Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment
By Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey.
Princeton University Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 264 pages, $27.95.
Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl.
My parents’ wish is for me to be happy is a phrase so often quoted to me during my years as a professor that I have left off the quotation marks.
Two elements of this line are particularly striking. First, the statement owned a profound philosophical genealogy unknown by the young student seated in a comfortable chair in my office. Second, it conveyed a pervasive hope on the part of their parents, who themselves must have felt a sort of sour disquiet in their own lives, that their son or daughter would not come to live as if they were stuck in an existential round-about with no exit.
It is an old story: happiness versus contentment, contentment versus happiness. My sense is that the students held a belief that happiness is a feeling, which suggests that what should be sought for in life is “feeling,” vaporous as that might be.
Perhaps Jefferson should have stayed with “property” rather than “happiness”—or at least clarified that the pursuit of happiness can be defined as a fundamental right. But something there smacks of libertarian thought: pursue life in a way that makes “you” happy as long as “you” do not do anything to violate the “rights” of others. In other words, pursue any kind of legal activity as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. Is happiness thus “protected” as one more “unenumerated” right?
I doubt any of the above was dinner table conversation between these parents and their children. Still, it seems to be a very modern quest, and one delightfully discussed in Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment authored by Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey, both political philosophers at Furman University.
Their point is provocative: philosophy is something we inherit but what we come to believe has led to discontented lives. Thus, if we wish to make changes not merely for the sake of change but to determine the undermining philosophical foundations of our common life, well, bring a pox upon those who have brought such a feverish ardor upon our common lives.
Whether our authors can do so without mentioning Tocqueville would be striking but difficult, as the French statesman, who maintained that “ever-increasing equality and prosperity do not cure restlessness,” is featured prominently throughout. There are also chapters on Montaigne, Pascal, and Rousseau before the authors finish this fine little book with a chapter on “Liberal Education and the Art of Choosing.”
The Prologue begins with an unnamed “She” who, as college graduation approaches, has over her undergraduate years systematically created a fine and full resumé. But as that date approaches, she is skittish, a reaction discordant with her accomplishments. “She” is restless. She should be happy, but is unhappy to the point where such “an absence of self-reflection [could] make [her] prone to do a senseless thing—for [she] is already doing all the sensible things and [is] still unhappy.” What is it other than pragmatism run amuck?
The issue is neither moot nor new as the professors Storey make clear, mentioning that Tocqueville, who articulated the notion that the Americans are the most “free and most enlightened . . . placed in the happiest condition in the world but [are] not content with what they [have] but [are] restless in the midst of their well-being.” Pointedly, they add tartly, achieving “happiness, here and now, appears to us not only as a desire but as a duty; immanent contentment becomes a command . . . . [I]t deepens our unhappiness by transforming it into a form of moral failure.”
The professors Storey then offer an interesting coda which might seem counterintuitive but will offer the reader a survey of classic French thinkers intimately familiar with the way pursuing happiness has helped define modern life even if most are unaware.
The issue begins with what animated human society in sixteenth-century France according to those who regarded themselves as observers of men. For Montaigne, the issue is “mere” life or “ordinary” life; but paradoxically his Essays, although laudable, on the whole offer a “new mode of self-understanding . . . . [His] own self-portrait [but also] a new kind of moral gesture . . . a reconnection of the moral life that will largely dispense with the term ‘virtue’.” We psychologically understand ourselves, but understand the human soul less so. Thus we are immanent beings rather than beings oriented toward the transcendent about which we remain skeptical and discontented.
Loyally enjoy, then, is Montaigne’s ideal, and thus better to appreciate “humanity’s manifold variety,” though his skepticism is also a practical consequence of his “idea” of moderation through variation, which through ease and balance makes up his ideal of imminent contentment and an affirmation of ordinary life. If there is a problem it lies in Montaigne’s “worldliness.” While one might presume a standard for human flourishing, it ls a remove from the classical and Christian traditions and thus not the philosophical life, or the holy life, or the heroic life—it is simply mere life, and paradoxically it becomes inhuman.
The professors Storey take up this issue in the following chapter, the frightening genius Blaise Pascal whose restlessness is truly modern. Is there enough to satisfy the restless longings of the human heart which, Pascal writes, owns a God-shaped vacuum standing in opposition to the world’s many seductive promises? Even moderate worldly contentment does not change the truth about the human soul, a conclusion quite different from what Montaigne imagined.
What happens when we come to realize at some point in our lives that we are transient beings, that time, the existential conundrum of modern man that adds cosmic unease because life has no unified form or direction, whittles away? Restlessness can take on a very desperate edge.
As I approach age 76 I have a sense of this as friends drop away. Am I to be the last among my college and professional and golfing friends still standing? Montaigne’s own age, our professors note, was “enhanced,” if that is the right word, by religious wars particularly nasty. The controversy, still with us today, over whether the words “for this is my body,” spoken by the priest when the host is elevated, are real or symbolic struck at the heart of Montaigne’s own century. “Montaigne suggests,” however, “that one ought not have one’s neighbors roasted alive over just how literally we should take that syllable.”
It sounds familiar, or at least strikes a nerve, when it seems that everything going on around us are “power games” blunting the desire for transcendence. Against this Pascal reminds us of the ancient Augustinian belief that the quest for eternal life demands the ardor of the Apostles, not religious indifference. He shines a bright light on modern permissiveness which is too fond of diversion to satisfy boredom. Ignorant also of natural law, we endlessly dispute the meaning of justice.
Pascal, our professors note, loved to quote a remark from Isaiah: “truly you are a hidden God”—at least until that single moment in history where God’s search for man becomes evident in the Incarnation. Unlike Montaigne, then, Pascal’s quest for contentment lies in the experience of conversion, of the “wandering heart touched by grace” and joy found in a community of “thinking members” whose animating principle in life is “unity in charity.”
We now turn briefly to the mad Socrates of the French Assembly, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who, unlike Pascal’s longing for the hidden God, we hope can provide some “earthly alternative to a life of meaningless diversion.” His tragedy, however, is not that we are alienated from God but are alienated from ourselves—and thus that ubiquitous modern philosophical word, “alienated.” Man is still fallen but can be redeemed by nature, though he must reject society for nature’s salvific powers to turn. He converts the biblical tale of that original and mysterious sin that caused our fall from Eden into a story of an inexplicable accident that caused our fall from nature and with that fall, modern discontent.
He imagines how man once wandered “alone through the woods; he was simple, strong, free, and as content with himself as a rabbit. His pleasures were plain but adequate: rest, nourishment, occasional coupling with the females he encountered in his solitary walks and never thought about in their absence. His most abiding pleasure was the sentiment of his own existence.” For Rousseau this natural man enjoyed a psychic equilibrium that was immanent contentment.
Thus our misery is our own making, but we can make ourselves otherwise if we only sketch out a landscape of solitary self-sufficiency from which we once came forth from nature. By doing so we not only incite soul transformation but work a revolution on our selves and our history, which will include, he suggests, the once original relations between the sexes.
It is so good to think so and so must be true.
But this charming fantasy, the Professors Storey make clear, is to refute Pascal and Christianity all at once. Rousseau may seek relief from restlessness by leaving the social world behind but he is not, strictly speaking, alone. Therese and her mother live with him at the Hermitage, and even during his bucolic walks his powerful imagination conjures images of all the women with whom he had flirted and philandered, though he believes that his heart is born to love.
Thus Rousseau, the solitary manqué, fails to find immanent contentment since the sentiment of his existence is not a state of moral satisfaction. He confesses no concern for questions of duty or justice and his reveries cannot be the full truth of human life.
Professors Storey conclude their survey in a chapter titled “Liberal Education and the Art of Choosing” and a return to how the young fixate on countless opportunities, tabulating pluses and minuses, spreadsheets keeping track of it all. It is education of a certain kind, but it focuses on answers to such questions as, “If I take this academic course will it help me get a job?”
No, but it might offer such unpretentious pleasures as having something to contribute at a cocktail party. Perhaps a liberal education is less dramatic preparation for the “work force” and more how to live a life of “reflective daring.” Moreover, where in the world of work can one find islands of patience where one can encounter the whole of history, unless it’s not the world of work but our colleges and universities, assuming they have become degraded wastelands.
I once had in Great Books a “he” and a “she” who were respectively handsome and beautiful and on their way in life together without a qualm of worry. We were reading the Book of Job. Job’s story was troubling. I may have said something about how some malevolent thing lurks out there and its desire is for you and to drive you to your knees in despair—you know, fearful symmetry, beast in the jungle, or some mystic line we all arrive at and cross over.
I analogized by suggesting that trains do go off the track and we can all confront experiences in life that are disillusioning. Experience is sometimes a tragic swamp, but even so we know that our Redeemer lives.
Life went its merry and happy way and our young couple welcomed their first child into their lives. One night my phone rang, and when I answered the young couple explained that a disturbing experience had occurred and they said they had crossed that mystic line: their child had suffered a crib death. But out of their sadness they were calling to say “thanks” because although their train had gone off the track and they felt as if they were camped out on a dung hill and felt incompetent to understand this shock to their happiness, they believed that even with this great misery and grief, they had arrived at a self-knowledge and faith that our Redeemer lives.
Well, I said, the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.
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