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? 

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

Reading Montaigne 1.20: That to philosophize is to learn to die

… whatever role a man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time. Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness. I like to beat their ears with that word, which so goes against their grain. And if it means a certain supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, this is due more to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance. This voluptuousness, for being more lusty, sinewy, robust, and manly is only the more seriously voluptuous. And we should have given virtue the name of pleasure, a name more favorable, sweet, and natural; not that of vigor, as we have named it.

Since I was a teen, some part of me–at times an overwhelming part–has sought death. At the same time, I deeply fear it, or at least the final moments leading up to it. When I think of death I think of the desperate eyes of a cornered animal that has nowhere to go and the desperation of reaching the true end of one’s resources. I think of those last moments when I suspect we see with more clarity than we thought possible all the experiences left as only surmise, all the work undone, and all the regrettable acts. I think most of all of the worst desperation, the knowledge that I will never be able to tell my children again how much I love them and am proud of them or tell my love how much I still love. When I think these things I find it hard to breathe… and yet a part of me welcomes it and wants to find my way there the way one can be afraid of heights, forced to crawl on hand-and-knee or stand dizzy holding a hand-rail and yet still feel an almost unbearable urge to leap over the high edge that seems to beckon silently.

So it is with mixed emotion that I read this, one of Montaigne’s most profound essays. If our lives can be betrayed, our reputations undone, the value of the currency we have worked so hard to establish reduced to nil, by the way in which we die, but at the same time I see death as only the moment of deepest desperation, then I not only have to figure out how I can possibly die well, but also find myself with a heightened emphasis on living well, which flies in the face of my most pronounced disability: being blind to the value and enjoyment of process and thus, to some degree, to living, which is almost nothing but process.

It would be easy to read this essay a bit too literally and decide it is a piece of dark, depressive melancholia, such as when Montaigne advises us to think regularly about death:

Let us rid us of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tike, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this: Well, what if it were death itself? And thereupon let us tense ourselves and make an effort.

But Montaigne is actually putting forward a philosophy somewhat more Epicurean than Stoic in that his point is not to obsess over our deaths, but quite the opposite: we should become so familiar with the idea as not to be worried or panicked, but instead use it as a spur to motivate ourselves and remember how valuable our life actually is. The pleasure of life, of physical and above all intellectual fulfillment, is impossible if we are constantly worried about death (to which I would add it is also impossible if one is constantly obsessed with death, whether afraid of it or not).

For me, Montaigne’s logic is sound. “Why should we fear to lose a thing which once lost cannot be regretted?” Montaigne asks, adding, “What does it matter when it comes since it is inevitable?” But, of course, the central problem for me is that almost nothing about my thoughts of death is logical.

I particularly like two of the anecdotes Montaigne shares because I completely get them though I don’t feel the logical truth of them. In the first, Julius Caesar comes across an old soldier of his own guard. The man is “crippled and broken,” and asks permission to kill himself. To which Caesar replies: “So you think you’re alive?” In the second story, a man tells Socrates that “thirty tyrants have condemned you to death,” inspiring Socrates to reply, “And nature, then.”

Living well at best includes dying well, but it is not something we should be worrying ourselves over. We must learn to die in order that we might live well, else we spend our days dying. Then it doesn’t matter how long or short our lives, because “the advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it.”

Again, there’s something Zen-like about the state of mind Montaigne described (which makes sense given that one could draw a nice triangle connecting Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Zen Buddhism. Living each day as if it might be your last isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood cinema, but also just good advice (even if it takes a lifetime to realize it). Chop the wood; carry the water.

Why do you fear your last day? It contributes no more to your death than each of the others. The last step does not cause the fatigue, but reveals it. All days travel toward death, the last one reaches it.

Reading Montaigne 1.19: That our happiness must not be judged until after our death

In addition to death being preferable to fear, Montaigne maintains (!) that death is also required in order to judge whether we were happy–whether our lives were truly well-lived–because that is the “last act,” the “master day” when “all the other actions of our life must be tried and tested.”

Montaigne is happy to let death be the judge of his actions (a rather easy position to take, it seems to me) and determine whether his “reasonings” come from his mouth or his heart. Because he has witnessed how many have betrayed their whole life by gaining a bad reputation at the last moment by not “dying well.” I wonder if Montaigne would agree with the logical corollary to this idea: if one can ruin their reputation by the manner in which they approach that last act, can they also rehabilitate a life poorly lived through dying well?

And in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it is hard to argue with Montaigne’s recognition that death can really boost one’s career:

I have seen death bring a wonderfully brilliant career, and that in its flower, to such a splendid end that in my opinion the dead man’s ambitions and courageous designs had nothing so lofty about them as their interruption. He arrived where he aspired to without going there, more grandly and gloriously than he had desired or hoped.

I love the line “he arrived where he aspired to without going there.” Like it or not, death most often enhances the reputation, whether the dead desperately needed rehabilitation or whether that enhancement serves only obscure their real accomplishments. In death, Nixon has become, if not revered, at least sympathetic. In death, Kurt Cobain will live on in his fans’ minds at the height of his power, never having to deal with becoming older, more jaded, and more comfortable. In death, David Foster Wallace’s creativity and ability is paradoxically obscured by the inflation of his reputation among people who have never read—or only read very little of—his work, causing some to think his reputation was earned by his suicide rather than by his writing.

Reading Montaigne 1.18: Of fear

I wonder if Roosevelt had read Montaigne before he famously said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” Because in this brief essay, Montaigne writes “the thing I fear most is fear.” And having earlier dispensed, more or less, with the three things that we we most fear (death, poverty, and pain), Montaigne muses on fear itself, which can persist despite the logical defenses and objections he has put forth:

… I hardly know by what springs fear acts in us; but at all events it is a strange passion, and the doctors say that there is none which carries our judgment away sooner from its proper seat.

Montaigne’s essays often–and understandably–come down to trying to discern some coherence in the constant human balancing act between the emotional and the logical. We have nothing to fear–not even death, poverty, or pain–except fear itself.

Fear “exceeds all other disorders in intensity,” to the point that those in its grip may take to their heels or be frozen in place. People in the grip of fear often refuse help that is extended to them, no small paradox, or find that their fear drives them to succeed at the very thing which inspired their fear, such as the case of the battle in which a group of desperate, fleeing soliders sees no way to run further and so turns on–and defeats–the much-feared enemy.

The worst aspect of fear may be the way it can break a man’s spirit. Beat a man soundly in battle, Montaigne observes, and he will be able to fight the next day, but put fear in a man’s heart and they will be unable to look in the enemy’s eye:

Those who are in pressing fear of losing their property, of being exiled, of being subjugated, live in constant anguish, losing even the capacity to drink, eat, and rest; whereas the poor, the exiles, and the slaves often live as joyfully as other men. And so many people who, unable to endure the pangs of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves, or leaped to their death, have taught us well that fear is even more unwelcome and unbearable than death itself.