This is the second of a two-part post. You can read the first here.
Alexis de Tocqueville made his transatlantic journey in 1831 in order to discover what made America different from other countries, especially his native France and the rest of “Old World” Europe. “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious atmosphere which first struck me,” he writes in the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835. “Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without the other.” He saw “Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches” and met “wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.”
When I first started taking notice of Korea, gleaning what I could from the occasional visit to Korean restaurants and Korean-American classmates’ houses, I sensed how different a culture it really seemed to possess from that of, say, Japan and China, the countries with which Westerners tended to conflated it. Certain differences in sensibilities and aesthetics quickly make themselves felt (even someone completely ignorant of east Asian languages can usually identify Korean script, “the one that has circles”), but nothing stands out quite as much as the prevalence in Korea of Christianity. A Westerner visiting Korea for the first time might expect some kind of theocracy, extrapolating from the enthusiasm so many Koreans profess for the church back in the West, but in reality Protestants and Catholics (a distinction insisted upon much more fiercely than in America today) account for about 30 percent of the South Korean population combined.
By the standards of this part of the world, 30 percent is an impressive figure, but it might nevertheless strike our Westerner in Korea as a serious underestimate, especially if he arrives by night to see all the neon crosses that burn red along the Seoul skyline. There aren’t as many neon crosses as there used to be, but culturally, Christianity in Korea still punches well above its weight, stop just short though it may of Tocqueville’s observation, made in the second volume of Democracy in America, of the its being “intimately linked to all national habits and all the emotions which one’s native country arouses” and ruling “not only like a philosophy taken up after evaluation but like a religion believed without discussion.” But since America towered as an example of national success — and in a way, an object of worship itself — all throughout Korea’s development in the second half of the 20th century, its trifecta of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism must have looked like a magic formula to banish privation and humiliation to the past.
Tocqueville, himself a Catholic, saw American Christianity as an essential counterbalance to, if not American capitalism per se, then at the American obsession with making money. He names the Americans’ “strictly Puritan origin, their exclusively commercial habits” and “the country they inhabit, which appears to divert their minds from the study of science, literature, and the arts” among the causes that “have focussed the American mind, in this unusual manner, upon purely practical concerns. Everything — his passions, needs, education, circumstances — seems to unite in inclining the native of the United States earthward. Only religion persuades him to raise an occasional and absent-minded glance toward heaven.” Could any American familiar with Korea, or for that matter any Korean familiar with America, argue that the same condition doesn’t afflict a great many inhabitants of both countries?
“In the Middle Ages priests spoke only of the afterlife,” Tocqueville writes, “hardly bothering to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below.” But American preachers, like many Korean preachers today, “return constantly to this world and have some difficulty in detaching their gaze from it. So as to touch their listeners more profoundly, they show them every day how religious belief is beneficial to freedom and public order. It is often hard to know from listening to them whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this.” And yet “here and there throughout American society,” as in Korean society, “you find men obsessed with an exalted, almost wild form of spirituality scarcely encountered in Europe. Weird sects appear from time to time striving to open up extraordinary paths to eternal happiness” — as any Westerner who’s been accosted on the street and asked if they wouldn’t like to join some dubious “party” or “activity group” knows.
But such is the price a society pays, to Tocqueville’s mind, for going democratic and accepting all the vagaries that come with it. “When each citizen is constantly seeking to change station, when open competition is pursued by all, when wealth is amassed or frittered away in the space of a few moments amidst the turmoil of democracy, visions of sudden fortunes and great possessions easily acquired or lost, and images of chance in every shape or form, haunt men’s minds. Social instability fosters the natural instability of man’s desires,” doubly so in a country as violently subject to it as Korea has been over the past century. “When destiny is in a perpetual state of flux, the present looms large; it masks the future from his sight and his thoughts are unwilling to go beyond the next day.” And so, “in those countries where irreligion and democracy join together in an unfortunate combination, the main business for philosophers and rulers is to be striving constantly to set before men’s eyes a distant aim for their endeavors,” democratic man being too busy to do it himself.
In the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville seeks to describe and interpret what he saw during his nine months of travel across that young country. In the second volume, published five years later in 1840, he considers the future, in America and elsewhere, of democracy itself. Despite his enthusiasm for democracy, and indeed his conviction of its inevitable universality, he has much to say about its potential ill effects, especially upon the aspirations of man. “It is a strange thing to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies the Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it,” he writes, reflecting on the strangely unambitious nature of the ambitions seen and felt everywhere in America. “If those men passionately seeking physical pleasures desire them overeagerly, they are also easily discouraged. Since the ultimate objective is enjoyment, the means to it has to be swift and easy; otherwise the trouble to attain it would outweigh the enjoyment itself. Most souls are, therefore, both enthusiastic and slack, violent, and nervous.”
One now and again notices that same combination of enthusiasm, slackness, violence, and nervousness of soul in Korea, a country that has taken many traits formerly characteristic to America — the competitiveness, the obsession with comfort, money, and appearances — and amplified them. About all this Tocqueville issues a still-pertinent warning: “When the taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp. Intent only on getting rich, they fail to perceive the close link between their own private fortunes and general prosperity. There is no need to wrench their rights from such citizens; they let them slip voluntarily through their fingers.” The nation they constitute becomes “a slave of its own wellbeing” — a term that made its way into the “Konglish” lexicon years ago — “and may expect the arrival of the man who is bound to cast it into chains.”
The United States began in democracy and prospered; Korea began seriously to dream of democracy only after it prospered. But at Tocqueville sees it, “no one has fewer dreams than the citizen of a democracy.” Though the people of democratic ages may be passionate, “most of their passions end in love of wealth or derive from it. That is not because their souls are narrower but because the importance of money is really greater at such times,” times when “every citizen is independent and indifferent to each other,” when “the cooperation of each of them can be obtained only by payment of money, which infinitely multiplies the functions of wealth and increases its value,” when “the prestige of what is old has vanished, birth, status, and profession no longer mark the differences between men or scarcely do so,” when “distinction based on wealth increases as all other distinctions disappear or decrease.”
An observer of America would be just as startled by the variety of get-rich-quick schemes offered up (and, alas, so eagerly seized upon) there as an observer of Korea would be by the lack of variety in the routes to wealth people map out for themselves here. “In a democratic society, as elsewhere, there is only a certain number of huge fortunes to be made and, since the careers which lead to them are open without distinction to every citizen, everyone’s progress is bound to be slow,” Tocqueville writes. “As candidates seem virtually alike and it is difficult to choose from them without violating the principle of equality, which is the supreme law of democratic societies, the prime idea is to make them all walk at the same pace and to inflict the same tests upon them,” and no clearer example of that exists than the College Scholastic Ability Test, or Suneung, the once-a-year college entrance exam that still does more than anything else to determine the course of a Korean student’s entire life.
The increasingly forceful arguments now made against not just the Suneung but the Korean education system in its entirely might as well use Tocqueville’s words: “Out of hatred for privilege and there being too many aspirants to choose from, all men, whatever their capacities, must finally climb up the same rungs to the top and must submit without distinction to a mass of petty preliminary tests, in the process of which their youth disappears and their imagination is snuffed out.” Though Tocqueville never mentions Korea, he does occasionally reference China — the land to which Korea then looked up almost as it would later look up to America — where “equality of social conditions is a deep-rooted and ancient tradition” and “no man moves from one public office to another without taking an examination.” He even recalls reading “a Chinese novel in which the hero, after many ups and downs, at last reaches his loved one’s heart by taking a difficult examination. Lofty ambitions breathe uncomfortably in such an atmosphere.”
Not to say that democracy has made either Americans or Koreans idle: “Life passes surrounded by noise and excitement,” but “men are so busy acting that little time remains for them to think,” and “the burning zeal they devote to their work extinguishes the flame of enthusiasm for ideas.” This takes a toll on culture, reducing the pleasures of literature to “a needed passing relaxation amid the serious business of life.” Since readers in a democracy “have only a brief time to devote to literature, they want to make the best use of it. They like books which are easily available, quick to read, and which demand no learned research for their understanding. They seek superficial beauties, immediately available and enjoyed; above all, they want the unexpected and the novel. Accustomed to the struggles and monotony of practical life, they crave lively and rapid emotions, sudden revelations, brilliantly depicted stories of truth or wrongdoing which offer immediate escapism and plunge them directly and almost violently straight into the subject.”
I think, here, of the popular novelist Kim Young-ha (whose work in translation I profiled here in 2013), who has written about how often his countrymen ask him to recommend just one of his own books to read, since they claim not to have time for more than that. I also think of television dramas, one of the most powerful forms Korean “soft power” has taken across the rest of Asia, and about which Tocqueville’ remarks on the theater often seem apposite. Those who write these dramas know full well that “if you are slavish in your regard for plausibility of plot, it is often impossible to achieve novelty, surprise, and speed of action,” and that “it can be guaranteed that if, in the end, you introduce the audience to a subject which moves them, they will not concern themselves about the route you have taken.” Would it be too stark to apply to Korea, or even to America, Tocqueville’s pronouncement that “people who spend every day of the week making money and Sundays praying to God give no scope to the comic muse”?
But then, the very project of reading a 180-year-old French study of America to gain insight into 21st-century Korea might itself seem questionable. Yet at too many points in its hundreds upon hundreds of pages Tocqueville speaks to issues not just important in Korea’s transition into democracy but current right this moment, from the discussions about its mandatory military service (a necessity in a democracy, as Tocqueville sees it) to those about the proper regard for the differences between the sexes (he praises how the 19th-century America has “divided up the functions of men and women so that the great work of society might be better performed,” a division to an extent still in place, and criticized, in Korea today). Whatever objections a modern-day reader might have to his judgments, Tocqueville was unquestionably prescient in envisioning the inevitable worldwide spread of democracy, even to a land like Korea whose specific fate he probably never had reason to consider.
But Tocqueville displayed even greater prescience in describing the sort of dissatisfactions we might come to feel about democracy, as well as the way that they could spring from our very satisfaction with it. “I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world,” he writes toward the end of Democracy in America‘s second volume. “I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.”
Above them all “stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny.It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?” American, Korean, or otherwise, none of us in the democratic world has yet come up with a convincing answer to Tocqueville’s chilling question.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.