Social Organization

Chapter 15: Democracy and Distinction

Charles Horton Cooley

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WHAT shall we say of the democratic trend of the modern world as it affects the finer sort of intellectual achievement? While the conscious sway of the masses seems not uncongenial to the more popular and obvious kinds of eminence, as of statesmen, inventors' soldiers, financiers and the like, there are many who believe it to be hostile to distinction in literature, art or science. Is there hope for this also' or must we he content to offset the dearth of greatness by the abundance of mediocrity ?

This, I take it, is a matter for a priori psychological reasoning rather than for close induction from fact. The present democratic movement is so different from anything in the past that historical comparison of any large sort is nearly or quite worthless. And, moreover, it is so bound up with other conditions which are not essential to it and may well prove transient, that even contemporary fact gives us very little secure guidance. All that is really practicable is a survey of the broad principles at work and a rough attempt to forecast how they may

(158) work out. An inquiry of this sort seems to me to lead to conclusions somewhat as follows.

First, there is, I believe, no sound reason for thinking that the democratic spirit or organization is in its essential nature hostile to distinguished production. Indeed, one who holds that the opposite is the case, while he will not be able to silence the pessimist, will find little in fact or theory to shake his own faith.

Second, although democracy itself is not hostile, so far as we can make out its nature by general reasoning, there is much that is so in the present state of thought, both in the world at large and, more particularly, in the United States.

In this, as in all discussions regarding contemporary tendency, we need to discriminate between democracy and transition. At present the two go together because democracy is new; but there is no reason in the nature of things why they should remain together. As popular rule becomes established it proves capable of developing a stability, even a rigidity, of its own; and it is already apparent that the United States, for instance, just because democracy has had its way there, is less liable to sudden transitions than perhaps any other of the great nations.

It is true that democracy involves some elements of permanent unrest. Thus, by demanding open opportunity and resisting hereditary stratification, it will probably maintain a competition of persons more general, and as regards personal status more unsettling, than anything the world has been used to in the past. But personal competition alone is the cause of only a small part of the

(159) stress and disorder of our time; much more being due to general changes in the social system, particularly in industry, which we may describe as transition. And moreover) competition itself is in a specially disordered or transitional state at present, and will i.e less disquieting when a more settled state of society permits it to be carried on under established rules of justice, and when a discriminating education shall do a large part of its work~ In short, democracy is not necessarily confusion, and we shall find reason to think that it is the latter, chiefly, that is opposed to distinction.

The view that popular rule is in its nature unsuited to foster genius rests chiefly on the dead-level theory. Equality not distinction is said to be the passion of the masses, diffusion not concentration. Everything moves on a vast and vaster scale: the facility of intercourse is melting the world into one fluid whole in which the single individual is more and more submerged. The era of salient personalities is passing away, and the principle of equality, which ensures the elevation of men in general, is fatal to particular greatness. " In modern society," said De Tocqueville, the chief begetter of this doctrine, "everything threatens to become so much alike that the peculiar characteristics of each individual will soon be entirely lost in the general aspect of the world." [1] Shall we agree with this or maintain with Plato that a democracy will have the greatest variety of human nature ? [2]


Perhaps the most plausible basis for this theory is the levelling effect ascribed by many to the facilities for communication that have grown up so surprisingly within the past century. In a former chapter I have said much upon this matter, holding that we must distinguish between the individuality of choice and that of isolation, and giving reasons why the modern facility of intercourse should be favorable to the former.

To this we may add that the mere fact of popular rule has no inevitable connection, either friendly or hostile, with variety and vigor of individuality. If France is somewhat lacking in these, it is not because she is democratic, but because of the race traits of her people and her peculiar antecedents; if America abounds in a certain kind of individuality, it is chiefly because she inherited it from England and developed it in a frontier life. In either case democracy, in the sense of popular government, is a secondary matter.

Certainly, America is a rather convincing proof that democracy does not necessarily suppress salient personality. So far as individuality of spirit is concerned, our life leaves little to be desired, and no trait impresses itself more than this upon observers from the continent of Europe. "All things grow clear in the United States," says Paul Bourget, "when one understands them as an immense act of faith in the social beneficence of individual energy left to itself." * The "individualism" of our social system is a commonplace of contemporary writers. Nowhere else, not even in England, I suppose, is there more respect for non-conformity or more disposition to

(161) assert it. In our intensely competitive life men learn to value character above similarity, and one who has character may hold what opinions he pleases. Personality, as Mr. Brownell points out in contrasting the Americans with the French, is the one thing of universal interest here: our conversation, our newspapers, our elections are dominated by it, and our great commercial transactions are largely a struggle for supremacy among rival leaders.[4] The augmenting numbers of the people, far from obscuring the salient individual, only make for him a larger theatre of success; and personal reputation—whether for wealth, statesmanship, literary achievement, or for mere singularity—is organized on a greater scale than ever before. One who is familiar with any province of American life, as for example, that of charitable and penal reform, is aware that almost every advance is made through the embodiment of timely ideas in one or a few energetic individuals who set an example for the country to follow. Experience with numbers, instead of showing the insignificance of the individual, proves that if he has faith and a worthy aim there is no limit to what he may do; and we find, accordingly, plenty of courage in starting new projects. The country is full of men who find the joys of self-assertion, if not always of outward success, in the bold pursuit of hazardous enterprises.

If there is a deficiency of literary and artistic achievement in a democracy of this kind, it is due to some other cause than a general submergence of the individual in the mass.

The dead-level theory, then, is sufficiently discredited

(162) as a general law by the undiminished ascendancy of salient individualities in every province of activity. The enlargement of social consciousness does not alter the essential relation of individuality to life, but simply gives it a greater field of success or failure. The man of genius may meet with more competition, but if he is truly great a larger world is his. To imagine that the mass will submerge the individual is to suppose that one aspect of society will stand still while the other grows. It rests upon a superficial, numerical way of thinking, which regards individuals as fixed units each of which must become less conspicuous the more they are multiplied. But if the man of genius represents a spiritual principle his influence is not fixed but grows with the growth of life itself, and is limited only by the vitality of what he stands for. Surely the great men of the past—Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and the rest—are not submerged, nor in danger of being; nor is it apparent why their successors should be.

The real cause of literary and artistic weakness (in so far as it exists) I take to be chiefly the spiritual disorganization incident to a time of rather sudden transition. How this condition, and others closely associated with it, are unfavorable to great aesthetic production, I shall try to point out under the four heads, confusion, commercialism, haste and zeal for diffusion.

With reference to the higher products of culture, not only the United States, but in some degree contemporary civilization in general, is a confused, a raw, society, not as being democratic but as being new. It is our whole newspaper and factory epoch that is crude, and scarcely

(163) more so in America than in England or Germany; the main difference in favor of European countries being that the present cannot so easily be separated from the conditions of an earlier culture. It is a general trait of the time that social types are disintegrated, old ones going to pieces and new ones not perfected, leaving the individual without adequate discipline either in the old or in the new.

Now works of enduring greatness seem to depend, among other things, on a certain ripeness of historical conditions. No matter how gifted an individual may be, he is in no way apart from his time, but has to take that and make the best of it he can; the man of genius is in one point of view only a twig upon which a mature tendency bears its perfect fruit. In the new epoch the vast things in process are as yet so unfinished that individual gifts are scarce sufficient to bring anything to a classical completeness; so that our life remains somewhat inarticulate, our literature, and still more our plastic art, being inadequate exponents of what is most vital in the modern spirit.

The psychological effect of confusion is a lack of mature culture groups, and of what they only can do for intellectual or aesthetic production. What this means may, perhaps, be made clearer by a comparison drawn from athletic sports. We find in our colleges that to produce a winning foot-ball team, or distinguished performance in running or jumping, it is essential first of all to have a spirit of intense interest in these things, which shall arouse the ambition of those having natural gifts, support them in their training and reward their success. With

(164) out this group spirit no efficient organization, no high standard of achievement, can exist, and a small institution that has this will easily surpass a large one that lacks it. And experience shows that it takes much time to perfect such a spirit and the organizations through which it is expressed.

In quite the same way any ripe development of productive power in literary or other art implies not merely capable individuals but the perfection of a social group, whose traditions and spirit the individual absorbs, and which floats him up to a point whence he can reach unique achievement. The unity of this group or type is spiritual, not necessarily local or temporal, and so may be difficult to trace, but its reality is as sure as the principle that man is a social being and cannot think sanely and steadfastly except in some sort of sympathy with his fellows. There must be others whom we can conceive as sharing, corroborating and enhancing our ideals, and to no one is more necessary than the man of genius.

The group is likely to be more apparent or tangible in some arts than in others: it is generally quite evident in painting, sculpture, architecture and music, where a regular development by the passage of inspiration from one artist to another can almost always be traced. In literature the connections are less obvious, chiefly because this art is in its methods more disengaged from time and place, so that it is easier to draw inspiration from distant sources. It is also partly a matter of temperament, men of somewhat solitary imagination being able to form their group out of remote personalities, and so to be almost independent of time and place. Thus Thoreau

(165) lived with the Greek and Hindoo classics, with the old English poets, and with the suggestions of nature; but even he owed much to contemporary influences, and the more he is studied the less solitary he appears. Is not this the case also with Wordsworth, with Dante, with all men who are supposed to have stood alone ?

The most competent of all authorities on this question — Goethe—was a full believer in the dependence of genius on influences. "People are always talking about originality," he says, "but what do they mean? As soon as we are born the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. And after all what can we call our own except energy, strength and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor."[5] He even held that men of genius are dependent upon their environment than others; for, being thinner-skinned, they are more suggestible, more perturbable, and peculiarly in need of the right sort of surroundings to keep their delicate machinery in fruitful action.

No doubt such questions afford ground for infinite debate, but the underlying principle that the thought of every man is one with that of a group, visible or invisible, is sure, I think, to prove sound; and if so it is indispensable that a great capacity should find access to a group whose ideals and standards are of a sort to make the most of it.

Another reason why the rawness of the modern world is unfavorable to great production is that the ideals themselves which a great art should express share in the gen-

(166)-eral incompleteness of things and do not present themselves to the mind clearly defined and incarnate in vivid symbols. Perhaps a certain fragmentariness and pettiness in contemporary art and literature js due more to this cause than to any other—to the fact that the aspirations of the time, large enough, certainly, are too much obscured in smoke to be clearly and steadily regarded. We may believe, for example, in democracy, but it can hardly be said that we see democracy, as the middle ages, in their art, saw the Christian religion.

From this point of view of groups and organization it is easy to understand why the "individualism" of our epoch does not necessarily produce great individuals. Individuality may easily be aggressive and yet futile, because not based on the training afforded by well-organized types—like the fruitless valor of an isolated soldier. Mr. Brownell points out that the prevalence of this sort of individuality in our art and life is a point of contrast between us and the French. Paris, compared with New York, has the " organic quality which results from variety of types," as distinguished from variety of individuals. "We do far better in the production of striking artistic personalities than we do in the general medium of taste and culture. We figure well, invariably, at the Salon.... Comparatively speaking, of course, we have no milieu."*

The same conditions underlie that comparative uniformity of American life which wearies the visitor and implants in the native such a passion for Europe. When

(167) a populous society springs up rapidly from a few transplanted seeds, its structure, however vast, is necessarily somewhat simple and monotonous. A thousand towns, ten thousand churches, a million houses, are built on the same models, and the people and the social institutions do not altogether escape a similar poverty of types. No doubt this is sometimes exaggerated, and America does present many picturesque variations, but only a reckless enthusiasm will equal them with those of Europe. How unspeakably inferior in exterior aspect and in many inner conditions of culture must any recent civilization be to that, let us say, of Italy, whose accumulated riches represent the deposit of several thousand years.

Such deposits, however, belong to the past; and as regards contemporary accretions the sameness of London or Rome is hardly less than that of Chicago. It is a matter of the epoch, more conspicuous here chiefly because it has had fuller sweep. A heavy fall of crude commercialism is rapidly obscuring the contours of history.

In comparison with Europe America has the advantages that come from being more completely in the newer current of things. It is nearer, perhaps, to the spirit of the coming order, and so perhaps more likely, in due time, to give it adequate utterance in art. Another benefit of being new is the attitude of confidence that it fosters. If America could hardly have sustained the assured mastery of Tennyson, neither, perhaps, could England an optimism like that of Emerson. In contrast to the latter, Carlyle, Ruskin and Tolstoi—prophets of an older world —are shadowed by a feeling of the ascendancy and inertia

(168) of ancient and somewhat decadent institutions. They are afraid of them, and so are apt to be rather shrill in protest. An American, accustomed to see human nature have pretty much its own way, has seldom any serious mistrust of the outcome. Nearly all of our writers—as Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, Thoreau, Whitman, even Hawthorne—have been of a cheerful and wholesome personality.[7]

On the other hand, an old civilization has from its mere antiquity a richness and complexity of spiritual life that cannot be transplanted to a new world. The immigrants bring with them the traditions of which they feel in immediate need, such as those necessary to found the state, the church and the family; but even these lose something of their original flavor, while much of what is subtler and less evidently useful is left behind. We must remember, too, that the culture of the Old World is chiefly a class culture, and that the immigrants have mostly come from a class that had no great part in it.

With this goes loss of the visible monuments of culture inherited from the past—architecture, painting, sculpture, ancient universities and the like. Burne-Jones, the English painter, speaking of the commercial city in which he spent his youth, says: . . . "if there had been one cast from ancient Greek sculpture, or one faithful copy of a great Italian picture, to be seen in Birmingham when I was a boy, I should have begun to paint ten years before I did . . . even the silent presence of great works in your town will produce an impression on those who see them, and the next generation will, without knowing

(169) how or why, find it easier to learn than this one does whose surroundings are so unlovely."*

Nor is American life favorable to the rapid crystallization of a new artistic culture; it is too transient and restless; transatlantic migration is followed by internal movements from east to west and from city to country; while on top of these we have a continuous subversion of industrial relations t

Another element of special confusion in our life is the headlong mixture of races, temperaments and traditions that comes from the new immigration, from the irruption by millions of peoples from the south and east of the Old World. If they were wholly inferior, as we sometimes imagine, it would perhaps not matter so much; but the truth is that they contest every intellectual function with the older stock, and, in the universities for instance, are shortly found teaching our children their own history and literature. They assimilate, but always with a difference, and in the northern United States, formerly dominated by New England influences, a revolution from this cause is well under way. It is as if a kettle of broth were cooking quietly on the fire, when some one should come in and add suddenly a great pailful of raw meats, vegetables and spices—a rich combination, possibly, but likely to require much boiling. That fine English sentiment that came down to us through the colonists more purely, perhaps, than to the English in the old country, is passing

(170) away—as a distinct current, that is—lost in a flood of cosmopolitan life. Before us, no doubt, is a larger humanity, but behind is a cherished spirit that can hardly live again; and, like the troy who leaves home, we must turn our thoughts from an irrevocable past and go hopefully on to we know not what.

In short, our world lacks maturity of culture organization. What we sometimes call—truly enough as regards its economic life—our complex civilization, is simple to the point of poverty in spiritual structure. We have cast off much rubbish and decay and are preparing, we may reasonably hope, to produce an art and literature worthy of our vigor and aspiration, but in the past, certainly, we have hardly done so.

Haste and the superficiality and strain which attend upon it are widely and insidiously destructive of good work in our day. No other condition of mind or of society— not ignorance, poverty, oppression or hate—kills art as haste does. Almost any phase of life may be ennobled if there is only calm enough in which the brooding mind may do its perfect work upon it; but out of hurry nothing noble ever did or can emerge. In art human nature should come to a total, adequate expression; a spiritual tendency should be perfected and recorded in calmness and joy. But ours is, on the whole, a time of stress, of the habit of incomplete work; its products are unlovely and unrestful and such as the future will have no joy in. The pace is suited only to turn out mediocre goods on a vast scale.

It is, to put the matter otherwise, a loud time. The

(171) newspapers, the advertising, the general insistence of suggestion, have an effect of din, so that one feels that he must raise his voice to be heard, and the whispers of the gods ate hard to catch. Men whose voices are naturally low and fine easily lose this trait in the world and begin to shout like the rest. That is to say, they exaggerate and repeat and advertise and caricature, saying too much in the hope that a little may be heard. Of course, in the long run this is a fatal delusion; nothing will really be listened to except that whose quiet truth makes it worth hearing; but it is one so rooted in the general state of things that few escape it. Even those who preserve the lower tone do so with an effort which is in itself disquieting.

A strenuous state of mind is always partial and special, sacrificing scope to intensity and more fitted for execution than insight. It is useful at times, but if habitual cuts us off from that sea of subconscious spirit from which all original power flows. "The world of art," says Paul Bourget, speaking of America, " requires less self-consciousness—an impulse of life which forgets itself, the alternations of dreamy idleness with fervid execution.".[10] So Henry James [11] remarks that we have practically lost the faculty of attention, meaning, I suppose, that unstrenuous, brooding sort of attention required to produce or appreciate works of art—and as regards the prevalent type of business or professional mind this seems quite true.

It comes mainly from having too many things to think of, from the urgency and distraction of an epoch and a

(172) country in which the traditional structures that support the mind and save its energy have largely gone to pieces. The endeavor to supply by will functions that in other conditions would be automatic creates a rush which imitation renders epidemic, and from which it is not easy to escape in order to mature one's powers in fruitful quiet.

There is an immense spiritual economy in any settled state of society, sufficient, so far as production is concerned, to offset much that is stagnant or oppressive; the will is saved and concentrated; while freedom, as De Tocqueville noted, sometimes produces " a small, distressing motion, a sort of incessant jostling of men, which annoys and disturbs the mind without exciting or elevating it." [12] The modern artist has too much choice. If he attempts to deal largely with life, his will is overworked at the expense of aesthetic synthesis. Freedom and opportunity are without limit, all cultures within his reach and splendid service awaiting performance. But the task of creating a glad whole seems beyond any ordinary measure of talent. The result in most cases—as has been said of architecture —is "confusion of types, illiterate combinations, an evident breathlessness of effort and striving for effect, with the inevitable loss of repose, dignity and style."[13] A mediaeval cathedral or a Greek temple was the culmination of a long social growth, a gradual, deliberate, corporate achievement, to which the individual talent added only the finishing touch. The modern architect has, no

(173) doubt, as much personal ability, but the demands upon it are excessive; it would seem that only a transcendent synthetic genius of the calibre of Dante could deal adequately with our scattered conditions.

The cause of strain is radical and somewhat feverish change, not democracy as such. A large part of the people, particularly the farming class, are little affected by it, and there are indications that in America, where it has been greater than elsewhere, the worst is now over.

By commercialism, in this connection, we may understand a preoccupation of the ability of the people with material production and with the trade and finance based upon it. This again is in part a trait of the period, in part a peculiarity of America, in its character as a new country with stumps to get out and material civilization to erect from the ground up.

The result of it is that ability finds constant opportunity and incitement to take a commercial direction, and little to follow pure art or letters. A man likes to succeed in something, and if he is conscious of the capacity to make his way in business or professional life, he is indisposed to endure the poverty, uncertainty and indifference which attend the pursuit of an artistic calling. Less prosperous societies owe something to that very lack of opportunity which makes it less easy for artistic ability to take another direction.

An even greater peril is the debasing of art by an uncultured market. There seem to be plenty of artists of every kind, but their standard of success is mostly low. The beginner too early gets commercial employment in

(174) which he is not held up to any high ideal. This brings us back to the lack of a well-knit artistic tradition to educate both the artist and the public, the lack of a type, "the non-existence" as Mr. Russell Sturgis says; "Of an artistic community with a mind of its own and a certain general agreement as to what a work of art ought to be." This lack involves the weakness of the criticism which is required to make the artist see himself as he ought to be. "That criticism is nowhere in proportion to the need of it," says Henry James, "is the visiting observer's first and last impression—an impression so constant that it at times swallows up or elbows out every other."

The antipathy between art and the commercial spirit, however, is often much overstated. As a matter of history art and literature have flourished most conspicuously in prosperous commercial societies, such as Athens, Florence, Venice, the communes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the trading cities of Germany, the Dutch Republic and the England of Elizabeth. Nothing does more than commerce to awaken intelligence, enterprise and a free spirit, and these are favorable to ideal production. It is only the extreme one-sidedness of our civilization in this regard that is prejudicial.

It is also true—and here we touch upon something pertaining more to the very nature of democracy than the matters so far mentioned—that the zeal for diffusion which springs from communication and sympathy has in it much that is not directly favorable to the finer sorts of production.

Which is the better, fellowship or distinction? There

(175) is much to be said on both sides, but the finer spirits of our day lean toward the former, and find it more human and exhilarating to spread abroad the good things the world already has than to prosecute a lonesome search for new ones. l notice among the choicest people l know—those who seem to me most representative of the inner trend of democracy—a certain generous contempt for distinction and a passion to cast their lives heartily on the general current. But the highest things are largely those which do not immediately yield fellowship or diffuse joy. Though making in the end for a general good, they are as private in their direct action as selfishness itself, from which they are not always easily distinguished. They involve intense self-consciousness. Probably men who follow the whispers of genius will always be more or less at odds with their fellows.

Ours, then, is an Age of Diffusion. The best minds and hearts seek joy and self-forgetfulness in active service, as in another time they might seek it in solitary worship; God, as we often hear, being sought more through human fellowship and less by way of isolate self-consciousness than was the case a short time since.

I need hardly particularize the educational and philanthropic zeal that, in one form or another, incites the better minds among our contemporaries and makes them feel guilty when they are not in some way exerting themselves to spread abroad material or spiritual goods. No one would wish to see this zeal diminished; and perhaps it makes in the long run for every kind of worthy achievement; but its immediate effect is often to multiply the commonplace, giving point to De Tocqueville's reflection

(176) that "in aristocracies a few great pictures are produced, in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones."[14] In a spiritual as well as a material sense there is to tendency to fabricate cheap goods fort an uncritical market.

" Men and gods are too extense." [15]

Finally, all theories that aim to deduce from social conditions the limits of personal achievement must be received with much caution. It is the very nature of a virile sense of self to revolt from the usual and the expected and pursue a lonesome road. Of course it must have support, but it may find this in literature and imaginative intercourse. So, in spite of everything, we have had in America men of signal distinction—such, for instance, as Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman—and we shall no doubt have more. We need fear no dearth of inspiring issues; for if old ones disappear energetic minds will always create new ones by making greater demands upon life.

The very fact that our time has so largely cast off all sorts of structure is in one way favorable to enduring production, since it means that we have fallen back upon human nature, upon that which is permanent and essential, the adequate record of which is the chief agent in giving life to any product of the mind.


  1. Demcracy in America, vol. ii, book iv, chap. 7. But elsewhere he expresses the opinion that this levelling and confusion is only temporary. See, for example, book iii, chap. 21.
  2. Republic, book viii.
  3. Outre-Mer. English Translation, 306.
  4. See the final chapter of his French Traits.
  5. Conversation with Eckermann, May 12, 1825.
  6. French Traits, 385, 387, 393.
  7. Poe is the only notable exception that occurs to me.
  8. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, ii, 100, 101.
  9. Our most notable group of writers—flourishing at Concord and Boston about 1850—is, of course, connected with the maturing, in partial isolation, of a local type of culture, now disintegrated and dispersed on the wider currents of the time.
  10. Outre-Mer, 25.
  11. In his essay on Balzac.
  12. Democracy in America, vol. ii, book i, chap. 10.
  13. Henry Van Brunt, Greek Lines, 225. Some of these phrases, such as "illiterate combinations," could never apply to the work of good architects.
  14. Democracy in America, vol. ii, book i, chap. 11.
  15. Emerson, Alphonso of Castile.

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