Benjamin Storey asks French philosophers why we are restless

Americans remain unhappy despite surviving 2020’s global pandemic and a tumultuous election. Why?

Last year, the United States dropped one place on the list of world’s happiest nations, according to Gallup World Poll results analyzed for the 2021 Word Happiness Report. 

And Washington is the 51st happiest city in the U.S., trailing far behind Plano, Texas, at No. 1, according to a new survey.

This springtime of our national discontent stems from a lack of spiritual awareness, according to Benjamin Storey, co-author with his wife Jenna Silber Storey, of “Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.”

The duo, who both teach at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, are set to present their views at an American Enterprise Institute forum on May 24.

“What Jen and I really know about is old books and young souls: we spent a lot of time with college students, both at Furman and at other universities,” Mr. Storey said in a telephone interview. “I think that there’s a lot of focus on the anger of this generation. We want to draw some attention to the deep discontent,” he added.

The discontentment comes from “their educational institutions are steering them toward a vision of happiness that is not actually satisfying,” said Mr. Storey, who teaches the history of political philosophy. 

Though not as literate in religious thinking as their predecessors, he said today’s students manifest a “spiritual hunger” he finds encouraging.

“One of the things that’s troubling us because we have a deep sense of guilt but we don’t really have much of a sense of the possibility of forgiveness or redemption,” Mr. Storey said. “And that is, I think, one of the sources of our troubles.”

To solve that, today’s discontented can look to the lives and works of four French philosophers, men whose careers spanned three centuries: French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne; mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal; Swiss-born political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose best-known work chronicled America in the first part of the 19th century.

Having lived through France’s “wars of religion” in the 1500s, Montaigne saw neighbors “willing to burn each other alive over the fine points of religious difference,” Mr. Storey said. 

Instead, Montaigne urges people away towards “immanent contentment,” in which individuals cultivate “this virtue of nonchalance, of not taking anything too seriously,” Mr. Storey explained, since no one can “know the answer to the question of the human good.”

Pascal, whose work in logic led to an early computer programming language being named in his honor, was also a spiritual thinker who countered Montaigne’s “nonchalance” by goading his contemporaries — and us — to ponder existential questions.

“There’re really three kinds of human beings, as Pascal puts it,” Mr. Storey said. “Those who have found God and served him. Those who have not found God but are looking for him. And those who are neither looking for God, nor have found him.”

Pascal maps that typology onto human happiness, Mr. Storey says.

“He thinks those who aren’t looking and haven’t found, are unhappy and unreasonable. He thinks those who have found God are happy and reasonable. And he thinks that those in the middle are unhappy but reasonable, that is those who haven’t found God but are looking.”

Pascal aims his message at the middle group, because they might be persuaded to consider spiritual questions, where those who aren’t searching might not: Pascal “wants to turn us into what he calls seekers in anguish,” Mr. Storey said.

While recognizing that Pascal was onto something in his analysis of society, Rousseau embraced Montaigne’s nonchalance so forcefully, the Storeys write in their book published this year by Princeton University Press, that it influenced, for good and ill, the generation that led the anti-clerical, Bastille-storming French Revolution.

Fleeing the after-effects of that Revolution, Tocqueville finds a very young United States that is largely middle class — and yet also discontented. 

Mr. Storey said the American experiment deeply impressed the French thinker — to a point.

“He looked around and he saw a functional and very impressive democracy … he made it the work of his life to bring it back to France, as a model for them and all the travails that followed upon the French Revolution,” Mr. Storey said of Tocqueville. “But then he said, these Americans they’re restless even in the midst of their prosperity. He thought that was in part because we spend so much time pursuing the material conditions for the kind of human flourishing that modern peoples tend to aim at … But that quest leaves a large part of us unsatisfied.”

That dissatisfaction, Mr. Storey asserted, “is one of the things that’s troubling us because we have a deep sense of guilt but we don’t really have much of a sense of the possibility of forgiveness or redemption. And that is, I think, one of the sources of our troubles.”

He said he hopes the book will let thinkers of the past such as Pascal speak to today’s ill-at-ease society and provoke a spiritual quest.

According to Catholic theology teacher Dawn Eden Goldstein, there may be something to the Storeys/ argument.

Ms. Goldstein, a onetime rock-music journalist who has written several Christian-themed books including “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints,” said both Montaigne and Pascal have lessons for today’s seekers.

“We have the perspective in Ecclesiastes that it’s important to appreciate this life, and we also have the perspective of Pascal that we have a King, Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world,” she said. 

“In the Old Testament, too, in the prophets and elsewhere, there’s plenty that says this world is not all that there is. I believe that the reason why we can and should enjoy this life in a good and responsible way is that God has shown us that this life is important to Him,” Ms. Goldstein explained.

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