Why We Are Restless
Benjamin & Jenna Silber Storey | Princeton University Press, USA | 2021, 260 pp
Restlessness is perhaps the defining characteristic of the modern person, and the smartphone perhaps its standard-bearer. Our attention spans are shortened, our capacity for abstract thought degraded, our desires as shallow and transient as our relationships. No matter how much we like and swipe, it doesn’t seem to make us happy. We are, in a word, discontented.
But swiping and liking isn’t the cause of our discontent, no more than Netflix or Google Maps. They’re symptoms of the aptly-named “age of distraction,” something which itself is not new. Nor is it a wrong turn on the road to bliss: the age of distraction, or something like it, is the expected and intended result of a means of seeking contentment which dates back 500 years.
So goes the argument made in Why We Are Restless, co-written by husband and wife Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey. It’s about how the modern quest for happiness is making us miserable. This quest is apparently not as modern as we might think, having its genesis in 16th century France with the publication of Essais, a collection of writings by the brilliant Montaigne.
The Storeys claim this text did not just define our search for contentment but in fact brought the very idea of the modern self, le moi, into being. The effects of this on modern life are immense, immeasurable. Let no one say that philosophy has never made a difference, and if they do, you may hand them this book. It’s very good.
Why We Are Restless doesn’t waste its time arguing that we’re restless, since we know we are (take a look at writer Luke Burgis’s thoughts on the matter on his blog, Anti-Mimetic). It argues instead that we’re a restless society by design rather than by blunder, and it attempts to show us how that happened.
More narrative than analytical, the book describes this process by weaving a tale from a single development in philosophical thought and describing how it gathers power and influence across five centuries.
The structure is simple: we follow four French philosophers through these centuries as they grapple with and bash their heads off the notion of “immanent contentment,” something which Montaigne defines and Jean-Jacques Rousseau does his best to redeem.
Blaise Pascal for his part suggests an alternative, a way of life wildly less attractive than Montaigne’s but potentially more rewarding. The great, Catholic, controversial French polymath would have made a terrible salesperson.
The book leaves us with Tocqueville as he reflects on what happens when an entire nation is built on Montaignean philosophy. That nation is the United States of America. But the theory of immanent contentment is not confined to the 50 states; according to this book, the modern West is defined by it.
Put crudely, immanent contentment is the art of being satisfied purely by oneself. Put eloquently, it is “an inward focused effort to tame our desire to flee from ourselves and […] l’humaine condition so as to learn to loyally enjoy that condition.”
Montaigne observes the terrible religious wars which raged in France at the time and decides we must look outside the chapel and within ourselves if we wish to be happy. In so doing, he transforms “self-knowledge from knowledge about man to knowledge about me.” If we could only know ourselves, and then train ourselves to be content with who that is, perhaps we might be at peace.
But Pascal smells a rat. “Put the soul at rest, and it longs for activity; put the soul in motion, and it longs for rest.” The torturous search for God is Pascal’s answer to the dilemma of being human. He makes the Augustinian claim that man is a restless being at his core, and as such, the human condition could not be the answer to discontent, for the human being is fundamentally discontented. Pascal is the voice of the believer, and his perspective is crucial, since the kind of individualism espoused by Montaigne expands quickly into the vacuum created by the decline of religion.
There’s more articulation here than analysis, though that sounds more damning than it is. It’s not that the book isn’t well-researched, or that the authors don’t have much to say. Each of its four concise chapters are built on a mountain of references, detailed in extensive notes at the back. Even the title recalls history, the famous words of Augustine which ring out throughout the book.
But these references lie just under the surface, never revealing themselves in lengthy, jargonistic critical opinions left here and there across the chapters. They make themselves known in the clarity and precision of every sentence, the surefooted way the ideas are taken to their conclusion.
The book isn’t supposed to provide wildly new insights into the philosophers’ individual oeuvres. It does the work instead of placing their insights in context, so that we might appreciate their influence and understand their effects on our own lives a little better.
But if it isn’t heaving with analysis, then this begs the question as to what it actually is. Matthew Crawford calls it a “philosophical genealogy,” which is a helpful description. Each thinker is steeped in the ideas of the last, and the Storeys articulate how the problem of self-contentment spreads from Frenchman to Frenchman, century to century, as its roots grow deeper and deeper into the Western psyche. This process is remarkably well articulated.
The writing is always engaging and often lively, with lines such as “cutting our demands down to the compass of our strategies” sure to make the reader sit up a little straighter in their chair. But it’s not these moments of splendour which are are so remarkable so much as the lightness of touch evident in every turn of phrase. Four hundred years of philosophy are condensed into a brisk 180 pages, but no word is wasted and nothing or little is lost. It’s rare that a work of academia could make a strong claim for being a work of literature, too.
Much credit is due for the scope of the book. It’s narrow, very narrow. But Benjamin and Jenna didn’t intend on creating a comprehensive examination of philosophical thought since the Middle Ages. This is a look at one particularly arresting strain of French thought which they claim has become endemic.
It’s difficult as a layperson to say if there might be important considerations or crucial thinkers which the authors have cast to one side in their account of the modern-day acedia we all experience. Yet there are no great leaps of faith here. Why We Are Restless succeeds due to its simplicity, not its complexity.
We may be thankful for this clarity, since the book’s subject matter is complex. Take for instance the final chapter: the authors make the claim based on Tocqueville’s visit to America that immanent contentment is at the heart of modern democracy, and particularly democracy in the United States.
Should we accept this, then we must accept also that American individualism owes its heritage primarily to Montaigne, something directly and indirectly observed by Tocqueville during his time there. But the Storeys go further than that; what of materialism? How much does it owe to Montaigne? And if we accept that materialism owes a debt, then what of capitalism?
Some readers will find these arguments more convincing than others, and some may not like their conclusions. Certainly the scale of the claims made is initially shocking, and it attributes Montaignean influence — of which it is critical — to many of the convictions which have built and shaped the West, waving the cattle gun threateningly at a number of hale and hearty sacred cows. But this section is as precisely and lucidly argued as the rest. The reader will find it challenging to wave away its conclusions offhand.
The penultimate chapter of the book is perhaps the least engaging. This isn’t to say it shouldn’t have been included, since it describes the tenets of immanent contentment being put to the test and failing, as expressed and demonstrated by one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is unhappy in Parisian society and he’s unhappy alone. It isn’t clear what he needs, but immanent contentment isn’t it. The Storeys reflect on how Montaigne’s principles might influence the individual, with Rousseau acting as a sort of thought experiment: what if a man were alone? What if he were amongst his people? Where does Montaigne’s philosophy produce the best results?
Though the pace is slower here, we get our answer. We also get a description of a kind of Enlightenment culture war, between Voltaire and Rousseau, who detested each other. Voltaire at one point makes the scurrilous accusation that Rousseau murdered his mother-in-law.
As a result, people living locally opt to stone Rousseau’s house. This upsets Rousseau, not least because his mother-in-law is still alive. He writes back to Voltaire, saying, amongst other things, “I hate you”. It’s probably for the best that Twitter didn’t exist in the 18th century.
God is approached here with caution. Christianity is never outright suggested as the solution to our restlessness, and yet the authors are certainly sympathetic to its beliefs. When God-seeking is mentioned, it’s always from the lips of Montaigne, or Pascal, or Rousseau. There’s no proselytising here and it’s not a prescriptive text. It could more accurately be described as a catalyst for reflection, and as such the authorial voice occupies very little space.
That being said, the elegance with which the Storeys make their case belies the indistinct but instinctive conclusions they lead us towards. “The art of choosing cannot bring our restless hearts to a standstill,” they tell us. “But it may help us turn our pointless busyness into a pointed quest.”
So finishes the book, and yet it never quite defines what that quest ought to be. This isn’t necessarily a problem: the Christian will read a Christian quest, the atheist something else. One suspects that the authors have thoughts on the matter to which we are only partly privy, but it seems that for now we’ll just have to wait for the next book.
Why We Are Restless follows in the greatest of philosophical traditions in that it provides us with suggestions on how we should live, even if those suggestions never risk becoming too specific. Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist (though he hardly needs qualifying at this point), has been criticised for dressing up banal self-help as profound philosophical reflections. But philosophers throughout the ages have grappled with this problem, from Socrates to Nietzsche.
The Storeys do the same: though their work here is academic, and more academic than Peterson’s, it is not one to be consigned to the dusty corners of university libraries. They advise all of us “haunted by longing for a wholeness we feel we have somehow lost,” to gamble, to stop hoarding our chips or spending them in ways immediate but shallow, and to engage with something like what Chesterton called the “strange, strong meat of reality”. They make a case for the hard path, the long road. But where Blaise Pascal failed as a salesperson, the Storeys succeed. Far from dry and never dull, Why We Are Restless is a cry for change, an appeal to our distracted and unhappy hearts.