After a detour, it is time to come back to the reading list that started this whole blog. This discussion of Montaigne has taken awhile to write, since I have been distracted by other things. All the same, Montaigne likely would not mind, since he thinks it is as possible to fall too deep into wisdom as anything else.
“Now I want to be the master of myself in every direction. Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly. Thus I feel I may dry up, wither, and grow heavy with prudence…”
It is interesting that the set’s editors included this essay. It is a warning against getting lost in the books to the point that we do no thinking or living of our own.
Montaigne warns us against being too serious. This is one of those essays that should probably be read at different points in a person’s life. First of all, it would have a different meaning as people go through different stages of their lives. Second, it would serve as a reminder of some important things.
One of them is to know and act your age – but not in the traditional sense of behaving the way society expects you to behave. Instead, it is about being fully engaged in your life. I think it would be fun to see how people of different ages would react to this essay. It is interesting how for much of our lives we wish we were any age other than the one we are at that moment.
“I would rather be old less long than be old before I am old. Even the slightest occasions of pleasure that I can come upon, I seize.”
I can imagine what it would be like to present this essay to a classroom full of undergraduates, especially those who fancy themselves connoisseurs. In the digital age, it is easy to be obsessed with something and to become snobbish about whatever your particular hobby easy because more information is immediately available and more positive reinforcement can keep people in a cocoon, whether you are into being a foodie, craft beer, obscure sports, etc.
“We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces.”
Montaigne quotes ancient authors and acknowledges himself that there are certain activities and pleasures suited to different stages of life. One of the advantages of living in modern times is that our increased understanding of the body and how to maintain and train it that we have a better chance of bringing wisdom and good health together than Montaigne’s contemporaries did.
That said, Montaigne did not simply surrender to the inexorable flow of time.
“Since it is the privilege of the mind to rescue itself from old age, I advise mine to do so as strongly as I can. Let it grow green, let it flourish for awhile, if it can like mistletoe on a dead tree. But I fear it is a traitor. It has such a tight brotherly bond with the body that it abandons me at every turn to follow the body in its need….There is no sprightliness in its productions if there is none in the body at the same time.”
“Our masters are wrong in that, seeking the causes of the extraordinary flights of our soul, they have attributed some to a divine ecstasy, to love, to warlike fierceness, to poetry, to wine, but have not assigned a proper share to health – an ebullient, vigorous, full lazy health, such as in the past my green years and security supplied me with now and then. The blaze of gaiety kindles in the mind, vivid, bright flashes beyond our natural capacity, and some of the lustiest, if not the most extravagant, enthusiasms.”
This is really only the first half of the essay. In the second half, Montaigne talks about love, marriage, sex, and gender equality, but those are weighty enough that we’ll save them for another entry.