It is time for me to return to the essays of Michel de Montaigne, this time not with a frantic, headlong project, but rather an attempt to find new insights from the sage in a time of uncertainty and upheaval. Having written extensively about Montaigne in the past, I sense that he has something especially important to tell us in this time of social distancing and rampant fear. And so, I’m going to jump right in with one of the starkest quotes (from essay 39, On Solitude) in all of the Montaigne canon:
We should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop, keeping it entirely free and establishing there our true liberty, our principal solitude and asylum. Within it our normal conversation should be of ourselves, with ourselves, so privy that no commerce or communication with the outside world should find a place there; there we should talk and laugh as though we had no wife, no children, no possessions, no followers, no menservants, so that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them. We have a soul able to turn in on herself; she can keep herself company; she has the wherewithal to attack, to defend, to receive and to give. Let us not fear that in such a solitude as that we shall be crouching in painful idleness: “in lonely places, be a crowd onto yourself.” (Tibullus)
I have examined all of Montaigne’s essays at least once, but this quote alone seems worthy of so much more attention than I have paid it so far. And it is especially poignant for me now, because just last week I set up such a room. It is in the smallest room of my house. There are no windows. The ceiling is unbearably short. I tried to do yoga in this room on Monday to comical effect — there is barely room to hold my desk, computer, bookcase and musical instruments. My dogs hate the room and cannot wait for me to find more comfortable spots to lay.
It is a place, however, just for myself. It is my work-from-home office, my studio, my place to connect with coworkers and friends over Zoom. I have played games and taken part in therapy sessions from this room. In this way, my room violates Montaigne’s charge to keep it free of commerce or communications with the outside world. But sometimes even the most ardent followers of a sage must adapt to times. These times demand connection. We must learn to hold those conversations with ourselves in smaller spots of time, but that doesn’t make those inner talks any less essential.
For Montaigne, those conversations include talking and laughter. Few of us have had much occasion to laugh in our social distancing bunkers, and the ones we have found have almost certainly come from our much missed moments with others. I wonder, however, as the days stretch to weeks and perhaps to months, whether we all will need to find those new resources within, that we will have to become better friends with ourselves as the outside world pulls farther away.
This brings me to the darkness of this quote. Montaigne withdrew from a highly social life — he was a French provincial governor, as had been his father before him. He retreated to a tower in his estate with a room full of books and devoted the rest of his life to the project of himself. He would take from the books stacked around him and find a way to examine his world through his own idiosyncratic eyes day after day, uncertain that his words would ever reach another set of human eyes. Why do this? Why cut yourself off from the joys of the world and toil within your own head for eternity? We know Montaigne after the fact of his project, we know that he basically invented the essay and became an inspiration to generation of personal essay writers. But he didn’t know that. He had no idea where this project would lead.
Montaigne’s inspiration was to find joy and comfort in his solitude, to take on a project that seemed much more in line with Eastern Philosophies than the Christian world where he dwelled. And as the next line lays out directly and painfully, this means creating an interior world where you can survive without any of the external joys and comforts of your life. No spouse. No family. No creature comforts. Why? He needed to prepare himself to lose them. This was necessary, as the essays will confirm very soon afterwards, because Montaigne felt such a crushing loss from the death of his best friend, Etienne La Boetie. Having suffered greatly from his friend’s death, Montaigne needed to find a way to prepare himself for future loss.
No contemporary mental health professional would advise someone to follow this approach. The response to grief is inevitably greater social connection and new opportunities to find kinship and comfort in other people. This seems sensible, but logic alone teaches us to not toss away Montaigne’s approach so quickly either. With new friendships comes new opportunities for loss, not necessarily just death, but also abandonment and disappointment. New connections are inherently risky and if we think too hard about any of them and allow our mortality to seep in, they all have unhappy endings.
This makes the conclusion of the quote so important, because Montaigne is not advising that we lock ourselves away like monks and take on the quiet sorrows of the world. He calls on us to find parades of fellowship within ourselves, great joyous throngs of human activity within a single human existence. He’s asking us to consider that, within each of us, we have the ability to create not just a best friend, but an entire cast of original characters that we might like to take out and play with for our amusement and insight.
Anyone who has ever found a joy in reading understands well what Montaigne was saying. We just never considered those characters to be inside us — we thought of them as characters on a page. Montaigne is suggesting that we are capable of inventing our own cast, even without a narrative and the specific work of creating a world for those characters to dwell. He says that we can find those characters and set them free in an examination of everyday life and all the issues that arise as we move from day to day.
That was his great life’s project, and the popular success he found for it, that lasted for centuries, was for the most part beside the point. He pulled it off by making himself one of the most unpredictable, completely unique humans who ever wrote down his thoughts. He’s still worth reading today because he wasn’t afraid to create his own crowd and to ignore all the others.
Can we make use of Montaigne’s charge as we create our islands of isolation in rooms of our choosing? For most people, no, and in the culture we inhabit now, never entirely. However, for those willing to take the plunge, Montaigne’s solitude could turn a difficult, trying period into a moment of greater reflection and insight. I will be using his essays, once more, as an opportunity to find that mental space.
Footnote: In the coming days, I will be reconfiguring this site so all of the original 2011 essays are available for easy access. Please be patient as I update My Montaigne Project.