Montaigne’s Realm

Montaigne was a philosopher/essayist during the French Renaissance, born in 1533. He was a man of Greek and Roman letters who is known exclusively for his essays on various practical topics such as friendship, solitude, books, the art of conversing, and many more. Specifically, his essay ‘On Solitude’ has many philosophical undertones and a practical way to approach the problem of overcoming mass opinion – humans seem to be stagnated contemporarily. As populations grow, as social media and the Internet become as prevalent as ever, it is a refreshing read that makes one question their lifestyle, what and how they think, and most importantly, how they live.

Montaigne’s idealism runs ubiquitously throughout the essay in aphorisms that are simple to extract out of context while still containing their meaning. The main point of solitude is to nourish one’s own garden, to have the ability to and retreat into the realms of one’s own mind, “to live more at leisure and at one’s ease.”[1] In antiquity ( specifically the Roman authors whom Montaigne is quoting frequently – Horace, Lucretius, Quintilian, Virgil, etc.), Cicero treated as this subject as opposed to the Epicureans of his time, claiming that the public life was the life worth living, the duty to the state being one of the highest virtues one can achieve. Montaigne is directly opposing this, “why should we, contrary to their laws, enslave our contentment by giving it to the power of another?”[2] The happiness that has its origin in the mind is the only type of happiness that is of value. This ideal is ahead of the time, having the underpinnings of individual freedoms and liberties, the right to choose and a negative freedom over authority.

It is easy to fall into public opinion – it is difficult to have the courage to be authentic without worrying about what others think (like David Foster Wallace said, it is easy not to care what others think once you realize how little they do). Especially now, with the rise of globalization and Internet access, everyone is connected, and it is difficult to differentiate between whether an argument is founded on sound logic and reason, or if passion is dictating the direction. Montaigne in this case argues that humans should not allow the masses to control their thoughts, individuals cannot worry about what others think or believe, “but how you should talk to yourself.”[3] Again, escape into the mind and the worries lessen; hence, idealism. The external world is unstable, full of Others that we cannot ever hope to know, the narrative in our minds is something with which humans can build a dependence. It is the only thing we can know.

Escaping into the mind is a great practice. Solitude is healthy and necessary if growth is the desire. The mind should be nourished with as much of itself as it can, losing oneself in the crowd is simple and often goes unnoticed to the conscious mind. That being said, human interaction is also necessary, but there needs to be a dividing line between living as a hermit devoid of human interaction, and having actions and words dictated by the Other who is constantly beckoning a return-call. If a person’s happiness depends solely on the mind, as Montaigne suggests, and a spouse, child, or good should never be depended on for happiness, where does the source of happiness come from (assuming that the mind in itself is not pre-programmed happy)?

Memories are the answer. Proust shows this throughout À la recherché du temps, as the entire seven volumes are centered around the dipped madeleine in the tea. Montaigne says that “solitude seems to me to be more likely and more reasonable for those who have given to the world their most active and vigorous years, according to the example of Thales.”[4] The longer one lives, the more memories one is able to store and keep conscious of (as empiricism shows), thus rendering happier memories to revert back to. Like the ‘prediction error’ in neuroscience, which is the idea that the expectation of an event always seems exaggeratedly more or less pleasure-ridden than the event actualizes as, the happiness in memories are usually devoid of negative images. Our minds create a fantasy that can be triggered with a material perception or circumstance.

Solitude is only viewed positively when reflection is involved, otherwise there is no object for this reflection. Reflection occurs in the mind and has its subject matter as material, so our happiness depends on material circumstances. Though we are able to discern or remember the memories solely with our minds, it is not the trigger or content of this happiness. Proust is entranced phenomenologically with nearly everything in his material world, and memories are what bring him back to the experiences. They are the positive, subjective outlook with which the world was experienced, which can be seen as happy with reflection. In a word, empiricism shows us the material side of things that are necessary for the mind – idealism structures those materials into a working narrative.

‘Living’ in the world is amazing. Experiences can create happiness, but only with a solid foundation of reflection. If a person is living every day with others, going to parties and amusement parks, etc., the experiences are there; living experience to experience, distraction with distraction, leaving no room for reflection is what the world seems to be doing.  Humans of today are terrified to be alone. Remembrance of the event is necessary, though, never the situation solely in itself. If one is riding a roller coaster, and it is similar to an experience of the past summer wherein the individual had a magnificent time, thinking about it is just as important, if not more so, as living it – a deep reflection is happiness. It is the material-ideal dialectic at its finest, and happiness depends on both equally. That is Montaigne’s message, and nowadays, it seems more relevant than ever, with our ever-shifting movement toward the Other and the purely material side of things. Solitude is necessary for happiness as equally as ‘good’ experiences.

[1] Montaigne, selected essays (Modern Library, trans. By Cotton and Hazlitt), 91

[2] Ibid. 96-97

[3] Ibid. 102

[4] Ibid. 95

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