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.

The end of restlessness, in this scheme, can be achieved by submersion in immanence. Nature, not grace, completes the human being. One avoids lists of sins and solemn vows, focusing instead on the art of living an ordinary life, the life of a self. Montaigne’s Essays are writings about himself: “I am myself the subject of my book.” Happiness cannot come from anywhere else. Storey and Silber Storey wade through the seeming pastiche of Montaigne’s Essays, locating in them a consistent theory of immanent contentment, one that moves from circumspect introspection to friendship based in “immediate approbation” (“because it was he; because it was me”) and a politically conservative quietism, in which the acceptance of the mores of one’s time and place need to suffice, lest they distract from, or even destroy, the art of living. They display an important virtue one associates with the best teachers: allowing a thinker with whom one disagrees to speak most winsomely for himself. Although critical of Montaigne, the book still presents his ideas as a viable and attractive response to the question of how one ought to live.

But Why We Are Restless also shows the reception and critique of immanent contentment in the thought of three other French moralistes: Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Pascal offers a formidable Christian alternative to immanent contentment, Rousseau accepts elements of Pascal’s critique in a “tragic” quest to save immanent contentment from bourgeois corruption, and Tocqueville’s diagnosis of what happens when immanent contentment—“the carefree delight of the sophisticated few”—instead “becomes the serious demand of the earnest many” in American democracy. Each chapter opens with a brief historical account of the thinker’s context, and his biography, especially in relation to the Montaignean revolution of immanent contentment. Genuinely readable, accessible without oversimplifying, and mostly attentive to textual nuance while advancing a persuasive overall argument, this book is a good example of the sort of “public humanities” title that should appeal to everyone from scholars of political theory to culturally engaged general readers.

The hero of the book is Blaise Pascal, whose Augustinian criticism of Montaigne gets lost amid the excitement and optimism of early modern Europe, despite its influence on Rousseau and Tocqueville. As a preeminent natural scientist, trenchant Christian thinker, and habitué of stylish Parisian salons, Pascal was well situated to evaluate the project of immanent contentment. For him, although this project is meant to vindicate nature, it “takes place in the context of a universe that science relentlessly demonstrates to be no home for man. Truly thinking scientific modernism through intensifies rather than blunts our need for transcendence,” Storey and Silber Storey write. Pascal argues that the diversions of immanent contentment only worsen the problem of restlessness: “Put the soul at rest, and it longs for activity; put the soul in motion and it longs for rest. In neither does it find contentment.” Human desires “radically outstrip” human possibilities, and misery is sure to follow from “any honest estimate of the gap between what we are and what we want.” What is more, there is no “self” to cultivate with the art of living. The self cannot be defined except with reference to qualities that we can love or hate, praise or blame. Any self described outside of these qualities, Pascal suggests, is a mere abstraction. Even worse, any self we can discover will be only hateful, miserable—for such are the honest fruits of the pursuit of immanence. And so we must confront the need for transcendence, effecting a moral transformation that can be achieved only through divine grace, recognizing that what is most essential about the human being is the presence of the universal being: “It is what I most of all am.” Storey and Silber Storey thus observe that while Montaigne speaks exclusively of himself, Pascal peers “into the deepest recesses of human fear and sadness,” even though his pensées tell us “almost nothing particular about their author’s life.”

The chapters on Rousseau and Tocqueville show how Pascal’s critique of Montaigne inspired these two trenchant critics of bourgeois society. Rousseau’s reinterpretations of nature, history, education, citizenship, and the self are, in the authors’ view, a tragic attempt to “find a form of immanent contentment equal to the challenge of Pascal’s biblical pessimism.” Tocqueville, on the other hand, attempts to leverage Pascal’s wisdom to instruct American democracy—to save it from itself. Why We Are Restless emphasizes how Tocqueville’s America is a society “that strips away veils, demolishes roles, and annihilates social distance,” leaving “its citizens feeling exposed, helpless and uneasy.” When everyone tries to live like Montaigne, social forms melt away, and with them ontological ones. Montaigne’s attempt to live beautifully culminates in a society that, at its worst, restlessly forgets that humans are forms. The authors quote Edmund Spenser, who summarizes Aristotle thus: “For of the soul the body form doth take; / for soul is form, and doth the body make.” A world without form isn’t necessarily freer and more equal; its fluidity can justify the most terrible impositions. Democratic nonchalance can in this way resolve into soft despotism because of its faulty philosophical anthropology.

Why We Are Restless ends with a call for a “small but critical shift in perspective” by which our restlessness can be transformed into a “purposeful adventure.” True liberal education is the place where restless hearts can become discerning, and where the closed self can become an open soul. It is a stirring and consistent defense of liberal education. But by placing so much emphasis on philosophical anthropology, the book risks accusations of failing to attend—as do Rousseau and Tocqueville—to the material conditions contributing to our restlessness: Surely the rise of capitalism is a complicating part of the story and needs to be accounted for in any solution.

As for me (as an essayist, it’s time I reappeared for the conclusion), since I agree that much rests on getting anthropology right, I am left with questions about whether “the self” is truly the great mistake of modern philosophy, or even a necessarily modern idea. After all, “autos” is the first word spoken in Plato’s Phaedo, a dialogue rife with unpersuasive arguments about the immortality of the soul, but also heavy on details about the significance of the life of a very idiosyncratic person, Socrates—a person who will die and be mourned. You can’t mourn a form. When Pascal famously sewed his “Memorial” into the lining of his coat—“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars”—he described a personal God who addresses persons. God is not only “I am who am,” but a God who bears a name, and calls human beings by name. Not just for Pascal but for all Christians, the transcendent Logos is also a personal God—redemption rests on a paradox.

I’m persuaded, then, of the urgent need for an intellectual recovery of form, soul, and transcendence, but I worry that submerging the individual in the universal is a different, maybe older, sort of the formlessness Why We Are Restless counsels against. I left the book thinking that Montaigne’s vision of the good life remains appealing because our world seems governed by impersonal forces, and it insists on the significance of the single individual. I then wondered: Can’t we be selves who transcend ourselves? Can we affirm what’s good, what’s mysterious, about our peculiar immanence while wondering about the universal? I think we should try.