Why Montaigne’s Concept of Seeking Contentment In The Here and Now Is Making Us Restless.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ― Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
In the past few months, I’ve bought ten books but read only a few. I’ve purchased an online course and not completed it. I’ve attempted new hobbies like solving jigsaw puzzles or playing the Ukulele but haven’t even got down to starting on any.
This frenetic activity that leads to nothing purposeful is almost always the start of my period of restlessness. It’s when the outer world, through the deluge of futile information, somehow manages to take over and control my inner mind. It hijacks my attention and messes with my internal value system.
I go through these periods every now and then, especially when my defenses have become so weakened that I no longer trust myself. I become conflicted about moving forward and rather aimless.
I quickly slow down, go back to the drawing board, remind myself of the life that I want and my long-term goals and guiding principles towards it.
Similarly, I see this restlessness in everyone in our society, whether young or middle-aged. My children, their friends, and adult friends all seem to be lost and bemused as to what to do next. Their values and vision seem fuzzy and conflicting.
I can’t blame them or myself.
Today, we are inundated with so much information and mental stimulation that we have many contradictory beliefs playing out in our heads. Everyone and everything is fighting for our attention. We can’t seem to commit to passions, partners or what to do next.
We have not been prepared intellectually on how to handle such an onslaught of information before making decisions. Most of us would rather sit on the fence, holding back as much as possible for fear of missing out.
We want to make the best decision that would lead to our success and happiness. But then don’t. Or worse, we follow what Instagram is promoting most. If Yoga is in vogue, we jump onto it, notwithstanding that it could be something we do no truly want or enjoy.
In modern Western society, it’s become a rite of passage to chase success and happiness. Today, this has been translated to accumulating stuff (money, homes, cars, luxury, hobbies) and chasing status. On social media, happiness is now depicted by beautiful women and six-packed men, driving red Ferraris, dressed in the latest designer labels with jewelry and bundles of cash on them.
The pursuit of happiness can be traced back to Michel de Montaigne, an acute observer of the human soul. He created the modern writing form of essays, and in those ‘essais’, he chronicled his inner psychological self in ways unheard before. He focused on ‘imminent contentment’ or seeking happiness in the here and now, circumscribing actions towards the near and the ‘lighter’ hobbies (hunting, reading, music) that we can do, instead, of the more profound and more exalted concepts like religion and the meaning of life.
He wanted us to dabble our way to happiness, famously saying, “I want us to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as we can. I want death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.”
When another French Philosopher, De Tocqueville, travelled to the states in 1831, almost 250 years after Montaigne, he observed that nearly everyone in America lived under the spell of Montaigne’s ‘imminent contentment’ principle.
However, unlike Montaigne’s original intention for the concept to be meant for only the bourgeois few, the USA, the land of the middle class, had democratized the concept declaring the pursuit of happiness a birth-right for every American.
Thus, the pursuit of happiness and success became an imperative and a burden on many a young shoulder. Furthermore, when these hobbies, stuff and happiness projects became obligatory and still didn’t fill our lives with contentment, we quickly became embarrassed, shameful and, most devastatingly, perplexed with life.
We had followed the formula; made money, climbed up the social ladder, embarked on many endeavors. But still, we were unhappy.
In the modern world, many people live without religion or any transcendental concerns. They have been substituted by the ‘imminent contentment’ ones, such as daily pleasures and comforts, which don’t satisfy our inner craving for the stirrings of the soul. Our backs are left bear with happiness in the now as our only defense to dissatisfaction.
In following the “American Dream” and the pursuit of happiness, we have never been more depressed, empty and restless than we are today.
What is the solution?
Subsequent French philosopher and Mathematician Blaise Pascal refuted Montaigne’s ideas almost a hundred years later, especially ‘imminent contentment.’ He concluded that we are both greater and more miserable than Montaigne led us to understand. He believed in God and defended Christianity, feeling that religion gives us an anchor to live a balanced life.
Montaigne wanted us to see ourselves as beings who can become whole onto themselves. But Pascal said no. Rather, human extremes are much further apart than that. There is more sadness but also more greatness in human life.
In opposing Montaigne, Pascal’s reasoning is reassuring in two ways:
1) Our normal state of being is one of unhappiness.
Since there is always a natural gap between our desires and what we can get, unhappiness thus is not a failure but rather an everyday norm of life. The idea that not everything is on us and that we are not obliged to always be happy is rather liberating. We become less paralyzed by overwhelm, releasing the pressure on us when making decisions and taking actions.
Contrastingly, those chasing ‘imminent contentment’ or pleasure in the present are haunted by a hidden misery. They are continuously trying to get out of their minds, befuddled and always looking for the next new thing.
Look no further than my long list of pursuits at the start of this essay. As Pascal observed so many years ago, we have a deep unsettledness in us that prevents us from sitting alone in our rooms.
Even in our supposed enjoyment, we are not content. Today, we feel the need to continuously amuse ourselves and garner dopamine hits. The phone, laptops are close by no matter what we’re doing.
2) Having faith in something greater than ourselves makes us less doubtful.
Pascal, in his Pensées, said, “Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”
In taking the risk and having more faith in ourselves, life and in a supreme being, we surrender to life and become more accepting. We live our ideologies whole-heartedly.
In allowing ourselves to have faith in the power of the unseen — the invisible, we let go of our self-imposed shackles and become less skeptical, less doubtful.
Most of all, we become less restless.
· Most of my ideas in this essay I owe to Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment by Benjamin Storey & Jenna Silber Storey
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