Montaigne is still read today partly because he’s entertaining and partly because he’s an instructing exemplar of the craft, but I believe that the primary cause of his long-lasting worth is his wisdom. He doesn’t have a philosophical system and he freely admits to stealing liberally from a variety of thinkers, mostly from the ancient world, and yet’s there’s something unmistakably original about Montaigne that goes beyond his persnickety individuality.
This isn’t a terribly bold conclusion on my part — Sarah Bakewell wrote a book extolling the value of Montaigne’s wisdom for a contemporary audience — but even still, I think the subtlety of Montaigne’s thinking isn’t fully appreciated today and can even help us unravel some of the most thorny issues of contemporary philosophy. In fact, if I would say that there’s a single method to Montaigne’s wisdom it’s this — avoid all thorny situations.
I’ll get to the details of that in a bit, but first I want to bring Nietzsche back into the discussion to examine the thorniest of all of his philosophical concepts: will to power. This is a concept that has been dangerously misunderstood for more than a century in large part because Nietzsche never completed his promised metaphysical system built around “will to power.” Then, after losing his sanity, Nietzsche’s notebooks were absconded by his sister, who proceeded to bastardize them into a virtual handbook for fascists. To this day, many people think of Nazi parades when they hear the phrase “will to power.”
But according to New York University philosophy professor John Richardson in his book “Nietzsche’s System,” Nietzsche had something far more subtle in mind for the phrase:
When we first hear Nietzsche’s claim, and as long as we allow our understanding of it to be guided by his terms’ surface suggestions, we suppose he is speaking of a human willing that aims at power over other persons as its ultimate end…. But although many now see (this definition’s) inadequacy, I think it hasn’t yet been replaced with a full enough positive conception of the will to power.
So if ‘will to power’ isn’t a drive for all human beings to dominate — which would have made it akin to social darwinism — then what is it? First of all, we need to step back from the idea that it’s about people at all:
‘Will to power’ is most basically applied not to people but to ‘drives’ or ‘forces’, simpler units which Nietzsche sometimes even calls ‘points’ and ‘power quanta’. These are the simplest ‘units’ of will to power, or the simplest beings that are such will; we grasp Nietzsche better if we begin with these and only later make the complex extension to persons.
At the most basic, understandable level, think of ‘will to power’ in terms of our drives: hunger, sex drive, competitiveness and consumer desire. All of these drives are determined to win — and they are often in competition with one another to achieve that result:
‘Will to power’ is a potency for something, a directedness toward some end…. Just as scientists speak of a variety of drives or forces, so Nietzsche takes the units of will to power to be deeply diverse in their types, differentiated by their distinctive efforts or tendencies. The sex drive, for example, is one pattern of activity aiming at its own network of ends-perhaps these are centered on seduction or coupling or orgasm-whereas the drive to eat aims at a very different network.
But even though Nietzsche uses the word ‘will,’ we should not assume that he believed we are in complete control of these forces. To the contrary, Nietzsche believed that these forces are extraordinarily powerful and warp our common concept of free will:
Our usual notion of the will is not just too narrow-it’s not even true of us; (Nietzsche will) claim that precisely because we are constituted out of drives or forces, we don’t ‘will’ anything in the way we ordinarily suppose.
That’s the basic framework that Nietzsche spelled out in numerous books. He never ties it all together, however. And we’re still left with some nagging questions about what to do with this insight, if it’s in fact valid. If these drives are as powerful as Nietzsche suggests, should we merely surrender to them — say yes to everything, as Nietzsche himself claims as a New Year’s resolution at one point.
Montaigne, as I have said previously, is a wonderful moderator of Nietzsche’s most extreme thoughts. In particular, I think Montaigne gives us some very good reasons in this essay to say no much more frequently than we say yes. What I find particularly interesting, however, is the reason why Montaigne believes that we should say no — and that is because he basically agrees with Nietzsche that our drives, and the drives of others, are tremendously powerful and once we start down the road of yes-saying, we’ll inevitably become slaves to the will of others.
The argument doesn’t always sound the way I just characterized it — Montaigne is heavily influenced by the stoics, so when he’s talking about powerlessness, it’s often wrapped in the language of a powerful will. But bear in mind that Montaigne also understands, and writes frequently about, the limits of reason, so he’s not suggesting here that reason is sufficient to conquer these drives:
I exercise great care to extend by reason and reflection this privileged lack of emotion, which is by nature well advanced in me. I am wedded to few things and so am passionate about few. My sight is clear but I fix it on only a few objectives; my perception is scrupulous and receptive, but I find things hard to grasp and my concentration is vague. I do not easily get involved.
Montaigne’s distance is not the result of disinterest, however, it’s the result of a conscious effort to keep distance from enthusiasms that could suck away his time and attention:
There are emotions which drag me from myself and tie me up elsewhere: those I oppose with all my might. In my opinion we must lend ourselves to others but give ourselves to ourselves alone. Even if my will did find it easy to pawn and bind itself to others, I could not persevere: by nature and habit I am too fastidious for that: fleeing from obligations and born for untroubled leisure.
That line about lending ourselves — but not giving ourselves — to others is crucial to understanding Montaigne. He never suggests that we become hermits or adopt selfish attitudes. Rather, he’s suggesting that we avoid the mistake he made when becoming mayor of Bordeaux, becoming so involved in an activity that was not a passion of his that it becomes a form of slavery. The reason why such situations should be avoided is that we cannot detach ourselves and our multitude of drives … so we end up becoming passionate, even enraged, in situations that have no real meaning to us other than the personal affront:
Stubborn earnest arguments which ended in victory for my opponent, as well as results which made me ashamed of my hot pursuit, might indeed most cruelly gnaw at me. If I were to then to bite back as others do my soul would never find the strength to support the alarms and commotions which attend those who embrace so much: it would straightway be put out of joint by such internal strife.
A balance must be struck, however, because there is great virtue in serving others. The test is this — surrendering yourself willingly to these duties, not becoming personally engaged in them. Think back to what Montaigne’s viewpoint of religion, because it was similar … it’s better to just accept the tenets of the Church, make the leap of faith and not give it a second thought, because religion has a value beyond ourselves and personalizing it can only bring suffering:
Whoever knows its duties and practices them is truly in the treasure-house of the Muses: he has reached the pinnacle of human happiness and of man’s joy. Such a man, knowing precisely what is due to himself, finds that his role includes frequenting men and the world; to do this he must contribute to society the offices and duties which concern him. He who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself.
The opposite approach to this balance takes two forms — becoming detached from social obligations and trying to guide others towards salvation or surrendering your entire life for the provision of others:
Any man who forgot to live a good and holy life himself, but who thought that he had fulfilled his duties by guiding and training others to do so, would be stupid: in exactly the same way, any man who gives up a sane and happy life in order to provide one for others makes (in my opinion) a bad and unnatural decision.
Montaigne, at the tail end of his life, fully embraces living a passionate life. Think back to his essay on conversation — he doesn’t want us to be engaged in vague pleasantries, he wants us to passionately debate and enjoy competitions. But his belief in balance is always a part of his thinking and here he warns us not to get involved in the kind of competitions that might bring out these agonistic passions to no good end:
Even in vain and trivial pursuits such as chess or tennis matches, the keen and burning involvement of a rash desire at once throws your mind into a lack of discernment and your limbs into confusion: you daze yourself and tangle yourself up. A man who reacts with greater moderation towards winning or losing is always ‘at home’: the less he goads himself on, and the less passionate he is about the game, the more surely and successfully he plays it.
At the end of that quote, Montaigne is drifting back into Stoic rhetoric … and I think he loses his train of argument a bit by doing so. Later on in the essay, I think he expresses the idea a bit more clearly:
I used to like games of chance with cards and dice. I rid myself of them long ago – for one reason only: whenever I lost, no matter what a good face I put on, I still felt a stab of pain. A man of honor, who must take it deeply to heart if he is insulted or given the lie and not be one to accept some nonsense to pay and console him for his loss, should avoid letting controversies grow as well as stubborn quarrels.
Montaigne doesn’t come up with an absolute answer here, he just provides a useful way of considering Nietzsche’s conception of powerful drives. In doing so, he also makes a point that plays back into his essay about conversation. I would suggest that, along with a series of drives that create forms of human competition, there’s also a drive to avoid confrontation. The popularity of highly-polarized news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC is a testament to this fact … people do not watch these channels because they want a vigorous two way debate, they watch them to avoid debate, so they can receive news and information that fits within their comfort zone and doesn’t push them into an aggressive fury.
The great risk of this approach in a democracy is that if you don’t vent the frustration in small batches, it can eventually explode when your team loses a major competition. Montaigne’s call for debate is a way of avoid the kind of madness that he describes here:
I want us to win, but I am not driven mad if we do not. I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties, but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable. I absolutely condemn such defective arguments …. When my convictions make me devoted to one faction, it is not with so violent a bond that my understanding becomes infected by it. During the present confusion in this State of ours my own interest has not made me fail to recognize laudable qualities in our adversaries nor reprehensible ones among those whom I follow. People worship everything on their own side: for most of what I see on mine I do not even make excuses.
Montaigne suggests that for some matters, we need to expose ourselves regularly, in small doses, to competition and differences so we do not end up demonizing those who we disagree with. On the other hand, there are some powerful passions within us that can do so much danger to us, we’re better off shutting them off completely:
Socrates never says, ‘Do not surrender to the attraction of beauty; resist it; struggle against it.’ He says, ‘Flee it; run from its sight and from any encounter with it, as from a potent poison which can dart and strike you from afar.’ And that good disciple of his, describing either fictionally or historically (though in my opinion more historically than fictionally) the rare perfections of Cyrus the Great, shows him distrusting his ability to resist the attractions of the heavenly beauty of his captive the illustrious Panthea: it was to a man who was less at liberty than he was that he gave the tasks of visiting her and guarding her.
I think what Montaigne is suggesting is this: we have a certain social role in life that requires our engagement with a wider world. Shutting ourselves off from the world is impossible, so we should engage with it honestly and directly. Debate issues, take up sides, do so honorably and with loyalty — but make every effort to avoid demonizing those who have taken other positions. But when it comes to our personal lives, we are under no obligation to engage our drives as openly as we engage the world. These drives are mysterious and often dangerous … and when it comes to living your life, saying no is the best way to retain your freedom:
How much easier it is never to get in than to get yourself out! We should act contrary to the reed which, when it first appears, throws up a long straight stem but afterwards, as though it were exhausted and had lost its wind, makes several dense nodules, as so many respites which indicate that it no longer has its original vigor and drive. We must rather begin gently and coolly, saving our breath for the encounter and our vigorous thrusts for finishing the job off. In their beginnings it is we who guide affairs and hold them in our power; but once they are set in motion, it is they which guide us and sweep us along and we who have to follow.
People constantly make the mistake of starting off on ventures that hold only middling interest, believing that they can moderate their involvement to achieve some discrete end. But these are the most perilous decisions of our lives — it is these dispassions that create the greatest dangers. Recognize these situations and avoid them, Montaigne is suggesting:
We must keep our eyes open at their beginnings; you cannot find the danger then because it is so small: once it has grown, you cannot find the cure. While chasing ambition I would have had to face, every day, thousands of irritations harder to digest than the difficulty I had in putting a stop to my natural inclination towards it.