Restless Hearts in America

In the past few years, two kinds of books have continued to appear, especially among religious or conservative writers. First, there’s the book that identifies the thinkers that got us into the mess that we’re in, whether they flowered in the late Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, or the 1960s. A subset of this genre focuses on political liberalism (variously defined), arguing that the problem is specifically the failure of our liberal order, misbegotten from its birth because of its view of liberty. A second class of books focuses on liberal education: what it is and why we should defend and practice it.

Benjamin and Jenna Storey’s Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment touches on both themes. For them, our core problem is not one of liberalism or expressive individualism per se, but how we conceive of ourselves and our happiness. Tocqueville writes that Americans are “the most free and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition in the world,” but that for all that they are “restless in the midst of their well-being.” This is perhaps most pronounced among the privileged: the all-star college senior paralyzed by the opportunities before her, or the young hedge-fund analyst with lots of money but no script for a happy life.

The Storeys argue that while modern philosophical anthropology has proven to be compelling, “our long experiment of living in light of that anthropology has at this point revealed its serious limitations.” In order to understand and begin to remedy our personal and political discontents, we should reconsider the arguments that have shaped us, especially those of four French thinkers: Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This will help “cultivate the imagination we need to see our past with gratitude, our present with clarity, and our prospects with sobriety.” Moral imagination will in turn shape the political prudence we need for navigating our restless age, both personally and as a society.

In the wake of the wars of religion, Montaigne sought to lower the horizon of human happiness from the eternal to the every-day, in part to limit the destructive power of transcendent desires and ideals. Our aim should not be the glory of classical heroes or the eternal life of Christian saints, but “immanent contentment,” happiness in the pleasures and pursuits of everyday life. If we vary our pleasures, we will never become too attached or depend on one for our happiness. If we but focus and train ourselves, remembering that we are animals and not angels or demigods, the natural world can be enough.

Montaigne “challenges us to stay chez nous, to learn to be at home within ourselves and within our world, and to cease measuring our lives against any transcendent goal or standard.” This truncation changes the immortal soul as the ancients and medievals understood it into the modern self. It teaches us that we can best know our own life, not judge the life of our neighbor. The Storeys see immanent contentment as the framework for our political debates, the “substantial unspoken consensus about the constituent elements of a life well lived.” Right and left tacitly agree that economic gain and social approbation make us happy but disagree as to the means of attaining them. We bracket transcendent political goals to focus on the pursuit of happiness in this life, not to prepare our countrymen for the next.

When I discussed Why We Are Restless with a group of graduate students, a young woman admitted that she had tried Montaigne’s experiment. Wrestling with her own religious convictions, she determined that she would not let intimations of transcendence in the world pierce her. She found herself happier and more productive but not more satisfied. One day she broke down and let beauty and higher aspirations back in, relieved to discover that the desire for the transcendent could not be extinguished.

This student saw Montaigne’s project as doomed to failure and immediately concurred with Pascal’s critique of it. Pascal aims to convince the Montaignean gentlemen around him that they are unhappier than they know. Genteel nonchalance and varied pleasures distract us from living deeply and fail to address the evil in ourselves and the world around us. They look “less like a healthy constraint of our restless desires and more like a self-alienating truncation of our god-seeking souls.” For Pascal, self-knowledge begins with an open acknowledgement of our own unhappiness, our dissatisfaction at the difference between life as it is and as it ought to be. Wrestling with that unhappiness takes him through a consideration of Epictetus, Montaigne, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Pascal concludes his search: “The universal good is within us; it is ourselves and not us.” The deepest part of the self is, in fact, something outside it.

If this is so, then immanent contentment seeks to cut us off from the ground of our being, the one who makes us most deeply ourselves. It is not a source of liberation, but alienation. As the Storeys put it, for Pascal, “human beings are quite simply incapable of resting content on the plane of humanity. Indeed, the quest for immanent contentment leaves the restless human heart more anxious than ever, for modernity’s very success in remaking the world in man’s image allows us to see, with terrifying clarity, that a human life is not the sort of problem a psychological stratagem can solve.”

Why We Are Restless is a rich analysis of why we are unhappy and what we might begin to do about it.

The Storeys present Rousseau as seeking a third way between the diversion of Montaigne’s diversion and Pascal’s search for God. Rousseau believed that our unhappiness was the result of our alienation not from God but from ourselves and that we find our redemption not in God but in nature. They see Rousseau’s life as a set of lived experiments to test “whether human happiness and love are possible on the basis of modern principles and in the absence of help from the personal God of the Bible.” The first of these attempts is to find immanent contentment through citizenship. But the integrity of a citizen requires “the annihilation of all human attachments that might compromise our political wholeheartedness. It requires that we become denatured.”

Ultimately, Rousseau is unwilling to pay this price. He leaves Paris but, instead of returning to a civic life in Geneva, he moves to the Hermitage on the grounds of the chateau of his friend Madame d’Epinay. There and in his book Emile, he explores not the civic triumph over nature, but the immanent contentment of coupled happiness. As Rousseau’s own succession of lovers and his sequel to Emile demonstrate, this attempt fails as well. Human love is fragile, fickle, and subject to misfortune—ultimately unable to prove durable against the storms of life.

The Savoyard Vicar in Emile offers another possibility: contentment not in the city or in a couple but in ourselves. The Vicar professes a natural religion of sentiment in which human feelings replace transcendent happiness, morality, and judgment. He teaches that “the greatest enjoyment is contentment with oneself.” Rousseau seeks to live this self-contentment out in solitude, first in long walks at the Hermitage and then on St. Peter’s Island in the middle of a Swiss lake. Rousseau immerses himself in the goodness of his own existence and loses himself in his reveries. These provide moments of contentment, but not a coherent way of life.

In the end, Rousseau’s experiments in a deeper immanent contentment fail, both in his life and in his works. His citizenship denatures man. The life of a couple is subject to sorrow. Solitude is likewise an inconsistent source of happiness: “Rousseau can never be enough for himself for long.” Rousseau called his corpus a “sad and great system”; the Storeys call it tragic, the failure of a great attempt at living out the principles behind the modern pursuit of happiness. Whether pursuing it alone or with others, immanent contentment leaves us restless and not permanently happy.

But Rousseau’s failure hasn’t kept many from trying his experiments themselves, especially the bourgeois, whose social ascent during and after the Enlightenment allowed them to pursue immanent contentment on a new scale. The United States became a society organized around the bourgeoisie and therefore around the pursuit of bourgeois happiness. During his sojourn in the US, the Storeys write, Alexis de Tocqueville became “the great political anthropologist of Montaignean modernity,” and his study of Pascal allowed him to adapt his critique of modern, Montaignean man. He sees that the more successful Americans are in their pursuit of immanent happiness, the more discontented they will be: “our unease is the product of our success.” Tocqueville’s attempt to teach democracy self-knowledge is an attempt to show how what democratic man strives for will never be enough.

In Tocqueville’s analysis, the core ideas of democratic society are the sentiment of human resemblance, the feeling that all human beings are naturally equal in an ontological way, and the suspicion of social and intellectual forms. These in turn have two intellectual consequences: a skepticism of the past and the received wisdom of tradition, and an impatient pragmatism focused on what we can do ourselves right now. This means that even though Americans are a religious people, their religion is plagued by a new kind of doubt. Americans are ever on the move, hard at work and climbing social ladders. But their society has stripped away its social forms and roles, leaving “its citizens exposed, helpless, and uneasy.” Without social forms, it becomes harder to know yourself and your place in the world, which in turn makes one’s pursuit of happiness formless and elusive.

“Eventually,” the Storeys conclude, “democratic politics comes to reflect the anger that wells up under the pressure of unease and loneliness.” A society organized around a goal that cannot make it happy is doomed to breakdown. The Storeys’ prescription is a liberal education that seeks to train students—especially the elite students who will direct our society—to reconsider transcendent sources of meaning, fulfillment, and moral truth as they order their lives. They need a renewed moral imagination to prudently act for their own benefit and for that of society as a whole.

The book itself is a demonstration of this liberal education in practice, a chair at the seminar table in a master class with two winsome teachers. It is a delight to read and engaging to teach. Its analysis is subtle and, ultimately, persuasive. Nevertheless, the Storeys’ account fails to account for the quasi-religious thirst and zeal that many Americans have shown in the past years. Our struggles over global warming, Trump vs Biden, COVID-19, and identity politics are marked less by doubt and anomie than by conflicting dogged certitudes and transcendent desires for redemption masked as immanent ones. Unease and loneliness play a role, but these conflicts are fueled by the zeal of American faith—of religious dreams deferred, not doubted. We can understand this as a variation on Pascal’s critique: our desires for God, transcendent purpose, and a redeemed world can be redirected, but not extinguished.

The Storeys clearly share Pascal’s critique of immanent contentment, see it as the source of the cracks in the liberal establishment, and want to turn to transcendent sources of wisdom and happiness to better understand and rectify our unhappiness. They think that truncating the transcendent has made us unhappy and harmed our politics, but they appreciate the real goods present in our liberal order.

However, an increasing number of younger readers will wonder why they fail to take this argument to its logical conclusion: if we need to recover a sense of transcendent happiness and not recoil from it because of the Wars of Religion, why not call for a full-blown religious politics? If transcendent contentment is what ultimately makes us happy, why not work for a politics in which society is organized around its pursuit? Perhaps an implicit response to this lies in the Storeys’ call for prudence, but it would be interesting to see them explore this question in future writing. Until then, Why We Are Restless is a rich analysis of why we are unhappy and what we might begin to do about it.