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.

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