Our students are sometimes accused of being part of a cult. They organize poetry nights instead of pub crawls, and they converse with old books as if they were old friends. They dress up and comb their hair before coming to class. They call each other by last names—Mr. Hutchinson and Ms. Kendrick—rather than Jacob or Emily.

These habits, we admit, they picked up from us. We learned them from our teachers, who inherited them from a still older generation. Such customs were meant to help young people figure out how to take up their part in life, to learn from each other and the past, and to think respectfully about what they owed the future. They were outward forms that helped people tame their inner demons so that they might live well together.

Today, many regard such forms and habits as alien impositions, strange and slightly suspect. What was once recognized as culture now often looks like a cult.

This suspicion of formality is, we think, the deepest reason for the declining trust in institutions, a problem to which thinkers such as Yuval Levin have drawn our attention. Levin rightly points out that institutions lose our confidence when they fail to exercise formative power over their members. Institutions should be “molds”: the army is meant to shape raw recruits into disciplined soldiers; the legal profession is meant to shape clever strivers into meticulous judges. When institutions neglect this role, they devolve into mere “platforms”—giving people privilege and prominence without demanding that they abide by a professional code of conduct. Institutions that have become corrupted in this way naturally attract our suspicion.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Levin recommends that we rededicate ourselves to our institutions. To do so, we will have to understand the deepest reasons why cultural formation has come to seem cultish.

Democracy and the Distrust of Forms

Fifty years ago, as Levin notes, American institutions enjoyed more trust and exercised more power. But he also suggests the American distrust of institutions goes back much further than the 1960s, when the rise of performative unkemptness made displaying one’s dissidence de rigeur. Levin sees this distrust of institutions as rooted in America’s “culture of dissenting Protestantism,” with its deep-seated suspicion of the ways in which institutionalization can distort the things we hold most sacred.

Alexis de Tocqueville might broaden our view of this phenomenon even further. He suggests that instinctive distrust of institutions extends well beyond the bounds of Protestantism. Democracy itself, Tocqueville suggests, begets a suspicion of what he called forms. His effort to “instruct democracy” includes a cautionary tale about the unsettling place to which our doubts about forms, and the formative power of institutions, can lead us. It also encourages what he calls “an enlightened and thoughtful cult” of forms as the antidote to this self-destructive tendency of the democratic mind and heart.

Democracy itself, Tocqueville suggests, begets a suspicion of what he called forms.


From Ballrooms to Showrooms

What are forms? The word itself can seem strange to the democratic reader of Democracy in America, perhaps because forms are precisely those things the democratic mind is instinctively inclined not to recognize.

Forms have both a social meaning and a metaphysical one. To learn to perceive and understand them, it helps to begin with the social, following Tocqueville in his characteristic method of showing us ourselves by reminding us of what we intend to negate and oppose. Forms, or formalities, defined the way of life democracy undermines and displaces so as to establish its own dominance. They are central features of the social and political life of aristocracy.

In the aristocratic world, the observation of formalities structured all of social life. One addressed people by their proper titles: “my lord,” “my lady,” “your grace,” “your highness.” One went through the prescribed motions, from bowing and curtseying in the ballroom to kneeling and crossing oneself in church. One had to dress one’s part, and to know one’s place in the ranks of men, so as not to dishonor oneself by placing oneself too low or give insult to others by placing oneself too high.

Democratic peoples reject such formalities as so much noxious fluff. We tend to see these forms as “useless and inconvenient veils between us and the truth.” We are forever wary of flattery and sleights of hand—the feints of the car dealer’s showroom that serve to part fools from their money. We know that nice manners may mask ugly intentions, and that conventional hierarches may do injustice to the claims of both need and merit. We prefer frank speech and hard facts—cutting to the chase and getting down to brass tacks, as we sometimes say. These democratic turns of speech mark a deep instinct of the democratic mind, which, in rejecting form, concentrates on its metaphysical alternative: matter.

Democratic peoples trust matter—tangible stuff one can see, count, and even taste. Such a predilection need not be extravagant. The “taste for material well-being” Tocqueville observed was not “a question of building vast palaces,” but of “adding a few feet to [one’s] fields, of planting an orchard, of enlarging a house, of making life easier and more comfortable each moment.” That taste remains dominant in our time, suitably updated, as we comfort ourselves with new countertops, special pairs of shoes, the little indulgence of a fancy cup of coffee in the morning or a clever cocktail at sunset. Then as now, we expend incalculable energy devising, acquiring, arranging and rearranging the myriad commodities with which we fill our lives.

Forms have both a social meaning and a metaphysical one.


From Small Indulgences to Formless Selves

Such materialism in taste need not lead to materialism in metaphysics. But habits of heart inflect habits of mind; we fix our thoughts where we store our treasure. “Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments,” Tocqueville observes. “This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that everything is only matter.” By focusing our minds on the effort to acquire the tangible elements of well-being, item by item, we habituate ourselves to believing that matter is all that matters.

And the potency of matter, of things we can see and touch, is indeed undeniable. Nails and 2-by-4s make the homes we live in; wool and cotton constitute the garments that clothe us. Indeed, the chemicals coursing through our brains make the difference between good moods and bad. Particularly when our materialist sensibility turns inward, when we use it to understand and inflect our inner lives, we quickly come to wonder whether material cause and effect are not sufficient to explain everything. After all, if my inmost states of being can be produced by a pill, what need is there for any other sort of explanation?

Such metaphysical materialism leads us to doubt our very capacity for meaningful action. If we identify ourselves with passive emotional states—feelings that are at bottom chemicals, instincts that are ultimately hard-wired—in what sense do we ever do and not merely suffer? Seeing this vein of thought at work in the study of human affairs, Tocqueville argues that democratic historians tend to discount the importance of the deeds of great actors and explain human history in sweeping chains of cause and effect, subordinating human action to the dictates of “blind fatality.” We imagine an entirely material world whose motions are determined by an unbreakable causal sequence extending to the beginning of time.

In such a world, active and potent human souls shaping events through reflection, choice, and action are reduced to epiphenomena. We come to wonder whether we are nothing more than “powerless transient being[s] in an organically generated cyberspace,” as one advocate for this view has put it.

Why Form Matters

This metaphysical materialism makes it very difficult for us even to perceive form. And yet it is form that constitutes a person, making a living, acting, thinking being out of inert material stuff. The matter that constitutes us passes in and out without ceasing; every atom of our bodies is replaced many times in a life. It is soul, Aristotle’s “organic form”—“the integrated vital powers of a natural organic body” as Leon Kass has put it—that persists, governing the process of metabolism, not only for human beings but for everything that lives.

Soul, not body, is the ultimate cause of eating, transforming berries into a blue jay or bread into Ben. Edmund Spenser has turned this Aristotelian truth into poetry: “for of the soul the body form doth take; / for soul is form, and doth the body make.” Soul, organic form, alone persists through and presides over the constant replacement of our material stuff. To ignore form is to discount the most real and enduring aspect of ourselves.

If we do not understand the work form does in making a person out of the ceaseless flux of matter, we will not intentionally participate in that work. Indeed, we will become suspicious of everything that imposes form upon us, which seems an oppressive and illegitimate restriction of matter’s tendency to go its own way, or a mask for material domination. We dream of a world in which everything is free to go with the flow, not understanding that such a world would exclude the very human selves we hope to liberate.

Experience, though, teaches that form’s power is no less real than that of matter. If we do not make habit intention’s servant, it will form us against our intentions. Our bodies bear the impress of where we live, what we eat, how we move, stand, and sit. Our minds, too, take on the shape of our habitual thoughts: the mind that laughs keeps laughing; the mind that rages keeps raging.

If we are to shape ourselves and our world intentionally, we must take our bearings by something other than matter, forever in flux. Indeed, we do so all the time, however little that activity makes sense from the point of view of the materialism that is our default metaphysics. While buildings are made of lumber and iron, they are made by architects and carpenters: human agents who direct the motion of matter to embody an idea. While human lives are always embodied, they, too, can be patterned after a hope, an image—from the philosophers’ ways of life to Buddha’s eightfold path to the way of the cross.

We dream of a world in which everything is free to go with the flow, not understanding that such a world would exclude the very human selves we hope to liberate.


The Enlightened Cult of Forms

Recognizing that what it means to live a life is to participate in giving form to matter can allow us to see that the formative work that shapes us necessarily extends far beyond the effort we make to shape ourselves. Our deepest formation begins in the cradle, at the family dinner table, in the songs we sing and the stained glass at which we wonder well before we reach self-consciousness. Our characters bear the impress, for better and worse, of the human world in which we find ourselves through no choice of our own; we think our inmost thoughts in the words of a language that came to us as a gift.

When we understand that our selves are inevitably formed by institutions, from family and schools to teams and churches, which we did not make but which do make us, we can begin to see why the knee-jerk skepticism toward such entities among us simply defies reality. We may then learn to appreciate the work such institutions do, making characters and a human world out of so much meaningless matter.

We will still criticize and reform institutions—indeed, we will do so more seriously and effectively for better understanding their immense power in our lives. Too often, contemporary critiques of institutions are powerless, because they do not understand that a counter-culture must itself be a culture. To see this, we must cease to imagine that a world without form, or the institutions that help form us, is possible. Only when we exorcise the enticing specter of formless freedom that haunts our imaginations will we be able to distinguish mindless cults from mindful cultures.

This essay is adapted from Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, available from Princeton University Press.