Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews

American Restlessness

Why do good fortune and prosperity leave so many of us unhappy?

Matt Dinan

Untitled (detail), 1979, by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008); private collection; Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; 2022 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | American Restlessness

I am trying, in reviewing Why We Are Restless, an excellent new book by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, to keep myself out of it. My usual essayistic approach, I fear, will lead a reader to think that I object to the book’s diagnosis of what went wrong with the modern world more than I do. Besides, the tendency of critics to involve themselves in their reviews is irritating, and surely an example of the type of Montaignean introspection that may well be making us restless. But Why We Are Restless stands out among other books like it by answering the question implied by its title with rigor and charity, by (mostly) succeeding in presenting the view it contests “in terms of the most decent human aspirations.” Cataloguing one’s own restlessness, or subjecting readers to one’s bargain-bin Tocquevillian observations about the United States of America, would veer dangerously into the Montaignean territory here scrutinized. I will make an attempt (essai), in other words, to share some thoughts (pensées) about this fine book.

The authors, both professors of politics and international affairs at Furman University, provide a sympathetic account of contemporary American—and more than American—restlessness. The difficult questions they address: Why precisely are the most fortunate of us the most restless? Why do good fortune and prosperity leave so many of us unhappy? How can our private, individual restlessness explain our public, political sclerosis? Storey and Silber Storey argue that we are restless because, following Michel de Montaigne, we have tried too hard and in the wrong ways not to be. Montaigne replaces older accounts of happiness, they say, with a view they call “immanent contentment,” and define as the pursuit of a life “honest, free, and real.” For Montaigne, the French Renaissance humanist and prolific essayist, the classical and Christian attempts to direct our longings toward transcendence have not only failed to make us happy, but have obscured what happiness is available to human beings as human beings. This means that the human good should be as various as human beings themselves. Montaigne attempts to circumscribe restlessness by turning our gaze inward, leading us to understand ourselves as immanent “selves” rather than souls with transcendent longings.

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