After visiting America in the 1830s, the observant Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville made the following comment:
Men easily attain a certain equality of condition, but they can never attain as much as they desire.
It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on.
At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment form their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted its delights, they die.
That is the reason for the strange melancholy that haunts inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of abundance.
Andrew Delbanco, in his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), originally delivered as the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, comments on this strange and haunting melancholy in American life:
Any history of hope in America must . . . make room at is center for this dogged companion of hope—the lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death.
Delbanco identifies three phases in the history of America:
In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death.
This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years.
In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union.
This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.”
Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology.
It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh.
Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the dispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self. (4-5)
Delbanco, who does not write from a confessional Christian perspective, offers little solution in this slim volume. But it is a perceptive outline with genuine insights to glean.