Why We Are Restless by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey
Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment
Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey
Princeton University Press
Price:$27.95 / £22.00
Published (US):Apr 6, 2021
Published (UK):May 11, 2021
I am an avid reader of Tricycle magazine which publishes Buddhist teachings, practices, and critiques. While browsing their recommended reading list, I came across Benjamin and Jenna Storey’s Why We Are Restless. One of those titles that aim at the human condition, something that interests me. But I did not anticipate the contents of the book from the title. Little did I know it would be my introduction to Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). Benjamin and Jenna Storey run the distinguished Tocqueville Forum at Furman University. Their expertise has a commanding presence throughout the book. This is a particularly difficult book to review because it does not fall into genres of self-help, pop psychology, therapy, or an airport-store-business-success book. It is a deeply researched book with dense liberal arts learning, copious notes, and immaculately structured sentences that stumped me for months. It is a book for serious contemplation. Pick up this book and you can have decades of learning stemming from the ideas presented here.
It begins with Michel de Montaigne. Amidst France’s sixteenth-century religious wars arose secular thinkers and writers known as the moralists. The moralists examined the modern notion of the ‘self’ and humanity’s problems and questioned the prevailing religious and social temperature in France. Montaigne’s vision to navigate what he calls the l’humaine condition is to learn to loyally enjoy said condition- to find immanent happiness. Instead of seeking a philosophic life that transcends day-to-day banalities, Montaigne invites us to nourish the self by simply living and embracing a balance between our restless inner lives by seeking contentment in our social spheres. But in the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal disagrees with Montaigne. For him, immanent contentment is a temporary phase and humans are dissatisfied because they are removed from God. A tricky disposition to find ourselves in this modern world. Personally, I do not identify with a religious faith or practice and yet Pascal brought me close to questioning faith and the lack thereof.
Modern human beings can follow their passions and pleasures, indulge idle or even voyeuristic curiosities, accumulate wealth, and achieve ambitions with less shame or need for an apology than their forebears. But doing so seems only to add to the mounting pile of evidence that the decisive obstacles to immanent contentment do not lie in the laws and moral norms modern peoples so relentlessly critique and overturn. The unhappiness that remains when such liberations have succeeded must have its source not in our laws but in ourselves.
I am still struggling with his viewpoint. If not God, then what? Here comes Rousseau who agrees with Pascal to an extent. According to him, we are unhappy because we are alienated from ourselves. And for Rousseau, the way forward is embracing solitude in nature. In his seminal work Émile, he attempts to elevate this bourgeois discontent through familial happiness, public service, and the vulnerability and uncertainty that comes through these. On the other hand, opting for radical solitude has its caveats too. Ultimately, we are back to where we began with or without immanent contentment. Finally, in Tocqueville’s observations from America, the drive for immanent enjoyment spearheaded by technological industriousness has been democratized. So, the initial Montaignean drive has become the tool of the social and political atmosphere in today’s world.
Such is the democratic interpretation of Montaigne’s contentment made immanent, purged of the outré elements of the life of the aristocratic libertine. The conditions of happiness so understood show up in the numbers, from life expectancy to GDP growth, which is our national pride.
The Storeys leave us with a rich repository of thought processes from historical thinkers that aim at dissatisfaction, dissociation, and burnout of our modern selves. This book is a starting point for lifelong learning of centuries of philosophical inquiries. Even if immanent contentment sounds exciting, the pursuit of philosophical questions might help assuage our general malaise. A case for resisting philosophy in our lives is given in the book.
We resist philosophy because we fear that it might cause us to miss out on life, that the happiness we could seize here and now might pass us by while we are transfixed by thinking.
Something to pause and think about as we rush toward the next fix.