Montaigne is famous for his formulation (fusion?) of Stoicism and Epicureanism, that to truly live is to learn how to die well, to become familiar with the “voluptuousness” of death. To live well was to learn to die, to meditate on it beforehand and then face its inevitable onset bravely.
Here, 15-20 years after the writing of those early essays, we find Montaigne taking a more accommodating tone, acknowledging that his earlier thought to “dwell purely on the thing itself, consider it, and judge it,” may be limited to “first-class men,” such as Socrates itself. Montaigne still seeks “remedy for the ailments of the soul,” but ordinary, flawed humans might be better off using tactics of diversion.
There’s both sadness and cynicism here. Sadness that diversion is so easy, that even Epicurus and “the great Zeno” sidestep a true engagement with considering death—and by extension other great existential matters—and “barely brush the crust of it.” Cynicism because we celebrate the power of the soul over the weakness of the body, but it takes so little to distract ourselves:
“A frivolous cause, you will tell me. What do you mean, a cause? None is needed to agitate our soul: a daydream without body or subject dominates and agitates it.1”
Humans are singular in this ability, and not necessarily in a good way. Montaigne asks, “Is there anything besides ourselves in nature that feeds on inanity2 and is subject to its power?”
While replete with historic examples from Ovid, Plutarch and many others, Montaigne speaks persuasively from his own experience. Though it’s been many years since his great friend La Boétie’s death, Montaigne continues to feel that loss “hardly less vividly after twenty-five years than in the first year,” except when he is engaged in these diversions, taking advantage of this natural “inconstancy” whose sharpness will not be blunted by time alone.
Montaigne opens this essay with a personal story of consoling a lady who was “truly afflicted,” and how he didn’t attempt a cure by rational argument or reference to the great philosophers, but by relatively simple diversion. The question which frames the entire essay is found in his observation that while he succeeded at the time, those who followed him “found no improvement in her” because he “had no laid the axe to the roots.” And he ends on a note of the strength and weakness of the imagination, which is ideally both root and axe itself, the strong—but perhaps impossible for most—parallel of the weakness of those who “play the part of Prester Martin.”
In such a compact essay, Montaigne still manages to delve into the deepest questions and contradictions of the human mind and experience.
See also 3.11, “Our reason is capable of filling out a hundred other worlds […] it needs neither matter nor basis; let it run on; it builds as well on emptiness as on fullness, and with inanity as with matter.” ↩
Here something tickles my memory that I’ve not yet attempted to dig into: inanity, in Epicureanism, isn’t just silliness, but an emptiness—a void—necessary for movement and action but dangerous as well? ↩