want to pile on another paradox?


Unlike Taylor Swift, we can hardly just shake it off. It shouldn’t necessarily be a problem that there’s a huge gray area between mental health and mental illness, but for us it is a problem because, in spite of ourselves, we’re so bad at coming to terms with it. Neither our professional experts nor our public opinion is able tell us the whole of what we sense the story to be—despite the fact that “self-help” is as ubiquitous as the air we collectively breathe. The self-help industry is great at giving us perspectives on the whole, or slices of it, even as its many niches and particularities make claims to a level of transcendence, completeness, or universality that’s forcefully compelling. Movements, memes, gurus, cults, and New York Times bestsellers—you know, crazes—rise and fall, flare and fade away. But we’re still here. And, as usual, we’re left holding the bag.

What’s in the bag? The self! In an era when money represents the total adaptability and limitless movement we all aspire to, we tell ourselves that selfishness is a big problem in American life. Greed, narcissism, solipsism, addiction—you name it, we blame it. Yet when we ask “the self” to bear the burdens of our crazy life and world, the self lets us down like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend. You might see this as evidence that the self is actually a pretty horrible person. I see it as an important indication that a lot of our craziness results from imagining that the self is a person at all, or even a thing.

Think of it this way. We all develop a decent feel, somewhere along the way, for what “personhood” means. When our feel is not so good, or becomes a point of contention, controversies crop up. For instance, are human fetuses persons? (If so, starting when?) Are dolphins? Personhood isn’t an inherently legal category—it’s much more organic and subtle than that—but it feels weird for us, as humans, to agree that someone is a person yet allow the law to disagree. From that standpoint it seems completely crazy to consider whether “the self” that we talk about should be ascribed legal personhood. Although obviously we are beholding a person when we behold ourselves, our instincts rebel at the notion that we’re reckoning with a person when we reckon with our selves.

*   *   *

The self occurs to us as something not just “inside” our person but something far shiftier, less reliable, more susceptible to manipulation. As a philosopher might say, we grasp that our selfhood is contingent in a way that our personhood is not. “I’m not feeling quite myself today,” we might say in a silly English accent, trying to distract a friend or family member from how we think we’re really feeling. As you might recall, Hamlet put himself into a version of this situation. “Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged,” he says of his meddlesome, meddled-with self. “His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.”5

But we never joke about whether or not we’re a person. No matter how “off” we are, no matter how sweeping an internal or external transfiguration we experience, we’re always a human person—specifically, the same one we were yesterday and the same one we’ll be tomorrow. If we let others know we disagree with that proposition, we will be seen as not just crazy but actually insane.

As you may have noticed, the imprecision of language is a problem. A worse problem, however, is that we like it that way. We sort of want it to be imprecise, and where it is, we, like Hamlet, exploit it to our advantage.* It’s devilishly hard to determine where the self we construct ends and where the “real” self begins. It’s almost as if we dreamed up this thing called the self in order to focus our chaotic energies on a single dysfunctional relationship.

So although the literature of self-help is well-intentioned, it tends to disappoint in two important ways. First, it’s unclear what it’s designed to help us do. The best spin we can put on self-help is that its goal is to help us succeed, to win at whatever game we happen to play. That includes, of course, the game of choosing what game to play. Yet not all of us get to make that choice. In fact, to be more precise, that kind of unfettered selfish autonomy is a myth, a fable, even a lie.

For those of us who think a lot about the mid-twentieth century, the fable of autonomy probably ushers in a whole field of memories, feelings, and fears about the so-called death of the American Dream.* For those of us who think more about the mid-seventeenth century, the artifice of autonomy will likely summon up philosopher Rene Descartes, with his incredibly abstract and quintessentially modern supposition that only the knowledge of the isolated, independent mind can shake us loose from doubt. Remember “I think, therefore I am?” That’s Descartes. Rather than merely assuring us we can “just do it,” Descartes’s wager tells us that we already are a self, which others can allegedly help do whatever it is selves do. From his standpoint, the relationship between our personhood and our selfhood isn’t a problem. In fact, the fact that they’re pretty much identical is the solution to all our problems. But even if we decided that the self was also a lie, the better to be debunked and disbelieved like some of us have done with God, the brute fact of our personhood would make his kind of radical autonomy impossible and unliveable. We’re just too interrelated. Our personhood is inseparable from our biological function, as creatures who are constantly imitating and remembering people and things. Descartes’s notion cuts against the grain of our everyday experience in a way that makes it seem not just naive but perniciously so. Today we know that trying to “pull a Descartes”—that is, seeking certainty in the isolation of our rational mind—will only make us crazier. It’s why a guy like G. K. Chesterton could say things like “the madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason.”6 Reason crazily tells us that, in the absence of everything else, the self exists.

Yet reason is not to blame for our dysfunctional relationship with the self. In real life, we know that the self is, like Hamlet’s crazy alter ego, too clever a creation by half. We can use it in all kinds of sneaky, abusive, enabling, wicked, and cowardly ways—perhaps most commonly as an excuse not to confront how we and others are actually being. Turns out we’re not really selfish in the predictable, superficial sense—that we want our way and to hell with everyone else. We’re selfish in that we covet the self, our precious creation that’s always on hand to enable our fears and give us excuses for doing whatever bad stuff seems like a good way to protect and improve its fortunes most quickly.

Herein lies another one of our big, annoying problems. After all, we don’t like the idea that we have to muddle through life the long way, especially when it comes to what aggrieves us. We want foolproof shortcuts, and we want them now. Even if we suspect that our ontological status, as a philosopher might say, immerses us in a kind of doubt that is exacerbated by dwelling on it, our propensity is to grapple with that problem through reason—our own, our friends’, or that of the experts we pay.

Our problem is that American life is more than any of our rational minds can handle. Not only do we ride our rationality like a bad motorcycle tough, pushing it to the limit, but after we blow out our engine, we keep going. We’re not going to let a breakdown stop us. We want what we want! Confronted by the failure of so-called Cartesian thinking, our “will resists,” sighs Tocqueville, even when our “reason frequently gives way.”7


This is crazy. So why do we do it? Because we lack confidence about both the why of our human being and the how. Despite our propensity to whine, cower, and enable our own disempowerment through stupidly clever excuses, it really is exceedingly difficult for us to distinguish between being a certain way and acting a certain way. Not to seem, but to be—a maxim from the ancient tragedian Aeschylus8 that once appealed to so many learned Americans—is now another one of our frustrating, irritating, paradoxical problems. As Nietzsche noticed in the late nineteenth century, we are all actors now.* Not only does self-help still struggle to show us that we are but it also struggles to show us how to be, as an authentic alternative to “seeming” or “acting.”

*   *   *

If indeed you feel crazy enough to be comfortable considering the weird, you are probably open to the idea that focusing on how to be can clear the space for seeing the whole story about American craziness—not just some misleadingly incomplete slice or disconnected segment of our crazy lives. If so, that’s a nice indication that this book is going to work for you.

In fact, a central contention of this book is that Democracy in America is therefore also for you. That’s because Tocqueville somehow understood better than anyone how the dramatic craziness of life was a constitutive, baked-in part of Americans. We can’t find reliable refuge by trying to become superindependent or superdependent people. Neither our autonomy nor our interchangeability can save us. Rather than seeing ourselves, above all, as autonomously unique or interchangeably equal, Tocqueville suggests, we need to see ourselves as being, in a way that’s superficially easy to grasp but surprisingly nuanced and subtle. We need to see ourselves as we actually are: free.

In order to see ourselves accurately as free, Tocqueville counsels, we can’t just place our trust in the abstract concept of free selfhood that a brain in a vat might conceive of. Nor can we simply take “their” word for it—whether “they” are our designated experts or the aggregate self, otherwise known as public opinion. Instead of receiving our belief in our freedom from knowledge or authority, we have to experience it—“for ourselves,” as we Americans reflexively, redundantly, and self-soothingly add.

But wait, there’s more. Once we achieve an experienced awareness of freedom as the characteristic of our being, we can’t stop there. We can never “just be” because the craziness of life is constitutive. We can no more opt out of using and being used by life than we can opt out of breathing other people’s exhaled air. As Tocqueville makes clear, we are not free to just be. Instead, we are stuck being free!

If you suppose that means we’re stuck living lives of continually exploring how to be free, congratulations. You’re on the right track. Although we may occasionally wonder why we are stuck being free, our characteristic American predicaments arise from taking our freedom as a given. Rather than simply “sacred” or “undeniable,” as Thomas Jefferson dubbed it, our freedom is more precisely “self-evident”—to quote Benjamin Franklin instead.9 We understand this, not because we have learned it as fact, but because we live it every day.

What’s more, we don’t live it in a narrowly personal way—though, sometimes, a radically personal experience with freedom can upend our lives. Day in and day out, our free being is self-evident in the sense that it’s not personal. It’s neither friendly nor malevolent; not God and not the Devil. Unfortunately, that weirdly impersonal experience doesn’t give us the easy out of becoming depersonalized and inert. We humans can’t just be free for the same reason that we can’t just be. Being a being isn’t like being a rock. Here’s where the distinction between whoness and howness figures in so powerfully. The life of our being is defined by adverbs. “How are you?” we wisely ask—only to answer unwisely, with adjectives. “Great! Fine. Terrible.…” We’d be able to make a lot more sense of our being if we answered adverbially. How are we? We are anxiously or calmly, firmly or irresolutely, enviously or pridefully, by turns.

Though we understand through experience that, in some ineffable sense, we always are freely, we also sense that freedom—that is, being freely—is something we’re often bad at.

Ladies and gentlemen, here comes the melodrama. Even though you’ve asked people how they are hundreds or thousands of times, probably nobody has ever replied by confiding in you that they were being freely pretty badly. But that’s the truth, isn’t it? Millions of Americans, feeling their way through life, not always doing so well at freely being.

No wonder we’re all so crazy. We grasp, right down to the marrow of our bones, that it’s not easy being free. There’s an inescapable, all-important how to it—a process, a practice, and an experience wherein our amazing abilities to think rationally and want irrationally can only get us so far. The same goes for our even greater talents of imitation and memorization. Well before we gain fluency, literacy, or even language, we knit our experiences together by imitating and remembering those around us. But there’s a rotten catch. So many of us have remembered so well how to imitate people who are inartful at being freely that, as a matter of habit, we make the same mistakes. Although we grasp that freedom inheres in our being, we just keep making each other miss the mark.

That’s why inequalities of power make us so upset, even though staggering equality is to be found almost everywhere we look, if only we look through the surface of our fears and grievances. In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, professor and critic Laura Kipnis helpfully draws our attention to “the melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators.”10 Guess what happens when you hang out in that headspace for a while—or, better yet, in the company of people caught in the grip of their own melodramatic imaginations? You catch on to a massive fear that we’re so bad at being freely that we must constantly attend to how others pay the price for our failures, and we for theirs.

That brutal verdict is hardly confined to a single ideology. Although its believers often reach for a supernatural degree of certitude, it has Christian and secular proponents alike. In the melodramatic imagination, our pathetic, accursed inability to be freely makes a mockery of our hopes and dreams. At rock bottom, life itself is a litany of cruel, unfunny jokes. (And we wonder why so much of comedy is now mere mockery.) Not only are we fated to make a mess of our free being but we’re also fated to mess up the lives of others as a result. And, crucially, we’re fated to know that we’re doing it, deep in the fibers of our being. Already raised by society as actors, we then realize that we’re trapped on stages and in roles not of our choosing. It’s like Macbeth, that drama king, says: life is full of sound and fury.11 But instead of safely signifying nothing, it shows us how doomed we are to always hurt others or be hurt. Poor us!

So could it be that the ultimate melodramatic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from whom Tocqueville learned much, famously groaned that we humans are born free, but are everywhere in chains.12 And so it is that, much to our frustration, there is still no Dummies’ Guide to Being Free. There is no owner’s manual, no textbook, not even a Freedom Bible. We cannot get a professional degree in being freely. The particular kind of how that pertains to being freely is not, I regret to inform you, part of this or any other how-to.


One reason for Macbeth’s melodrama is what a therapist might call his very negative experience with guilt issues surrounding the death of good old Banquo. Of course, Macbeth himself planned Banquo’s murder.13 Even in life, Macbeth was afraid of his friend—no wonder he later sees his ghost. For a while now, certain philosophers have pondered the problem of melodrama as a function of violence, debt, shame, and mourning. Karl Marx, for instance, kicked off The Communist Manifesto by warning that “a specter is haunting Europe”—a “specter of communism” that declared “the history of all hitherto existing society” to be “the history of class struggles.”14 Later, after Marx’s ideas had fallen into disrepute, Jacques Derrida suggested that, now, a specter of Marx was haunting philosophy.15 But please keep in mind, as you read this book, that I don’t want you feeling guilty about your relationship with Tocqueville’s ghost.

We know that Tocqueville did not leave us with a free-be-er’s handbook. What’s more, according to varying accounts, Tocqueville’s own concerns about how we’d fare in the inevitable absence of such a reference manual left him anywhere from mildly bummed to existentially depressed. One near-contemporary of Tocqueville’s said his attitude toward democracy was of “sad belief, almost one of despair.”

On every page, reading him, we think again of [Blaise] Pascal’s melancholy words, [which Tocqueville] more than anyone would have had the right to make his slogan: “I blame all equally, those who take the side of praising humanity, those who take the side of blaming it, and those who take the side of entertaining it; and I can only approve those who seek while wailing.”16

One of my biggest objectives in this book is to dispel this sense of fated despair. Although the particular sort of how that pertains to being freely isn’t a science, it is, Tocqueville tells us, an art. In fact, recall that, once you come into your own, “nothing is more fertile in marvels.”

So that’s it then, right? Practice the art of being free and say goodbye to not only Tocqueville’s brooding ghost but the whole craziness of life?

Not exactly. Democracy in America isn’t an infomercial and neither is this book. Remember, there’s a second half to Tocqueville’s beautiful insight into the art of being free. It’s true that nothing’s more wonderful, and it’s true that nothing is harder to learn how to use, than freedom.

That’s right. Being freely is about the adverb, not the noun. You can’t use it up, like a treatment, in the knowledge that what you’re using it to get rid of will eventually go away. You can’t use it like a tool either, applying it to an unfinished situation until it’s finished. Freedom can’t be used to finish things off—whether they’re problems, jobs, stories, or, well, ghosts. What it can do is mitigate life’s craziness at its extremes. We won’t ameliorate the madness by performing our autonomy, turning relationships with things (and people) that vex us into contracts we can terminate. We’ll do it by experiencing our freedom, which is always already a part of all our relationships, chosen and unchosen, including with any of our supposed selves.

That’s the story this book sets out to tell. I think that, ultimately, it’s the story Democracy in America set out to tell as well. Nearly two hundred years later, my telling will ultimately differ, in some hopefully intriguing ways, from the story that Tocqueville told. Both books are written out of a sense that the turmoil around and within us is (still) indicative of a new world that’s (still) going to last a long time. But because Tocqueville achieved so much penetrating, persistent insight into our American predicament—and because that insight introduces into our presence a quality of freedom that conditions us for more imaginative retellings—this book is first a fresh telling of his story, and only then a telling of my own.


Copyright © 2017 by James Poulos