Montaigne: As relevant as ever

It’s funny how one thought leads to another. Yesterday I finished writing a long book about good and evil, which to one degree or other is the subject of most books except those wretched, jargon-ridden objects academics produce to impress one another with their mastery of dense and unreadable prose. I would read eat one than read another, so I don’t know if they have another purpose other than lowering the spirits of students strong-armed into reading them. In most cases, they are meant to exclude their lucubration from those who have not spent many years being inducted into the mysteries of particular guilds—philosophy is a good example. Why now reads modern philosophy? It has become so inaccessible that few outside the field bother. Neither Bertrand Russell or A.J. Ayer, two giants of 20th Century philosophy, understood what Ludwig Wittgenstein, an even bigger name in his time, was getting at. Maybe Wittgenstein didn’t either, because he wrote a second book that said he was wrong in the first. His point was words have no meaning. The U.S. Supreme Court seemed to accept this when it ruled Obamacare was Constitutional because what was formerly understood to be a tax was a fine instead. A 5 to 4 vote, that one. When quite a bit younger, too young to appreciate him, I read some of Montaigne’s essays. He anticipated by several centuries the preoccupation with self that characterizes our age, and every other if it comes to that. Montaigne’s aim was not to celebrate himself, but to understand what made him tick. He thought of himself as a good man or anyway not all that bad compared to the general run. I was searching this morning for a passage where he commented about the ignoble and corrupt age he lived in. Like nearly everything he wrote, that has pertinence today. Sometimes it seems you have to go back to Caligula to find a match for our times. The beheadings, the men roasted alive or drowned in cages in the Middle East show that human nature never changes, although we no longer bring kids and a picnic lunch to public hangings in this country. Cruelty and barbarity are hallmarks of every age I can think of. The so-called golden ages dotted here and there in history are seen as such because there was no one who dared or survived to tell the truth.

Nearly every paragraph Montaigne wrote has pith and self-deprecating wisdom as if pointing out, “Who am I to say, but I think…” The one I fastened on today while looking for his remark about corruption is about solitude.

“Solitude seems to me more appropriate and reasonable for those who have given to the world their most active and vigorous years… We have lived enough for others, let us live at least this remaining bit of time for ourselves. Let us bring our thoughts and plans to ourselves and our comfort. It is no small matter to arrange our retirement security, it keeps us busy enough without mixing other undertakings with it. Since God gives us leisure to make arrangements for moving out, let us prepare for it, let us pack our bags; let us take an early leave; let us break free from those violent clutches that engage us elsewhere and draw us away from ourselves. We must untie those bonds that are so powerful, and henceforth love this and that, and be wedded only to ourselves. That is to say, let the other things be ours, but not joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our body as well. The greatest thing is to know how to belong to ourselves. It is time to untie ourselves from society, since we can contribute nothing to it. And he who cannot lend, let him keep from borrowing. Our powers are failing us; let us withdraw them and concentrate them on ourselves. He who can turn the offices of friendship and fellowship around and fuse them into himself, let him to so. In this decline, which makes him useless, burdensome and troublesome to others, let him keep from being troublesome to himself, and burdensome and useless. Let him indulge and care for himself, and especially govern himself, respecting and fearing his reason and his conscience, so that he cannot take a false step without shame…There are some temperaments more suited for these precepts than others. Those whose grasp of things are weak and slow, and whose affections and will are fastidious and slow to enter service or employment, of whom I am one, both by natural disposition and reflection, will comply with this advice better than the active and busy souls who embrace everything and engage themselves everywhere, who grow passionate about all things, who offer, present, and give themselves on all occasions.” Social justice warriors anyone?

They foul the culture with their constant need to be offended on everyone else’s behalf. Criticism of these busybodies is not popular, especially in the media that see themselves as the arbiter of the secular values eclipsing the old religion certitudes and their moral authority. Reduced to its Manichean essentials, their view holds that the world is polarized between victims and haters and liars and deniers with a low-information proletariat in the middle that must be persuaded or compelled to adopt the emancipated views of the left. This business about the rights of transgender people is a good example. The Census Bureau says they amount to .003% of the population; you have a better chance of being born with two thumbs on your hand. Yet what percentage of the media is preoccupied to the point of obsession with the subject?

Montaigne in writing about solitude meant withdrawal from the hurly-burly of the passions of the day like that one, which I think is a good idea. On the other hand, we face the prospect of electing as president either a demonstrable liar without any important achievements or a humbug who makes Bill O’Reilly seem reticent. Or an elderly socialist with peculiar ideas or a Jersey politician whose style would grow old fast in the White House. James Carville says if the Republicans are smart they’ll pick Marco Rubio. That must mean the Clinton family has something on him or has another reason for seeing him as a sitting duck. P.T. Barnum was right in saying a sucker is born every moment, but didn’t add that most vote, rising from the dead in places like Chicago. You find your interest in this sort of thing fading as your powers do. I had to renew my driver’s license yesterday and I was worried about not passing the vision test. I did easily as it happened, but my eyesight is definitely dimming as the old phrase had it; cataract surgery is on the horizon. I have decided against the vanity package ($900 additional per eye) which allows you to throw away your eyeglasses for good. It seems a bit late in the day for such vanity. I’m reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain again. Like Montaigne, he writes about himself but does it in fictional rather than essay form. Roth will be remembered long after his rival John Updike is forgotten, a process already well advanced. There was an exchange in The Telegraph the other day about who is the better writer, the late Kingsley Amis or his son Martin. Kingsley won going away.


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