53 The Failings of Stoicism: On One of Caesar’s Sayings

As we near the end of the first volume of Montaigne essays, I spot a theme running through the works. It seems to me that Montaigne’s project is, among other things, a test of the limits of stoicism.

Montaigne has great admiration for the philosophy of Seneca and other Greek and Roman stoics, but at the same time, there’s a growing tension in the essays about the practicality of the stoic life. Is it possible to grimly endure life, including the most difficult and painful moments? Or perhaps even more importantly — as he assays here — is it even possible to keep a stiff upper lip when life is running as planned?

The answer seems obvious to a modern reader, but Montaigne isn’t pleased with the reality. He considers human beings’ inability to settle on simple happiness as a weakness:

We would soon realize how this structure of ours is made up of weak and deficient elements. Is it not a peculiar sign of our imperfections that we cannot settle our happiness on any single thing, and that even in our wishes and our thoughts we are incapable of choosing the things which we need?

Nietzsche addressed a similar question in chapter 61 of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” There Zarathustra said:

Of what account is my happiness! I have long ceased to strive any more for happiness, I strive for my work.

To which his “animal” followers reply, but aren’t you laying in a sky-blue lake of happiness? This is Nietzsche’s “paradox of happiness,” mentioned also in Daybreak. In that book, Nietzsche writes:

Insofar as the individual is seeking happiness, one ought not to tender him any prescriptions as to the path to happiness: for individual happiness springs from one’s own unknown laws, and prescriptions from without can only hinder it.

I think Nietzsche answers Montaigne’s lament here completely. The problem isn’t that humans cannot settle on happiness in simple things. The problem is trying to seek out happiness at all. It’s in our strivings and cravings where happiness lay. Does that make us weak. Yeah, maybe, but I prefer Nietzsche’s description of making us “human, all too human.”

Montaigne extends his idea to go beyond the quest for happiness to also include a quest of knowledge and a desire to live not in the present, but the future:

No matter what falls within our knowledge, no matter what we enjoy, it fails to make us content and we go gaping after things outside our knowledge, future things, since present goods never leave us satisfied – not in my judgement because they are inadequate to satisfy us but because we clasp them in a sick and immoderate grip.

Notice the phrasing at the end “in a sick and immoderate grip.” The sickness sounds like a Christian construction — the fallen man, being cast out of Eden for eating of the Tree of Knowledge, never content. The immoderate grip part, however, is pure Stoicism.

And I have to wonder whether the systematic approach to life so popular today — the strategies and systems suggested in all the business management books and self help manuals — isn’t really just a glossy form of Stoicism. Instead of seeing change as something fundamentally disruptive that should shake you up, we get “Who Moved My Cheese?” or other approaches to deploy “change management” strategies.

To reverse Nietzsche, I find the modern approach to be not human enough. The human reaction to change shouldn’t be to adjust your footing on the Merry Go Round, but rather to develop nausea. It’s that discomfort that pushes you to act, and it’s in the striving where true happiness lies.

Montaigne does hit upon an important point toward the end of his essay — the human desire to strive and seek out novelty does have a tendency to make the new seem a lot more interesting and desirable than it really is:

Our appetite lacks decision and is uncertain: it can neither have anything nor enjoy anything in the proper way. Man, reckoning that the defect lies in those things themselves, feeds to the full on other things which he neither knows nor understands, and honours and reveres them.

And so, as usual, Montaigne proves to be an invaluable voice in every conversation by counseling moderation. In the debate between Montaigne and Nietzsche over the pursuit of happiness, I’m clearly on Nietzsche’s side. But Montaigne’s argument about the defect of man, the inability to simultaneously crave and reason, should give anyone pause.

Nietzsche, in my opinion, can be very dangerous in high doses. Montaigne, on the other hand, couldn’t be dangerous if he tried. Even at his most dogmatic, his humanity and wisdom always shine through.

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