In Praise of Extreme Moderation
Where Montaigne Meets Modernity
This new ‘Classics’ section will ‘reprint’ some of my most popular pieces of writing of the last few years, now often hidden behind a variety of paywalls. I’m starting with this one on Extreme Moderation because it is one of my personal favourites. It is also the closest to who I am and what I value - so a good introduction to all the rest. And who knew that in this week’s homework reading at Harvard, I would stumble upon my soulmate in a Frenchman writing some four centuries back?
I have been reading Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment by Benjamin and Jenna Storey. Drawing on the insights of “four old French philosophers” (Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville), it looks at our contemporary notions of ‘happiness.’ The authors suggest we are addicted to pursuing this thing, and that the ideas we’ve been handed create a shadow of dissatisfaction we struggle to shake - and can’t even see or comprehend.
Writing some 400 years ago, Montaigne offered a new idea - to see ourselves as individuals dedicated to seeking contentment in the here and now. Pascal countered that happiness comes, not through seeking self, but God. Rousseau, two centuries later, tried to rescue Montaigne’s moderation from Pascal’s religiosity - and failed. Tocqueville, visiting the US in 1831 saw a people “restless in the midst of their well-being.” He wrote about what happens when an entire nation seeks contentment in this life on earth - and produces mostly discontent instead.
The book suggests finding true contentment requires rethinking our most basic assumptions about happiness. So here are mine.
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