Ed. Note: Wow, this essay has really become popular, especially among readers in Southern California. I’m curious why. If you want to chat about it on WhatsApp, click here
This is an essay about finding happiness in life. Montaigne focuses on his three major diversions: friendships, romantic relationships and books. But I think some of his most important thoughts on the matter come right at the start in his introduction, where he makes a broad case for living a life of varied interests.
Yesterday, Montaigne began by discussing the difference between being and becoming … and today he elaborates: being is a rigid form of life while becoming is more of an adaptive art. Montaigne suggests that the joy of life is learning to adapt to life’s ebb and flow:
Our main talent lies in knowing how to adapt ourselves to a variety of customs. To keep ourselves bound by the bonds of necessity to one single way of life is to be, but not to live. Souls are most beautiful when they show most variety and flexibility …. Life is a rough, irregular progress with a multitude of forms. It is to be no friend of yourself – and even less master of yourself – to be a slave endlessly following yourself, so beholden to your predispositions that you cannot stray from them nor bend them.
This fits with the conclusion of Montaigne’s essay yesterday — that often our greatest vices are the ruts we create for ourselves, the day to day habits that force us into a style of life that masks our true nature. But this rut can also manifest itself in having too much curiosity and interest. One of Montaigne’s vices is to find too much in the world interesting — and he needs his own sojourns to settle down his mind and to focus on what matters most:
I cannot easily escape from the state of my own Soul, which is distressing in so far as she does not usually know how to spend her time without getting bogged down nor how to apply herself to anything except fully and intensely …. Most minds have need of extraneous matter to make them limber up and do their exercises: mine needs rather to sojorn and to settle down.
I understand Montaigne’s view completely. Today is my first day back in the freelance world — and I’ve immediately rediscovered the principle difficulty of working solo, that there are far too many interesting things to do during the day. Others often ask if I’m tempted to spend the day watching TV or playing on the computer, but actually I’m a much worse time waster when in an office hoping for time to pass. When time becomes my own, the challenge is to fit all that I want to accomplish in a day into my available hours.
Being engaged in a project like this is actually more difficult when trying to pursue other personal projects … it’s one thing to write like this as an avocation, quite another to stop the day and reflect when all the day is devoted to projects you’ve chosen personally:
For anyone who knows how to probe himself and to do so vigorously, reflection is a mighty endeavor and a full one: I would rather forge my soul than stock it up. No occupation is more powerful, or more feeble, than entertaining one’s own thoughts – depending on what kind of soul it is.
From here, Montaigne shifts his focus to the importance of friendship — noting that friendship is particularly difficult for him because he takes it too seriously:
I am able to make and keep exceptional and considered friendships, especially since I seize hungrily upon any acquaintanceship which corresponds to my tastes. I put myself forward and throw myself into them so eagerly that I can hardly fail to make attachments and to leave my mark wherever I go …. The fact that as a young man I was brought to appreciate the delicious savor of one single perfect friendship has genuinely made the others insipid to me and impressed on my faculty of perception that (as one ancient writer said) friendship is a companionable, not a gregarious, beast.
I’m also like Montaigne in that I often find it easier to small-talk with people who I do not know than those that I do. For friends and acquaintances, small talk seems like waste of time, while with total strangers, it seems like a way to share a connection and turn an economic transaction (such as cash register operator to customer) into two people relating:
I can clearly see that anyone like me whose aim is the good things of life (I mean those things which are of its essence) must flee like the plague from such moroseness and niceness of humor. What I would praise would be a soul with many stories, one of which knew how to strain and relax; a soul at ease wherever fortune led it; which could chat with a neighbor about whatever he is building, his hunting or his legal action, and take pleasure in conversing with a carpenter or a gardener …. I have never liked Plato’s advice to talk always like a master to our domestics, without jests or intimacy, whether addressing menservants or maidservants. For, apart from what my own reason tells me, it is ill-bred and unjust to give such value to a trivial privilege of Fortune: the most equitable polities seem to me to be those which allow the least inequality between servants and masters.
I share another odd characteristic with Montaigne — I often feel most alone when I’m in a crowd. Montaigne would have made a great Starbucks-based blogger:
I throw myself into matters of State and into the whole universe more willingly when I am alone. In a crowd at the Louvre I hold back and withdraw into my skin; crowds drive me back into myself and my thoughts are never more full of folly, more licentious and private than in places dedicated to circumspection and formal prudence. It is not our folly which makes me laugh: it is our wisdom.
The next simple pleasure on Montaigne’s list is romantic love … which actually is far from simple. In one of his wisest statements about romance yet, Montaigne cautions men from affecting feelings for a woman as a means to gain sexual favors, warning that every woman on the planet will misunderstand a man’s intent even while knowing fully what every man is after:
It is madness to fix all our thoughts on it and to engage in it with a frenzied singleminded passion. On the other hand to get involved in it without love or willing to be bound, like actors, so as to play the usual part expected from youth, contributing nothing of your own but your words, is indeed to provide for your safety; but it is very cowardly, like a man who would jettison his honor, goods and pleasure from fear of danger. For one thing is certain: those who set such a snare can expect to gain nothing by it which can affect or satisfy a soul of any beauty. We must truly have desired any woman we wish truly to enjoy possessing; I mean that, even though fortune should unjustly favor play-acting – as often happens, since there is not one woman, no matter how ugly she may be, who does not think herself worth loving and who does not think herself attractive for her laugh, her gestures or for being the right age, since none of them is universally ugly any more than universally beautiful.
Montaigne notes that he has not fallen prey to that form of play-acting … that he’s not capable of forming purely sexual relationships with women:
I no more know Venus without Cupid than motherhood without children: they are things whose essences are interdependent and necessary to each other. So such cheating splashes back on the man who does it. The affaire costs him hardly anything, but he gets nothing worthwhile out of it either.
He also scolds men who are after the purely sexual relationship, noting that even in the animal world there are non-conscious biological factors in play that don’t have a direct analogy in human beings … so to act in a purely sexual manner, contrary to the contemporary belief that we are following our animal nature, isn’t actually bestial:
The ‘beauty’ such men are after is not simply not human, it is not even bestial. The very beasts do not desire it so gross and so earth-bound: we can see that imagination and desire often set beasts on heat and arouse them before their body does; we can see that beasts of both sexes choose and select the object of their desires from among the herd and that they maintain long affectionate relationships. Even beasts which are denied physical powers by old age still quiver, whinny and tremble with love.
I don’t know how true this is … the Science section of the New York Times seems to have a new zoological study each week that is supposed to shed light on human sexual nature and there are centuries of studies that supersede Montaigne’s thought. However, the positive side of Montaigne’s equation — that pursuit that includes difficulty is more pleasurable — is a timeless psychological insight:
I wanted to sharpen the pleasure by difficulties, by yearning and by a kind of glory; I liked the style of the Emperor Tiberius (who in his love-affairs was attracted more by modesty and rank than by any other quality) and the humor of Flora the courtesan (who was also attracted by a dictator, a consul or censor, delighting in the official rank of her lovers). Pearls and brocade certainly add to the pleasure; so do titles and retainers.
Since volume 3 was written in Montaigne’s waning years, his thoughts on romantic love are wistful and surprisingly touching. His third great pastime — books — is one that he was able to keep up throughout his life. I find his description of books as companions … and perhaps even reasons to wish for a longer life … especially powerful:
It is impossible to describe what comfort and peace I derive from the thought that they are there beside me, to give me pleasure whenever I want it, or from recognizing how much succor they bring to my life. It is the best protection which I have found for our human journey and I deeply pity men of intelligence who lack it. I on the other hand can accept any sort of pastime, no matter how trifling, because I have this one which will never fail me.
One of the great pleasures of reading for Montaigne is simply the opportunity to be alone … which is a reason why he finds the monastic life so unappealing:
I have never considered any of the austerities of life which our monks delight in to be harsher than the rule that I have noted in some of their foundations: to be perpetually with somebody else and to be surrounded by a crowd of people no matter what they are doing. And I find that it is somewhat more tolerable to be always alone than never able to be so.
Montaigne’s final thought on books is a reminder that we should never overdue intellectual pursuits — we need time for physical activity to keep the body and mind in tune:
Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them. But there is no good without ill. The pleasure we take in them is no purer or untarnished than any other. Reading has its disadvantages – and they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body (my care for which I have not forgotten) remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad. I know of no excess more harmful to me in my declining years, nor more to be avoided.
Montaigne could have used a fourth pastime, such as running, which I find to have many of the features that Montaigne extols: an opportunity to be alone, yet in public, and with today’s technology, it can even be time used to listen to a book. We’re fortunate to live in an age where we can make such great use of our time … and have as an intellectual guide one who lives his life so well.