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.

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David George Moore lives in Austin, Texas, and ministers through Two Cities Ministries. Dave is a regular contributor to Jesus Creed and is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. He also hosts an online show: www.mooreengaging.com.

14 Comments

  1. I could better accept the above citing of Augustine if more Christians were not so restless and so many unbelievers are not restless having legitimate answers to the question noted by Augustine. Thus, I struggle with what is written above.

    But there is another problem. Look at all of the people referenced, they all have one thing in common: they are part of Western Civilization. To illustrate that problem I use my church attendance when visiting the daughter. When visiting her, I prefer not to go to her church. Instead, I go to a church where a friend of mine use to minister and the head minister there is from England. Being from England, he can notice problems with the America that we have become blind and deaf to. But he cannot do the same regarding Western Civilization.

    None of the people cited in the above article lack the same limitation. So why are we restricting purview of the restlessness of people here to people who have a limited view of what is wrong here? Certainly, just like the people from Western Civ nations know how to tinker with Western Civ, so Americans know how to tinker with America. But that tinkering means making our journey on the current path more efficient or effective. It does not challenge us as to where our journey is going.

    The above is more true for many Westerners regarding Western Civ and Americans regarding America than it is true for the marginalized in both places. Thus, for a more outside analysis of why we are restless, we could turn to Martin Luther King Jr. In speaking against the Vietnam War, he put his finger on one of the key problems with life here. He said that American society is more thing-oriented rather than person-oriented. By that he meant that gadgets, profit motives, and property rights are more important to us than people are. And he added that until that is reversed, we will always have the evil triplets of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism living with us.

    Realize that many American Christians, especially those who deny systemic racism, who defend our exploitive economic system because it is built on capitalism, and defend our military ventures out of a strong sense of patriotism, show themselves to be more thing-oriented than person-oriented even when some of them do not feel restless.

    In other words, our restlessness is not necessarily a canary in the mine and part of our restlessness is due to an inadequate connection with enough people, especially those who are different from us, due to our priorities.

    So though the above article makes some good points, it only addresses part of the story. And all too often, we Christians have used Augustine’s thinking to manipulate people into seeking God rather than use the Scriptures to honestly confront them about their need for God.

    Reply

    1. Hi Curt,

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and graciously offer these points.

      I will respond in more detail, Lord willing by tonight, but wanted to acknowledge your thoughtful comments.

      Reply

    2. Hi Again Curt,

      My interview with the Storeys just focuses on a few issues. Interviews like this can be thought of as a (hopefully) tasty hors d’oeuvre to the meal, not the meal itself. As the interviewer I select six or seven things to highlight. I try to pick what I think are most important to give the reader of the interview a decent idea of the gist of the book along with a thing or two that may be of particular interest to me. Either way I weight these things, my interviews never do justice to the full sweep of a book.

      As to Augustine, our ministry Two Cities Ministries gains its inspiration from his big book, City of God. Right now, I am taking another man through Augustine’s Confessions. I have taken others through it for the in-depth discipleship I do with men. I love Augustine’s writings, but he is not on par with Scripture. I know the Storeys think so as well. In Sarah Rudin’s translation of Confessions she mentions how many unanswered questions there are in that book. Augustine would have made a good blogger, offering both reflections he is convinced of and others that he still wonders about. You probably know that he wrote a book called Retractions where he corrected some of his earlier views.

      To use a more modern word, I do think Augustine may project a bit of his own testimony onto the rest of us. Augustine’s own struggle with restlessness is not as you mention the fixture of every non-Christian, and Christians are certainly not immune from restlessness. The Storeys both acknowledge their own ongoing struggles with restlessness. I certainly add my own voice that being a Christian does not make one immune from such struggle.

      Your comments about Martin Luther King’s critique of America are interesting. Non-Western cultures could certainly offer their own critiques. The Storeys offer these four thinkers not because they are the only ones to consider, but they did wrestle self-consciously with restlessness. I do not think their being Western sources limits how instructive they can be with fellow Westerners. Even MLK invoked Western thinkers like Socrates, Aquinas, and yes, Augustine, in highlighting the injustices towards Black people. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail Dr. King writes, “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

      Again, thanks for taking the time to respond!

      Reply

      1. David,
        Thank you for your thoughtful response, I very much appreciate it.

        As for Augustine, the appeal to him and to others in the article shows the weakness of conservatism: the over reliance on the past to understand and respond to the present. Of course the weakness of non-conservatism is the under reliance on the past to understand and respond to the present. Proper balance can be very hard to achieve.

        Certainly the problems in the West can’t be reduced to King’s observation. But his critique definitely hones in on a glaring weakness that comes from the current form of Capitalism, which is neoliberalism, and the free market: that pursuing self-interest is one’s only moral obligation. It isn’t that the movers and shakers of Capitalism don’t celebrate being interested in the welfare of others. It is that such a perspective is a choice, it is optional. That is one reason the critique of King I cited is so important. It challenges the basic notion that the pursuit of self-interest is our only moral obligation.

        Restlessness involves needing God and needing each other as well as other things. And that includes Christians needing unbelievers and vice-versa. We cannot afford to come across to unbelievers that we have everything to teach and nothing to learn–an adapted quote from King.

        BTW, King not only invoked western thinkers, he and the nonviolent contingent of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s were significantly dependent on Gandhi. In fact, when the Nashville Student Movement came to rescue the Freedom Rides from a dispirited attempt made by CORE in 1961, it was the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi as taught by James Lawson which both inspired them to get involved and governed how they conducted themselves during the continuation of those rides.

        But most of all, belonging to a marginalized group in America qualified King to speak as an outsider. We have the same opportunity to listen to marginalized fellow Americans when we read or listen to BLM or CRT. They are not infallible, but they are presenting views from the outside due to their marginalization.

        BTW, Gandhi had a great statement about Western Civilization. When asked about what he thought about it, he responded by saying that he thought Western Civilization was a good idea.

        I hope that my response is neither too long nor bothersome. I just believe that the comment sections of blogs should be used for conversations about the articles they are attached to, not just comments.

        Reply

  2. Great back and forth, Curt and Dave. Thank you. You made me think.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Dennis. Grateful for Curt’s thoughtful interaction!

      Reply

  3. Concerning this: Sure it is unpleasant to be restless, but is there any hope of escaping it in this life?

    Solomon, the wisest non-God human to ever live wrote, “All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8)

    Augustine was right in so far that the closest we can come to rest in this life is to find spiritual and soul rest in Jesus through sincere faith. The apostle James wrote of the alternative to faith: “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed about.” (James 1:6)

    God bless,

    Reply

    1. Hi Travis,

      Thanks for stopping by and offering those good comments.

      Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books so I am always thrilled to see it mentioned!

      Reply

  4. […] Excited to Read,” my newest entry is Why We Are Restless by Ben and Jenna Storey. Per this Mere Orthodoxy interview, the Storeys trace a multi-generation conversation in French philosophy about human happiness and […]

    Reply

  5. I listened to this book twice through a few months ago. I enjoyed it, especially the chapter on Tocqueville.

    I do wonder whether the authors’ case isn’t overstated a bit. On most issues that we identify as contentious issues, there is remarkably broad consensus among about 70% of the population. But various news outlets and aspiring political leaders tend to focus on the dissenters at the fringes.

    I suspect that religious conservatives tend to understate the nature of that consensus because on one key issue—gay rights—religious conservatives hold to views that are out of step. Thus, religious conservatives, particularly white evangelicals, have been evicted from the societal mainstream. Never mind that a majority of people who now identify as white evangelicals rarely attend church, and more than 80% hold to heterodox theological views. The white evangelical foray into the Culture Wars has led us to the point where the movement is more associated with ethnio-nationalism than with the Gospel of Christ. If we want to engineer a Pascalian correction, we’re probably going to have to build a new evangelicalism.

    Reply

    1. Hi Ryo D,

      You are correct to highlight that our forays into the cultural wars of our era have been devastating for gospel integrity.

      Reply

      1. I see a lot of evangelical leaders lamenting that fact. But I don’t see a lot of proposals that suggest a reasonable path forward. As James Davison Hunter noted some time ago, the main organizing theme of white evangelicalism is ressentiment. That suggests that the movement is more concerned with achieving ephemeral political victories than it is with proclaiming the victory of Christ over sin and death. But, in a therapeutic culture, victimization and grievance sell, and they get more people into pews on Sunday than the hopeful message that our future is secure in Christ.

        Reply

        1. One of my go to verses that I keep hoping pastors and others leaders will consider is I Cor. 14:8. Most bugles I hear are blowing indistinct noises.

          I am looking for my six C’s in all this: clear, compelling, courageous, consistent, compassionate, and Christ-centered leadership.

          Per your concern, I think more than a few have decent ideas. I tend to think courage not ideas may be what is lacking most.

          Reply

          1. I agree that a lack of courage is the more critical problem. The evangelical movement grew in the 1980s and 1990s by offering a syncretistic blend of Christian orthodoxy and a grievance-based political nostalgia. In most cases, the latter wasn’t served up from the pulpit on Sunday. But nothing was ever said to challenge the latter. And pastors knew that their congregations were catechizing themselves throughout the week on media that promoted the latter message. And the few leaders dared to challenge Culture War orthodoxy were hammered down. The case of Lee and Misty Irons comes to mind. The more recent case of Greg Thompson, who was pushed out of the PCA after penning a critical review of Rod Dreher’s most recent book.

            My parents and I disagree sharply over issues of race and sexual orientation. But I’d chalk up most of our differences to life experiences. For example, they grew up in a New Jersey that was about 95% non-Hispanic white. That number had dropped to about 70% by the time I grew up. There is a certain loss of social cohesion that comes with diversity. And I understand why someone who grew up in that era may experience a sense of nostalgia for certain social goods that have probably been irretrievably lost. And it’s intoxicating to think that God cares about these kinds of social anxieties.

            We’re now at a point where fealty to the Culture War is a necessity for any evangelical pastor who doesn’t want to risk being fired. At the very least, one must take a permissive approach and allow parishioners to cheer on Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson without guilt.

            I am in basic agreement with the Storeys basic prescription for avoiding restlessness. But there needs to be some institutional embodiment of that prescription. For academics like the Storeys, they can find that institutional support through the informal network of Christian scholars and the think tanks that support their work. But if you’re a typical white-collar professional who spends your week working as an accountant, a physician, or a lawyer, you’ve got nowhere to go. That’s especially true if you’d rather not spend your Sunday morning worshiping with people who’ve spent the prior six days offering up sacrifices at the altar of Trumpism. And that requires a new generation of church leaders who have the courage to challenge culture-war syncretism.

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