Restless Amidst Prosperity and Freedom

with Benjamin Storey,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch  (00:19):

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk, I’m Richard Reinsch. Today we’re with Benjamin Storey, talking about a new book he has co-authored with Jenna Silber Storey entitled Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment. His co-author, also his wife, Jenna Silber Storey couldn’t be with us, but Ben will do a great job talking about the book. Ben is the Jane Gage Hipp Professor of Politics and International Affairs and is the director of the Tocqueville Program at Furman. Jenna Silber Storey is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs, and Executive Director of the Tocqueville Program at Furman University. Ben, we’re glad to have you on the program.

Benjamin Storey (01:00):

It’s an honor to be here and talk with you, Richard. Thanks so much for having me on.

Richard Reinsch  (01:04):

Excellent. So, I’ll just ask you a straightforward question here: why are we restless?

Benjamin Storey (01:10):

Well, thanks for the question. It’s obviously prompted by the title of the book. Your question requires a two-pronged answer. In the first place, human beings are naturally restless. Saint Augustine famously remarks at the outset of the confessions, that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And so in some ways, restlessness is a permanent part of the human condition. But the restlessness that we’re trying to trace in this book is more specifically a modern kind of restlessness that is a restlessness that springs from trying and failing to make one’s self content within the confines of imminence, that is trying to make one’s self content in the here and now. And we think that one of the things that defines modern life, is the widespread attempt to find happiness in an imminent way, an attempt that we keep trying to consummate, but that’s a project in which we continually fail. And so those failures to find happiness in this imminent way, that failure gives rise to the kind of restlessness that we’re describing in this book.

Richard Reinsch  (02:32):

You mentioned, or you’ve discuss at length I should say, four figures: Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau and Tocqueville. Maybe we’ll just try Montaigne here. Who was he, and how does he contribute to this sort of predicament?

Benjamin Storey (02:47):

Yeah. Montaigne is the first figure that we deal with in the book. And Michel de Montaigne is a 16th century French essayist, he’s the father of the literary form known as the essay. That is, nobody ever called a piece of writing an essay until Montaigne did so. He lived in the midst of France’s wars of religion, which lasted for most of his adult life, second half of the 16th century. And he looked around him, at his contemporaries who were ready to kill one another over the meaning of pronouns, different pronouns in their time than the pronouns that we get worked up over in our time. They were worked up over the pronoun “hoc,” that is used in the Catholic mass at the elevation of the host. They were worked up over the question of whether that “hoc” was to be taken literally. The [inaudible 00:03:43] was at the heart of the quarrel over transubstantiation. That is so much a part of the Catholic Protestant divide. So, Montaigne’s contemporaries were ready to kill one another over these kinds of questions about the transcendent. And he looked around and said, we need to lower the temperature a bit. And so, Montaigne made a very powerful case for skepticism, and particularly for skepticism about the question of the summum bonum, of the highest good, of that good which would make a human life worth living.

He said philosophers have been arguing about this for centuries, they haven’t come up with any consensus answers, and so we should just stop asking. That is, Montaigne makes the case that it is possible to live a good human life with a kind of indifference to the question of the highest good. And that that way of seeking happiness, is what we call the quest for imminent contentment. And the happiness Montaigne celebrates, is a dabbling kind of happiness. That is, instead of asking is philosophy going to make me happy, or is religion going to make me happy, or is citizenship going to make me happy? Montaigne does a little of everything, but he does it all with a light touch. So for example, he reads, but he tells us that he doesn’t like the heavy stuff, Plato and Aristotle. He prefers lighter authors like Plutarch and Ovid, his version of light might be a little different than ours. He travels, but when he travels he doesn’t go with the ambitions of an explorer, or the aspirations, the piety of a pilgrim, he’s just taking a look around. And Montaigne says this kind of nonchalant existence, in which we enjoy all the pleasures and pursuits available to us, but don’t make too much out of any of them, this is the true way to happiness.

Richard Reinsch  (05:41):

It’s interesting you mention Plato and Aristotle, he didn’t like reading them. As I read your chapter on Montaigne, it seemed to me it’s not just he’s rejecting Christianity of his period, he seems to be rejecting the bulk of the Western tradition. Insofar as the classical philosophical tradition, and also biblical religion, calls you out of yourself, calls you after a third principle, something that transcends you, that’s before you, that lives on after you. And it’s just real, and you are supposed to understand it, participate in it, perhaps conform to it, and he’s rejecting all of that. So what then, help us understand what does he really think that these motives we have, these desires, quests, thoughts, where are they going to go?

Benjamin Storey (06:30):

That’s a terrific question. I want to concentrate on the first part of what you’re saying. And I think you’re right to sense in Montaigne a rejection of the whole classical and Christian tradition. At the same time, he of course inherits and transforms elements of those traditions. And one element that he inherits and transforms, is the quest for self-knowledge, which Socrates so famously dedicated his life to. But Montaigne does this fascinating thing. For Socrates, the quest to know one’s self is a quest to understand human nature, and the deepest aspirations of the human soul. And Montaigne says, “I’m not really interested in the question of man. I’m interested in the question of me.” And Montaigne lived in an era in which there was still a taboo weighing on writing in the first person, and writing about one’s self. And in the course of Montaigne essays, he violates that taboo about 8,000 times, which is roughly the number of first person pronouns that he uses in the course of this book. So, he writes as he says, entirely about himself. And so, he thereby transforms the classical quest for self knowledge. It’s no longer knowledge of man, it’s knowledge of me. And Montaigne makes this into an act of a kind of modesty, “I’m no longer to ask the pretentious question, what would make a human life worth living? I’m going to ask, who am I, Michel de Montaigne, in my distinctive individuality?” And so, the modern focus on distinctive individuality is very visible in Montaigne.

And so, I think with respect to the second part of your question, the question of where these longings for transcendence, for things that are real and outside of ourselves, where that goes, Montaigne seeks… I think he had that longing in himself, but he seeks to bring it back around to himself. He seeks to attain it, to circumscribe himself is the language that he uses for this. And so instead of imagining that, for example, erotic desire should take us off to contemplate the form of the beautiful, as it does in Plato, Montaigne says why can’t it just be what it is? Why can’t a desire for a beautiful body just be a desire for a beautiful body? And so in this sense, Montaigne is trying to tame, or block every entrance you might say, to the concern with transcendence as it shows up in human life. He says what we need to learn to do is be at home, be at home in this world, and he thinks we can do that. The great literary, literary critic Sainte-Beuve, commented about Montaigne that what this book, his essays is really all about, is a presentation of nature complete without grace. He thinks if we learn to tame these longings, to bring them back to ourselves, we can be content in the natural world without any help from anything above or beyond it.

What is common to Montaigne and the bourgeois existence is that this is somebody who makes the self centered life that we associate with contemporary bourgeois existence, he makes that kind of life attractive. So in this sense, I think you’re right that Montaigne is the precursor of the modern bourgeois.

Richard Reinsch  (09:38):

You guys argue in the book, he seems to have invented the self. And I thought that as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, he said that he’s not into human nature, he said just me. He would also, I think, assume then that he is just endlessly interesting and fascinating, and should write about himself and we should learn from him.

Benjamin Storey (09:55):

A couple of points there. One, the self in French is le moi. And Montaigne, he hates abstractions, and so he’s not going to coin an abstraction like that, le moi, the me. It’s a strange thing to say. But by talking so much about me and not moi, he helps legitimate it as a subject. And Blaise Pascal will come along after Montaigne, he doesn’t object to abstractions, and he will stick the le in front of the moi, and he’ll talk about the self. And he seems to be the first person in French to have joined these two terms, le and moi in this way, to create this French version of this notion of the self. And so yes, I think it’s fair to say that that Montaigne by talking about moi, about himself so extensively, helped legitimate that, helped invent the self or at least make it a legitimate object of study.

And I think most readers of Montaigne who encounter this guy, do find him endlessly fascinating. He had a rich and varied experience of life, although he doesn’t encourage us to read the classics, he read them all. And he can draw from that stock of learning with an extraordinary facility, to create a book that is endlessly engaging and charming. And so, if you want to see what the appeal of the modern self is all about, Montaigne is a great place to look, and he’s attracted a long train of readers for precisely this reason. That his, Montaigne’s essays are thought to have been one of the most widely read books in Europe, over the course of the 17th and 18th century. Everybody from Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, all these people are steeped in Montaigne. And a little time spent with him will tell just about any reader why.

Richard Reinsch  (11:50):

Do you think, so as we move through the book, one way to think about Montaigne is he’s actually, to my mind he’s sort of preparing us… I’m putting a lot into this, but he’s sort of preparing us for a very horizontal, bourgeois, consumer-driven society. That is, maybe the extent of your self reflection is in the mirror in the morning, but then you go off to work and that’s really where all your energy goes. And then you come home, and you kind of sink and rest in leisure of a certain kind. Not necessarily reading or thinking deeply, but just you’re so tired and you just sink into some diversion. Is there a connection there, the way Montaigne’s writing about don’t let your motives go vertical, just keep them horizontal?

Benjamin Storey (12:32):

Your sense that this is a horizontal portrait of existence is very right, and it’s something that we see also in the later thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The one thing that I would say is different about the Montaigne-ian of existence from the bourgeois existence that you just described, is that Montaigne was of course an aristocrat. And so he didn’t have to work, and so he spent lots of time reflecting on himself. But what is common to Montaigne and the bourgeois existence that you just described, and you’re right that Montaigne has been described as the first bourgeois, that this is somebody who makes the self centered life that we associate with cotemporary bourgeois existence, he makes that kind of life attractive. So in this sense, I think you’re right that Montaigne is the precursor of the modern bourgeois. And we see that this combination that I think you’re describing shows up in our texts, when we get to Alexis de Tocqueville, who sees what happens to Montaigne-ism when democratic peoples who have to work for a living try to find their happiness in this way. It’s very much like the rhythm that you just described, except that it is haunted by a kind of existential anxiety that Montaigne at least tries to write out of his portrait of himself.

Richard Reinsch  (13:49):

It seems to me too, you mentioned he’s an aristocrat and also incredibly learned, he’s drawing on a lot of thick traditions that come before him, and that have accumulated over centuries, Christianity, classical philosophy, also just do various aspects of being French, of a civilization that’s pretty rich, that’s going to give him a lot to reflect upon as he thinks about whittling in a way, or whittling it down to some concept of the self. That is to say, he doesn’t find himself in say, at a time like maybe our own, where there really isn’t a lot. There’s a lot of thin traditions around, and maybe there’s a desire to reconstitute things.

Benjamin Storey (14:34):

I think that’s right, Richard. And Montaigne’s text has been described, and there’s a book about Montaigne that describes it as a cornucopian text. There seems to be an endless amount there, in all of his reading, and all of his travels and all the experiences, that he can relate to us. One of the things that’s interesting about Montaigne’s way of talking about everything that shows up in his book, from people like Epimenides and Alexander the Great, to stories about his peasant neighbors. He tells us that he tells us everything that he tells us, so as to reveal something about himself. That is, he’s less interested in things outside of him, than he is in the reactions they stir up inside of him. And that’s the way in which this book that seems to be about everything, is ultimately all about Montaigne.

Richard Reinsch  (15:23):

Let’s move on. The next thinker discussed in the book is Pascal. How does he answer Montaigne?

Benjamin Storey (15:30):

Well, Pascal’s a fascinating figure, I think in the world of political philosophy that you and I both to some extent inhabit, I think the two later thinkers that we deal with, Rousseau and Tocqueville are pretty well-known. Montaigne and Pascal are less so, and Pascal perhaps the least studied of all. And one of the things that we hope this book can help do, is make his genius something that is more commonly recognized and studied. Pascal was a astonishing polymath, who made world historical contributions in geometry with his work on conic sections and another problem called the cycloid, in mathematics by elaborating modern probability theory on the basis of what is this numeric sequence, it’s called Pascal’s triangle, in technology by inventing one of the world’s first working calculators back in the 17th century, which could add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers of up to eight digits. He was a great physicist, who demonstrated the existence of the phenomenon of atmospheric pressure, to this day units of pressure are called Pascals.

Then Pascal jumped into literary and theological controversy with his provincial letters, which are these fantastic satires of the Jesuits who were at the time, the most powerful churchmen in France, and one of the greatest bestsellers of the 17th century. Then he wrote his Pensées, which are on the one hand one of the greatest works of Christian apologetics of the modern era, and perhaps of Christian history as such, and also generally acknowledged as the first work of existential philosophy. And then Pascal created the world’s first system of public transportation, the five cent carriages for Paris. He did all this by the time he was 39, which is how old he was when he died. So the later French writer, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, has called him a frightening genius. And frightening is right, this is a terrifyingly powerful mind.

So Pascal, he captures in many ways the whole modern spirit, particularly in his physics and his conception of nature. In this sense, he’s very much a modern man, but he looks at Montaigne’s way of seeking happiness and he says, effectively, “You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t make the human soul happy by this kind of dabbling approach to the good life.” The human soul is both greater and more miserable than Montaigne recognizes. Pascal has a three-word phrase that I think in a way, sums up his whole anthropology, which is he says, “L’homme passe l’homme,” man transcends man. And I think that’s a very nice summation of his response to Montaigne. Montaigne wants to be at home in this world, at home in himself. And Pascal says you can’t do that, that’s just not what human nature allows.

Richard Reinsch  (18:34):

You’ve talked about Pascal saying, “Man is a being of misery and greatness.” And if man is a being of misery and greatness, then necessarily he can’t be at home in the world the way Montaigne wants. But what did he mean by that, misery and greatness?

Benjamin Storey (18:50):

So, I think maybe one of the most famous lines in Pascal is the best way to talk about this, Pascal describes man as a thinking reed. And what he means by that, is that human beings are as fragile as reeds, as blades of grass, “A drop of water can kill us,” he tells us, something that we in the coronavirus era are all too aware of. He said we’re as fragile as anything in nature, at the same time, we have these uniquely powerful minds which can think thoughts as vast as the word universe. If we think about it, as far as we know the universe never thinks anything at all, but we do. And in this sense, we encompass the universe with our minds. And so, our thought is our greatness, but our thought is also the source of our misery, in the sense that insofar as the human mind can think a thought like eternity, we are aware that we are cut off from that. We are aware that we’re mortal. And we can’t help being miserable in the face of our own mortality, we can’t help hating the fact of our own death. So for Pascal, man is this kind of exception in the universe, in the sense that every living being is mortal, but man is haunted by that fact, and feels like it is somehow an injustice to his nature. He tells us that we all feel like we’re deposed kings, like, “I ought to be king, but there’s some other guy in my place.” That’s the human experience for Pascal.

Richard Reinsch  (20:34):

It’s interesting listening to you describe that, because as I think about Montaigne and the motives going down, and Pascal says, “No, the only real way to make sense is if they go up, or they go up towards God, and you can find rest in God.” And I’m thinking there’s also a third possibility that Pascal probably understood, Montaigne probably didn’t. Those motives go down, but they go down with the grandiosity of God. And that is to say, one tries to perfect things that really can’t be perfected. One tries to perfect man, one tries to perfect politics, use science in a God-like fashion, things like that. There’s this interesting way in which that will come true in modernity, not too far after Pascal is ushered off the scene. Rousseau maybe helps us to think about that. But these possibilities are all there.

Benjamin Storey (21:29):

That’s very nicely put, I hadn’t thought of it that way previously, Richard. One of the things that Pascal and Montaigne share in common is their meditation on this character they called the demi-habile, the half educated. And Pascal sees that half educated people are constantly pointing out the insolidity of the foundation of social customs or political arrangements, and so they’ll constantly be noting that, oh, I don’t know, the electoral college doesn’t really do justice to the present constitution of population in America, or our penal laws need to be reformed in this way or that way. There’s a constant poking of the defects in our justice, and those defects in our justice are really real. What’s troubling for somebody like Pascal is I think exactly as you say, that when we limit our horizons to the confines of imminence, we’re deeply dissatisfied with the imperfection of all human institutions. And instead of turning that dissatisfaction towards projects of on the one hand, incremental reform, and on the other, of eternal hopes, we direct that restlessness into an unending project of social amelioration, which because it is unending never satisfies. We want a kind of justice that we can’t give ourselves, and we make ourselves perpetually discontent by seeking it.

Richard Reinsch  (23:14):

Talk about a bit, Pascal and the Jesuits. In a way there’s a sharp confrontation there, what’s going on?

Benjamin Storey (23:22):

So, the Jesuits in Pascal’s times, Pascal lived from 1623 to 1662. And in that era, the Jesuits were the most powerful church men in France, I think there had been a long succession of Jesuits who had served as personal confessors to the French kings at this point. And what Pascal saw about the Jesuits, is that they were very influential in the upper reaches of French life, and the way in which they maintained their influence was by being what we call permissive moral authorities. That is, people look to them as moral authorities, as representatives of the church. And those moral authorities respond particularly to the attentions of powerful people, by letting those people do most of what they want to do, that is by giving them permission to get away with a lot. And this is a very powerful formula, this formula of acting the part of the permissive moral authority. This is a very powerful formula for advancement in life, which I think a lot of people have recognized since Pascal’s time. And what Pascal says to the Jesuits, and he’s engaged here in a common effort with some of his so-called Jansenist his friends, it’s worth pointing out here that Jansenism is a title that was given to Pascal’s friends by their enemies. They just thought of themselves as Augustinians. And the Augustinians say to the Jesuits and to the France of their time, that Christianity is not a permission slip to do most of what you want to do in life. Christianity is a heroic enterprise that makes very serious demands on a human being. And Pascal tries to recover this demanding sort of Christianity for the 17th century, when he thought most people were living out a kind of cultural Catholicism, in the sense of a Catholicism that was passed on to them as a kind of birthright of being born in a Catholic country. As opposed to a real commitment of their lives, made in a serious way with the intention of pursuing something like sainthood, which I think was what Pascal wanted.

Richard Reinsch  (25:40):

You described Pascal’s immense contributions to science, and mathematics and technology. In the chapter you also talked about that this also makes him aware of the inadequacy of science regarding man himself. And we are constantly, I think, facing being defined by science or scientism, that is to say the only thing that’s real are measurements, or what we can learn empirically about nature, and so that would also include human beings. But what isn’t real, what we don’t take seriously, would be the questing of Pascal and trying to understand who man is. Scientific pursuits though, make him aware of that, I think.

Benjamin Storey (26:21):

I think that’s right. I think Pascal is the guy who demolished the ancient scholastic commonplace, that nature abhors a vacuum. He’s also the guy who is famous for saying, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” That is for the ancients, and in some ways for Montaigne, nature is a home to us. And for Pascal, nature is not a home, nature is a void, nature is space. This is I think a very common way to think about nature now, but it’s a terrifying way to think about nature, if one really faces what it means for human experience. And so for Pascal, when you think about nature in a truly modern way, that doesn’t blunt your need for transcendence, it accentuates that need. That is, the more of a modern you are on scientific questions, the more you ought to be engaged in what Pascal defines as the anguished quest for real meaning in our existence. And Pascal is not at all vague about what kind of meaning he has in mind. He means the man God of the New Testament. He thinks that’s what we really want, and if we seriously seek it, perhaps God will show it to us. Although we can never force God’s hand on that point.

Richard Reinsch  (27:54):

Okay. So, the man who needs no introduction, Rousseau. What does he do here, how does he respond to both of our previous thinkers?

Benjamin Storey (28:04):

We read Rousseau as a character who draws something both from Montaigne and from Pascal. He begins with Pascal’s diagnosis of what the inner lives of educated people in his own time are really like, and he agrees with Pascal. He looks around the sophisticated Paris of the 18th century when he lived, and all these people with their salon and their literary enterprises, and their artistic delights. And he says, “Come on, you guys are fooling yourselves. You’re not happy. And moreover, you all hate each other,” just as Pascal had intuited. And so, Rousseau thinks Pascal is right in his diagnosis of the pursuit of happiness lived out. But Rousseau also thinks Montaigne is right about something, which is that it is possible to make one’s self happy on this horizontal plane, as you described it earlier. It is possible to make one’s self happy without grace, within the confines of nature.

Just as Montaigne made self-centeredness attractive, one might say that Rousseau makes narcissism attractive. He’s just very good at getting you fascinated by his own very strange life, which proved to have, lots of people have seen a mirror of themselves in that life. And I think that’s one of the things that causes him to be so fascinating.

Rousseau lays out a number of different ways that we might achieve that happiness, from his citizen on the one hand, to his solitary walker on the other. These are, one might describe them as the extremes of the horizontal plane that you’re describing. That is, somebody who’s wholeheartedly invested in his community, that is Rousseau’s citizen, or somebody who’s wholeheartedly invested in himself, that is Rousseau himself, particularly as he appears in the later autobiographies. What these very divergent options have in common, is a quest for a kind of wholeness that Rousseau sees in his natural man. And Rousseau thinks that human history has been the process of losing that wholeness, and becoming divided. That’s what Rousseau thinks the problem is, we’re divided against ourselves. So, to overcome that dividedness, he wants us to go all the way to one extreme with a citizen, or all the way to the other with his solitary walker. He wants us to invest wholeheartedly in something, and he thinks that’s a way in which we can find, even contentment, contentment here and now. Although contentment with a very different content than that attributed to it by Montaigne.

Richard Reinsch  (30:23):

Why do you think Rousseau has been such a mesmerizing figure for so many? Intellectuals, artists in particular, also political thinkers?

Benjamin Storey (30:33):

Rousseau is, first of all, he’s a wonderful writer. Even people who deeply disagree with Rousseau have to acknowledge that he has extraordinary skills with a pen. Secondly, he does something very clever in the second discourse, which is I think maybe the clearest succinct statement of the heart of his thought. Which is that he takes the Christian story, the story of the fall, and he transforms it and he borrows it. He uses a lot of its pathos, but he makes it into a secular story of a fall. That is for Christianity, we’ve fallen by falling away from God, into the condition of fallenness in which we find ourselves. In Rousseau, we haven’t fallen away from God, we’ve fallen away from nature. And we’ve fallen away from nature by corrupting ourselves through our own historic activity. But insofar as that corruption is self-inflicted, it could also potentially be self-cured. And by suggesting that, Rousseau raises very great hopes for what is possible for human beings. And so, I think those hopes are part of his appeal. And just as Montaigne made self-centeredness attractive, one might say that Rousseau makes narcissism attractive. He’s just very good at getting you fascinated by his own very strange life, which proved to have, lots of people have seen a mirror of themselves in that life. And I think that’s one of the things that causes him to be so fascinating.

Richard Reinsch  (32:13):

Okay, so we’ll move on just in the interest of time here, because there’s so many fascinating thinkers that we could discuss for hours, Tocqueville. Tocqueville and the American soul, Tocqueville and the democratic soul, he’ll take these three thinkers and apply it, or use it to understand man, most powerfully in democracy in America and the democratic commercial Republic, and what the activities of that Republic reveals to us about ourselves.

Benjamin Storey (32:43):

Yes. I think one of the great pleasures of working on this book was that it gave Jenn and I the chance to understand the deepest sources of what we take to be following our mutual friend, Peter Augustine Lawler, Tocqueville’s deepest insight, which is this insight that appears in this little chapter called “Why the Americans Are So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity.” So Tocqueville came to America, and he looked around, and he deeply admired this country, particularly its political institutions and its institutions of small town self-government. But he also saw some very disquieting things in America, some of them the obvious things with which Americans are traditionally preoccupied. He was very concerned with slavery and with the dispossession of Native Americans. But he was also very attentive to the kind of disquiet that he saw in the American soul. He said, “These people are freer, more enlightened, more prosperous than any people the earth has yet seen, and yet they are grave and almost sad, even in the midst of their pleasures. And they’re always reaching out for the next thing.”

And what I didn’t understand until we worked through the authors that we study in this book, is how Tocqueville was able to see this. In part he’s just a genius, but in part it’s because he was steeped in this tradition. And in particular, his friend and traveling companion Gustave De Beaumont said about Tocqueville that he just loved Pascal. Beaumont said the two souls were made for each other. And so, when confronted with this people that is always reaching out for one thing after the next. They build a house and they sell it when the roof is being put on, he tells us, because they’ve got to move on to the next thing. He sees this disquiet underneath the surface of prosperity, and success, and freedom and enlightenment. And I think he’s able to see that because he’s read his Pascal, and he knows that so much of human life is a diversion, and that we love our diversions because they take us away from ourselves. That’s one of the great things that Tocqueville was able to see about Americans. That’s why his book, while it’s a wonderful history of America in the 1830s, and it’s a wonderful analysis of our institutions, but what it brings to the table that so many American books about America lack, is this characteristically French psychological penetration. And I think Tocqueville gets that from his being steeped in this French tradition.

Richard Reinsch  (35:29):

Now, on the other side, one could say it’s good Americans are immersed in commerce, in work, trying to store away capital, or starting new businesses or worried about their future in that regard. But what they’re not really worried about his ideology, typically. They’re not going to put people in concentration camps, they’re not going to put people on barges in the Sienne and sink them because they’re on the wrong side of the revolution. Things like that. Does Tocqueville think, yes, Americans are restless in their abundance, but they also work hard, so of course they want their money, and they want to do things with it, they’ve earned it? Doesn’t that all sort of balance out in a way?

Benjamin Storey (36:14):

I think so, in the way that you describe it. I think one of the things that Tocqueville loves about America is its liberal character, in the sense that liberalism is an art of separations. And so, while Americans love their commerce and reasonably want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, that’s not their whole lives. They have Sunday. Tocqueville was astonished that this incredibly commercial nation just came screeching to a halt on Sunday, which was a time in which people opened their Bibles, and as he put it, “Cast a distracted glance at heaven,” just a lovely way of capturing this element of American life. And so, that division, Tocqueville says that while religion never directly touches the public sphere, this is not a theocratic government or anything along those lines, nonetheless he describes religion as the first of America’s institutions. And so, I think one of the things that Tocqueville thinks is healthy about American life, is precisely its division and compartmentalization.

And I think what he would be worried about for us, is that as we become a more secular society, we have a stronger and stronger impetus to break down some of our most basic divisions, that is some of our most basic protections. If we think that secular and imminent pursuits are really the only legitimate pursuits, well, why would we accord religion protected status? It wouldn’t make sense anymore. And so, I think you’ve nicely described the way in which the commercial pursuits of American life, that are not the only pursuits of American life, can actually make for a kind of sane people who do one thing six days a week, and then something quite else on the seventh. But what happens when the seventh day is effectively gone? And I think that would be one of the concerns that Tocqueville might have in looking at America in our own moment.

Richard Reinsch  (38:22):

And also as you know, it’s the falling away of religion, but also the ways in which Americans find ways to interact with one another. Not just in the market, but apart from the market. And that too appears to be in decline from most of the things that I’ve read, not to mention also family life falling away. All of those things working to shape a different kind of a democracy, not the local scale democracy that Tocqueville saw, but sort of a top-down democratic, administrative, bureaucratic welfare state that we increasingly are moving into.

Benjamin Storey (39:01):

I think your point about the dissolution of human connectedness in the modern world and in the democratic world, is very important. This is something that came out to us in a striking way in thinking through this book. Because we saw beginning in Montaigne, the celebration of a distinctly sincere and humanistic version of social connection, Montaigne celebrates under the name of friendship. And he has this wonderful friend named Étienne de La Boétie. And he writes this line about La Boétie, that their friendship can only be explained by saying, “Because it was he, because it was I.” That is, it’s a friendship that rests on that horizontal human plane that you and I talked about. There’s no third thing, there’s nothing above or outside of ourselves that justifies that friendship. And Montaigne celebrates this as an alternative to the conventional social ties that he as a 16th century Frenchman was necessarily embroiled in, in every aspect of his existence. Montaigne celebrates this, and we can see it also in Shakespeare’s celebration of romantic love. He celebrates the human tie freely formed, the soulmate if you will.

I think one of the things that you see in Tocqueville, is that the soulmate has in a way, become the only game in town. By which I mean that the progress of modern life has done so much to attenuate, and to weaken other forms of human connection, like a more conventional notion of family life, that if you don’t find your soulmate, you’re really on your own. Which is really a very difficult condition to put human beings in. And so, Tocqueville was worried already in the 1830s about what he calls individualism, which was not a sort of up by one’s own bootstraps kind of mentality, but a form of social self-isolation. And one can see that that has gone much further in our own time where, we have unprecedented numbers of people literally living alone. Well, when you have all that loneliness, when you have all that disconnectedness, it’s ultimately going to have a profound effect on your politics. Because lonely people, I think, are typically very unhappy people, and that unhappiness is then going to make its mark on our public life.

When we see students at the beginning of their collegiate lives, one of the first books I like to read with them is Plato’s Gorgias, which puts very forcefully to them the question, how should I live? And it puts that question in the form, what is the best life for a human being? And most students look at me when confronted with that question and it just doesn’t compute. In the sense of. “The best life? You can’t ask the question the best life, there is no best life, right?

Richard Reinsch  (41:39):

Yeah, the restless soul you’re describing also could be a way, enormously helpful way of thinking about partisan division, partisan rancor. Not listening to one another, or turning politics into more than it can actually be or provide.

Benjamin Storey (41:54):

I think that’s right, and I think it’s something that we see on both sides of our political divide right now, in particular in the formlessness, you might say, of our most intense political moments. That is, we have protest movements of both right and left, of both the extreme right and the extreme left, but we don’t really have governing movements, that is people with serious and constructive ideas about how to organize human life. And I think one of the reasons that’s so difficult for us is that we have an instinctive suspicion on both sides, again, of the whole principle of human organization, where we don’t like having our ties to other human beings defined, our roles with respect to other human beings defined. But a social life without roles and defined human ties, is kind of a free-for-all. And I think that free-for-all mentality does a lot of harm in both our public life and also our private lives, in which we just don’t know how to relate to the other human beings we face every day. Should I treat a student as a subordinate, to whom I have a special kind of obligation because I’m in a position of power with respect to that person? Or should I treat that person as an equal, and therefore have a completely different set of relations with them? I think those are the kinds of questions that come up for all of us, all the time. And that makes for a very undefined, and therefore agitated and restless social life.

Richard Reinsch  (43:28):

Okay. So, we have talked about four incredibly consequential French thinkers you and your co-author argue are key to understanding contemporary restlessness. What then, does liberal education do, or what could it provide?

Benjamin Storey (43:45):

One of the things that was both an entry point and an exit point to this book for us, was an attempt to connect what we’ve seen in the French thinkers to what we see in the students in front of us. And so, we open the book by describing a student. She’s a composite of many students we’ve worked with over the years. This is a student who has done everything that the college has asked of her. She has succeeded handsomely in a couple of majors. She’s founded one club, she’s the president of another. She’s been on study abroads, and not just different countries, but different continents. She’s done internships, she’s done everything. And she comes toward graduation, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She could go to law school, she could go to graduate school, she can go work for a consulting firm, she could go back home, she could become a teacher, she could go abroad again, she could become a farmer.

We have frequent conversations with students in which the options are every bit as wide open as that. And when they get to the point of this, one could call the first really adult choice one makes in life, which is the choice of what to do immediately after college, they have no idea what to do with themselves. And why is that? We started to wonder. And we connected this to what we were seeing in the authors that we were studying, in the sense that our students have not been trained in the art of choosing. They haven’t been trained in the art of thinking through what might actually make them happy. And so, they can take the most divergent options about how to live their lives as all equally serious, and all equally suited to them, which is just a profound failure of our educational institutions with respect to these students. And so, what we’ve tried to encourage in particularly the conclusion to this book, is to rethink liberal education as an education not aimed at cultivating the Renaissance man or the Renaissance woman, the human being who is good, a kind of jack of all trades, can do just about anything. But liberal education as an education in the art of choosing, because choosing is so much of what human beings with the freedom and equality that we enjoy in our society, have to do in our age. Our educational institutions ought to be doing more to help students learn that art.

Richard Reinsch  (46:25):

And learning that art would be, I take it, reading great works in politics, literature, philosophy, law, history, and seeing how other people have made choices, been faced with difficult circumstances, and how they’ve understood themselves and what they’ve done?

Benjamin Storey (46:45):

I think that’s right. I’ll add to it that, I’ve mentioned at the beginning of our discussion here, Montaigne’s attitude toward the question of the summum bonum, in which he conveys his skepticism about that question to us. And I think contemporary Americans, probably contemporary citizens of most liberal democracies, inhale that skepticism like a gas, that’s TS Eliot’s way of describing Montaignian skepticism, it’s an atmosphere you breathe in. And so when we see students at the beginning of their collegiate lives, one of the first books I like to read with them is Plato’s Gorgias, which puts very forcefully to them the question, how should I live? And it puts that question in the form, what is the best life for a human being? And most students look at me when confronted with that question and it just doesn’t compute. In the sense of. “The best life? You can’t ask the question the best life, there is no best life, right? Everybody knows that,” is I think the instinctive reaction of many of our young citizens. And we want to give them the courage to ask that question again. And I think you’re exactly right, that the great works are a great way to learn to do it. And so, if you walk a mile in the footsteps of Aristotle, if you really try to think through life in that way, it may not be your ultimate, final answer to the question of how you should live, but it’ll help you think very seriously about what it means to live according to the dictum, that happiness is not in fact contentment found though a variety of pursuits and pleasures, but activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. That’s the Aristotelian perspective on this question.

Richard Reinsch  (48:20):

Your description of your student just there, made me think that they’re thorough disciples of Montaigne. “What do you mean? I’m happy sunk into myself, into these other pursuits, like my phone, whatever’s on my phone. And here you are trying to draw me out of myself. How dare you?”

Benjamin Storey (48:39):

I think that’s a nice way to capture their reaction. But the thing is, you push through that first day.

Richard Reinsch  (48:46):

And then they want to come out, right? They’ve never really been invited, most of them, in an honest way.

Benjamin Storey (48:52):

You’re right, because they couldn’t be, because one can’t actually make one’s self happy in this way. Staring at one’s phone is addictive, but I don’t think it puts one to bed with an easy conscience. And I think most of our students have the experience from the inside, of the restlessness that we think is the sign of abiding modern discontent, with the ways we try to make ourselves happy.

Richard Reinsch  (49:19):

Ben Storey, thank you so much. We’ve been talking with the author, co-author along with Jenna Silber Storey, of Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment. Thank you so much.

Richard Reinsch  (49:31):

This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk, available at lawliberty.org.