Most everyone has experienced restlessness from time to time. A feeling of wanting more, but being unsure of how to find it; of struggling with distraction, but being unsure of what to focus on; of striking out in various directions, but not feeling any more fulfilled.
While we tend to think of restlessness as a very modern phenomenon, a French diplomat and philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed the very same problems in America two centuries ago. And the roots of our restlessness go back even further still.
My guests today will trace some of these genealogical branches for us. Their names are Benjamin and Jenna Storey, they’re a married couple, professors of political philosophy, and the authors of the book Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.
We begin our conversation with how the Storeys’ inquiry into restlessness began from observing existential meltdowns in their students and a constant but unfulfilling busyness in their friends. The Storeys then explain how Tocqueville observed a similar phenomenon at the start of the 19th century, before digging into two of the philosophers Tocqueville’s observations were shaped by: Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal. They first unpack Montaigne’s ideal of living a life of cool, nonchalant, existential indifference, which sought contentment in the here and now, and then discuss Pascal’s critique of that philosophy, in which he argued that seeking diversion and distraction for its own sake only makes us miserable, and that humans must engage in an anguished search for something beyond ourselves. We then explore what happened in the West when Montaigne’s approach to life was adopted by the masses, and how it’s led to feelings of existential failure, an impossible search for constant happiness, envy, loneliness, and acrimonious political debates. At the end of our conversation, the Storeys argue that while restlessness can never be entirely extinguished, it can be tamed, and suggest a few ways on how.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Is our existential restlessness a modern phenomenon?
- How restlessness manifested in early America
- How Montaigne’s essays shaped our view of happiness
- What does Pascal have to say about Montaigne and human flourishing?
- How did Tocqueville democratize happiness (and unhappiness)?
- Why it’s so hard to know how we measure up
- How diversions have become nearly religious
- What happens when we lose a common language
- Is there a solution to this restlessness?
- The importance of saying no
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- St. Augustine’s Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts
- A Simple Cure for Restlessness
- Limiting Your Choices
- Modern “Neurasthenia”: Curing Your Restlessness
- Finding an Existential Second Wind
- Are Modern People the Most Exhausted in History?
- Democracy in America
- The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
- Sources of Existential Angst
- Montaigne’s Essays
- The Virtuous Life: Moderation
- American Beauty
- Want a Good Life?
- Men and Status (series)
- After Virtue
- How to Say No Without Coming Off Like a Jerk
- The Case for the 24/6 Lifestyle
- The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel
Connect With the Storeys
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, most everyone has experienced restlessness from time to time, it’s a feeling of wanting more but being unsure how to find it, a struggling with distraction, but being unsure what to focus on, a striking out in various directions, but not feeling any more fulfilled. While we tend to think of restlessness as a very modern phenomenon, a French diplomat and philosopher named Alexis de Tocqueville observed the very same problems in America two centuries ago, and the roots of our restlessness go back even further still. My guest today will trace some of these geological branches for us, their names are Benjamin and Jenna Storey, they’re a married couple, professors of political philosophy, and the authors of the book “Why We are Restless: On a Modern quest for Contentment.” We begin our conversation with how the Story’s inquiry into restlessness began from observing existential meltdowns in their students, and a constant but unfulfilling business in their friends. The Storey’s then explains how Tocqueville observed a similar phenomenon at the start the 19th century before digging into two of the philosophers Tocqueville’s observations were shaped by.
Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal. They first unpack Montaigne’s ideal of living a life of cool, nonchalant, existential indifference, which sought contentment in the here now, and then discuss Pascal’s critique of that philosophy, in which he argued that seeking diversion and distraction for its own sake only makes us miserable, and that humans must engage in an anguished search for something beyond ourselves. We then explore what happened in the West when Montaigne’s approach to life was adopted by the masses and how it’s led to feelings of existential failure, an impossible search for constant happiness, envy, loneliness, and acrimonious political debates. At the end of our conversation, the Storey’s argue that while restlessness can never be entirely extinguished, it can be tamed, and suggest a few ways on how. After show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/restlessness.
Benjamin Storey, Jenna Storey. Welcome to the show.
Benjamin Storey: Thanks Brett for having us on.
Brett McKay: You are the co-authors of a book called “Why We are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.” And this is, I would describe it as a philosophical genealogy to figure out why Americans in particular feel so angsty, restless, you don’t… Just life is, you don’t have it quite figured out, you don’t feel situated. I’m curious, what led you two to explore this history of American restlessness?
Jenna Storey: Yeah, thanks Brett for the question. Initially, the problem of restlessness was for us a kind of pedagogical problem. We both teach at a liberal arts university, Furman University, and we advise a lot of students, and we were finding that they were having of kind of inexplicable meltdowns often in the fall of their senior year. And this was happening, puzzlingly among those, especially among those students who had done everything that the college had asked them to do. They had taken a vast array of courses, they had done very well in all of those courses, they had explored things outside of the curriculum, they’d been on study abroad, sometimes two or three, they had done staged internships their whole time throughout college, and all of a sudden, they should have been prepared to launch, but they were just kind of fizzling out on the pad. And they would come to us just not knowing what to do with their lives. And we started to think there must be something wrong with the standards we’re setting for these young people. There must be something wrong about what we’re telling them to do that would make them happy, because what we found is that they were kind of at the end of… In their senior year, they just were kind of restless, turned in on themselves, running around in circles, full of activities, but devoid of purpose.
Brett McKay: And have you two… Besides your students, have you seen this manifest itself in the broader culture or even amongst your circle of friends that are about your same age?
Benjamin Storey: Well, sure, Brett. We are middle-aged, middle class Americans with kids, and people like us spend a great deal of their time running around, schlepping the kids from Aikido to dance, to piano lessons, going to our own professional meetings and taking care of the house, and so on and so forth. And we see this circuit of frenetic activity very much alive in our own lives as well as in the lives of our students. And we don’t think this is merely a problem of young people who are in kind of late stage angsty teenager-ness. This is a problem that pervades American life up and down. And it’s something that we see in ourselves.
Brett McKay: Now, a lot of people I’m sure are listening to this and saying, “Yeah, I experience that. I know what you’re talking about.” And they think, “Well, this must be just a modern late 20th century, early 21st century problem.” But as you guys explore in your book that this is something that’s been going on in America way back to the 19th century. In fact, there’s this French Aristocrat, came over America, did a tour and ended up writing a ground… One of the foundational works of sociology that we go to. His name is Alexis de Tocqueville, his democracy in America. And when he was going around looking at America in the early 19th century, he noticed too that even back then, Americans were really restless. How did restlessness manifest itself in the early 1800s?
Jenna Storey: Yeah, Tocqueville was here for 18 months in 1831 to 1832. And coming from the old world, he was absolutely astonished by the kind of energy he saw here in the new world. Americans have been for a very long time an amazingly energetic people. We have what we call a “land of opportunity,” and it’s very hard for us to resist chasing every lead. And Tocqueville saw that back then and we can see it now. We’re also a technological people. We like and we’re good at innovating. That makes us think that our problems will be solved tomorrow, probably by something that we can do and manage. That makes us restless too, we’re always eager to get on to the next thing. We have also a remarkable mobility, geographic and social. Of course, when Tocqueville was here, people were moving out west, there was just a lot of opportunity and… Out there, and that made people restless just looking to find the perfect spot.
And if I could share a kind of passage from Tocqueville that really gets me because he’s writing about things he saw back then in the 1830s, but that I find myself… Ben and I find ourselves still doing today. He’s remarking on the fact that Americans buy a new house, maybe a fixer-upper, and they spend many years of polishing it up and putting in all sorts of new systems and checking it out, and just as they’re putting on the finishing touches, they decide to sell it. Now, we had read this passage, we’ve been reading this passage for 15 years before we did the exact same thing, and we just felt like,”Oh, he called it and we’re doing it, and we know this is somewhat ridiculous.” But nonetheless, we have a kind of internal mechanism that pushes us to do those kinds of things. And the consequence of us kind of moving around, always looking for the next best thing is, as Tocqueville says, “Nothing is less suitable for meditation than the interior of a democratic society.” ‘Cause we’re moving around so much, everything is attracting our notice, our attention. But that makes us distracted and we’re not able to meditate or observe anything very deeply.
Brett McKay: Now, I thought that was interesting. Yeah, I thought it was interesting he noted that, yeah, Americans were a distracted people. I was like, “Man. Nothing’s changed at all.”
Benjamin Storey: That’s right, there’s lots of wonderful books being written now on the problem of attention and the digital society. But amazingly, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830’s that the problem of inattention is the greatest vice of the democratic mind. He saw this all the way back then. Surely, our digital world accelerates the difficulties we have with this, but it’s something deeper than merely a technological phenomenon.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna come back to Tocqueville, but in order to understand why Tocqueville saw what he did in the American people with… In the 19th century, you have to understand, this is what the case you all make, you have to understand the observations he made were shaped by thinking about human happiness and flourishing that other philosophers had made centuries before him. And you make the case that a lot of our restlessness that we experience today in America, but also I’d say in the West too, goes back to the 16th century. Another French guy, another French philosopher named Montaigne. For those who aren’t familiar with Montaigne, what’s his story? And how did he end up writing a series of essays that changed the way we think about human happiness?
Benjamin Storey: Michel de Montaigne stands as the fountain head of this tradition that we’re tracing in this book, this tradition of the “moraliste,” and the word “moraliste” in French, it’s not actually best translated as “moralist” in English, it’s best translated as observers of men. These are writers of this… And who cultivate this art of very acute psychological penetration. They’re excellent observers of what’s going on, the hidden movements of the human soul. And the first of these is Michel de Montaigne, who is a 16th century French nobleman who lived during the wars of religion, that is France had 30 years of religious war during Montaigne’s adulthood, roughly the second half of the 16th century. These were particularly nasty three-way conflicts between a sort of ultra-Catholic party, a Huguenot party, and then the monarchy that’s sort of caught in the middle between these two forces. Montaigne had friends and family on all sides of these conflicts, and it touched him very directly. At one point, a war party invaded the chateau, invaded Montaigne’s home, they were in the courtyard of his chateau. Another point, he was out riding along the highway and was taken hostage and robbed, and he thought he was on the verge of being executed. And the war was something that he knew first hand.
And through it all, as he tells us the story in his semi-autobiographical essays, through it all, he maintained his signature cool. And keeping one’s cool is the center of Montaigne’s moral philosophy. And there are two elements of this that one needs to understand to really grasp what he’s up to. The first is intellectual and the second is moral. On the intellectual front, Montaigne makes an extraordinarily powerful case for skepticism. In the classical and Christian tradition leading up to Montaigne, philosophers were constantly arguing about the summum bonum, about the highest good, about the thing… About the definition of human happiness. And Montaigne looks at this tradition of argument and he says, “They’ve come up with at least 288 different answers to this question. There’s no consensus whatsoever about what makes human beings happy. Moreover. These people who do all this arguing about this, who take themselves so seriously are often figures who don’t really deserve to be taken seriously by the rest of us.”
And he tells the story of Thales the astronomer, who stumbles into a well while he’s star-gazing and Diogenes the cynic who makes his home in a barrel, says these people are kind of ridiculous, and maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about the kinds of arguments they make and the kinds of questions that they ask. Montaigne launches this critique of philosophers who are interested in the question of the highest good, of what makes human beings happy, and he clearly means that critique to apply at least as pertinently to theologians although he doesn’t name them as much as he does. The philosophers. And the first point that Montaigne wants to make is this case for skepticism. Now the moral dimension of this is what it looks like when one makes skepticism the backdrop, and nonchalance the central virtue of one’s way of life. And we can see this very powerfully in Montaigne in a meditation that he offers us on death. Montaigne says, “I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but nonchalant about it, and still more about my unfinished garden.”
Montaigne says, “Look, the ancient philosophers thought you had to learn to die.” He says, “Learning to die, it’s not that hard. Death isn’t that big a deal. In fact, nothing is all that big a deal.” Montaigne paints a portrait for us of a life of kind of satisfying existential indifference. He doesn’t think anything is all that important. Montaigne reads, but he does so without the ambition of the scholar. He travels, but without the pride of the explorer or the hopes of the pilgrim. He has love affairs and eventually a family, but he doesn’t really hope for too much from either. He has a garden, but he doesn’t really care if there’s a little fungus on the plants or some weeds growing next to the tomatoes. He glides lightly over the surface of life as he puts it to us, and that’s the center of his art of living.
Brett McKay: Okay, just to recap there, before Montaigne, you would say that the way humans ordered their lives was around some… There’s a Telos, they’re… Aristotle had this idea that human beings, their Telos is to be rational animals, you’re supposed to be as rational as possible, etcetera. Plato had his forms, and then you bring in religion, Augustine said you’re supposed to order your life according to God’s will or whatever. Montaigne said, “Yeah, no one really knows. I’ll just… I’ll paint and plant my garden and read books, and that’s life.”
Benjamin Storey: Exactly. A nice comparison can be made to the classical and Christian tradition by remembering the famous line of Socrates from his speech to the Athenian jury when he’s on trial for his life, in which he says, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” And we often read that as a kind of hyperbolic statement about how important philosophy is to Socrates. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic. I think Socrates means that literally, life is not worth living without the crown of philosophy. Philosophy is what makes life worth it. We can see the same thing in the Gospels, where Jesus tells us that we should seek the pearl of great price. And without that saving faith, life is hell on earth and damnation hereafter from that point of view. And Montaigne inherits a tradition of people who are really serious about whatever version of the summum bonum it is that they adhered to.
What and the philosopher Pierre Manent has written about Montaigne, he remarks that Montaigne offers something to all those human beings who don’t care, either about the salvation of their cities or the salvation of their souls. It’s a life of splendid-seeming existential indifference.
Brett McKay: And you call this sort of philosophy, this philosophy of Montaigne, an imminent contentment. You’re just trying to find contentment in the here and now. You’re not worried about some Platonic form or some hereafter. You’re just thinking about, “What makes me happy right now?”
Benjamin Storey: That’s right. We’re looking for what makes us happy right now, and the central element, the originality of the Montaignian formula, is the emphasis that he places on variety. There’s an ancient adage of moderation, nothing too much. And Montaigne echoes that adage, nothing too much, but he adds to it a softening modern corollary, nothing too little. He achieves an attitude of nonchalance toward every good that he pursues in his life by leavening it with the pursuit of other goods. And while Montaigne likes books, he doesn’t like them too much, and he takes breaks from books to go putter about in his garden. Moderation through variation is the Montaignian formula for finding imminent contentment.
Jenna Storey: We can actually see that formula, moderation through variation as my husband put it, at work in our lives. We say it a little bit differently, we talk about finding balance. And when we wanna find balance, that’s a kind of indication that we really don’t wanna do too much of any one thing, we’re a little bit worried about becoming overly bookish or too buff or something like that. And we try to do a little bit of everything. We kinda try to dabble our way to happiness. And we’ve come to think that this idea of finding balance in your life is actually really mistaken.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Alright, imminent contentment is this idea, you can’t figure out what the summum bonum is in life so just enjoy yourself. And it sounds awesome, you just like read books, you paint, plant some cabbage, talk to your friends. But then another French thinker comes along and says, “Actually, Montaigne’s idea of happiness, that’s just keeping people miserable.” And this guy’s name is Pascal, I’m sure people have heard of Pascal with Pascal’s wager. But for those who aren’t familiar with him, tell us about Pascal and what did he contribute to this idea of human flourishing and happiness?
Benjamin Storey: All the thinkers that we treat in this book are extraordinary minds, people who lived extraordinary lives. But there is none more extraordinary than Blaise Pascal, whom a later French writer, Chateaubriand, called a frightening genius. And this label is truly fitting. Pascal was a world historical figure in mathematics and geometry. He discovered what’s the arithmetic sequence known as Pascal’s Triangle. He did important work on the geometric phenomena, the conic section. He was also a world historical physicist who did experiments on design to show that air had weight, and also attempting to abolish the scholastic common place that nature abhors a vacuum.
He was also an inventor and invented the world’s first working calculator, which could add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers of up to eight digits. He presided over the manufacture of these things, they’re called Pascaline, and there are still several examples that exist now and work, which you should try with your Texas Instruments in 400 years. [chuckle] In addition to these mathematical and scientific accomplishments, he was a great literary stylist in his provincial letters, he set some of the forms of French language that would be used for writers… By writers for generations after him. He was a philanthropist who helped give Paris its first system of public transportation called the five-cent carriages, and he was a great philosopher and religious apologist in his final and greatest work called “The Pensées.” And Pascal did all this before 40 years of age. He died at the age of only 39, having completed all the accomplishments that I just described. Pascal was a genuinely extraordinary figure in many different dimensions.
And he was raised among a class of people who were deeply influenced by the Montaignian vision of the good life. And Pascal spent a lot of time with these folks, he hang around in the salon with them when they were flirting, he gambled with them, he went hunting with them, and he examined the kinds of lives they’re living, and he said, “This all looks very charming, these variegated and artful lives my friends had built up for themselves. But secretly, they’re miserable.” And he thinks he sees the key to their misery, he thinks he sees the tell in their taste for diversion. That is, when he looks at, say for example, his friends and their love of gambling, he asks himself, “What do people actually experience when they’re gambling?” And he says, “When you’re in the middle of the game, you’re thinking about the stakes. You’re thinking about what you stand to win. And your mind is actually kind of elsewhere.”
And he says, “When you’ve won, you long for the game to begin again.” And whichever these states that you’re in, you’re thinking about the other state. That is, your mind is not present in the place and the time where you are. What Pascal thinks human beings are often genuinely seeking is distraction. We don’t love things and therefore get distracted by them, we love distraction for its own sake. And he asks, “Why is that?” He thinks we wanna get away from ourselves because we are secretly miserable.
Brett McKay: And what’s the cause of that misery according to Pascal?
Benjamin Storey: Yeah, Pascal thinks human beings are both greater and more wretched than Montaigne made them out to be. And in one of the most famous Pensées, and the Pensées are literary fragments, Pascal made the notes for a great book and he gave some lectures on the basis of what he was working on, but he never got to compose it into a book. And his heirs went into his study after he died and they found piles of paper everywhere, and they composed this into this work that’s come down to us as “The Pensées.” One of the most famous Pensées, one of the most famous of these thoughts, that’s what Pensées means in French, is one called “The Thinking Reed.” And what Pascal tells us about ourselves is that we are as fragile as a blade of grass, as a reed. That is, a vapor or a drop of water can kill us.
On the other hand, we have these minds with absolutely extraordinary powers. While the universe will eventually crush all of us, through our minds we can think the thought, “Universe.” And as far as we know, there’s nothing else in the universe that does that. And the mind is the first locus of human greatness for Pascal. But in our very intellectual capacities are a part of our misery. For example, trees are every bit as mortal as we are, but they don’t know it and we do, and that makes us profoundly unhappy.
Brett McKay: Okay, he would say, Pascal will say that misery… What Montaigne is doing is just you’re just distracting from that misery.
Benjamin Storey: That’s right.
Brett McKay: What would Pascal… Does Pascal offer a solution or is he just a problem pointer-outer?
Benjamin Storey: [laughter] Pascal wishes to make us into what he calls “Seekers in anguish.” In another famous fragment, Pascal says about human beings, he says about man, he says, “If he humbles himself, I exalt him. If he exalts himself, I humble him. And I continue to contradict him until he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster.” Pascal wishes to hold up the mirror to the paradoxical character of the human person. He wishes to make us into mysteries to ourselves. And by making us into mysteries to ourselves, Pascal incites us to seek them. And he himself follows this seeking motion through philosophy and ultimately into religion, where he thinks we’re most likely define the answer that constitutes the human soul. That’s what Pascal wants us to do, where Montaigne wants to make us come home to ourselves and be content in the little circle of imminent contentment. Pascal wants to kind of crack us open and set us in motion.
Brett McKay: And is he wanting people to… Is this sort of an Augustine approach to life? Like Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.” Does Pascal think we should seek God? Is that how we extinguish this restlessness or will we always be restless according to Pascal?
Benjamin Storey: Yeah. Pascal was close with a group of 17th century thinkers called the Jansenists, but the Jansenists was a name given to them by their enemies. What they thought of themselves as was Augustinians. Pascal is a very Augustinian thinker. And he thinks, as Augustine does, that there is a certain kind of restlessness that is natural to the human soul, and that that restlessness ultimately points us beyond anything that we can find in the world of nature or human art. But Pascal does not think, and I don’t think Augustine thinks either, that we ever find complete satisfaction, we ever become at home in the here and now, and this is the way in which Pascal really reverses the Montaignian vision of life. And Pascal wants to launch us on a search that ultimately… His own search ultimately leads him towards God. But he doesn’t think that he can give us God. He doesn’t think that he can give us a formula for how we ought to live or answer the question of the haunted and seeking human soul that we are on his account. He thinks we have to seek for ourselves, and that what we’re seeking for is not something that’s within human control. And the most that Pascal thinks he can do is get us launched on the search.
Brett McKay: Alright, now we can come back to Tocqueville, and Jenna, this is your area of expertise. Tocqueville, he read Montaigne, he read Pascal, along with some other philosophers, and that influences observations of Americans and his thoughts about the restlessness. And one of the observations that Tocqueville makes, and this is the case that you two make as well in your book, is the reason why Americans tended to be so restless was that Americans democratized Montaigne’s idea of imminent contentment. What does Tocqueville mean by that?
Jenna Storey: For Montaigne, this idea of seeking happiness in the here and now was very inventive at the time, it was counter-cultural. It was a kind of remedy, as my husband said, for the fanaticism that he saw swirling about him. For us it’s become a kind of default. You might think about it this way, some people had said, some scholars have said that Montaigne is a kind of proto-bourgeois, or at least he gave inspiration to the rising bourgeois class. Now that makes sense if you see Montaigne not… If we define bourgeois not as kind of a grim capitalist because it bears very little resemblance to Montaigne’s life, but something more like what David Brooks describes as the bobo lifestyle, the kind of white collar work with a creative flair, lots of time for hobbies and other sort of interesting pursuits. That’s more like what Montaigne was doing if you were to make an analogy to our time. You might see America as a kind of land of bobos, a land of Montaignians in that way.
To put it a bit differently, JS Mill, when he was talking about America also in the 19th century, said America is a land of all middle class people, it’s all middle class. That’s obviously a bit of an exaggeration. We are not all middle class, but we hold the kind of aspirations, ideals and expectations of middle class life as a kind of default.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. There’s no longer… Pascal would say, well, there’s no longer… People aren’t directed in America by… They’re not seeking something beyond themselves. They’re just trying to figure out how to find meaning with their Cross-Fit classes or their movies or their sports, and Pascal would say, “Yeah, good luck with that. You’re never gonna have any luck with that.”
Jenna Storey: Yeah, we sometimes fit fully reach beyond that, but it’s not really necessarily supported in a consistent way by our society. And because we’re supposed to be happy within our circles of imminent contentment, that makes us very puzzled when we’re not happy [chuckle] within those circles. If we tell ourselves and each other that outfitting those circles of imminent contentment is what we need to do to achieve happiness, when it doesn’t work, we don’t know where to go. And there’s also a kind of particular pressure, maybe social pressure put on people to be or seem happy in our society. And that’s because the pursuit of imminent goods seems more or less possible to attain. The goal here is not as extraordinary as something like holiness or heroism. We should be able to outfit our lives so that they’re interesting and comfortable. And that makes us assume that happiness is a kind of default way to be rather than a rare achievement as someone like Aristotle would have pointed out. And therefore, we have a social pressure, as I was saying, to both either be or seem happy, and when we’re not happy, when we’re unhappy, our suffering is kind of compounded by guilt. The guilt of feeling like some kind of inexplicable moral failure.
Brett McKay: And this is a trope in American… Like in literature and movies like “American Beauty.” The guy who’s middle aged, got wife, kid, nice house, and he’s like, “I just… The mid-life crisis, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I should be happy, but I’m not.”
Benjamin Storey: Yeah, and this is something that we can see in mid-life crises, but I’m always struck by how resonant this Pascalian, Tocquevillian view of the underlying unhappiness of most human souls is with students. That is, when Pascal comes along and tells them that human beings are naturally unhappy, my students are always absolutely riveted. They feel like somebody has finally said the truth that no one around them will admit, and it’s immensely liberating for them. In this sense, facing the truth about the commonness, the normal-ness of unhappiness as opposed to happiness is really one of the things that’s most important for Pascal to… That Pascal has to offer us because it can give us some relief from the guilt that my wife was describing a moment ago, that comes with unhappiness in a society that assumes that happiness is normal.
Brett McKay: Alright, Tocqueville, he observed this in the 19th Century Americans. They don’t recognize that they’re miserable. But there’s something there, they know something’s wrong, so they’re just constantly looking for diversions to ease them of that misery. Also he observed too, Tocqueville, is that this sort of frenzy that Americans have, it increases misery because it also makes us, one, more lonely, and also cultivates envy. How does the democratization of imminent contentment contribute to loneliness and just wishing the other guy next to you wasn’t as successful as you are?
Jenna Storey: Now, it’s a kind of default expectation that we expect our children to grow up to be independent, by which we mean maybe primarily or at least significantly, materially independent. Our children are pressured to go out there and make their own ways of life, and that often means chasing a job with somewhere other than your hometown.
Dependents on your family is thought of as a kind of strange, and maybe even shameful thing. This is really different than it is in other cultures. I have friends from the Middle East, for example, who cannot imagine being asked to make decisions on their own, whereas American parents are pressuring their children from preschool age to make decisions on their own, which is kind of strange. Naturally, this kind of pushing the kids out of the nest even from an early age, disconnects them from what might be their kind of natural realm of attachments, and people become lonely. At the same time, democratic peoples, Tocqueville observes have a particular facility for identifying in some way with all sorts of other kinds of people. He says that democratic peoples easily see resemblance in a wide variety of people, and that’s because we have the experience of existing at sort of various stages on the social scale.
Many of us have climbed a ladder, many of us have fallen down [chuckle] a ladder, we’re not exactly sure where we’re going to end up, and we can kind of imagine ourselves in lots of different situations. We have a sort of fellow feeling with a lot of people, we even feel badly if we hear somebody on the other side of the world is suffering, we feel an immediate connection with that. But that doesn’t really help our loneliness because we generally don’t have a lot of time because of our scramble for independence. We don’t have a lot of time to do anything about that and to make something out of our acute sense of connection that we feel.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was an interesting observation about how Americans, they feel… They have a lot of fellow feeling, compassion, if there’s something that some tragedy that happens on the other side of the world, they’ll just start donating money, clothes, etcetera. But then you can have a neighbor who just lives 100 feet from you, they can be going through a really hard time, and you have no clue. And you just, “Whatever, I don’t care, I gotta take my kids to football practice.
Jenna Storey: Well, and sadly, I’ve done some self-examination [chuckle] on this one as well as we were writing about Tocqueville. There’s part of you that doesn’t want to have a clue, because you know if you get involved in your neighbor’s life, that is going to be very time-consuming, and you’re gonna have a lot less time to write another article or attend to your promotion at work or something like this. It’s relatively easier obviously to do something that… In which you don’t establish an intimate personal connection and you can still kind of help somebody out because they’re not gonna really make any more demands on your time. The kind of restless activity that… With which we fill our lives makes us want to meet a lot of people, kind of we get interested in a lot of other people, but it also really prevents us from establishing deep connections. And you asked also about the question of envy, about the prevalence of envy in American life. And that’s really interesting. I find a lot of people asking, “Am I as famous as I should be? [laughter] Shouldn’t I be rated a little higher?” And that’s because for a similar reason, as we find ourselves kind of lonely, we don’t know where we stand, ever.
There are no fixed markers in American life. We’re told from the beginning that we could be anything that we want to be, and therefore we’re always questioning ourselves whether we’ve made enough of our lives. And we kind of are curious and also envious about those who seem to have made more of themselves…
Brett McKay: Yeah, instead of situating your sort of social circle with community, we situate ourselves in the social media. You’re trying to find a place amongst 300 million different people all vying for attention, and there’s gonna be a lot of losers in that game, and people are gonna feel sad and more lonely and angsty.
Jenna Storey: That’s right.
Brett McKay: And something that I observe too, I don’t know if you observe this as well, but as I read the book and it got me thinking too, one thing I’ve noticed… And you guys can push back on this. But one thing I’ve seen Americans do is that, okay, they know diversions are just… They’re making them miserable. They’re miserable, they don’t wanna follow a religion, but what they’ll do instead is they’ll make their diversion, whether it’s exercise, or diet, or what… Could be Harry Potter fandom, that becomes their new thing that they just really invest into it and sort of their sense of self. They’re kind of being… They’re taking their diversions and making them obsessions.
Benjamin Storey: Yeah, that’s a really good… That’s a really good point. What sort of lies behind all this is a kind of unconscious memory of the rejection of fanaticism that lies at the beginning of the modern era, and as we’ve talked about, that rejection of fanaticism goes hand-in-hand with a setting aside of the question of the highest good, the setting aside of the question of what is really worth doing. In other words, we’re putting sort of all the goods on a single plane. Nothing is totally hollow, but everything is somewhat hollow, is kind of the way… We can’t really distinguish between that which is really important and that which is trivial.
And people feel, just as you’ve described, that they’re divided, that they’re pursuing too many things and they wanna plunk down on something, but yeah. It ends up being something like Harry Potter, which is kind of obviously silly.
Brett McKay: And this affects politics. Well, civic life, because everyone doesn’t… We’re bringing our sort of imminent contentment ideas of what it is to be good. There’s no agreement on what is the summum bonum, and debates end up just being sort of yelling like, “My thing is better than your thing.” It’s like debating which ice cream flavor is the best almost, chocolate or vanilla. It’s like, well, it’s subjective. How do you know? And the only thing you can do is just yell at each other saying chocolate’s the best or vanilla’s the best, and it makes civic life really cantankerous.
Jenna Storey: Okay, that’s really interesting. I think that you’re right, that if we don’t have the belief that we can argue meaningfully about things, we are gonna end up just yelling at each other, right. So, if we don’t have the belief that there is some kind of architecture of truth and meaning, as say, Aristotle saw in, when he’s talking about the possibility of political life to kind of transcend itself and become philosophic. Conversely, for philosophy to kind of penetrate political life. If we don’t have the belief that we can really talk meaningfully about what goods are worth pursuing and which ones we should let fall by the wayside, we’re just gonna shout about imminent things. I think it’s also interesting because liberal politics is supposed to be a low boil politics, politics, where we explicitly lowered the temperature by not concentrating on questions of transcendental meaning, right? So, we separate out religious concerns, for example, from our political debates in an effort to concentrate on kind of low, but solid goods. And I think that worked for quite a long time, but as people lose belief in anything other than the imminent and as they concentrate their quest for happiness more and more on the imminent circle, that takes on the same kind of existential angstiness that the transcendent quests had once taken on, so you see around us that imminence can be as mad a master as transcendence once was.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think Allister MacIntyre in “After Virtue” sort of describes that, what happens when you lose a common summum bonum or lose the vocabulary to talk about moral issues, that it just ends up to… He calls it emotivism. You just yell at each other. And then this even like Nietzsche saw this as well, when there’s no longer a unifying or underlying thing to just, how you see the world… Well, it’s just… All right. Everyone’s out, it’s up to everyone else… It’s up to everyone to make their own values, and it’s like, what do you do when values conflict? It’s like, well, I don’t know. I think at that point you had to be like, I’ll just become Montaigne, build a tower and, you know, read books and plant cabbages. That sounds probably like the best solution, but I imagine you all don’t think that’s the best solution. What do you think is the solution to this restlessness that we feel?
Jenna Storey: Well, I think, you know, first of all, I think we’d say there isn’t a solution and actually part of the problem of the Montaignian life is to believe in a solution, to believe that we can be perfectly content. So, there’s not a solution in our view, because we think that Pascal’s critique of Montaigne has held some water, that human beings are not purely imminent creatures, we are beings that naturally, kind of transcend the temporal or a straddle the imminent in the transcendent, and that’s going to make us kind of uneasy, restless, off kilter in the world, right. But we do think there are ways that you can learn to manage this restlessness, as it were, to handle it better and turn what we see as a kind of pointless busy-ness into what we call a pointed quest, right.
So to take yourself from the sort of every day run around and set yourself on, turn your restlessness into something that is actually productive and purposeful. And in our lives, we spend most of our days at the college, and so we think a lot about liberal education and the place it could play in helping us deal with our restlessness, and I think there’s a number of ways we could think about liberal education better that would help us do that.
First of all, if you’re a student, just understand how precious these institutions are in our cultural life, the fact that we routinely give a good number of our young people for years at the threshold of adult life to think about what they’re going to do and what part they’re going to play in the world is really extraordinary. And people who are fortunate enough to do that should be prepared to make the most of it, by which we mean at the very least, engaged in a study of, a systematic study of investigations of what people have said in the past about what might make you happy, have some tolerance and patience for working through these things and developing the discipline to really understand them, and then step back and try to judge between those different ways of lives because the fact is, you’re going to have to choose, and it’s best if your choice is informed, it’s important because you’re gonna be faced with a number of very attractive competing goods, it’s important to distinguish merely nice things from the absolutely needful. As we say in the book, we think liberal education might best be understood as an education in the art of choosing, and if students approached it that way, they would probably emerge from college a lot more, full of direction and satisfied.
Brett McKay: And this also applies to adults, like it’s not too late for them as well, you can pick up the Iliad or Plato’s Republic or Kierkegaard and start informing yourself so you can become a better chooser in this life filled with restlessness.
Benjamin Storey: And we think that… We think that’s right. And another part of this that we’ve tried to learn and incorporate practically in our adult lives is one of the reasons we’re so restless and frantic is that we say yes to too many things. And so we’ve developed a kind of private household contest in the art of saying no. [laughter] To this opportunity, you know, that, you know, some of which are, you know, prestigious or lucrative or whatever, the, we need to be able to set things aside and preserve time for the things that genuinely they are; the locus of meaning in our lives. And so the art of saying no is one part of this art of choosing.
Jenna Storey: My dad, one or two things. So I’ve been said… Many of us want to cut back, right? You hear that refrain pretty frequently, everybody wants to say, ” No.” But, if we don’t really understand what we’re cutting back to, then it’s gonna be really hard to cut back. So, the contest to say, “No” is important, it’s kind of an important habit to cultivate, to just turn down things and feel good about it. But you also have to think carefully about what you’re cutting back to, or you’re really not gonna keep up that discipline. And the last thing I’d mention is something we started doing about eight years ago, which is keeping a Sabbath, keeping a day aside where we do not do any work… Any office work, any school work, any studying, any yard work. And whether you’re religious or not, it’s a wonderful institution that you can create in your own life. We did this after we read a book called, “The Sabbath” by the Jewish theologian and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel. And he, basically, convinced us of how important it is to take one day to refrain from working, to refrain from trying to make an impact on the world around you. And to let the world make an impact on you. You know, it forces you to stop and observe both what you’ve done during the week, and also what’s been done for you.
Brett McKay: Right. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, right. Well, Ben and Jenna, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Benjamin Storey: They can learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website or on Amazon.com. And they can learn more about our work by looking up Furman.edu/tocqueville. We run a center at Furman called The Tocqueville Program, which we have set up to engage students with the moral and philosophic questions at the heart of political life. And so, they can see all the various kinds of things we’re trying to do for students there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jenna and Benjamin Storey, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Benjamin Storey: Okay, thanks so much, Brett.
Jenna Storey: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Benjamin and Jenna Storey. They’re the authors of the book, “Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.” It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. Check in our show notes at AOM.IS/restlessness, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at ArtofManliness.com, where you can find find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to StitcherPremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you’d think would get something out of it. As always, thanks for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.