Most of us think the ideal life is a settled existence of ease and peace of mind. But is it really? Our fondest dreams may be fantasies of idle hours in a tropical paradise, but the great souls among us remind us constantly that this minimalist ideal is not really the human destiny. This prods me to imagine that the first people unhappy with living in the mud with flies, snakes, predators and parasites and who walked out of the jungle for a better life were the founders of the first cities and civilizations.

Thomas Edison said that discontent is the first necessity of progress, and taking the idea to a higher level, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that divine discontent is pursuing the peace your soul longs for. Those driven by inspiration abandon their fate in order to create their destiny. The theme has many variations. If I recall correctly, Benjamin Franklin said that contentment enriches the poor and discontent impoverishes the rich.

No social ambition drives the divinely discontented, though it may be an adjunct of their quest. Nor can we assign their strange urge to economic or sociological factors, though these may affect their course and even disguise their motives. The modern notion that environmental and societal conditions alone can explain both the destructive lawlessness of some and the creative urge in others is intellectually questionable. Theirs is too personal a quest to obey the abstract laws that govern abstract things.

They may suffer hunger in their quest, but a deeper hunger drives them. As philosopher Ortega y Gasset described it, divine discontent is like a love without the beloved or the phantom pain of an amputated limb. These divinely discontented shapers of human fortunes are born not for the calm and quiet but for the storm and the battle. Often they anger placid people who think the world is good enough as it is — or would be if only the inventive busybodies would leave it alone and let it be again as it used to be. In general, those of settled disposition prefer the old world, which Wordsworth described as “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago.”

These re-shapers of the world personify the wild card of chance I wrote about some time ago. They come unpredictably from anywhere — a John Deere in Minnesota, a Thomas Edison in New York, an illegitimate Italian child called Leonardo da Vinci — to turn the world on its ear and set it spinning to new rhythms. The established patterns are never safe with these people. And probably a good thing too. For it seems that the human world, to paraphrase the words of poet Robert Frost, has promises to keep and miles to go before it sleeps. It appears that creation is dynamic, working its way to purposes that some sense but none sees clearly. Scientist-theologian Teilhard de Chardin said that under the commonplace surface of things a new earth is slowly taking shape.

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email

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