Reading Montaigne 1.10: Of prompt or slow speech

…the slow man would do better as a preacher, it seems to me, and the other better as a lawyer.

I’m quite familiar with the mystery Montaigne refers to in this essay: how sometimes contemplation and preparation lead to the best and deepest speech and sometimes just the opposite, when the best thing one can do is speak extemporaneously. When Montaigne refers to the “slow man,” he means the kind of person who speaks best with more preparation and contemplation. I’m more lawyer than preacher, I guess, because as I’ve said many times (a quotation stolen from someone) during or after a heated discussion, I often have to speak in order to hear myself and know what I’m thinking. And while speaking off-the-cuff isn’t always the best approach, at the other end lies the danger of over-preparation, where I’ve prepared so intensely that my speech becomes unnatural.

In speech–and it’s important to note that we are not talking about writing, if only because I am constantly tempted to equate the two when thinking of this essay–spontaneity is my friend. This goes not only for public speaking, where I do my best work with only a rough outline of high points I wish to get to, but I think also explains the importance of conversation to my intellectual and creative life. This is where the speech/writing difference becomes interesting: I rarely engage willingly in conversation, but I treat most social media conversationally and am quite comfortable using it that way, where the writing is much more a direct reflection of my speech than “proper” writing.

There are many ways of writing well, some of which are quite different from the aim of speaking well, such as formal poetry and lyrical essays. But there’s another mode of writing in which to write well is to write (at least in terms of the process) as closely possible to the manner in which we engage in conversation. Montaigne again speaks for me:

I have little control over myself or my moods. Chance has more power here than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it by myself. Thus its speech is better than its writings, if there can be a choice where there is no value.

This also happens to me: that I do not find myself in the place where I look; and I find myself more by chance encounter than by searching my judgment. I will have tossed off some subtle remark as I write. (I mean, of course, dull for anyone else, sharp for me. But let’s leave aside all these amenities. Each man states this kind of thing according to his own powers.) Later I have lost the point so thoroughly that I do not know what I meant; and sometimes a stranger has discovered it before I do. If I erased every passage where this happens to me, there would be nothing left of myself. At other times, chance will show me the light clearer than noonday and make me astonished at my hesitation.

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