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Why We Are Restless

September 16th, 2021 | 6 min read

By David Moore

Ben and Jenna Storey met while doing their doctorates at the University of Chicago. Ben is the Jane Gage Hipp Professor of Politics and International Affairs, and Director of the Tocqueville Program at Furman University. Jenna is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs and the Executive Director of the Tocqueville Program at Furman.

The Storeys are the authors of Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment. This book will definitely make my favorite book list for 2021.

Moore: I am going to start at the back of your book with a comment made to you by a professor at the University of Chicago: “Don’t publish a book before you’re forty.” You heeded the advice. Tell me why this professor gave that advice, and why you decided it was wise counsel to follow.

Storey and Storey: The contemporary academy forces people to make immature thoughts permanently available. The Committee on Social Thought, where we were studying, is an interdisciplinary program in philosophy and theology, history and social theory, and imaginative literature—the humanities. Unlike mathematics, in which prodigies are real, and cases of true genius, such as Pascal’s, the humanities are disciplines that require not only extensive research but also maturity and seasoned reflection to do well. Scholars in the humanities often hit their stride in their 40s, and write their best works in their fifties, sixties, and beyond. Maturation in such fields can be hampered by the contemporary demand that one publish or perish, beginning at ever earlier ages; there is now pressure to start publishing one’s work as an undergraduate. We shouldn’t be forcing people to make enduring statements in public before they’re ready. Doing so encourages them to become either grinds, who say only very safe things, or fools, who say unsafe things and pay the price for it.

Moore: As you well know, the word boredom appears in the modern era (Patricia Spacks says the 18th century in her book, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind), but one could argue that the reality behind it existed long before. Is restlessness similar, or is restlessness more of an emerging reality in the modern era?

Storey and Storey: Restlessness seems to be a permanent human experience, but one that takes on a distinctive and particularly troubling character in modern times. 1600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote as a prayer to his God that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The restlessness Augustine describes, which has a particular destination, is, we argue, different in kind from modern restlessness, which sets us in agitated motion without direction. Augustine was searching for a telos, a culmination or perfection of his life. Many of us set aside the notion of any such telos from the outset. He was attending seriously and persistently to the question of human happiness and excellence. The modern mind often assumes that such questions are unanswerable, which leaves it to spin its wheels fruitlessly. It seeks diversion from itself, rather than attending seriously and persistently to existential questions. Why do so many of us desperately want to get our minds off ourselves? Because we are unhappy. Our book is about this form of restlessness—the restlessness of the mind that tries and fails to find happiness in a distinctly modern way, which one might call happiness without teleology.

Moore: You have wonderful chapters on four seminal thinkers: Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. Was it easy to pick these four, or were there others you considered?

Storey and Storey: Tocqueville’s analysis of American democracy gripped both our minds as undergraduates. Ben was taken with the charm of Montaigne as graduate student, for Montaigne seemed a compendium of all the European learning on which Americans so often miss out, stitched together with Montaigne’s distinctive wit. In Pascal, we found a thinker who is at once the first existentialist and perhaps the greatest Christian apologist of the modern era. And in Rousseau, we saw an effort to combine Montaignean naturalism with Pascalian depth, which typifies much of the pathos of modern life.

Once we began to study them side-by-side, we realized that these thinkers constituted parts of a tradition—the French tradition of moralistes, or “observers of men.” The authors in this tradition are engaged in an argument with one another about who we are and how we should live—an argument that puts restlessness at its center. We wrote this book because we had seen that argument emerge from the pages of authors we initially investigated for different reasons. We thought that argument might be useful for others to think about, because we see so much restlessness around us—and within us.

Moore: Montaigne was a proponent of “immanent contentment.” Please unpack what that means.

Storey and Storey: We coined the term “immanent contentment” to juxtapose Montaigne’s vision of the happy life to that of people like Augustine or Pascal, who are focused on the search for what the gospels call “the one thing needful.” Montaigne presents us with a vision of happiness with no center—a pleasantly various kind of happiness. One can easily see why: Montaigne lived his adult life in the second half of the 16th century, and endured thirty years of France’s religious wars. He responded to those wars by showing his contemporaries that the most intelligent human beings had been arguing about the question of how to live for many centuries without coming to any consensus answer. In his semi-autobiographical Essays, he sought to show himself living a life that simply gives up on the old question, “how should I live?” Montaigne depicts himself dabbling happily along well enough without any answer to that question. Instead of seeking the answer to the question of what might perfect or sanctify a human life, he just does a little of everything: love, travel, gardening, books, you name it, and makes of it all a collage he calls a life.

Moore: Both Pascal and Tocqueville have been influential on my own thinking, so I am glad you interact with both. With Pascal in particular, how does he seek to show that Montaigne was kidding himself about the prospect of finding the good life by the pursuit of “immanent contentment.”

Storey and Storey: Montaigne is a remarkably winsome author. Pascal read him at a young age, and reveled in his charm; his pages are saturated with the presence of Montaigne. In three words, however, Pascal refuted him: l’homme passe l’homme, “man transcends man.” Not by deduction from theological premises, but by observation of himself, his friends and his neighbors, Pascal showed that the attempt to confine life to what Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” is a failure based on a delusion. The human heart is both greater and more miserable than Montaigne allows. If we’re honest with ourselves both about the depth of our miseries and the height of our aspirations, we begin an anguished quest after some answer to the question of the longings of the human soul. Pascal believes the answer to that question is something that God alone can give us.

Moore: There is so much to ponder in your terrific book. I made over two hundred marginal notes, but I must ask this question: It seems that Tocqueville (and he was observing us in the 1830s) thought we Americans are restless in ways and to a degree more acute than other places. How do we Americans compare today in our struggles with restlessness when it comes to other countries, especially European ones?

Storey and Storey: Americans pride themselves on their sense of openness, the belief that one does not know what one can make of oneself, and that the sky, therefore, might be the limit. Opportunity is wonderful, but it is also a recipe for perpetual discontent with one’s social and material level in life. We’re always wondering if we might have a better job, a bigger house, more impressive friends. That fixation on the immanent conditions of our lives can constitute a permanent distraction from the fundamental question of why we find ourselves on this planet in the first place. As far as we can tell, Europeans have their own problems: hedonism, despair, a kind of hangover from the adventure of civilization. But they are less obsessed with and distracted by questions of unstable material and social status than Americans. Americans are more hopeful, and hope is priceless. But we could use to direct our hope toward more substantive things.

Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from your book?

Storey and Storey: First, we hope they enjoy with us the adventure of thinking with these authors, which is good in itself. Second, we think facing up to the restless character of modern life is a powerful argument for the neglected practice of observing the Sabbath. We began doing that ourselves a few years ago, and while stepping back from busyness for twenty-four hours a week initially made us jittery, we have come to understand why so many Jews and Christians over the centuries have understood the Sabbath as a gift of God.

The Sabbath, however, is but one seventh of the week, and rest cannot be the whole of a way of life. Sometimes readers get the impression that we’re encouraging them to take it easy—to seek rest as the alternative to restlessness. That is not our view. The third thing we hope readers might gain from our book is to learn to exchange pointless busyness for a pointed quest. We need to be more ruthless about the question of how we commit our time, separating serious things that deserve our attention from distractions that might be pleasant enough but are not the answers to the question of a life.

David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians.

David Moore

David George Moore is the author of several books. Most recently, he wrote Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians to offer a resource for more comprehensive spiritual formation and discipleship. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: Dave’s new YouTube channel features his interviews and commentary.