Sarah Bakewell, reviewing James Miller’s Examined Lives (another book in my “to read” stack):
Yet his entire book conveys a sense that the genuinely philosophical examination of a life can still lead us somewhere radically different from other kinds of reflection. At the end of his chapter on Descartes, Miller cites the 20th-century phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, whom he identifies as the major exception to the rule that places most post-Cartesian thinkers on one side or the other of the personal/impersonal divide. Apropos of Descartes, Husserl wrote, “Anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must ‘once in his life’ withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting.”It is an extraordinary thing to do: a project that remains “quite personal,” as Husserl admitted, yet that reaches in to seize the whole world and redesign it from the very foundation. Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that “once in a lifetime” convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?
Now I am engaged in shaking off what does not belong to me, be it people, friend or foe, habits, conveniences, books. I shall live in solitude for years until, as a philosopher of life, fully matured and finished, I allow myself to (and then, perhaps, must) go again amongst men.
We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them. We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place; here we must talk and laugh without wife, without children, without possessions, without retinue and servants, so that, when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them.The phrase about the “back shop” or “room behind the shop” as it is sometimes translated – the arrière boutique – appears again and again in books about Montaigne, but it is rarely kept within its context. He is not writing about a selfish, introverted withdrawal from family life so much as from the need to protect yourself from the pain that would come if you lost that family. Montaigne sought detachment and retreat so that he could not be too badly hurt, but in doing so he also discovered that having such a retreat helped him establish his “real liberty,” the space he needed to think and look inward.