Montaigne for the new year

Some more food for thought for the new year, this time from Montaigne:

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

The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne - Penguin Books Australia

For more wisdom from Montaigne, see this earlier post

I count 13 types

It is a pet peeve of mine when someone interrupts a heated discussion and suggests talking about something else, usually the weather or someone’s holiday to Japan.

Montaigne talks a lot about fierce debate in his wonderful ‘On the Art of Conversation.’ He believed it to be essential to real friendship:

I like strong, intimate, manly fellowships, the kind of friendship which rejoices in sharp vigorous exchanges just as love rejoices in bites and scratches which draw blood. It is not strong enough nor magnanimous enough if it is not argumentative, if all is politeness and art

As a result, he was well acquainted with the characters that make up these vigorous exchanges:

One goes east and the other west; they lose the fundamental point in the confusion of a mass of incidentals. After a tempestuous hour they no longer know what they are looking for. One man is beside the bull’s eye, the other too high, the other too low. One fastens on a word or a comparison; another no longer sees his opponent’s arguments, being too caught up in his own train of thought: he is thinking pursuing his own argument not yours. Another, realizing he is too weak in the loins, is afraid of everything, denies everything and, from the outset, muddles and confuses the argument, or else, at the climax of the debate he falls into a rebellious total silence, affecting, out of morose ignorance, a haughty disdain or an absurdly modest desire to avoid contention. Yet another does not care how much he drops his own guard provided that he can hit you. Another counts every word and believes they are as weight as reasons. This man merely exploits the superior power of his voice and lungs. And then there is the man who sums up against himself; and the other who deafens you with useless introductions and digressions. Another is armed with pure insults and picks a groundless ‘German quarrel’ so as to free himself from the company and conversation of a mind which presses hard on his own. Lastly, there is the man who cannot see reason but holds you under siege within a hedge of dialectical conclusions and logical formulae.

Apart from the oddness of a ‘German quarrel’ – all the Germans I know are painfully polite, especially when apologizing for their perfect English – the descriptions are eerily familiar. No?

Doubts and Fools

History may not repeat, but it does rhyme.

It is a disaster that wisdom forbids you to be satisfied with yourself and always sends you away dissatisfied and fearful, whereas stubbornness and foolhardiness fill their hosts with joy and assurance

Montaigne (1580)

For I found myself embarassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my ignorance

Kierkegaard (1843)

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Montaigne on Friendship

Like every other Type A Millennial, I read Meditations in my early 20s and was blown away. I still have my old dog eared copy; its orange Penguin cover peeling away from edges where old post-it notes peep out. I flipped open to a random page this morning and read from an old post it note: “the starting point for life is an acknowledgement and understanding of its nature.” Quite.

I recently started reading Montaigne’s Essays, which deliver wisdom in the same digestible staccato style. A few snippets from his essay On Friendship I found moving:

There seems nothing for which Nature has better prepared us than for fellowship

Our willing freedom produces nothing more properly its own than affection and loving-friendship

The love of friends is a general universal warmth, temperate moreover and smooth, a warmth which is constant and at rest, all gentleness and evenness, having nothing sharp nor keen.

Montaigne is quick to differentiate true friendship from the transitory or circumstantial relationships many of us would label friendships

In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me.’

A similar notion came up in conversation with a Russian friend, who was shocked at how breezily myself and another American applied the label of friend. See also this discussion about friendship from an interview between Tyler Cowen and Masha Gessen.

Montaigne thought sexual love and friendship did not mix because the former thrived in scarcity while the latter is enjoyed in proportion to our desire. He dismissed marriage as a space where these two loves could come together, in part because he believed most women lacked the temperament for profound friendship (a reminder that brilliance often offers no defense against prejudice). In an almost wistful passage, he describes how wonderful such a relationship would be if it were possible:

if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union – where the whole human being was involved – it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant