39. On Solitude

Other than his last, culminating essay On Experience, I have written most often on this Montaigne topic. It’s an evergreen subject, so that shouldn’t be surprising, and given that I’m most drawn to this project when I don’t have anyone to share my thoughts with, it makes sense.

For example, we just completed the first week of July — a time when many people are occupied with travel and long-planned activities — and I just happened to come down with a nasty non-COVID virus that knocked me out for seven days. I couldn’t go to the gym and no one seemed to be around to chat, so I dove deeply into my writing projects.

I sometimes struggle hitting the solitude switch when I need to, but once it’s turned on, it’s even tougher to turn off. I’m back to my normal routine now, but still deeply in a writing mood—and I’m carrying a silent grudge towards everyone who ignored me during my sick week. I’m not sure that this attitude is what Roman poet Horace had in mind when he wrote:

it is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.

Montaigne takes the positive part of this proposition — noting that you can make any moment in your life a vacation by learning how to live in solitude, and I’m embracing that ethos this summer. Here’s his mission statement not only for this essay, but for his project in full:

Now since we are undertaking to live, without companions, by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves; let us loose ourselves from the bonds which tie us to others; let us gain power over ourselves to live really and truly alone—and of doing so in contentment.

Given that Montaigne stuck to this stance throughout his essays, he seems to be fully comfortable with it. I can’t make the same claim. My contentment with solitude comes and goes. Perhaps I am not yet at a place in life where I can fully embrace this Montaigne thought:

We have lived quite enough for others: let us live at least this tail-end of life for ourselves. Let us bring our thoughts and reflections back to ourselves and to our own well-being.

I struggle with this concept of living enough for others. My professional success has depended on my ability to form empathetic ties to the people I write for, to get in their heads to a certain extent. Being a father is about carrying around a different type of empathy. Continuing this same paragraph, Montaigne notes how difficult this course can be:

Preparing securely for our own withdrawal is no light matter: it gives us enough trouble without introducing other concerns. Since God grants us leave to make things ready for our departure, let us prepare for it; let us pack up our bags and take leave of our company in good time; let us disentangle ourselves from those violent traps which pledge us to other things and which distance us from ourselves. We must unknot those bonds and, from this day forth, love this or that but marry nothing but ourselves. That is to say, let the rest be ours, but not so glued and joined to us that it cannot be pulled off without tearing away a piece of ourselves, skin and all. The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself.

This is a continuing journey for me, learning to live entirely to myself and my values. I am prone to fall under the influence of people and take on their path as my own. Over time, this can lead to resentment in me, even though the choice was mine all along. Blaming others for my loss of agency is a terrible habit I need to break. This is a common practice in life — and apparently has been for centuries — as Montaigne noted:

Why do we go against Nature’s laws and make our happiness a slave in the power of others?

What is the ultimate aim of Montaigne’s quest? It is not to win the acclaim and approval of others — it is to attain a level of personal satisfaction with the quest itself:

Remember the man who was asked why he toiled so hard at an art which few could ever know about: “For me a few are enough; one is enough; having none is enough.” He spoke the truth. You and one companion are audience enough for each other; so are you for yourself. For you, let the crowd be one, and one be a crowd. It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness. We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs. You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself. Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there. It would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself, if you did not know how to govern yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society. Make yourself into a man in whose sight you would not care to walk awry; feel shame for yourself and respect for yourself,—let your mind dwell on examples of honour (Cicero) until you do, always imagine that you are with Cato, Phocion and Aristides, in whose sight the very madmen would hide their faults; make them recorders of your inmost thoughts, which, going astray, will be set right again out of reverence for them.

If this essay had appeared in a later volume of Montaigne’s writings, its sincerity could be questioned. He ended up achieving remarkable success for this project of and for one. I don’t believe he ended up scuffing out the tracks to his lair either.

But I am left with some nagging questions. Is it ever truly acceptable to just walk away from the world? Can one retain friendships while dwelling in solitude? Can a project like Montaigne’s be accomplished halfway, by building those boundaries that contemporary therapists like to extol so frequently?

Render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s perhaps. Do what you need to do to earn a living, to keep friends, to nurture your family. But wall off the rest for something that is uniquely yours. When I’m in reflective/solitary mode, that all sounds very appealing. But I know too well that this mood shall pass.

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