Reading Montaigne 3.4: Of Diversion

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.


  1. 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.” 

  2. 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? 

But is it Art?

It’s fitting that the following list/poem by Hilary North is all over the web as we remember, in whatever way each of us do, 9/11. In that context it is powerful. In that context its power is driven by the contrast of its very ordinariness. I’m not criticizing North’s list, which is really beyond criticism even if I wanted to. It makes me sad and stirs my memory (and strikes an appropriate pedagogical note, if one is into that kind of American self-reliance thing), just as it should.

But it also strikes me—and I think this is fair to observe since it is sometimes presented as a powerful poem—that, as art, it’s mundane at best. Reading thousands and thousands of submissions for concīs, what makes this list a list, rather than a poem, is a lack of aesthetic self-reliance. The context of the event does all the work. Without that still-electric tragedy within and around every line it would just be a list, found and forgotten. Just as droves of terrible love poems, to pick the most popular genre of failure, don’t work because without the context (that is so clear to the writer they don’t even realize it, as the very air around them) they’re just observations without even a veneer of musicality or charged (or charging) language.

“How My Life Has Changed” (Hilary North)

I can no longer flirt with Lou.
I can no longer dance with Mayra.
I can no longer eat brownies with Suzanne Y.
I can no longer meet the deadline with Mark.
I can no longer talk to George about his daughter.
I can no longer drink coffee with Rich.
I can no longer make a good impression on Chris.
I can no longer smile at Paul L.
I can no longer confide in Lisa.
I can no longer work on a project with Donna R.
I can no longer get to know Yolanda.
I can no longer call the client with Nick.
I can no longer contribute to the book drive organized by Karen.
I can no longer hang out with Millie.
I can no longer give career advice to Suzanne P.
I can no longer laugh with Donna G.
I can no longer watch Mary Ellen cut through the bull.
I can no longer drink beer with Paul B.
I can no longer have a meeting with Dave W.
I can no longer leave a message with Andrea.
I can no longer gossip with Anna.
I can no longer run into Dave P. at the vending machine.
I can no longer call Steve about my computer.
I can no longer compliment Lorenzo.
I can no longer hear Herman’s voice.
I can no longer trade voice mails with Norman.
I can no longer ride the elevator with Barbara.
I can no longer say hello to Steven every morning.
I can no longer see the incredible view from the 103rd Floor of the South Tower.
I can no longer take my life for granted.

Reading Montaigne 1.22: One man’s profit is another man’s harm

…no profit is made except at the expense of others…

This briefest of essays–just three paragraphs long–sets forth a pair of related aspects of the same basic, important point: there is no profit except at the expense of others, and that even our most private desires are desires which can probably be fulfilled only at the expense of others:

…let each man sound himself within, and he will find that our private wishes are for the most part born and nourished at the expense of others.

Montaigne is speaking mostly–but not solely–of material profits and speaking of loss quite literally as a debit. In a healthy economy, one who buys a desired item is literally incurring a loss of that item by the other, just as he is incurring a loss of money, but only an ardent socialist would interpret this as a negative kind of loss. And I take the important qualification, “for the most part,” as an opening of the door to consider non-material gains, such as the intellectual and spiritual, where there is arguably no loss at all, only profit.

I’m as materialistic as the next guy, though the nature of my material desire is somewhat less ostentatious than many… I have no interest in new cars or bigger houses or recreational vehicles or blingy watches, though I have a nearly insatiable desire for books on particular topics, fountain pens, and fine paper. As I’ve grown older I’ve become less and less interested in acquiring possessions and increasingly interested in gaining possessions that exist only in between my ears. I suppose in some practical, physical sense, the old saying attributed to Buddha is untrue, but I’ve come to appreciate its truth nonetheless: “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

The most important things in life, it seems to me, are just those kinds of things that are not diminished in any important way by being shared with, or freely given to, another. Love, appreciation of something beautiful, something made with pleasure with our own hands, learning… but it also turns out that none of these are accomplished with the ease I once thought–and certainly not naturally–so there is a cost of a different kind, if only in sacrificing achieving one or more for another.

The pleasure of mastery comes at a cost that one cannot pay if one’s attention is too many times divided.

In an important sense, Montaigne is writing not just about loss, but about change. It is not just that all profit entails someone’s loss, but that all change comes at some kind of price. Considering how important the question of change is about to become in the next essay, the quote by Lucretius which Montaigne chooses to end this essay is telling:

Whenever anything is changed and leaves its bounds,
Instantly this brings death to that which was before.

Reading Montaigne 1.21: Of the power of the imagination

I am one of those who is very much influenced by the imagination. Everyone feels its impact, but some are overthrown by it. Its impression on me is piercing.

Talk about a change of pace. From the deep, somewhat disturbing meditation on learning how to die, Montaigne delves into human imagination… mostly in the form of a discussion of the imagination’s influence on sex and the “unruly liberty” of the penis. In telling a variety of stories of sexual function and dysfunction of his own, as well as stories from friends and historical persons, we find that some things really never change, our imaginations being more than enough to quell or restore sexual vigor.

Read more Reading Montaigne 1.21: Of the power of the imagination