Stillness as a Form of Action: Tocqueville on Cataclysm as an Antidote to Cultural Complacency and a Catalyst for Growth
“There are periods during which human society seems to rest… This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.”
By Maria Popova
Even when nothing is happening, something is happening. This is a difficult fact for the human animal to fathom — especially for us modern sapiens, who so ardently worship at the altar of productivity and so readily mistake busyness for effectiveness, for propulsion toward progress. Silence is a form of speech, Susan Sontag wrote, “and an element in a dialogue.” Stillness is a form of action and an element in advancement, in evolution, in all forward motion.
There are certain moments, as when winter cusps into spring, when nature itself reminds us of this slippery elemental fact: Buds begin to spine the skeletal silhouettes of trees, withholding leaf and blossom until it is right, until it is safe to spill new life into the chilly air; birds, whose dinosaur bodies have spent all winter preparing to mate, perch silent on the bud-spined branches, all longing and unsung song.
There are certain moments in culture, too, when we must especially remember, in order to stay sane, this slippery elemental fact.
Those moments and their neglected significance are what Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805–April 16, 1859) explores in a brief, intensely insightful passage from his 1835 classic Democracy in America (public library).
Since Tocqueville belongs to the long stretch of epochs predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, I have taken the liberty (a liberty I very rarely take with historical texts, for it is often ahistorical to take it, but one that feels right in this case) of rehumanizing his men as individuals and people. He writes:
At certain periods a nation may be oppressed by such insupportable evils as to conceive the design of effecting a total change in its political constitution; at other times… the existence of society itself is endangered. Such are the times of great revolutions… But between these epochs of misery and confusion there are periods during which human society seems to rest and mankind to take breath. This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.
In an analogy the physical fact of which would become the basis of Einstein’s epoch-making development of relativity many decades later, Tocqueville adds:
We imagine them to be stationary only when their progress escapes our observation, as [people] who are walking seem to be standing still to those who run.
Because this transformative stillness is so imperceptible, Tocqueville observes, and because it appears after periods of upheaval, we are apt to mistake the stillness for an end point. Nearly two centuries before psychologist Daniel Gilbert quipped that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished” in his excellent inquiry into how our present illusions hinder our future happiness, Tocqueville admonishes against this illusion of finality, as true on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of societies, nations, and civilizations:
There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.
The great gift of such periods is that they invite us to question our certitudes, our givens, these seemingly sure foundations that have lulled us into complacency — for it is only by being jolted out of our complacencies, cultural or personal, that we ever reach beyond the horizon, toward new territories of truth, beauty, and flourishing.
Complement with Thoreau on the long cycles of change, Hannah Arendt on small action as the fulcrum of our humanity, and a wonderful modern meditation on the art of waiting in an impatient culture, then revisit Pico Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness and Pablo Neruda’s timeless ode to silence.
Published April 1, 2020