Reading Montaigne 1.04: How the soul discharges its passions…

In this essay Montaigne briefly ruminates on the folly of men who attempt to express their emotion on the physical world, providing many examples of people doing just that: Cyrus ordering his army to spend days “taking vengeance” on the river Gyndus for being difficult to cross, Caligula tearing down the house in which his mother had once been prisoner, and Caesar banging his head against a wall and crying out “Varus, give back my soldiers!”

Sometimes the examples are amusing, such as the man who suffers from gout finding relief in cursing “now the sausage, now the ox tongue and the ham,” or the philosopher Bion who asked, witnessing a king literally tearing his own hair out, “Does this man think that baldness relieves grief?”

But the essay is making a serious point, and one that is extremely relevant to my relationship with the physical things of the world in two different ways.

I am one who is ever finding myself fitting Montaigne’s description of the foolish, grasping soul:

…we see that the soul in its passions will sooner deceive itself by setting up a false and fantastical object, even contrary to its own belief, than not act against something.

At various times in my past–thankfully most often in my distant past–I’ve torn the handle and inner panel off of my car door, cracked a chess board with my fist, thrown my bicycle into a lake, and many other stupid things… all while I was alone. I’ve too often gone far beyond an excusable (or so I like to think), generalized venting of powerful emotion into the realm of an irrational attempt to make specific objects feel the anger and frustration as I do, without even the questionable justification of a religious or spiritual ritual behind it.

I sometimes wonder if I don’t have a peculiar relationship to physical objects, attributing to them a kind of historical memory they can’t possibly possess, whether encountering my former locker in the abandoned and half demolished school I attended once or sleeping in a bed in which my lover has made love to someone else. In the first case, the locker having been witness to a time in my life when I liked myself and believed in a wide-open future ahead, I hoped to somehow reconnect to my former, better self through it. Fittingly, the combination lock wouldn’t turn, so the locker retained whatever secrets it might still possess. In the second case, the bed still haunts me occasionally in both waking moments and dreams, as if it somehow possesses a memory of trysts (and always trysts, not the tossing and turning that surely took place there much more often) before.

But in a larger sense–in my life as it is lived–I struggle with a similar tendency to get confused between my inner and outer worlds. In a way I think Montaigne recognizes here, I mistake changing my physical world for changing my emotional and intellectual self through what is essentially a slightly less ostentatious version of the typical American approach of trying to change your life by buying a faster car, a bigger house, and a prettier wife. This approach is not without merit: as much as I believe the best state I could aspire to would be through non-attachment and the Four Noble Truths1, I recognize that there is something in the attentive performance of rituals, in “carrying water and chopping wood,” even in “fake it ’til you make it.” But it is easy to forget to pay attention, leaving just the ritual and the fakery until, eventually, that’s all I remember and, faced with failure, I layer another level on a facade that usually fools everyone but myself. It’s a daily struggle, one in which– if I’m not careful–I could easily win a battle while losing the war.

Right here is record of my vigil and my vigilance.

As Montaigne puts it at the end of his essay:

“But we shall never heap enough insults on the unruliness of our mind.”

or, in a translation I like more:

“But we can never enough decry the disorderly sallies of our minds.”


  1. Life means suffering; Suffering comes from attachment; It is possible to cease suffering; the middle way is the path to ceasing suffering… or “dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga,” which is certainly pithier 

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