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According to some, Talleyrand remarked that "Those who had not lived before 1789, did not know the sweetness of life", while others suggest he wrote that "Whoever has not lived before the Revolution, has not truly tasted the sweetness of life." By another account, Talleyrand in his old age, recalling memories of a long-vanished past, would say "He who has not lived in the time of the ancien regime can have no conception of what the sweetness of life could mean". But this sweetness of life was the happy lot of the few, numerically an infinitesimal minority. The middle classes, in spite of the growing importance of trade and industry, had not yet acquired sufficient influence to be of much account in politics, and the popular masses were politically inarticulate and largely illiterate.

In any event, feudalism in sixteenth century France was only a survival: its decadence had begun fully two hundred years before. The nobility preserved titles, privileges, wealth and influence : but its actual power, its sovereignty within definite limits, were gone beyond recall. The administration of justice passed more and more into the hands of royal officials. Everywhere the King's coinage displaced that of the local lords. But the Third Estate espoused the ideal of aristocratic parasitism. If a craftsman or a shopkeeper rose to be a manufacturer or a merchant on a fairly large scale, his one dream was to give up his business as soon as possible, and to set up as a gentleman. He would purchase an office from the King, an estate from some impoverished noble; he would secure for his children access to the "nobility of the gown," and try to marry his daughter to a Count or Marquis whose scutcheon needed regilding.

After de Tocqueville visited America, he wrote that "For sixty years that people has increased in population, territory, and wealth; and, let it be noted, throughout that period it has been not only the most prosperous but also the most stable of all the peoples in the world. While all the nations of Europe have been ravaged by war or torn by civil strife, the American people alone have remained pacific. Almost the whole of Europe has been convulsed by revolutions; America has not even suffered from riots. There the republic, so far from disturbing them, has preserved all rights. Private property is better guaranteed there than in any other land on earth. Anarchy is as unknown as despotism....

"The gradual progress of equality is something fated. The main features of this progress are the following: it is universal and permanent; it is daily passing beyond human control, and every event and every man helps it along. Is it wise to suppose that a movement of society which has been so long in train can be halted by one generation? Does anyone imagine that democracy, which has destroyed the feudal system and vanquished kings, will fall back before the middle classes and the rich? Will it stop now, when it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?

The rich in aristocratic societies, having never experienced a lot different from their own, have no fear of changing it. The comforts of life are by no means the aim of their existence; they are just a way of living. They enjoy them without thinking about them.

In nations where an aristocracy dominates society, the people finally get used to their poverty just as the rich do to their opulence. But when distinctions of rank are blurred and privileges abolished, and education and freedom spread, the poor conceive an eager desire to acquire comfort, and the rich think of the danger of losing it. A lot of middling fortunes are established. Their owners have enough physical enjoyments to get a taste for them, but not enough to content them. They never win them without effort or indulge in them without anxiety. They are therefore continually pursuing or striving to retain these incomplete and fugitive delights.

The passion for physical comfort is essentially a middle class affair; it grows and spreads with that class and becomes preponderant with it. Thence it works upward into the higher ranks of society and thence spreads downward to the people.

In America I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich or whose imagination did anticipate good things that fate obstinately refused to him.

On the other hand, I never found among wealthy Americans that lofty disdain for physical comfort sometimes seen among aristocracies. Most of these rich men were once poor; they had long striven against fate, and now that they had won, they seemed drunk on the petty delights it had taken forty years to gain.

In the United States, as elsewhere, there are a fairly large number of rich men who, having inherited their property, effortlessly possess a wealth not gained. But even these people appear to be no less attached to the delights of the material world. Love of comfort has become the dominant national taste.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:46:20 ZULU