Saturday, October 13, 2012

Montaigne and How to Live

I read Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer last week. It is an original and beautifully written biography, but more than that: it not only looks at Montaigne's life and writings, the book also traces how their reception and meaning has changed in succeeding centuries. That adds a whole additional layer of complexity, exploring how different ages have reinterpreted the same ideas in different ways.

Of course, I have Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays on my shelf, but must admit I hadn't read much of its rather intimidating bulk. Bakewell's book certainly inspires a return to the original.

The reason I picked up the Bakewell book, besides serving as an easier way into the thousand pages of the Essays, is because she reminds us that Montaigne's central question is how to live. I often talk about how we have let serious discussion of the good life lapse. That discussion is very much present in the Essays.

He is endlessly curious about other people.

Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life—meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one. This question drove him both to write and to read, for he was curious about all human lives, past and present. He wondered constantly about the emotions and motives behind what people did. And since he was the example closest to hand of a human going about its business, he wondered just as much about himself.

Reason, for Montaigne, cannot be relied upon, because it is still inevitably human reason. Things must be seen as intrinsically uncertain and provisional.

Skepticism guided him at work, in his home life, and in his writing. The Essays are suffused with it: he filled his pages with words such as “perhaps,” “to some extent,” “I think,” “It seems to me,” and so on—words which, as Montaigne said himself, “soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions,” and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of “unassumingness.” They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne’s thought, at its purest. He never tired of such thinking, or of boggling his own mind by contemplating the millions of lives that had been lived through history and the impossibility of knowing the truth about them.

He is a fox to the core, suspicious of systems. Bakewell brings out the context for Montaigne's humane skepticism about the fallibility of human capacities and the mind: the appalling violence and cruelty and bigotry that tore France apart in his lifetime.

There was a tiredness and a sourness in Montaigne’s generation, along with a rebellious new form of creativity. If they were cynical, it is easy to see why: they had to watch the ideals that had guided their upbringing turn into a grim joke. The Reformation, hailed by some earlier thinkers as a blast of fresh air beneficial even to the Church itself, became a war and threatened to ruin civilized society. Renaissance principles of beauty, poise, clarity, and intelligence dissolved into violence, cruelty, and extremist theology.

Protestants and Catholics massacred each other and demobilized soldiers roamed the countryside stealing and killing.

 

 

This is not directly visible in the Essays, on the whole; but the general sensibility of awareness of human fallibility and search for equilibrium must be a reaction to the turbulent horror of the times.

The answer is, in part, to be sensitive to different angles of view. The wise do not just accept their surrounding assumptions.

Instead of accepting what they are born into, they acquire the art of slipping out of it and seeing everything from a different angle—a trick Montaigne, in the Essays, would make his characteristic mode of thinking and writing. Alas, there are usually too few of these free spirits to do any good. They do not work together, but live “alone in their imaginings.”

I find this very congenial, as aspect-seeing or different ways of seeing is something that fascinates me. The world's problems are generally not so much a lack of theoretical or academic understanding, as failure to perceive what is there. Blind spots bring us to disaster. Virtue is in essence a way of seeing, too.

Incidentally, this humility about reason, although seemingly so modern, is also in direct contradiction to some of our other contemporary ideas - such as Steven Pinker's argument that the "escalator of reason" makes war and cruelty less acceptable and likely. Montaigne would disagree.

Skepticism and ataraxia

However, more of Montaigne's outlook is explained by his desire for detachment and equilbrium: an attitude which is not so much modern as rooted in the classical world. Bakewell has a fascinating discussion of the origins of Montaigne's attitude in Hellenic and Roman philosophy. His generation was steeped in the classics. Indeed, Montaigne was elaborately educated with Latin as his native language and did not learn French until age six.

Epicureanism, Stoicism and Pyrrhonic skepticism shared some features, she says.

They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which might be rendered as “imperturbability” or “freedom from anxiety.” Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry. To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs. It was on the question of how to acquire such equanimity that the philosophies began to diverge.

Stoics and Epicureans shared a great deal of their theory, too. They thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present. If one could only get these two things right—controlling and paying attention—most other problems would take care of themselves.

This is a very interesting idea. Change of perspective is fundamental to the approach.

The key is to cultivate mindfulness: prosoche, another key Greek term. Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life.

And proper control and attention means appropriate response.

Whatever happens, however unforeseen it is, you should be able to respond in a precisely suitable way. This is why, for Montaigne, learning to live “appropriately” (à propos) is the “great and glorious masterpiece” of human life. Stoics and Epicureans alike approached this goal mainly through rehearsal and meditation. Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism. The great Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept notebooks in which he would go over the changes of perspective he wished to drill into himself.

It was not much fun.

Stoics were especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.

I haven't been that familiar with this background. Ataraxia is a conception of the good life which is especially attractive in exhausted, troubled times. The good life is sometimes, as Voltaire later said, cultivating one's own garden.

But it is also a rather passive and defeatist conception, even if it is understandable in times of civil war or immense suffering. The original arête of the fifth and fourth century Greeks declined into detachment and activity turned into passivity. If it is reminiscent of Eastern philosophy, Bakewell says, it may be because it reflected contact with the East following Alexander's conquests .

Stoicism and its variants is a thin philosphy, and a little inhumanly austere. All the same, I'm now reading Seneca's Letters from a Stoic.

However, it is worth emphasizing it was not Stoicism that survived the Roman world, but Christianity. Christianity has aspects of detachment and "turn the other cheek" as well, of course, but it also offers hope.

That makes me think; one major argument against virtue ethics is that it is a doctrine for the aristocratic few. But it does not have to be austere. Flourising ought to be more than cultivating imperturbability. The doctrine of the golden mean is somewhat lost. Temperance does not imply renunciation. There has to be positive content to eudaimonia and flourising, freedom to as well as freedom from.

 

Leisure

Another issue which Montaigne ponders is how to make use of leisure, which is an increasingly important question as more and more basic work becomes automated. How to avoid being bored is increasingly one of the main questions of our age. And much of our answer in recent decades has been passive: television.

Montaigne chose to withdraw from public life in Bordeaux as he reached his early forties, and retired to a tower in his estate in the countryside.

 

 

He was later voted Mayor of the City in his absence on a trip to Italy, but never sought the public spotlight.


Seneca, in advising retirement, had also warned of dangers. In a dialogue called “On Tranquillity of Mind,” he wrote that idleness and isolation could bring to the fore all the consequences of having lived life in the wrong way, consequences that people usually avoided by keeping busy—that is, by continuing to live life in the wrong way. The symptoms could include dissatisfaction, self-loathing, fear, indecisiveness, lethargy, and melancholy. Giving up work brings out spiritual ills, especially if one then gets the habit of reading too many books—or, worse, laying out the books for show and gloating over the view.

Right at the beginning of the blog, we noted Keynes's discussion of the bored upper-middle class housewives as a warning sign of what will happen if the "economic problem" is solved. As Keynes argued:

To use the language of to-day-must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown”? We already have a little experience of what I mean -a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations--who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed--for sweet-until they get it.

The interesting thing is these problems are not new. They have affected the aristocratic few, the wealthy, through much of history.

In the early 1570s, during his shift of values, Montaigne seems to have suffered exactly the existential crisis Seneca warned of. He had work to do, but less of it than he was used to. The inactivity generated strange thoughts and a “melancholy humor” which was out of character for him.

And the answer? Mindfulness: curiosity and attentiveness.

Seneca would have approved. If you become depressed or bored in your retirement, he advised, just look around you and interest yourself in the variety and sublimity of things. Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature. Montaigne tried to do this, but he took “nature” primarily to mean the natural phenomenon that lay closest to hand: himself.

Withdrawal - a "room at the back of the shop" - is attractive but surely cannot be the whole answer, however. Engagement must be part of the good life: purpose as well as endurance.

Yet it is a vision that often recurs, from the Roman aristocrat in his villa far from the imperial court to the Chinese official retired to his pavillion in the deep mountains.

Perhaps the most disturbing possibility is we do not ultimately want to be happy.

He knew, all the same, that human nature does not always conform to this wisdom. Alongside the wish to be happy, emotionally at peace and in full command of one’s faculties, something else drives people periodically to smash their achievements to pieces. It is what Freud called the thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos. The twentieth-century author Rebecca West described it thus: Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. West and Freud both had experience of war, and so did Montaigne: he could hardly fail to notice this side of humanity. His passages about moderation and mediocrity must be read with one eye always to the French civil wars, in which transcendental extremism brought about subhuman cruelties on an overwhelming scale.

And perhaps that brings us back to the issue of coexistence. It is a noble thing to avoid suffering and war. It is necessary but not sufficient for the good life. But tempering fanaticism and zealotry is a better way to get along than imposing universal rules of neutrality, or retreating to one's garden.

 




 

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