Under “Books I’m 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 restlessness.
They begin the conversation with Montaigne, whom I feel a nearly unbearable burden to read, who saw the late stages of the Catholic-Protestant wars in France and despaired from them. If the idea of ultimate transcendent happiness via religion, he posited, leads to irreconcilable factions and warfare, why not give up the Quixotic quest and settle for a happy life here? From the Storeys:
[Montaigne] 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.
Montaigne tried to cast a vision, as it were, for an immanent happiness – a happiness cobbled together from pleasant this-worldly experiences. While there were surely plenty of rich aristocrats who did just that without reflecting or theorizing on their experience, Montaigne sought to make a written philosophy of what we now call modern happiness. Good food, good friendships, good travel can make a meaningful life.
But, the Storeys say, Pascal – who loved Montaigne even as he disagreed with him, as Chesterton obviously loves many of the people he contradicts in Heretics – saw that Montaigne’s philosophy leads to modern restlessness, for a simple reason:
In three words, however, Pascal refuted him: l’homme passe l’homme, “man transcends man.”
To be human is to thirst for transcendence. To neglect this dimension of ourselves is to deprive ourselves of our true human nature. We have a restlessness that Augustine of Hippo nailed over a century before Montaigne, in his Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The Storeys distinguish this kind of restlessness – the restlessness of the pilgrim who has a fixed destination and knows she has not reached it – with the modern kind of restlessness that is agnostic about destination but feels she must, as it were, eat, pray, and love.
I could go on, but the book is on the list!