The superficial similarities are certainly striking. His avowed interest in every aspect of his own life and character and their frank revelation in prose of sometimes improvisatory immediacy have (to Bakewell and others) suggested affinities with the world of blogs and social media today. It would be wrong, however, to push this too far. Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.…The happiness he pursued was not the personal pleasure of utilitarian thought, let alone the “quick boosts” and easy (if esoteric) gratifications of modern self-help. His goal, as Bakewell reminds us, was the eudaimonia of Greek philosophy, an altogether fuller conception of human flourishing and joy. And he attained it by not seeking it. He focused, to borrow Minogue’s phrase, not on happiness itself but on concrete particulars, bringing to their contemplation what Bakewell describes as another “little trick” taken from the Greeks: ataraxia, which might be rendered equanimity or imperturbability. The result could be described in Montaigne’s case as a productively detached kind of engagement with life.…There may be a lesson, nonetheless. At the very least, Montaigne’s example offers a valuable counterpoint to a media-driven, mediated modern culture that blurs the distinctions between public and private spaces, and public and private selves, and in which constant communication seems sometimes to mean no more than unceasing noise. Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.
Montaigne wrote in his Essays about witnessing a killing during the salt-tax riots in 1548 in Bordeaux. In Sarah Bakewell’s telling:
A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town’s lieutenant-general and governor—thus the king’s official representative—was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city’s massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.…In this case, Montaigne thought that Moneins had failed because he was not sure what he was trying to do. Having decided to face the crowd, he then lost his confidence and behaved with deference, sending mixed messages. He also underestimated the distorted psychology of a mob. Once worked up into a frenzy, it can only be either soothed or suppressed; it cannot be expected to show ordinary human sympathy. Moneins seemed not to know this. He expected the same fellow-feeling as he would from an individual.
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.
This is, of course, only the nerdiest of the many implausibilities depicted in the film. But the movie created enough buzz that NASA started getting mail about it. Yeomans told The Australian: “The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.” NASA has a special section on its website, “2012: A Reality Check”, and has even created its own video about it. In the video, Yeomas laboriously debunks the “2012 myth,” and explains that his only plan for December 12, 2012 is to “lay in an extra supply of egg nog.”As absurd as the movie is, public fear about the “2012 phenomenon” is even more so. The film’s trailers, which ended by encouraging audiences to search the web (“Find out the truth: Google search 2012”), must bear part of the blame – but so must the hordes of overheated Googlers who hurtled into NASA’s inbox. Perhaps they’re the cataclysm we ought to be worrying about.
Signs of the imminence of this apocalypse were plentiful. A series of famines, ruined harvests, and freezing winters in the 1570s and 1580s indicated that God Himself was withdrawing His warmth from the earth. Smallpox, typhus and whooping cough swept through the country, as well as the worst disease of all: the plague. All four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seemed to have been unleashed: pestilence, war, famine and death. A werewolf roamed the country, conjoined twins were born in Paris, and a new star – a nova – exploded in the sky. Even those not given to religious extremism had a feeling that everything was speeding towards some indefinable end.
Yet already something new is entering the world of human relations with these innocent-seeming sites. There is a novel ease with which people can make contact with each other through the screen. No more need to get up from your desk and make the journey to your friend’s house. No more need for weekly meetings, or the circle of friends in the downtown restaurant or bar. All those effortful ways of making contact can be dispensed with: a touch of the keyboard and you are there, where you wanted to be, on the site that defines your friends. But can this be real friendship, when it is pursued and developed in such facile and costless ways?Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action. Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need. It is arguable that the more people satisfy their need for companionship through relationships carried out on the screen, the less will they develop friendships of that other kind, the kind that offers help and comfort in the real trials of human life.
Nietzsche was very fond of him. Alain de Botton devoted an interesting chapter of The Consolations of Philosophy to him. I’ve had the Essays in the stack of books to read for a while now. And Sarah Bakewell has written what looks to be an interesting book about him:
These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said. We are united in the very fact of our diversity, and “this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.” His book is such a world, and when we look into it there is no end to the strangeness and familiarity we might see.