Melancholia: How Our Physical Health Alters Thoughts

I don’t normally quote sources other than Montaigne in my essays, but today I’m going to lead off with M.E. Screech, a Montaigne scholar and perhaps his most famous English language interpreter. Screech writes that Montaigne first conceived of his essays as a project of quiet, joyful contemplation. That did not last long:

Montaigne’s project of calm study soon went wrong. He fell into an unbalanced melancholy; his spirit galloped off like a runaway horse; his mind, left fallow, produced weeds not grass. The terms he uses are clear: his complexion was unbalanced by an increase of melancholy ‘humour’. His natural ‘complexion’ – the mix of his ‘humours’ – was a stable blend of the melancholic and the sanguine. So that sudden access of melancholy humour (brought on by grief and isolation) was a serious matter, for such an increase in that humour was indeed inimical to his complexion, tipping it towards chagrin, a depression touched by madness. Such chagrin induced rêveries, a term which then, and long afterwards, meant not amiable poetic musings but ravings. (The Rêveries of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, are his ‘ravings’, not his ‘day-dreams’.) So at the outset otium brought Montaigne not happy leisure and wisdom but instability. Writing the Essays was, at one period, a successful attempt to exorcize that demon. To shame himself, he tells us, he decided to write down his thoughts and his rhapsodies. That was the beginning of his Essays.

Montaigne takes the most time to discuss his view of melancholia and how it alters thought processes in An Apology for Raymond Sebond. My first time through the essays, I was a bit overwhelmed by rich material in this essay and the scant amount of time I had to process it, and completely overlooked this fascinating section on mood and reason.

He starts out with a clear, simple thesis: people are fallible and their thoughts are often filled with errors and biases. What goes on inside our bodies often plays a major role in how we perceive events:

Our condition is subject to error: that ought, at very least, to lead us to be more moderate and restrained in making changes. We ought to admit that, no matter what we allow into our understanding, it often includes falsehoods which enter by means of the same tools which have often proved contradictory and misleading. It is not surprising that they should prove contradictory, since they are so easily biased and twisted by the lightest of occurrences. It is certain that our conceptions, our judgement and our mental faculties in general are all affected by the changes and alterations of the body.

I don’t know how others are taking the current state of social distancing and global fear of the COVID-19 virus, but personally, I have felt some periodic melancholy. It has seemed to hit the strongest over weekends, which seem little different from the “work days” before it. And it also seems to me that these dark moods are getting a little darker each week. Montaigne would expect this:

It is not only fevers, potions and great events which upset our judgement: the lightest thing can send it spinning. If a continual fever lays our minds prostrate, you can be sure that a three day fever will have a proportionately bad effect on them, even though we are not aware of it. If apoplexy can dim and totally snuff out our mental vision, you can be sure that even a cold will confuse it. Consequently, there can hardly be found a single hour in an entire lifetime when our powers of judgement are settled in their proper place; our bodies are subject to so many sustained changes and are composed of so many kinds of principles that there is always one pulling the wrong way –I trust the doctors over that! This malady, moreover, is not so easy to detect unless it is extreme and past all cure; Reason always hobbles, limps and walks askew, in falsehood as in truth, so that it is hard to detect when she is mistaken or unhinged.

We like to think of reason as being something solid and unshakable. But to Montaigne, it is always a bit of a facade. We never reach pure reason, we only make our best attempt at all times to be as reasonable as possible.

By reason I always mean that appearance of rationality which each of us constructs for himself – the kind of reason which can characteristically have a thousand contrary reactions to the same subject and is like a tool of malleable lead or wax: it can be stretched, bent or adapted to any size or to any bias; if you are clever, you can learn to mould it.

I have already discussed elsewhere my personal abilities in moulding reason to my needs. It is interesting that while Montaigne was critical of that ability in other essays, here he seems to view a malleable approach to reason with kinder eyes. 

I am tempted here to unload a bit and explain what it is that is bothering me in today’s fit of melancholia, but I think Montaigne is onto something — it honestly does not matter. Often our thoughts in times like these are servants to physical feels and moods that invite the least cordial interpretations and invite anger and resentment. Perhaps it is best in a time like this to acknowledge the mood, observe the thoughts and let them pass without expression. Then I can hope to wake tomorrow with a brighter complexion and less need to express ideas that I could regret later.