What makes us happy? What keeps us from being happy? Is restlessness the same thing as unhappiness? Is happiness something we should value or assume we can even find?
These are some of the questions that Benjamin and Jenna Storey explore in their 2021 book, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment (Princeton UP, 2021). They lead us through the ideas on these matters of four French-language thinkers: Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville.
The book begins by examining the relaxed view of the human condition that Montaigne (1533–1592) took that has been called his, “nonchalance.” It moves on to the stern, forbidding view of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who felt that everyone was miserable and that it was folly to deny it and the only answer was God—and finding God was a grueling quest. They then take on Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who felt that everyone was good at heart but that society tended to stifle that goodness and deform moral character. They conclude with Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) who felt that democracy was a boon to mankind but that it could descend into tyranny if people became so obsessed with material well-being that they turned to the government at the expense of liberty.
This is only one take on the book. Read it for yourself. It profiles four thinkers who shaped Western thinking on government, religion, education, liberty, morality and our consciousnesses and the soul. It could be profitably read by teachers, parents and those who have friends who are unhappy or by readers who are themselves vaguely (or wildly) discontented. If you are a happy-go-lucky person, Montaigne is your man. If you are of the opinion that life is a grim business, go with Pascal. If you want a book that is both enjoyable and deeply serious, read this one. For once, I was convinced that French (and Swiss) thinkers matter to me as an American.
Today, we will hear from Benjamin and Jenna Storey and talk about their four featured thinkers and the long, winding path of the concept of contentment.
For more information about the book and the work of Benjamin and Jenna Story, please visit their website.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.