It is a tall task to make thinkers like Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville palatable to the modern, everyday reader. Such transcendent minds would have to be made imminently relatable. Somehow, Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey not only accomplish the task, but do so beautifully in their work Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.
I must confess that I’m a sucker for such stories as I—along with so many others—try to better understand our present cultural moment. Why are we so hellbent on finding happiness within ourselves, and so incapable of achieving that happiness in practice? This question is answered in part by tracing a story that begins centuries ago in France and continues to the present day in America.
The authors begin with Michel de Montaigne, who, in reaction to decades of religious wars with their dogmas, opted for a life of “immanent contentment.” This consisted in the everyday enjoyment of living, unbounded by any higher purposes. In a sense, the best life lived is simply your life…simply lived. This quest to find contentment within should sound familiar to the modern American reader. This is the point. Montaigne was hugely influential in the ages that followed and has left his mark on our present culture. At the same time, we should not miss the fact that Montaigne’s inward quest—much like our own—was a reaction to outward crises. Living by our inner lights seems much safer when the outer lights all seem broken and leave us groping in the dark.
Related to Montaigne’s quest for immanent contentment was his desire for “unqualified approbation”—the desire to be unconditionally accepted by others. This would seem a requirement for immanent content to work. How can one find contentment within if that quest is not fully embraced by others? Again, you find the shadows of wars and dogmas behind Montaigne’s desire for universal acceptance, and also a precursor to the desire for unqualified acceptance—“tolerance”—today.
For me, the highlight of the book is found in Montaigne’s critic, Blaise Pascal. He could see that the “truths of both religion and science drive us to see that our quest for immanent contentment is bound to fail” (57). Human nature is much darker than Montaigne supposes, and misery meets those who make happiness their goal. Many “know from experience that our pleasures are not always our friends and those who wink at them are not really our allies” (61). Mankind, according to Pascal, faces a dilemma: “We are incapable of not wanting truth and happiness, yet we are incapable of either truth of happiness” (66).
Pascal’s insights are penetrating. He was able to critique the pursuit of immanent contentment at the ground level: it is not only oblivious to the real world, it doesn’t lead to real happiness. “Human beings want happiness and truth, not supercilious self-satisfaction fenced about with lies” (72). The only way to deal with the brokenness of this world is to take it seriously and look for happiness where it can truly be found. The gap between the pursuit of happiness and its achievement can only be reconciled by the God who created us for so much more than our fleeting desires could possibly imagine.
As if to prove the point, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried heroically to achieve Montaigne’s ideal through a variety of methods—finding happiness through citizenship, sociability, and solitude. Every quest was doomed to failure—both in Rousseau’s writing and in his personal experience. In reading this chapter, I cannot help but think of Ecclesiastes and the quests for happiness “under the sun.” All those quests were also bound for failure. As are all such quests today. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
One small critique at this point: the chapter on Rousseau’s gets a bit tedious and confusing—perhaps reflecting the man himself. It is harder to trace the trajectory of his thinking than in previous chapters on other thinkers. After the thrill of Pascal, getting bogged down with Rousseau might tempt one to get leave the rest of the book off—but don’t. The authors land this plane in convincing fashion with Tocqueville and his observations about America.
It turns out that “even the unnerving skepticism for which Montaigne is famous becomes, in democratic America, the instinctive intellectual disposition of an entire nation, much to Tocqueville’s astonishment” (144). This applies to religion as well, as Tocqueville wrote to a friend, “there is a great store of doubt hidden beneath the external forms of American religious observance” (156). Among the many ways in which America is unique in human history, the quest for immanent contentment certainly stands as one of the deepest and most influential trends.
But Tocqueville, like Pascal, sees the dark side of this unique national experiment—“that ever-increasing equality and prosperity do not cure restlessness but entrench it: our unease is the product of our success” (144). Concerning religion, he wrote that though it “never directly takes part in the government of society…it must ‘nonetheless be considered as the first of [American] political institutions,’ for it helps men learn to use their liberty well and keeps them from believing the dangerous doctrine that ‘everything is allowed in the interests of society’” (171).
These insights of Tocqueville set the stage for the conclusion of the authors. The “immanent frame is cracking, whether we like it or not” (179). The seeds of the present American discord and disorder—where everyone seeks but can’t find happiness within—were planted at its founding. And this immanent frame naturally leads to restlessness and discontent. We do not know where this restlessness will lead us politically, but it is likely that many Americans will turn anew to the transcendent in a way that would strike our Enlightenment forebears as quite medieval.
If this assessment is correct, then we as Christians will have challenges and opportunities in the days ahead. The widespread disillusionment in our culture and subsequent anger and angst can leave us disoriented—especially when directed against us. At the same time, the search for happiness within was always a doomed project. What alternatives will be embraced? How can we engage such alternatives to the glory of God? While a distinctly American quest—founded in France—comes to an end, the quest for Christians to be salt and light in all ages continues unabated.
This book is a great read for pastors, theologians, and Christians who want to think deeply and critically about the culture. It is not beach reading. It’s value will not come in its massive dissemination throughout the church, but in its ability to shape the thinking of those tasked with helping the church to critically engage the culture in the years to come. For that reason alone, this book will find its way into quite a few theological libraries, and deservedly so.