“When I dance, I dance. When I sleep, I sleep; and when I am strolling alone through a beautiful orchard, although part of the time my thoughts are occupied by other things, for part of the time too I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the delight in being alone there, and to me…
To enjoy life requires some husbandry. I enjoy it twice as much as others, since the measure of our joy depends on the greater or lesser degree of our attachment to it. Above all now, when I see my span so short, I want to give it more ballast; I want to arrest the swiftness of its passing by the swiftness of my capture, compensating for the speed with which it drains away by the intensity of my enjoyment. The shorter my lease of it, the deeper and fuller I must make it.”
A section excerpted from “On Experience” by Michel de Montaigne, featured in his Complete Essays.
More and more recently, I see thinkers I admire cite Montaigne as one of those unassailable luminaries – like Augustine, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, or Dr. Johnson – whose voice is wise enough, and work compendious enough, to cut through our frenetic cultural discourse with the weight of a primary source.
Julian Barnes calls Montaigne our philosophical link to the Ancient World. He was also the man who said “Philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir,” or “To be a philosopher is to learn how to die” – a vital reflection that is also perhaps the most misunderstood sentence in philosophy (until Marx started to talk about religion as an opiate…).
The reflection is especially essential to the excerpt above, sourced from perhaps the most seminal of Montaigne’s many celebrated essays. Montaigne had imbibed the Platonists, and thus in linking the practice of philosophy to eventual peace with mortality, was not claiming that we can learn to feel comfortable with the fact of death if we simply muse enough on the subject. Rather, as a Catholic of Jewish origins who flirted with Deism, Montaigne was merely reframing a claim made by Socrates and later Cicero: namely, that in death you are finally unfettered from your corporeal chains, so you better get your mind – or, if you prefer, your soul – in shape because that’s all you’ll have when your star finally sets. Montaigne’s quasi-Deism (which consistently reads like Fideism to me) factors into this equation in an essential way. While a convinced Catholic may take his next existence for granted, brooders like Montaigne often struggle with a concept so uniquely divorced from empirical confirmation. Cicero was one of these thinkers; as an Epicurean he doubted a life-to-come, but as a devotee of Socrates, he thought that perhaps he would outlast his mortal coil. So a convenient compromise arose in his mind. We are heading towards either transcendence or nothingness, he thought, so why fret? Neither option is bad. And you can’t decide the course anyway.
In my reading, Montaigne replaces this rigid Stoicism with a penchant for falling into spectacular daydreams about issues of life and death. Perhaps his most stunning feature is how anti-melancholic he remains despite the weight of his preoccupations, as Ciceronian coolness gives way to warm reveries about the things we humans care about but cannot know for certain. This is not to say that Montaigne had some palpably intense joie de vivre (he didn’t), rather that as a Christian humanist he felt the force of life in a powerful way – a force catalyzed by contemplation, reflection, and an ability to perceive variances of light, even in the shades and shadows of existence. He is a thinker who is continually elated by the sunlight that silhouettes clouds.
I just finished Sarah Bakewell’s fantastic biography How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I cannot recommend the book enough, especially to those who are, like me, interested in both the work and the life, as well as that looming question of how we should live.
Below: Montaigne’s chateau in Bordeaux. His study was in one of the towers.