It was a “monstrous plan.” The birth of the confessional form of writing. It was to essay something quite new: It was to look into the heart and write with, as it were, his life’s blood. A shared carnival of the self. Introspection. Narcissism. The idea of writing openly about oneself is a fairly recent phenomenon…
The most difficult feats sometimes seem the easiest. There is one in particular that, to all appearances, anyone should be able to perform; but when it was first accomplished, it marked a new beginning in man’s spiritual history. This feat, or enterprise, is to bring to mind what your life has taught you and what, in consequence, you genuinely and truly know: not opinions received from books, not preachments and formal doctrines, but the opinions you really live by. Not the homilies on the surface of your mind. Its the real suppositions under which you act when you choose a friend, break a vow, pay a debt , get married, love, hate, forgive and on and on through all the moral stuff that fills even the most tranquil life.
All that the enterprise requires, then, is that you learn from yourself what you already know. Alas, there is a hitch. The enterprise is so difficult that only one man fully succeeded at it. He was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. He was also, and therein lies his true greatness, the man who invented the enterprise.
That he was “essaying” something utterly and even scandalously original, Montaigne himself was keenly, and nervously aware. Before him, other men, such as Saint Augustine, had sought to examine their own hearts, but they had done so to fortify an already established doctrine or to point up a well-worn moral. Montaigne reversed the procedure. At a time when few authors wrote of themselves at all, he not only proposed to speak intimately of himself, but to make of himself the very source and measure of moral philosophy, as if the ways of an undistinguished country gentleman from Bordeaux were more worthy of contemplation than the ethics of Aristotle, or the high reaches of Christian theology.
“I shall never get out of this stupid enterprise with honor,” he warned his readers, ” I presented myself to myself as theme and subject. It was a monstrous plan.” The “monstrous plan” was not yet born when Montaigne, a wealthy retired gentleman of thirty-eight, sat down in 1571 to fill out his ample leisure time with some learned scribbling. Besides, it was the high tide of French Renaissance and what wrong could adding a little voice to the chorus of antiquity admirer’s do?
He started with conventional Renaissance moral commentaries: reflections on suffering and pain, facing death with dignity; the stock in trade of what is usually termed Stoic Humanism, the prevailing moral doctrine of the age. He meandered on for a bit, and then realized that the Stoic dogma, with its high and chilling standards of courage and will power made him feel inadequate. Others, no doubt, felt the same but Montaigne had the courage of his un-heroism, which was nothing less than the courage of genius. It seemed to him that his sense of inadequacy, inspired by Stoic philosophy, was truer to his life and more important to him than the philosophy. Montaigne began to measure the philosophy by himself, and the monstrous plan began taking shape.
Montaigne began this process of “deciphering myself” and the great moral philosophy of antiquity looked curiously fatuous. Why must he, who dreaded pain, suffer it with composure? Why not cry out if we feel like it? Why play around with vain and external experiences? “We have enough labor with the pain without adding a new labor by our reason.”
In truth, this queer enterprise of deciphering himself was beginning to look more fruitful than book philosophy. Perhaps it was even truer. What Montaigne truly thought and felt about the inward aspect of things was richer, more various, more true to the texture of lived life, than anything to be found in vaunting philosophy with its moral abstractions and its “transcendental humors.”
Montaigne discovered by deciphering himself that “the only thing I hope to acquire is a reputation for acquiring nothing.” The philosophers discoursed on public virtue; Montaigne brought the subject home: “whoever escapes with clean breeches from handling the affairs of the world, escapes by a miracle.” Theologians discoursed on the state of marriage: “a dull uniform pleasure,” pronounced Montaigne after pondering his own.
Sarah Bakewell:A down-to-earth question, “How to live?” splintered into a myriad other pragmatic questions. Like everyone else, Montaigne ran up against the major perplexities of existence: how to cope with the fear of death, how to get over losing a child or a beloved friend…But there were smaller puzzles, too. How do you avoid getting drawn into a pointless argument with your wife, or a servant? How can you reassure a friend who thinks a witch has cast a spell on him? How do you cheer up a weeping neighbour? How do you guard your home? What is the best strategy if you are held up by armed robbers who seem to be uncertain whether to kill you or hold you to ransom? If you overhear your daughter’s governess teaching her something you think is wrong, is it wise to intervene? How do you deal with a bully? What do you say to your dog when he wants to go out and play, while you want to stay at your desk writing your book?
In place of abstract answers, Montaigne tells us what he did in each case, and what it felt like when he was doing it. He provides all the details we need to make it real, and sometimes more than we need. He tells us, for no particular reason, that the only fruit he likes is melon, that he prefers to have sex lying down rather than standing up, that he cannot sing, and that he loves vivacious company and often gets carried away by the spark of repartee. Read More:http://www.nationalpost.com/news/examined+examined+life/4794382/story.html
Murray N. Rothbard:It is a favorite conceit of modern, 20th-century liberals that skepticism, the attitude that nothing can really be known as the truth, is the best groundwork for individual liberty. The fanatic, convinced of the certainty of his views, will trample on the rights of others; the skeptic, convinced of nothing, will not. But the truth is precisely the opposite: the skeptic has no ground on which to stand to defend his or others’ liberty against assault. Since there will always be men willing to aggress against others for the sake of power or pelf, the triumph of skepticism means that the victims of aggression will be rendered defenseless against assault. Furthermore, the skeptic being unable to find any principle for rights or for any social organization, will probably cave in, albeit with a resigned sigh, to any existing regime of tyranny. Faute de mieux, he has little else to say or do.
An excellent case in point is one of the great skeptics of the modern world, the widely read and celebrated 16th-century French essayist, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…. Read More:http://mises.org/daily/4215