How to be happy, despite modernity

Ancient wisdom can help us cope with modern life

Ancient wisdom modern times article

Modernity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Loneliness, anxiety, restlessness and precarity are all prominent features of modern existence. This has led many to overarching critiques of modernity, arguing for its complete overhaul, often accompanied by calls for a return to more traditional forms of life. But going back to pre-modern times is not the answer. What we need to do is use ancient wisdom to temper some of the ills of modernity, while celebrating its achievements, argue Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey.

Human beings “cannot sit still in a room,” Blaise Pascal observed long ago.  For when we do, we find ourselves face to face with the “natural unhappiness of our weak and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can console us when we think about it closely.”  We rush outside of ourselves because we find misery in our own company. 

For years, we have been speaking on college campuses, bringing Pascal’s words to the attention of students, and observing their reactions.  No matter where we are, from small liberal arts colleges to great Ivy League universities, students respond with stunned silence.  For this long-dead Frenchman describes the restless unhappiness that many students experience but few dare to reveal.

These students find little to satisfy them in their campus culture.  Like everyone else, they are swept up in the obligatory hurricane of clubs, classes, and career counseling sessions, but they feel the chill at its empty center.  For the weekend bacchanalias that their institutions of higher education permit, and sometimes sponsor, they have only disdain.  When Pascal suggests to these students that the diversions that fill their days are nothing more than ways to distract frightened mortal animals from their condition, they listen.   

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Nothing fills intellectual gaps more quickly than great overarching theories about the causes of all our ills

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Many of these young people often hope to find, somewhere in the labyrinth of their educations, a better way to seek happiness, a sturdier model of meaning after which to pattern their lives.  Some choose to dedicate themselves to causes that have the university’s imprimatur.  But others seek a more contrary counterculture, one that adults understand less well how to deal with or co-opt.  Sensing that the weak parts of modern culture cannot be propped up by reinforcing its progressive presuppositions, they reach back in time for firmer foundations. 

It is tempting to delight in the outrageousness of this move.  Those who do coin names for themselves that embrace the provocation, calling themselves “red-pilled” “rad trads” and “retro wives.”  The intellectual and moral daring of such students is, in a way, admirable.  For it allows them to see that a richer understanding of the good life requires an adventure into the resources of the past.  But when they binge-watch videos about getting off the grid or tweet obsessively about how good life was in the Middle Ages, one begins to suspect that they are not so different from other contemporary exemplars of quirky self-fashioning.   

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To be fair, much about modern life makes a sober assessment of its vices and virtues tough.  It encourages a weird mix of haste and lassitude, which, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago, gives free reign to the insatiable human appetite for shortcuts.  Nothing fills intellectual gaps more quickly than great overarching theories about the causes of all our ills.  Young minds eager to see beyond the limits of their world fall easily for grandiose critiques of modern life:  theories that blame everything from environmental degradation to falling sperm-counts on capitalism or patriarchy, liberalism or feminism.  Such theories rarely help us act more intelligently in the actual world of our households, neighborhoods, or countries.

There is a better way to draw on the thought of the past to find direction in our restless and distracted age. What modern thought systematically and explicitly excludes is the rational investigation of the question that comes most naturally to human beings, the question of the overarching aim of all our striving:  the question of the highest good.  To think better about happiness, we need to draw on the pre-modern tradition of thinkers who were unafraid to assess and even rank the goals to which human beings typically devote their lives. 

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Doing things that make life better for others is indeed deeply satisfying.  But trying to improve the world comes with the danger that, even with the best of intentions, we might make things worse

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Thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Al-Farabi agreed, for example, that human beings typically aimed at a finite number of goals, and that each of these goals had a determinate shape and scope.  They could therefore be rationally examined to see exactly how each can bring us a different kind of happiness, and each could be ordered into a coherent life.

For example: human beings naturally wish for their lives to “make a difference in the world,” or to “have an impact,” as we now put it.  Speaking more frankly, pre-modern authors would characterize this desire as the quest to exercise power.  Exercising power, such authors point out, can bring happiness, but only with a certain qualification.  Doing things that make life better for others is indeed deeply satisfying.  But trying to improve the world comes with the danger that, even with the best of intentions, we might make things worse.  This is because improving the world requires both understanding what is wrong with it and grasping what might make it better.  Power exercised without such knowledge is necessarily misused, and the misuse of power brings not happiness but misery.  This is why many pre-modern authors argued that the quest for the knowledge we need to use power well deserves higher priority than the quest for power.

In the light of such assessments of the ultimate aims of human striving, they considered each good and assigned it its proper place within human life. They could give wealth, health, and pleasure their due, but no more than their due. For they saw their evident incapacity for satisfying the deepest human longings, and therefore their justified subordination to the more fundamental pursuits of virtue, knowledge, and even holiness.   

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Orienting one’s life toward such exalted standards may seem impractical, but it is in fact what allows one to live better in the real world.  Without the firm guidance and exacting pressure of such standards, even the sharpest insights into the problems of modern life get sucked into the gravity well of modern thinking.  For overarching critiques of modernity lead one to think that the only way forward is a complete reversal of our governing order, a radical relocation of political power.  Making power primary is the typical modern move, as we see in thinkers as different as Machiavelli, Marx, and Nietzsche.  No matter what flag one flies—whether that of the pope or the pagans—as long as we put power first, we have not really understood what it means to live by the higher standards of pre-modern thought.

A better way of bearing oneself in the modern world is found in the example of Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville was in many ways a critic of modernity, detailing the anxiety, loneliness, unsteadiness, and even madness that marked American pursuits of happiness.  But he made that critique in the determined service of modern democracy, as part of an effort to translate pre-modern wisdom about human flourishing into the conditions of the modern world.

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Overarching critiques of modernity lead one to think that the only way forward is a complete reversal of our governing order, a radical relocation of political power

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This is all the more remarkable in that Tocqueville had both personal and political reasons to throw his lot with the anti-moderns. His family had occupied an exalted place in France’s ancien regime:  his beloved great-grandfather, Guillaume Chretien de Laimignon de Malesherbes, defended Louis XVI at his trial and was guillotined for his troubles; his own parents had been imprisoned and nearly executed by France’s hypermodern revolutionary government. Politically, it would have been natural for Tocqueville to side with powerful family members and friends who were attempting to reconstitute the Old World. For those who dwell in the twenty-first century, dreams of reviving the glories of the reign of Louis IX is little more than larping. In Tocqueville’s time, the scions of the House of Bourbon were alive, well, and sitting on the throne of France through much of his adult life. Anti-modernism was a viable political strategy. 

And yet when Tocqueville embarked on his political career, his politics were insistently republican. He built his reputation on a voyage to the United States, then the unquestioned leading edge of modern, democratic and republican government. The book he wrote about that voyage, Democracy in America, described America’s republican institutions, from town government to the freedom of the press, with the plain purpose of offering a model for France. Tocqueville’s admiration for those institutions was so pronounced that he became known in French politics as l’Americain.

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Tocqueville’s determination to live in the modern world did not result from an emotional affinity.  Reflecting on his long political career, Tocqueville noted that he often felt more at ease with aristocrats with whom he disagreed about everything than with bourgeois with whom his opinions coincided.  Rather, Tocqueville lived in genuine awe of democracy, regarding its providential power with “a kind of religious terror.” Responding with appropriate humility, he regarded the democratic world in which he found himself, with all its evident and afflicting flaws, as in some mysterious way a consequence of God’s will.

This is why Tocqueville conducted himself with prudence of a statesman on the ancient model, seeking to discern what was truly best in his own moment and to act to help realize it. Although he knew well that modern society tended to reduce human beings into an “innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls,” he also saw that modern democracy, with its unprecedented equality, “is more just” than its predecessors, and that “its justice makes its grandeur and its beauty.” Tocqueville was a republican precisely because he thought like an ancient in the modern world.

Life in a modern liberal society can be maddening. But it also affords the possibility of glimpsing an ambition for a just society that is nothing less than breathtaking.  For liberal democracies insist on space for every human being to “pursue his instinct for self-perfection,” to craft a life that satisfies the demands of the spirit, as Irving Kristol wrote. Those concerned about the degrading effects of modern life should be working together to resist the ways in which the contemporary world stifles that desire and offering the young choices that go beyond festivals of meaningless conformism and countercultures that define themselves by negation. We should look for alternatives that will find room for the “activity of soul in accordance with virtue” Aristotle thought to be the mark of happiness. This will help people to dwell in that modern world, without being of it, and to translate the wisdom of philosophic and religious traditions into serious and purposive lives in the present.

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