In the document announcing our independence as a country, we put our national aspirations out for all to see.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Much has been written about all three rights, as Thomas Jefferson described them. I most recently focused on that pursuit of happiness.
Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment (2021) by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey — a husband and wife team who direct the Tocqueville Program at Furman University — makes an interesting, sometimes compelling, but ultimately unsatisfactory case as to why our pursuit of happiness makes us unhappy. While the book made unexamined assumptions and left important questions unaddressed, I am still glad that I discovered it on my recent visit to Books, Inc. in Alameda.
To understand how the modern sense of happiness developed, the Storeys examine the writings of four French philosophers from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Each is studied in-depth in separate chapters.
- As described by the authors in The Art of the Ordinary Life, the first — Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) — wrote in the midst of France’s religious wars and spoke of new ways to “loyally enjoy” the human condition as something inherent to our being.
- That is followed by The Inhumanity of Immanence which examines the writing and life of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who criticizes Montaigne’s thesis and points instead to the need for “an anguished but clear-eyed search for God.”
- The third in their quartet — Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) — is profiled in The Tragedy of Nature’s Redemer, where his efforts, from the perspective of the authors, to “reconcile Montaignean immanence with Pascalian depth” ultimately fails.
- The fourth chapter, Democracy and the Naked Soul, studies Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who arrives for his famous visit to America and observes a people “restless in the midst of their well-being.”
These four chapters are, in many ways, fascinating. I’m no expert on French philosophers but I found much here to appreciate. The writing, however, goes from fluid and clear to dense and academic, sometimes in the same paragraph. Much of the dense writing was unnecessary from my perspective, as it seemed to be inserted as a way for the authors to prove their academic chops. At times I felt I was reading an extended George Will column, but then perhaps I’m not the intended audience.
The introduction on the four French thinkers and the four profiles are followed by a concluding chapter entitled Liberal Education and the Art of Choosing.
The introduction and conclusion discuss how today’s students (the Storeys both teach) cannot make choices because they are afraid of missing out on other things that could (in some unrealized world) make them happy. The opportunity loss, if you will. I found this framing to be unsatisfying and indicative of the conservative “get over yourself and make a choice” tone that came out the more I read this work. Why can’t their 21-year-old charges just make up their minds to be a doctor or lawyer for crying out loud! I happen to know many individuals who have had incredibly satisfying, meaningful, and — yes, dare I say — happy lives who didn’t decide what they were going “to be” at age 21. And the Storeys don’t provide many solutions for how to deal with this quest for happiness that leads to unhappiness except to suggest one go back and understand the historical sources that led to this situation, make a choice, and get in the field.
Why We Are Restless is in many ways an attack on liberalism, although one handled with more care and with nuance seldom seen in today’s discourse. Liberalism is not perfect and should certainly be held up for examination. But in stating their case, the authors seem to understand intellectually that much of our modern quest for individual happiness came as a result of excessive authoritarian and religious rule over individuals, churches, communities, and nations. In my reading of the Storeys’ work there was not a great deal of criticism of the destructive power of those forces of control that seem to animate conservatives today.
The authors fret that in a democratic society, “the restlessness that grows in the shadow of the ideal of immanent contentment” becomes a politically destructive phenomenon with “ritualistic idol smashing.” However, there is little or no recognition that much of this breaking up of norms of appropriate human behavior today is coming from the libertarian and conservative branches of our communities. Like the trashing of the rule of law. This was an interesting book to read in the midst of a time when an authoritarian government is leveling cities, committing war crimes against civilian populations, and doing so while claiming to be carrying out a holy war. Too many on the right today don’t understand that democracy is a moral position.
Defending the right of human beings to control their own lives is a moral position. Treating everyone equally before the law is a moral position. Insisting that everyone has a right to have a say in their government is a moral position.Heather Cox Richardson
This is an important topic. I believe strongly in the value of community. I also believe, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, that one does well to “distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” In my experience, happiness grows when we take the time to be grateful for others. When we interact with community.
Yes, there is a balance to be struck between individual happiness and community good. But not all is solved by a pointed quest and the making of decisions just to “move into the field.” Those choices are often forced on individuals by a community that does not see the humanity in individuals, especially those who differ from the prescribed norms.
And there are many in the world who have found happiness without that anguished search for God. Perhaps they have attended college somewhere other than where the Storeys and their supporters teach.
For other thoughts on happiness, joy, gratefulness, and community, see:
- Joy is a fine initial act of insurrection (2017) on the writings of Rebecca Solnit.
- What if we have it all wrong? Reality and the dislocation of joy (2021) with thoughts from two of my mentors.
- Making time for gratefulness (2020).
More to come…