Tocqueville observes Americans’ embrace of physical well-being, which he contrasts with aristocratic societies. There, the rich take the comforts of life for granted and thus can turn to loftier, more intellectual concerns, while the poor are just as accustomed to their lack of comforts. But in a democracy, without ranks or privileges, enough people gain sufficient fortune to have a taste for physical pleasures, but without being able to satisfy them completely. They are thus always striving to pursue physical pleasures.
As usual, Tocqueville uses the status quo in an aristocracy as a jumping-off point in order to examine what is unique about the influence of politics on society in a democracy. In doing so, Tocqueville sometimes risks painting aristocratic society as overly static, as a world in which the poor, for instance, were content to remain as they were.
Tocqueville relates that he’s never met a poor person who did not look with hope and envy on the pleasures enjoyed by the rich. But the wealthy in America lack that contempt of physical gratification that he characterizes as aristocratic in nature—probably because most wealthy Americans were once poor and remember deprivation all too well.
Tocqueville thinks the poor are only upwardly striving in a democracy: he assumes they lacked such desires in aristocratic society (though this assumption has much to do with the reality that the poor were less likely to escape their condition in an aristocracy).
While Tocqueville warns that aristocrats may, in ages of decadence and opulence, be tempted away from important affairs and become corrupted by physical pleasures, the taste for physical pleasure isn’t so dangerous in a democracy. Its range is confined, and it doesn’t challenge public order or regular morals. It’s not corruption that is to be feared by the pursuit of pleasure in the age of democracy, but rather “enervation” of the soul.
Even as Tocqueville describes the exaggerated striving after physical pleasures that he finds characteristic of a democracy—a quality similar to democratic agitation and activity in a number of spheres—he concludes by arguing why these tastes are ultimately not as dangerous as one might think.