[Originally published Jul. 20, 2012]
Dear Michel de Montaigne: I sometimes feel despondent over what I see as the Internet’s tendency to broaden one’s intellectual horizons while simultaneously, and ironically, facilitating the most rigid groupthink. It’s almost as if the sheer oceanic volume of information available to anyone with a broadband connection causes people to band together even more tightly around shared interests and beliefs for fear of completely losing their identities. Even some of the most interesting, thought-provoking writers attract a large number of puerile, sycophantic commenters and allow the echo chamber of praise to reinforce their prejudices and weaken their mental rigor. Am I wrong to think that an earnest truthseeker should strive after contrary voices in order to avoid being lulled into complacency by the flattery and easy companionship of the like-minded?
Montaigne Responds: I enter into conversation and argument with great freedom and facility, since opinions find in me a soil into which they cannot easily penetrate or strike deep roots. No proposition astounds me, no belief offends me, however much opposed it may be to my own. There is no fantasy so frivolous or extravagant that it does not seem to me a natural product of the human mind. Those of us who deny our judgement the right of making final decisions look mildly on ideas that differ from our own; if we do not give them credence, we can at least offer them a ready hearing.
Contradictions of opinion, therefore, neither offend nor estrange me; they only arouse and exercise my mind. We run away from correction; we ought to court it and expose ourselves to it, especially when it comes in the shape of discussion, not of a school lesson. Each time we meet with opposition, we consider not whether it is just, but how, wrongly or rightly, we can rebut it. Instead of opening our arms to it, we greet it with our claws. I could stand a rough shaking from my friends: ‘You are a fool, you’re talking nonsense.’
In good company, I like expression to be bold, and men to say what they think. We must strengthen our ears and harden them against any weakness for the ceremonious use of words. I like strong and manly acquaintanceships and society, a friendship that prides itself on the sharpness and vigour of its dealings. I like love that bites and scratches till the blood comes. It is not vigorous and free enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is polite and artificial, if it is afraid of shocks, and is constrained in its ways: ‘for there can be no discussion without contradiction’ (Cicero, De Finibus, I, viii).
When I am opposed, my attention is roused, not my anger. I go out to meet the man who contradicts me and corrects me. The cause of truth ought to be a cause common to us both. How will he reply? The passion of anger has already struck down his judgement; confusion has usurped the place of reason. It would be useful if a wager were to hang on the result of our disputes, if there could be some material mark of our losses, so that we might keep a record of them. My man could then say to me: ‘Your ignorance and stubbornness on some twenty occasions last year cost you a hundred crowns.’
I welcome and embrace the truth in whosoever hands I find it. I cheerfully surrender to it, and offer it my vanquished arms as soon as I see it approaching in the distance. And provided that I am not treated with too imperious and magisterial a frown, I am glad of any criticisms upon my writings. Indeed I have often made changes in them, more out of politeness than because they were improved by it. For I like, by yielding easily, to gratify and foster the freedom to find fault with me, even at some cost to myself.
It is, however, difficult to induce men of my time to do this; they have not the courage to correct because they have not the courage to stand correction; and they never speak frankly in one another’s presence. I take so much pleasure in being judged and known that it is almost indifferent to me whether I am admired or criticized. My mind so frequently contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, especially as I only give his criticism such authority as I choose.
Dear Michel de Montaigne: I agree with Maria Popova’s ideas about the combinatorial nature of creativity. But then I wonder if I’m only justifying my own lack of talent and original insight. In your esteemed opinion, is originality a prerequisite of valuable thought, or does it have more to do with fashion and a petty desire for distinction?
Montaigne Responds: Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them than to him that repeated them after him. It is no more a matter of Plato’s opinion than of mine, when he and I understand and see things alike. The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterwards turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own; it is thyme and marjoram no longer. So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgement. His education, his labour, and his study have no other aim but to form this.
Let him conceal all that has helped him, and show only what he has made of it. Plunderers and borrowers make a display of their buildings and their purchases, not of what they have taken from others. You do not see a high-court judge’s perquisites; you see the alliances he has made and the honours he has won for his children. Nobody renders a public account of his receipts; everyone displays his profits. The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men.
Dear Michel de Montaigne: People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing. They give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin. When I say that I’m O.K., well, they look at me kind of strange. “Surely you’re not happy now you no longer play the game?”
People say I’m lazy, dreaming my life away. They give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me. When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall, “Don’t you miss the big time, boy, you’re no longer on the ball?”
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round. I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry-go-round, I just had to let it go. Should I be more ambitious, more concerned with my reputation, or is it enough for me to be content with tending to the bonsai tree of my life, happy to be forgotten by the world and left alone?
Montaigne Responds: Our life, said Pythagoras, is like the great and crowded assembly at the Olympic games. Some exercise the body in order to win glory in the contests; others bring merchandise there to sell for profit. There are some – and these are not the worst – whose only aim is to observe how and why everything is done, and to be spectators of other men’s lives, in order to judge and regulate their own
Dear Michel de Montaigne: I don’t know if I can believe any longer in the hope of salvation within linear time, whether of the religious sort or the scientific/technological alternative. But how can I possibly live in a world that holds forth no promise of evil’s eventual vanquishment? Why, then, resist the embrace of nihilistic oblivion?
Montaigne Responds: One must learn to endure what one cannot avoid. Our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrarieties, also of varying tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked one sort only, what effect would he make? He must be able to employ them together and blend them. And we too must accept the good and evil that are consubstantial with our life. Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one side is no less necessary to us than the other. Any attempt to kick against natural necessity will be to copy the foolishness of Ctesiphon, who tried a kicking-match with his mule.