The History of Happiness
by Benjamin and Jenna Storey
by Benjamin and Jenna Storey
A talk on the “history of happiness” is a bound to disappoint. Happiness, after all, is something we would prefer to possess than to study. To consider its history seems to be to embark on a scholar’s detour—why should we care that happiness has a history?
Our interest in the uncovering history of happiness stems from our observation that the dominant mode of pursuing happiness in our moment often fails. And that it especially fails in those who seem most destined to succeed. As college teachers, we often see this failure in the restless paralysis that afflicts star students as they approach graduation. These students have done everything right, have taken all the steps those around them have indicated would lead to happiness. They have options—indeed too many options—before them as they graduate. And yet they are hesitant, unnerved, and even miserable at the prospect of embarking on a concrete way of life. Why has their education failed them on what is, after all, the most important question: how to live?
Many of you will recognize the predicament of such students. Indeed, their troubles seem to be characteristic of our moment. They are not, however, unprecedented. Considering the history of happiness can help us make the past an important ally in our efforts to understand ourselves and our present.
On his 1831 visit to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville already noticed the unease we have described. He famously remarked that Americans were “restless in the midst of their prosperity.” By the standards of world history, the Americans he observed were both remarkably enlightened and astonishingly well-off. And yet they tended to have a hard time sitting still and enjoying the fruits of their good luck and hard work. Instead, they plunged ever forward, moving from home to home, from state to state, from career to career, in a never-ending, sometimes desperate-seeming search for a happiness that seemed to forever flee before them.
While Tocqueville’s talents as an observer are justly legendary, talent alone does not account for his ability to penetrate the cheerful and busy surface of American life to detect the emptiness beneath. This insight was made possible by his distinctly French education. From adolescence onward, Tocqueville steeped himself in the literary tradition of those the French call the moralistes. The moralistes are not moralists in English sense, but rather “observers of men”—expert students of the hidden movements of the human heart.
France’s tradition of moralistes is a conversation that stretches across four centuries. One of the central themes of that conversation is an argument about happiness. That argument is particularly focused on understanding of the possibilities and limits of a vision of happiness we call “immanent contentment.” We have come to think that this vision happiness is the unspoken standard for many of our pursuits of happiness in the present. In this paper, we follow the French argument about immanent contentment, first by considering the thought of the man we take to be its greatest and most original exponent, Michel de Montaigne. We then turn to the thought of its greatest and most original critic, Blaise Pascal. Finally, we will describe more precisely what Tocqueville’s education in this argument allowed him to see in America. Because Tocqueville knows that our way of pursuing happiness has a history, he is uniquely positioned to embark on the basic mission he outlines for himself in his great masterwork, Democracy in America: “to teach democracy to know itself.” We think we can understand ourselves better, and perhaps live better lives, by attending to what he and the moralistes who precede him in this tradition have to say.
Michel de Montaigne and the Art of Immanent Contentment
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French nobleman and the inventor of a literary form now familiar to everyone: the essay. At the age of thirty-nine, Montaigne sold his office in the Parlement of Bordeaux, giving up a frustrating political career without regret. He retired to his chateau and spent much of his time in a study at the top of a tower, an inner sanctum he thought of as the “cabinet of the muses.” He first published his colossal Essays in 1580, and issued several subsequent, expanded editions before his death. Those essays were read by almost all educated people in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although less well-known than he should be in the United States, Montaigne’s influence on European literature and life rivals that of figures such as Shakespeare and Cervantes.
During his lifetime, Montaigne lived through eight of the wars of religion that tore France apart in the sixteenth century. He began writing his great book in 1572, the same year as the worst incident in those wars, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which has been called the “Kristallnacht of the French monarchy.” While Montaigne’s comments on the events of those wars are often indirect, he lets his reader see them as the ever-present backdrop of his lively, ironic, sometimes ebullient essays. The contrast between that ghastly historical context and Montaigne’s depiction of his own apparently successful search for happiness gives the Essays their pathos.
In the Essays, Montaigne invites us to accompany him on a journey of introspection: a search for self-knowledge that he thinks will also help him understand the deepest sources of the disaster of his country. “We are never at home, we are always beyond,” he writes, in one of the opening chapters of that work. “Fear, desire, and hope” steal us away from ourselves and launch us toward the beyond—the future, the eternal, the transcendent. In this tendency of the soul to “reach out beyond itself,” Montaigne finds the source of all France’s blood and fanaticism. It is because we cannot stay home, because we cannot mind our own business, that we raise the stakes of our common life until we believe that eternity hangs in the balance over differences of political opinion. That is why, Montaigne thinks, we intrude ourselves, often violently, into the affairs of others.
To correct this tendency, which he sees as the source not only of social disruption but also of self-alienation, Montaigne teaches a new art of pursuing happiness. At the center of that art is a technique of psychic circumscription. “The course of our desires,” he writes, “must be circumscribed and restrained to the nearest and most contiguous good things. Moreover, their course should be directed not in a straight line that ends up elsewhere, but in a circle, of which the two points grasp one another and meet in ourselves by a brief contour.”
This strategy of circumscription is the core of Montaigne’s art of pursuing contentment immanently—here and now. We learn to be at home, we overcome the natural tendency of the human soul toward ecstasy, toward getting outside of ourselves, through a moral formula we call moderation through variation. That is, Montaigne recommends that we attend to all the pleasures of human life—reading, writing, food, dance, love, correspondence, running a household, tending a garden, and much else, disdaining no part of our being. And yet we should take none of it too seriously and should expect full satisfaction from nothing. Montaigne thereby seeks to achieve the ancient counsel of moderation, “nothing too much,” by adding to it a less austere modern counterpart, “nothing too little.”
Nothing too much, but nothing too little is a formula for happiness that is deeply rooted in Montaigne’s famous skepticism. In the longest chapter of the Essays, the “Apology for Raymond de Sebond,” Montaigne criticizes every account of the human good, every attempt to offer the secret to happiness. The arguments of every philosopher about the good life are nothing more than manifestations of human vanity, whose absurdity is proven by their very proliferation. After all, Montaigne suggests, if there were a single summum bonum, a single human good, wouldn’t the philosophers have come to agreement about it by now, after so many centuries of argument? The lesson history gives us, according to Montaigne, is do not choose: instead, enjoy a little bit of every conceivable good.
The central virtue necessary to pursuing happiness so understood is what Montaigne calls nonchalance. We can see what Montaigne means by nonchalance in the way he imagines meeting his own death: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages,” he tells us, “nonchalant about death, and still more about my unfinished garden.” And so, with everything: we should be aloof from nothing, but also terrified of nothing, and perhaps in love with nothing—keeping an ever-careful eye on our equilibrium in the midst of the vagaries of human existence.
Such was Montaigne’s art of being at home in this world. Its influence is incalculable: from Descartes and Hobbes in the seventeenth century to Stefan Zweig and Virginia Woolf in the twentieth, many of the most influential authors in everything from politics to poetry steeped themselves in Montaigne and bear the mark of his influence. But that influence has never been limited to writers. The Essays are composed of short chapters, suitable for the bedside table and the dentist’s waiting room, tailored to the taste of people who want to read about real human beings, shown as they are, free from the cloudiness of cant and convention.
In the generations immediately following his death, Montaigne became the hero of an ascendant class that was in search of a moral ideal. That class, sometimes called the bourgeious gentilhommes, were men who rose to prominent positions through wealth and education rather than noble birth or military prowess. They patterned their lives after an ideal they called the honnête homme, the honest or honorable man, a figure marked by curiosity, broad-mindedness, and humanity, but never tainted by the proud obduracy that was the characteristic vice of the old aristocracy this rising group sought to replace. They singled out Montaigne as the greatest embodiment of that ideal. But in one of history’s interesting ironies, it was precisely from the class of the bourgeois gentilhommes that Montaigne’s greatest reader and greatest critic, Blaise Pascal, would emerge.
Blaise Pascal and the Inhumanity of Immanence
The father of French Romanticism, François René de Chateaubriand, called Blaise Pascal’s genius “frightening.” Pascal’s father, Étienne Pascal, was a royal official and mathematician, and took great pains to structure his son’s education. At first, Pascal’s father did not want that education to include mathematics, which he thought would distract young Blaise from his study of Greek and Latin. But the young Pascal overheard the talk of the mathematicians who frequented their home and started thinking about it on his own. When he was twelve, his father entered his room unexpectedly and found him in the process of deducing Euclid’s 32nd proposition; upon seeing this, Étienne had a change of heart and began to instruct his son. Blaise Pascal would go on to write a treatise on conic sections which is still a major landmark in the history of geometry, to discover the numerical sequence we call Pascal’s triangle, which is the basis of probability theory, to invent and preside over the manufacture of the world’s first working mechanical calculator, several examples of which still exist in good working order, and to design the experiments that first demonstrated the phenomenon of atmospheric pressure. He also had a stupendous literary career that began with a brilliant, daring satire of the most powerful churchmen in France, the Provincial Letters, and continued with one of the most important works of Christian apologetics ever written, the Pensées. In 1662, he and his friend Arthus de Roannez launched the world’s first system of public transportation, the 5-cent carriages, in Paris. Pascal would die later that year at only 39 years of age.
Pascal’s mathematical, scientific, and philanthropic accomplishments mark him as a first-rate modern mind, a major contributor to Francis Bacon’s modern project for the “improvement of the human condition.” But Pascal sees that what modern science shows us about nature makes plain that we cannot be at home in it. One might embellish a little on Pascal’s scientific work to say that not only does nature not “abhor a vacuum,” as the scholastic commonplace held, but that a vacuum is no small part of what nature is. On this view, modern science makes the Montaignean project of being at home in this world much more difficult, for it intensifies rather than blunts our need for transcendence.
Pascal reads Montaigne, whose Essays were the secular breviary for the ascendant class of his time, with the intensity of a serious man studying something he finds both brilliant and dangerously wrong. Looking around at the human beings who modeled their own lives after the pattern of the Montaignean honnête homme, he comes to believe that they are both fooling themselves and deceiving others about the central human question, the question of happiness.
In the favorite pastimes of those who strive to be curious about everything but captivated by nothing, Pascal sees the love of variety Montaigne celebrated, and describes it as a taste for diversion (a favorite Montaignean word). Investigating just why it is that diversion is so attractive to human beings, Pascal takes gambling as his example, and asks us to consider exactly what it is the gambler loves about his activity. As a scientist who knows how to isolate variables, Pascal inquires: is it the winnings, or is it the game? Give the man the winnings without his cards or his dice, and he will not be happy. But play the game without anything at stake, and the charm of the thing is dead. When we’re in the game, we think about the winnings; when we’ve won or lost, we long for the game to begin again. Whichever condition we find ourselves in, our minds dwell on its contrary. In idleness, we long for activity; in activity, we long for completion.
This perpetual unease with the present reality of our lives leads Pascal to note that human beings are often incapable of “sitting alone in our rooms.” Silence and stillness terrify us, and so we constantly throw ourselves into work or love or amusement: anything at all that will take us away from the emptiness of solitude and quiet. But why is this emptiness so unnerving? Pascal points out that we cannot bear to sit alone in our rooms because, when we do, we have no choice but to face ourselves. What we find when we do so is the inescapable desire for wisdom and happiness. But life is the continual discovery that we cannot get what we cannot avoid wanting—that ignorance, suffering, and death are the fate of the only animal who speaks of knowledge, contentment, and permanence.
For Pascal, we are thus beings of disproportion, a disproportion he captures in some of his most moving images. We are, he tells us, “thinking reeds”—as weak and fragile as the humblest of plants, and yet capable of thinking thoughts such as “infinitude,” “eternity,” and “universe.” The universe itself, by contrast, does not, as far as we know, think anything at all. To be human is to feel like a “deposed king”—a man dislodged from his rightful place. In one of his most exalted aphorisms, Pascal writes that “man transcends man,” and yet he notes that the inner experience of such self-transcendence is perpetual discontent.
A being of disproportion is naturally unhappy. While this sounds depressing, it can be profoundly important and even liberating news in our age of happiness-signaling, when many of us feel compelled to project a smiling, successful, delighted face to the world even in our hours of intractable sadness. Unhappiness neither can nor should be medicated away, for it is not a disorder, but our natural human condition.
Restlessness, according to Pascal, is not a mental aberration to be corrected by the strategies of Montaignean psychology. Restlessness is, rather, a fitting response to our unhappy condition. As such, we should pay attention to it and even concentrate it into a way of life that recognizes the impossibility of satisfying ourselves within nature’s narrow boundaries. That way of life consists in “seeking in anguish,” searching for the necessarily more-than-natural answer to the question that is the human heart.
No one typifies that anguished search better than Pascal himself. Whereas Montaigne pictures the good life in the form of his circle—varied, moderate, and self-referential–Pascal lives like a comet, burning ever forward, straight and bright, through an enormous range of the most promising human endeavors until he disappears, as Tocqueville remarks, “into the bosom of God.” The only happiness he finds is in the love of that very God, who joins man in the solidarity of shared suffering.
Pascal’s wisdom is a sad wisdom, which many of us might like to forget. The Promethean eighteenth century, with its vast hopes for human improvement and quick impatience with natural limits, did indeed choose to forget it as it launched the revolutions that would give us modern democracy. But once that upheaval had taken place, Alexis de Tocqueville looked around and saw that Pascal’s sad wisdom might be the key to understanding the democratic soul that emerged from the tumult as modernity’s triumphant victor.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy and the Naked Soul
Tocqueville’s education was deeply informed by the great argument between Montaigne and Pascal. When one reads these three authors in sequence, it is evident that Tocqueville’s characterization of the aspirations of many Americans was influenced by Montaigne’s account of how we might become content with immanence by limiting our horizon to this mortal life, and trying to live pleasantly, peacefully, and reasonably here and now. Tocqueville was also obviously compelled by Pascal’s efforts to convince us that we are both greater and more miserable than Montaigne imagined: that we are beings built for anguished God-seeking rather than pleasant self-seeking. The argument between Montaigne and Pascal echoes across the pages of Tocqueville’s most famous work, Democracy in America.
Tocqueville was born in 1805 to an aristocratic family with deep ties to the monarchy of the pre-Revolutionary period and to the religion, Catholicism, that seemed to be inextricably bound up with it. Tocqueville’s parents were imprisoned during the Revolutionary years, and in fact slated for execution. They were spared only by one of the frequent changes in revolutionary government, which allowed them to be suddenly released. But they had watched their friends and relatives be taken out, one by one, to the guillotine, and they never got over the experience. Alexis’s father, Hervé, emerged from prison with his hair turned white at age twenty. His mother was marked by the experience with a nervous affliction and would sing melancholy songs about the ancien régime when the family gathered around the fire after dinner. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Tocqueville to adopt the largely counter-revolutionary attitude of his family and his class. But he didn’t. He also refused to break rank entirely and throw his lot in with democracy’s “blind friends,” as he called them, who opposed religion and moral order because they saw them in the camp of their enemies. Instead, he aimed to chart a new course. As he put it in his most famous work, Democracy in America, he sought to “see further than both parties” in order to understand the possibilities and perils of modern democratic politics—which he was convinced would dominate Western history for the foreseeable future.
A key component of Tocqueville’s ability to see further than both parties was the trip he was able to take to America in the 1830s. Tocqueville was then an apprentice magistrate in the first stages of a political career and was sent to America by the French government with the official purpose of observing our penitentiary system, which was at the time thought of as well-functioning and even progressive. Tocqueville’s private purpose, however, was to observe a relatively healthy democracy in order to get a better perspective on the possibilities and dangers of this ascendant political form.
Tocqueville came to America, then, ready to see something new. And he was able to see it in a new way. For, you might say, he read the prose of American life with the poetry of the French moralistes resounding in his ears.
Tocqueville steeped himself in the thought of the moralistes, from Montaigne through Rousseau, and when we would go to write his memoirs later in life, would explicitly seek to inscribe himself in that tradition. His engagement with Pascal was particularly intense; his great friend Gustave de Beaumont wrote that the minds of Tocqueville and Pascal were “made for one another.” Reading Tocqueville as the heir of the moralistes allows us to see the world Tocqueville depicts in Democracy in America in a new light. For what Tocqueville is depicting in that book is something of the great drama of the soul that played out on the pages of our authors—but scaled down to the everyday, domestic world of millions of ordinary households, and multiplied over the expanse of an enormous nation. What Tocqueville sees in America is what happens when the immanent contentment becomes the standard of aspiration for millions of people. When he remarks that Americans are restless in the midst of their prosperity, he is thinking of Pascal. His diagnosis of the restless unhappiness of democratic man is an echo of Pascal’s diagnosis of the restless unhappiness of Montaignean man.
In Montaigne, the quest for immanent contentment was an elite, almost boutique, pursuit. In America, that pursuit gains the overpowering endorsement of democratic popular opinion, which Tocqueville describes as “a kind of immense pressure of the mind of all on the intelligence of each.” The Montaignean view that our common, human condition matters more than artificial hierarchies of social status is the forerunner of the democratic belief in what Tocqueville calls the “equality of conditions.” The Montaignean attraction to travel and wariness of conventional human ties manifests itself in the American willingness to uproot oneself and follow the call of fortune across the country, leaving family and friends behind. Montaigne’s love of poking fun at the high and mighty, and his cheeky defense of our material and bodily existence, become principal features in Tocqueville’s portrait of democratic man. Even Montaigne’s skepticism becomes the default intellectual posture of an entire nation, Tocqueville finds, much to his surprise.
What does all this mean for the character of the American pursuit of happiness—an activity which is enshrined in the very foundational documents of our country? Tocqueville, who “erected the moralists’ taste for paradox into an epistemological principle,” as Arthur Goldhammer notes, saw that, the more successful the democratic spread of liberty, opportunity, and prosperity becomes, the more unsettled democracy’s citizens will be by the restlessness Pascal identified in the Montaigneans of his own generation. Ever-increasing equality and prosperity do not cure our restlessness but entrench it. Our unease is the product of our success.
At the heart of Tocqueville’s ambition “to teach democracy to know itself” is an effort to teach democratic human beings the Pascalian lesson that the immanent contentment that they seek will never be enough for a human soul. His portrait of the democratic quest for happiness makes the case for this anthropological proposition.
The two defining features of the democratic quest for happiness, according to Tocqueville, are the desire for material well-being and the desire to think the question of happiness through for ourselves. Here again, Tocqueville puts a paradox before us. For how is it that, in a nation of people who desire to figure out what happiness means on their own terms, so many of us get caught up in the scramble after material goods? Why does the freedom to live out a grand variety of individual and distinctive quests for the good life result in so much homogeneity?
Tocqueville begins to untangle this paradox by showing how the desire to think about what will make us happy for ourselves plays out in our individual lives. Americans engage in the noble challenge of deciphering the world on our own, and pride ourselves on living in the light of our self-generated convictions. This ambition helps us become famously adept at solving the practical difficulties that life presents, and makes us world leaders in industry, technology, and research. Such successes cause us to believe that everything in the world is akin to the problems our practical prowess helps us solve—obstacles to be overcome by hard work and ingenuity. For a nation of aspirational pioneers, nothing lies permanently beyond the grasp of our intelligence. Everything is potentially explicable.
Self-reliant people naturally want to see for themselves the naked truth about things. To get to the heart of the matter, they like to peel away appearances with the solvent of their doubt. This kind of impatience with appearances naturally gives us an abiding suspicion of the thought of the great names of the past. Americans, Tocqueville notes, take “tradition only as information.” The history of thought is interesting, maybe, but it is not authoritative. It does not tell us anything about what we must do or give us any kind of special guidance on how we might live. Fascinated as we are with innovation and technological advancement, we readily suppose we could do better. Democratic human beings are intellectual progressives by default.
Such assertions of intellectual independence, however, can be self-undermining. When we get past the simple desire to think for ourselves, and seriously attempt to do so, we find it is no easy matter. Questions abound: “How should I live? What does happiness consist of? What are my duties? Is there a God? Does that God ask anything of me? Is the world created, or a product of chance?” Answers to such questions—or even serious explorations of such questions—are dauntingly difficult to find. In fact, the obvious way to go about exploring them would be to investigate the thought of the great men and women who have spent their lives meditating on them. But we are not terribly inclined to do so. Such study requires a kind of deference against which the egalitarian mind naturally rebels. It is laborious, bears little in the way of immediate and tangible fruit, and tries our patience.
So, things turn out strangely for us. We want to think for ourselves about what would make us happy, but we have an aversion to seriously investigating alternative answers to that question. Our impatience to know makes us poor philosophers. To philosophize is to lose oneself in thinking, to forget time. Democratic human beings never forget time. We cannot afford to. For the basic parameters of our way of life—the equality of conditions that defines our regime—means that no one has a fixed station. If we are not working on getting ahead, others will be scrambling past us. We need to work, and to have something to show for it. We love the idea of thinking independently about happiness, but we resist the philosophic activity required to do so. We fear philosophy because we fear that it might cause us to miss out on life, that the happiness we could seize here and now might pass us by while we are transfixed by thinking.
Citizens of a modern democracy are attracted to skepticism, which is a great tool of intellectual leveling. We naturally admire the life of someone like Socrates, who questioned the gods of his city. But we lack the taste for the sustained thought that can allow doubt to become the center of a determinate way of life, as it did for Socrates, for St. Augustine, and for many others. Instead, our reflexive skepticism causes us to shrink back from deeply exploring or firmly committing to any determinate way of life. Everyone sees the appeal of well-roundedness. At the high end, this looks like enormous percentages of Ivy-league graduates class going into the lucrative yet pleasingly amorphous business of consulting. For the rest of us, it looks like the strange difficulty we have in saying no to any opportunity that comes our way.
One can begin to see, then, how the desire to think about happiness for oneself without the taste or cultivated ability to actually do so causes us to end up pursuing material goods above all. For material goods, and particularly money, have much of their value as means rather than ends. Money, as Thomas Aquinas argues, is a universal means, useful for pretty much any pursuit of happiness. We can use it to buy rock climbing equipment or books or luxury holidays in Cinque Terre. Its plasticity is at the heart of money’s appeal. But our obsession with it transforms our pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of its (somewhat) necessary but not at all sufficient condition. We console ourselves, however, with the hope that someday we will buy ourselves the leisure to think it all through.
In the meantime, our quest for the good life becomes a slapdash sequence of vocations and vacations. As Tocqueville writes,
A man, in the United States, carefully builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it while the ridgepole is being set; he plants a garden and he rents it as he is about to taste its fruits; he clears a field, and he leaves to others the trouble of gathering the harvest. He embraces a profession, and he leaves it. He settles in a place that he soon leaves in order to carry his changing desires elsewhere. If his private affairs give him some respite, he immediately plunges into the whirl of politics. And when, near the end of a year filled with work, he still has a little leisure, he takes his restless curiosity here and there across the vast limits of the United States.
Montaigne self-consciously designed a life without unified form and direction. Democratic human beings, discouraged by so many factors from thinking steadily about what they are and what they long for, inhabit such formless lives by default.
One of our main motivations for investigating the history of happiness is to help our students think about their pursuits more clearly. We were puzzled, and saddened, by watching so many of them, and especially those who seemed to have the most promise, falter on the very cusp of adult life. Our thoughts on the matter started to find shape when, in a course of a classroom discussion, one of them spoke of his deep distaste for choosing among the many splendid life options before him—of converting a hazy but infinitely promising “might be” into any definite “is.” The room fell silent. He had touched upon everyone’s secret fear. Innumerable pressures in their young lives were conspiring to encourage our students to remain as long as possible in the condition of stem cells, conveniently malleable, ready to employ their talents in whatever way might be called for. Those pressures push all of us toward a strange preference for indefinite potential over substantial reality. We wrote the book from which this paper is drawn to help people understand how we came to this odd position. And we hope that it might help some of us acquire the self-knowledge we would need to seek a different way forward.
How might we begin to do so? The first step, we think, is to recover the suggestion that launched this whole modern love of indeterminacy—the Montaignean proposition that we will find the happiness we can achieve by seeking moderation through variation. We need to remember that argument to see its effects on us, and also to think it through anew. For Montaigne’s case for thoroughgoing doubt is not as airtight as it might seem. It is worth noting that his case for skepticism about what constitutes human happiness does not rest on refuting all the alternative arguments philosophers have made to answer the question of the good life. Montaigne does not himself engage in an argument. Rather, he proceeds by piling up all those potential answers, standing back, and remarking: “listen to the ‘clatter of these philosophic brains.’” One feels the appeal of saying with him, “enough.”
In the atmosphere of the wars of religion of his time, Montaigne’s proposition seemed like a breath of fresh air. But as his daring stratagem has become our unquestioned assumption, it has come to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problems of restlessness, distraction, and uncertainty with which we wrestle. Once we come to understand this intellectual inheritance, we can liberate ourselves from it by seeking to think beyond Montaigne’s reflexive skepticism. Approaching the questions of our nature and our good as if we might ask them with the hope of finding real answers might help the young escape the increasingly characteristic conundrum of their lives. This will require turning back to pre–modern philosophic arguments—plumbing ancient sources in a quest for modern wisdom. The moralistes themselves did so and wore their learning lightly. Their personal, powerful, jargon-free thought can be a model for our own quests for happiness.
This paper is drawn from a forthcoming book called Why We Are Restless: What Four French Thinkers Can Teach Us About Contentment (Princeton University Press, Spring 2021).
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