Barely a page long, “Of idleness” is a favorite because Montaigne’s introspective approach intersects so clearly with something I have felt so keenly: the attraction of a confoundingly unproductive idleness. There are probably few more unifying experiences among artists than the paired desire to have leisure time to “really” work at their art and the frustration that comes when those rare (for most) lengthy times of freedom are granted:
“Unless you keep them [minds] busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them, they throw themselves in disorder hither and yon in the vague field of imagination.”
The focus is necessary for productivity, and to avoid becoming a generalist who does a little of everything but nothing particularly well, because as Montaigne notes, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere,” paraphrasing Martial:
“He who dwells everywhere, Maximus, nowhere dwells.”
and then Lucan:
“Ever idle hours breed wandering thoughts.”
Again, Montaigne engages in a kind of meta-reflection, this time reflecting specifically on his own essays, perhaps in part to demonstrate how his own retreat from working life to write and think is not idleness:
“…like a runaway horse, it [idleness] gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make mind ashamed of itself.