In 2011, I observed this Montaigne essay from a very heady perspective and ended up tying my own mind in knots. A decade later, I see a more playful writer showing off his chops here.
Montaigne asks a deceptively simple question: let’s say you did a thorough rationalization of two choices and determined that it’s an absolutely even split — there’s no data or strong emotional reason to choose one or the other. How then should you act?
It is a pleasant thought to imagine a mind exactly poised between two parallel desires, for it would indubitably never reach a decision, since making a choice implies that there is an inequality of value; if anyone were to place us between a bottle and a ham when we had an equal appetite for drink and for food there would certainly be no remedy but to die of thirst and of hunger!
Montaigne’s solution to this conundrum is to posit that there’s no such thing as an absolute tie. Human beings always find some reason to prefer one choice over another:
This motion in our souls is extraordinary and not subject to rules, coming into us from some outside impulse, incidental and fortuitous …. It seems to me that we could say that nothing ever presents itself to us in which there is not some difference, however slight: either to sight or to touch there is always an additional something which attracts us even though we may not perceive it.
This is a really fascinating, subtle point that I overthought in my original essay by pointing to neuroscience that I didn’t really understand. Montaigne is saying that there’s no such thing as a decision that necessitates a coin flip, we always end up favoring one thing over the other, we just can’t articulate why because we don’t understand it, the unconscious is at play.
His closing thought comes from Pliny:
There is nothing certain except that nothing is certain, and nothing more wretched than Man nor more arrogant.
I originally interpreted this to mean that we cannot completely dismiss human rationality and the will – clearly there are certain acts in life that would not be possible without significant planning and change to our day to day routine, and therefore routine is important as a way of limiting these unconscious forks in the road that can leave us baffled and lead us nowhere in particular.
There’s nothing wrong with that thought, it’s just more me than Montaigne. His thought is a lot stranger and it only punctuates with that Pliny quote. He starts by noting that any cord strong throughout it’s length should never break because there’s no weak point where a tear begins. He continues:
Then if anyone were to follow that up with those geometrical propositions which demonstrate by convincing demonstrations that the container is greater than the thing contained and that the center is as great as the circumference, and which can find two lines which ever approach each other but can never meet, and then with the philosopher’s stone and the squaring of the circle, where reason and practice are so opposed he would perhaps draw from them arguments to support the bold saying of Pliny.
Montaigne has basically tied his own mind up in knots contemplating geometry that seems magical and counterintuitive. His conclusion isn’t so much different from that of Douglas Hofstadter, who proposed a theory of consciousness based on “strange loops” similar to Escher paintings or Bach fugues. Hofstadter might argue that these loops only appear incomprehensible if we expect clear answers, but as Godel demonstrated in his mathematical proofs, it’s the combination of logic and completeness that’s impossible.
And so we end in an even headier locale than I envisioned 10 years ago, but at least now it is Montaigne’s personal mental torture, freeing me to let go of mine.