Starting over is on my mind these days, because someday we will return to the world again and it will look different. I can already see it in the faces of people when I need to shop. The curiosity about others is fading, replaced with fear. What harm could you bring me? How much distance will you put between us? This is the new social order. Will it disappear once we are allowed to resume normal social interaction? I am not so sure.

Fears of others have always been there, we have just chosen to ignore the risks. But now that we are heightened to the dangers of hand shakes and close contact, who is to say that it won’t develop into a new social norm. There are societies that tolerate more and less social closeness than ours. The flexibility of human beings is well established, and we cannot be sure than any culture can undergo a shock like this one and leave it unscathed.

Montaigne believed that this kind of adaptation was healthy.  What bothered him was our constant clinging to youth and wish to begin again, as if nothing had happened

The greatest flaw which they find in our nature is that our desires are for ever renewing their youth. We are constantly beginning our lives all over again. Our zeal and our desire should sometimes smell of old age. We already have one foot in the grave yet our tastes and our pursuits are always just being born.

I don’t accept having one foot in the grave, but I do agree that beginnings should seem harder as we get older. We know all too well with age where the last mistakes led. We should have some fear of repeating the same mistakes and being in the same hole.  Or worse, we should especially fear ignoring the things that lead to repeated mistakes, root causes that we often ignore as we latch onto simpler reasons for failure.

Our greatest error is taking our basic health for granted, assuming that a state of wellness can be maintained forever simply by keeping to the same routines. In reality, we need to place health in place of special honor in our lives:

Health is precious. It is the only thing to the pursuit of which it is truly worth devoting not only our time but our sweat, toil, goods and life itself. Without health all pleasure, scholarship and virtue lose their lustre and fade away. The most firmly supported arguments against this that Philosophy seeks to impress on us can be answered by this hypothesis: imagine Plato struck down by epilepsy or apoplexy; then challenge him to get any help from all those noble and splendid faculties of his soul.

The most painful beginnings will be for those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. Next will be for those who have been grievously damaged — those who developed chronic illnesses, lost their job or business, or their home. Some families and friendships will not survive the stress.  Workplace resentments will form based on the inconsistent workloads being carried — and will be exacerbated as companies continue to scale back as they recover. We will come out on the other side of this different from how we went in.

It takes resilience and optimism to just pick up and restart. What we often do not understand is that it takes just as much resilience and optimism to keep carrying on as the ground shifts under us. Some things will have to remain the same, but the terms will change. We all have to prepare ourselves for new world, even when it looks exactly like the old.

 

I’m just in a mood today, and I don’t care who knows. So I’m going to pick a fight with Montaigne on the subject of anger. I’ll let Michel go first:

Consider how even in vain and trivial pursuits such as chess or tennis matches, the keen and burning involvement of a rash desire at once throws your mind into a lack of discernment and your limbs into confusion: you daze yourself and tangle yourself up. A man who reacts with greater moderation towards winning or losing is always ‘at home’: the less he goads himself on, and the less passionate he is about the game, the more surely and successfully he plays it.

Montaigne obviously never watched tennis in the 1970s, when all at once, bad manners became the norm and knowing how to manipulate your opponent emotionally became just as important as a powerful return of serve. The antics of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and others proved that the converse of Montaigne’s argument is also true — one who learns to act with the least moderation and use it as self motivation can gain power over the moderate player inflexible enough to adapt to the changed mental environment. But back to Montaigne:

The Laws of Nature teach us what our just needs are. The wise first tell us that no man is poor by Nature’s standards and that, by opinion’s standards, every man is; they then finely distinguish between desires coming from Nature and those coming from the unruliness of our thoughts: those whose limits we can see are hers; those which flee before us and whose end we can never reach are our own. To cure poverty of possessions is easy: poverty of soul, impossible.

Oh yeah, sure, Montaigne. Let the laws of nature tell me that I don’t need a guitar after mine was stolen in January. You know what real soul poverty is? Being stuck in a goddamn house for weeks at a time without an acoustic guitar! But please, Michel, continue:

If what Nature precisely and basically requires for the preservation of our being is too little (and how little it is and how cheaply life can be sustained cannot be better expressed than by the following consideration: that it is so little that it escapes the grasp and blows of Fortune) then let us allow ourselves to take a little more: let us still call ‘nature’ the habits and endowments of each one of us; let us appraise ourselves and treat ourselves by that measure: let us stretch our appurtenances and our calculations as far as that.

Excuse me, but don’t you live in a castle? With manservants? Come on. I’m stuck in a house with seven people. Where’s my parapet to escape to most of the day, Michel? Where’s my parapet?!? But back to him:

I cannot get so deeply and totally involved. When my convictions make me devoted to one faction, it is not with so violent a bond that my understanding becomes infected by it. During the present confusion in this State of ours my own interest has not made me fail to recognize laudable qualities in our adversaries nor reprehensible ones among those whom I follow.

Oh that’s so noble of you, MdM. Let me introduce you to Donald Trump’s America, where the whole damn country is falling apart before our eyes and his cultist supporters still refuse to admit that we would be doing at least a little better than the daily carnage of COVID deaths and 25% unemployment with any sensible, non-psychotic human in charge of things. Let me apologize for devoting myself to a faction in this environment. But go on:

How much easier it is never to get in than to get yourself out! We should act contrary to the reed which, when it first appears, throws up a long straight stem but afterwards, as though it were exhausted and had lost its wind, makes several dense nodules, as so many respites which indicate that it no longer has its original vigour and drive.We must rather begin gently and coolly, saving our breath for the encounter and our vigorous thrusts for finishing the job off. In their beginnings it is we who guide affairs and hold them in our power; but once they are set in motion, it is they which guide us and sweep us along and we who have to follow.

Ok, here I have to admit you make a good point, I’m tired of this pointless spat too. Say goodnight to your cat. Wish the manservants plenty of social space between them. Don’t demand that your wife to have sex standing up if she doesn’t want to.  And have a good night, with hopes of better moods for us all tomorrow.

I’ve missed nothing more in the last month than having conversations. And by that, I don’t just mean the deep meaningful ones, I also count the two minute chat at the counter as I order coffee or the five minutes with a trainer before a gym class begins. I used to disdain these encounters as small talk, but I have learned in recent years to use every opportunity to make them more meaningful. So I try to remember to ask the barista about how her boyfriend’s play is going or a fellow writer in one of my gym classes if he’s had any interesting projects of late. I enjoy any opportunity to turn the focus of conversation away from myself.

Living in forced seclusion has put the focus back on me, both in what I write here and what I can freely talk about. I feel like I engage in therapy mostly just to have someone to talk to who might have a different point of view about what I’m thinking. That at least makes all of the focus on me palatable. This past week, I have been interviewing therapists, which feels like endless rounds of repetitive “who I am” storytelling. I finally began with a new therapist full time today.  I have been doing so much monologuing about me lately that I just threw out normally traumatic tales as if I were describing my breakfast routine. Maybe it’s a good thing. As Montaigne wrote

You never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are.

Montaigne may have retreated to a life of solitude, but he never lost his love for lively talk:

To my taste the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.

It can be. Honestly, I find that most of my conversations these days are done over text and I’m getting a little tired of it. I miss hearing voices and noticing how body language and words can misalign. I am not a speechwriter and trainer for nothing — I revel in the spoken words. Although, I must admit, I have become more hesitant as I age to engage in thorny discussions. For Montaigne, these were the conversations most worthy of our time:

In conversation the most painful quality is perfect harmony.

I would contend that perfect harmony is impossible in any conversation. Even someone trying his or her best to agree completely is usually having an internal debate about comportment and authenticity that is sure to come out in style or tone. I find this tendency towards collusion and placation the most difficult part of conversation, both in others and myself. But like most people, I dislike the open combat of difficult conversations

So contradictory judgements neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected: we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. Whenever we meet opposition, we do not look to see if it is just but how we can get out of it, rightly or wrongly. Instead of welcoming arms we stretch out our claws.

This is an interesting statement from Montaigne because at first it makes him seem superior to most of us, but dig into it a bit and you can see his own internal struggle that makes it revealing. In the abstract, sure, it’s a great thing to be awoken to errant judgments. I often find myself hours or days after a lively discussion changing my mind on a subject when I have time to fully absorb the discussion and consider the opposing point of view.  But this rarely happens in the heat of the discussion precisely for the two reasons Montaigne raises here: strong oppositional ideas can often come across as lectures and a heated debate can easily lead to claws coming out.

I do not know whether I gravitated towards debate in high school and college as a way to rationalize the regular arguments of my parents from childhood or if debate was a continuation of the oral combat style. I do know that I developed in my teen years a vicious style of verbal attack that won me many debate rounds and tended to scare away people from entering into battles with me. The older I get, the more it all seems  maladaptive and my more conciliatory speechwriting persona has certainly become dominant. Montaigne would agree that this is progress:

In debating we are taught merely how to refute arguments; the result of each side’s refuting the other is that the fruit of our debates is the destruction and annihilation of the truth. That is why Plato in his Republic prohibits that exercise to ill-endowed minds not suited to it.

Montaigne believes that conversation is a better salve for conflicts because it forces equality between people. They have to agree to meet each other on a common level so that they can describe the differences between their worlds and points of view. This helps allay what is potentially the most dangerous impulse we have towards other people — projection.

Our eyes see nothing behind us. A hundred times a day when we go mocking our neighbor we are really mocking ourselves; we abominate in others those faults which are most manifestly our own, and, with a miraculous lack of shame and perspicacity, are astonished by them.

What I find especially fascinating in Montaigne’s view of conversation, however, is the way he sees even this projection as a potential source of self insight, if we able to depersonalize the dispute and see how the other person in the conversation is providing a gift of self discovery:

When our judgement brings a charge against another man over a matter then in question, it must not exempt us from an internal judicial inquiry. It is a work of charity for a man who is unable to weed out a defect in himself to try, nevertheless, to weed it out in another in whom the seedling may be less malignant and stubborn.

This, to me, makes a really strong case for voicing any dispute you might have with another, not to punish the person who made the supposed transgression, but to examine whether you personally might be responsible for a similar act in another instance and could possible learn from seeing the transgression in another context. In other words, the education that takes place in charging another with a violation is yours, because it allows you to empathize with the transgressor and feel the pain you may have caused, even trivially, in others you may have harmed.

In the end, it is flexibility that brings us the greatest opportunity to reach others and to be influenced by them. It is fine to state opinions and feelings strongly and even to become heated when making your point. But ultimately, there is no point entering a conversation if you prejudge your ability to be influenced by it:

The surest proof of animal-stupidity is ardent obstinacy of opinion. Is there anything more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious, than a donkey?

 

 

Montaigne was a strong believer in taking indirect routes to pain management, both physical and mental. Kidney stones plagued him most of his adult life and he had numerous (quack?) remedies for diverting his attention from them.

I actually shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. For roughly six years, I was on the medication Lexapro to manage anxiety. For at least three of those years, I really wanted to stop taking the drug, unsure if it was doing me any good and sure that it was making me lethargic, apathetic and fat.  I tried weaning off the medication several times and once succeeded in exiting for a short time — only to be hit with horrible delayed onset withdrawal symptoms.

What finally got me off Lexapro in the spring of 2018 was a Montaigne-like diversion — I decided to quit the medication and simultaneously begin an extremely restricting almost no carb diet. I was so chronically hungry and miserable that I couldn’t tell whether my body was craving bread or meds.  And it worked. It kicked off an extremely virtuous cycle in my life where I loss all the Lexapro weight and more and was able to refocus my career.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Montaigne didn’t just see diversion as a tool for getting past physical pain, he also saw it as a means of alleviating psychic pain, such as grief or heartbreak:

If your passion in love is too powerful, disperse it, they say; and they say true, for I have often tied it with profit. Break it up into various desires, of which one may be ruler and master, if you will; but for fear it may dominate and tyrannize you, weaken it, check it by diddling and diverting it. And see to it in good time, for fear it may be troublesome to you if once it has seized you.

This is rather dangerous advice — Montaigne is basically saying don’t get too attached and go find a sexual diversion if necessary to keep yourself from being swept away by a passion out of your control. And he throws in a couple quotes from Persius and Lucretius that make it plain this is his intention. (They’re actually so explicit that I’ll spare you.)

But Montaigne sees love as a potential form of diversion too:

I was once afflicted with an overpowering grief, for one of my nature, and even more justified than powerful. I might well have been destroyed by it, if I had trusted simply to my own powers.  Needing some violent diversion to distract me from it, by art and study, I made myself fall in love, in which my youth helped me. Love solaced me and withdrew me from the affliction caused by friendship.

And then Montaigne walks into my backyard and praises the orators for their ability to elicit emotions that they do not feel themselves, saying that this is a most useful skill that could be put to good use

The orator (says Rhetoric) when acting out his case will be moved by the sound of his own voice and by his own feigned indignation; he will allow himself to be taken in by the emotion he is portraying. By acting out his part as in a play he will stamp on himself the essence of true grief and then transmit it to the judges (who are even less involved in the case than he is); it is like those mourners who are rented for funerals and who sell their tears and grief by weight and measure: for even though they only borrow their signs of grief, it is nevertheless certain that by habitually adopting the right countenance they often get carried away and find room inside themselves for real melancholy.

Plato was angered by these rhetorical tricks, which he considered a tool of sophistry, but Montaigne is far more accepting of it:

Quintilian says that he had known actors to be so involved in playing the part of a mourner that they were still shedding tears after they had returned home; and of himself he says that, having accepted to arouse grief in somebody else, he had so wedded himself to that emotion that he found himself surprised not only by tears but by pallor of face and by the stoop of a man truly weighed down by grief.

But isn’t there artifice to this? Why turn away from the sorrow and genuine pain and seek out either diversions to it or histrionic, even insincere, expressions of it?  Montaigne  sees something important in these kinds of expression:

Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth. Listen though to our soul triumphing over her wretched body and its frailty, as the butt of all indispositions and degradations. A fat lot of reason she has to talk! “O wretched clay which Prometheus first moulded! How unwisely he wrought! By his art he arranged the body but saw not the mind. The right way would have been to start off with the soul.” — Propertius.

In other words, it is in our idealism that we find our true expression, not in the mundane details of life. The aspirations that we give voice to in these moment of rhetorical excess speak to our deepest yearnings and should not be dismissed as mere stories. They are, in fact, the world as we wish to see it and, therefore, the one we most comfortably inhabit even when the world of harsh reality continues to intrude.

I do realize that I have not actually addressed the point implied in my headline — what is a person to do when harsh reality snaps away many of the most pleasant diversions available? If you were to follow Montaigne’s lead, I would say that it is a time to go even deeper within and not fear seeming foolish or ridiculous.  In fact, it is a time to treasure your ridiculousness.  This is where the world of your dreams and ideals live and they may be the best friends you have as the real world continues to draw in tightly.

 

 

The stats tell me that no one reads my blog on Mondays, which makes this the perfect opportunity to drop an essay about sex while no one is looking. Montaigne was considered a groundbreaking writer on the subject, one who introduced many risqué subjects into French literature long before it became synonymous with bawdiness.  His essay On Some Verses of Virgil is especially famous (or perhaps notorious) for its subject matter.

Some of it is really funny.  Such as this:

Foods taste better when they are dear. Think how far kisses, the form of greeting peculiar to our nation, have had their grace cheapened by availability: Socrates thought they were most powerful and dangerous at stealing our hearts. Ours is an unpleasant custom which wrongs the ladies who have to lend their lips to any man, however ugly, who comes with three footmen in his train. “Cold leaden snot drips from his dog-like conk and bedews his beard. Why, I would a hundred times rather go and lick his arse” (Martial.)

I also like this little disconnected thought of his:

In short we bait and lure women by every means. We are constantly stimulating and overheating their imagination. And then we gripe about it.

Which isn’t to say that I admit to doing this. But I don’t exactly deny it either — I simply have no idea. I am both very fortunate to get along with women easily and very unfortunate to have no clue what they actually think of me most of the time. Perhaps it is better that way. I get the sense that Montaigne had a similar characteristic:

It pains me that my Essays merely serve ladies as a routine piece of furniture — something to put into their salon. This chapter will get me into their private drawing-rooms; and I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savor.

Speaking of which, I spent nearly the full day today interviewing prospective new therapists, which of course in my case meant talking to four women. I have had enough therapy to know that I’m simply incapable of talking about anything important with another man. If I want to argue about politics or debate who was the best relief pitcher of the 1980s, a man will suit my purposes.  But if the goal is to figure out what emotions are elicited via 24/7 cloistering with my family, I have to speak to a woman about it, even if she offers no opinion in return.

It was an exhausting day, recalling many of the same stories multiple times. I don’t enjoy presenting myself as needing help, which Montaigne would understand:

I loathe a morose and gloomy mind which glides over life’s pleasures by holds on to its misfortunes and feeds on them — like flies which cannot get a hold on to anything highly polished and smooth and so cling to rough and rugged places and stay there; or like leeches which crave to suck only bad blood. I have moreover bidden myself to dare to write whatever I dare to do: I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish. The worst of my deeds of qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it.

Now that is a place where I would like to dwell and perhaps it is the only reason that I remain in therapy — because I have stories that I can, sometimes freely, sometimes reluctantly, share in that room and nowhere else. Perhaps it is cowardice.  Perhaps I just don’t like being chided by loved ones for revealing too much about myself in public forums.

My mother, for example, knows that if she really wants to dig into me painfully, she can just drop a line such as “it’s really too bad that you’ve never written a book.” I’ve never had the heart to reply that my reluctance might be to spare her feelings. But then again, it’s highly unlikely that she’d actually read it. But note to anyone else wishing to give voice to similar opinions about my writing: I don’t really need to hear my mother’s voice in stereo.

Well, since we’re deep in the psychodynamic muck by this point, might as well throw out another piece of Montaigne controversy:

A love-affair is based on pleasure alone: and in truth its pleasure is more exciting, lively and keen: a pleasure set ablaze by difficulties. It must have stabs of pain and anguish. Without darts and flames of desire Cupid is Cupid no longer.

I recently had the “pleasure” of discovering a type of relationship filled with no sexual pleasure and only fleeting liveliness, but all of the stabs of pain and anguish of an actual affair. The disciples of Freud call it transference and for me, it felt like taking every close relationship I’ve had in my life and compressing it into a Super Ball that was bounced off my head repeatedly, much like in Chinese water torture. By the end of my three month game of human paddleball, I was enmeshed in what felt like the worst dating relationship  in my life with someone billing BCBS $135 per session and me kicking in an extra $15. The worst part is, now that the torture is over, I’m still mourning the loss.

Ok, Montaigne, that last paragraph was for you.  Try to call me a coward now.

Anyway, moving on … despite his earlier boasting, Montaigne agrees that there are some subjects we really need to keep to ourselves:

Wise men keep secret both the sweets of marriage and its bitterness. For a talkative man like me, of all the distressing disadvantages of marriage one of the principal is the fact that custom has made it indecorous and obnoxious to discuss with anyone whatever all that we know and feel about it.

This is still true to an extent for men, but certainly not for women. Women seem to speak of all aspects of their marriage freely and openly with their friends and have a hard time believing that we really aren’t going into as much detail about them when we gather to play sports or engage in other pointless manly acts.

Montaigne in his old age finally felt comfortable writing about sex and love, probably because he saw it slipping away from him:

I have absolutely no other passion but love to keep me going. What covetousness, ambition, quarrels and lawsuits do for men who, like me, have no other allotted task, love would do more suitably: it would restore me to vigilance, sober behavior, graceful manners and care about my person; love would give new strength to my features so that the distortions of old age, pitiful and misshapen, should not come and disfigure them; it would bring me back to wise and healthy endeavors by which I cover make myself better esteemed and better loved, banishing from my mind all sense of hopelessness about itself and about its application, while bringing it to know itself again.

It’s one of Montaigne’s most beautiful thoughts and it touches on some of the reasons why I am engaged in this project. It is, in many ways, an undirected, purposeless act of love. There is rationality in every post, but a touch of madness as well, which Montaigne would find completely appropriate:

Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind. I address no apologies to myself; were I to do so I would apologize for those apologies more than anything else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picking up on yesterday’s theme, Montaigne had much to say about the connection between melancholy and anger. Today it is common to consider depression to be anger turned back upon itself. But in Montaigne’s time, this was a remarkable insight:

Another great man boasted to me of the gentle correctness of his manners, which was truly unique. I replied that, especially in one of so eminent a rank and on whom all eyes were turned, it was indeed something to present oneself always moderate to the world, but that the main thing was to provide inwardly for oneself: to my taste a man was not managing his business well if he was eating his insides out. I am afraid that he was doing just that, so as to maintain the mask of that outward appearance of correctness.

This also harkens back to Montaigne’s view of moderation. It underscores just how radical his moderation project is — it’s not even possible to sublimate the passions, you have to conquer them completely within or they will return to do damage.

By hiding our choler we drive it into our bodies: as Diogenes said to Demosthenes, who kept drawing back further inside so as not to be spotted in a tavern: ‘The more you draw back, the further in you go!’ I would advise you to give your valet a rather unseasonable slap on the cheek rather than to torture your mind so as to put on an appearance of wisdom; I would rather make an exhibition of my passions than brood over them to my cost: express them, vent them, and they grow weaker; it is better to let them jab outside us than be turned against us: “All defects are lighter in the open:… they are most pernicious when concealed beneath a pretence of soundness.” — Seneca

This seems contradictory to me. Montaigne made a strong case that many of our strongest passions, especially the aggressive ones, are irrational reactions invited in by mood or physical sensations. This being the case, you’d think we would be wise to ignore angry thoughts, not express them  But there is a subtle difference. If you can let angry thought sit until a mood passes and it disappears, then it is better off left unsaid. But if this thought turns to brooding, then it has done internal harm and might be better off expressed. How it is expressed, of course, is important.

Writing comes easily and freely to me, which makes it all too simple for me express strong feelings through email. Over the years, I’ve learned that this is one of the worst ways to express anger for several reasons. First, people generally do not like email. They associate it with work and obligation. Adding emotional work to the medium does not improve matters. In addition, email is permanent and too easily shared, creating context and tone issues. Finally, even the greatest email ever composed can be destroyed by one ill considered line or phrase. It is in my best interests to use email sparingly, but my passions sometime get the best of me

Montaigne also advises to keep anger focused and specific, otherwise it is remembered purely for the anger and not the content:

I advise those of my family who have the right to show their anger, firstly to be sparing of their choler and not to scatter it abroad no matter what the cost, since that thwarts its action and its weight; even the anger you vent on a servant for a theft makes no impression then: it is the same anger he has seen you use against him a hundred times already, for a glass badly rinsed or a stool left out of place. Secondly, let them not get angry in the void; let them see that their reprimand falls to the one they are complaining about, for as a rule they are yelling before he has answered their summons; and they go on doing so for ages after he has gone.

I would not say that I have a general problem with anger, but I am still working on how to use it productively. My tendency is to not use it often, but when I finally feel the need to lash out (when it takes on that brooding quality Montaigne mentioned,) I tend to scare the hell out of people. Much of this is simple contrast. A usually calm person seems like a totally different human when enraged, while someone who vents often (think Joe Pesci in ‘GoodFellas’) can even seem humorous when out of control.

But before you conclude that Montaigne has this all figured out, notice how he closes On Anger — with a typical Montaigne touch. He doesn’t explicitly say “what do I know?” here, but it is heavily implied:

One more word to close this chapter. Aristotle says that choler sometimes serves virtue and valour as a weapon. That is most likely; nevertheless those who deny it have an amusing reply: it must be some new-fangled weapon; for we wield the other weapons: that one wields us; it is not our hand that guides it: it guides our hand; it gets a hold on us: not we on it.

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.

This week I have veered off the path of solitude by feet here and yards there. Now I feel the need to take the project fully off trail. Friendship has been on my mind lately. It is something we’re all craving now. We can still work in our homes. If we are lucky, we are surrounded by family or companions, or at least our animal friends. But the emptiest spaces for many of us now are for the people with whom, to paraphrase Lana Del Rey, we miss doing nothing most of all.

Being separated from friends now also makes me think of those I’ve lost along the way. I think of my dear friend Chip, who died four years ago. I think of people I’ve lost touch with or who I decided had become too much work to keep close. I remember an important friendship with a woman I once foolishly (decades ago) threw away by half heartedly pursuing her romantically, and even, in a strange way, my father, who was an utter failure to me as an authority figure and role model, but oddly enough filled a vital role in my life for many years by being someone much more akin to a friend.

Montaigne claimed to have a special talent for friendship. I cannot claim the same. For too many years, I was too careless with all but my closest relationships and figured I could always find replacements. As I grow older, friendships have become more important to me than all other types of relationships, and I hope I have learned from my many mistakes.

I have probably “friended” more people on social media this week than ever before. Also, I have begun re-evaluating relationship, past and present, realizing that it’s the elements of friendship — of shared laughs, outrages, and enthusiasms — that endure even the bitterest memories, and if only humanity had a natural process for returning people to their proper roles after others were deemed a poor fit, we might all find ourselves a little more loved, or at least less heartbroken.

Montaigne had so many beautiful words about friendship that he doesn’t require the lengthy setup I just gave him. I’ll let this paragraph speak for itself:

Common friendships can be shared. In one friend one can love beauty; in another, affability; in another, generosity; in another, a fatherly affection; in another, a brotherly one; and so on. But in this friendship love takes possession of the soul and reigns there with full sovereign sway: that cannot possibly be duplicated. If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something which it was useful for the other to know, how would you get out of that? The unique, highest friendship loosens all other bonds. That secret which I have sworn to reveal to no other, I can reveal without perjury to him who is not another: he is me. It is a great enough miracle for oneself to be redoubled: they do not realize how high a one it is when they talk of its being tripled. The uttermost cannot be matched. If anyone suggests that I can love each of two friends as much as the other, and that they can love each other and love me as much as I love them, he is turning into a plural, into a confraternity, that which is the most ‘one’, the most bound into one. One single example of it is moreover the rarest thing to find in the world.

Montaigne is writing here about Etienne de La Boetie. His friendship with La Boetie was so important, and Montaigne’s grief so deep, that you could read his entire project as an effort to continue their conversations after death. I cannot claim to have one single friendship that fills up as much space as the Montaigne/La Boetie diad. For me, that role seems to have shifted through time and even across roles. At times it was filled by my father, my wife, my mentor, perhaps even by a therapist.

What’s interesting to me is that, in many cases, I would not even consider these bonds to be friendship at the time they were strongest. And yet, when a relationship disappears, fades or destructs, it is the friendship elements that I have missed the most and they have been the parts of my life I have looked most readily to fill.

Montaigne did not believe that such a friendship was possible between fathers and sons:

From children to fathers it is more a matter of respect; friendship, being fostered by mutual confidences, cannot exist between them because of their excessive inequality; it might also interfere with their natural obligations: for all the secret thoughts of fathers cannot be shared with their children for fear of begetting an unbecoming intimacy; neither can those counsels and admonitions which constitute one of the principal obligations of friendship be offered by children to their fathers. There have been peoples where it was the custom for children to kill their fathers and others for fathers to kill their children to avoid the impediment which each can constitute for the other: one depends naturally on the downfall of the other.

Montaigne is not wrong here. It is true that my father was not able to share secret thoughts with me. To be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted him to do so. On the other hand, I readily offered my father counsel and admonitions. By the time we formed a closer bond later in his life, all hierarchy had been obliterated. He readily accepted my role as an equal or better. In friendship, I rediscovered elements of my father that had been lost since early childhood. 

It is strange that a female therapist recently evoked some of these same feelings in me, which left me bewildered during and after our time together. She wasn’t experienced or skilled enough to look beyond the transference affection that I was expressing towards her to find my genuine yearning. However, I now see that the grief I have experienced recently was for my father, both the loss of his companionship and the deeper regret of missing out on a guiding force in my life, a role my father could not or would not play.

Friendships give us the opportunity to recreate families to the lives we have chosen. Some of us choose to keep friends that remind us of simpler times in life. Others gather new ones as their interests change in time. I prefer the latter course, while doing the best I can to find ways to fit old friends into the new pattern. I do not always succeed. 

If it seems like I am just riffing off of Montaigne today and not really engaging him, that’s because it’s true. He too is an old friend, and I no longer feel obliged to follow him like another substitute guiding force in my life. We can now argue productively or even hold two conversations at once.  Friends can do that. Friends don’t make too much of a bad day, they eagerly turn the page and get back to the important work of doing little more than being there. 

Two days ago, I wrote about Montaigne’s eloquent call for taking the middle path in life and avoiding the edges and boundaries. Today I want to dig a bit deeper into what Montaigne means by moderation, because there’s a fascinating oxymoron within it — Montaigne is a moderation zealot.

By that I mean, if you take his ideas about moderation to their natural conclusion — and he does, very specifically — you end up endorsing behaviors that seem nothing like the accepted mainstream. But let me ease into that point at Montaigne’s speed.  Here again is his main thesis:

I like natures which are temperate and moderate. Even when an immoderate zeal for the good does not offend me it still stuns me and makes it difficult for me to give it a Christian name. Neither Pausanias’ mother (who made the first accusation against her son and who brought the first stone to wall him up for his death) nor Posthumius (the Dictator who had his own son put to death because he had been carried away by youthful ardour and had fought – successfully – slightly ahead of his unit) seem ‘just’ to me: they seem odd. I neither like to advise nor to imitate a virtue so savage and so costly: the archer who shoots beyond his target misses it just as much as the one who falls short; my eyes trouble me as much when I suddenly come up into a strong light as when I plunge into darkness.

This is all very easy to understand. Extreme actions, even when backed by virtuous goals, are troubling to Montaigne. He sees philosophy itself, when taken too literally, as equally dangerous

(T)aken in moderation philosophy is pleasant and useful, but it can eventually lead to a man’s becoming vicious and savage, contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself – a man whose ears you could box with impunity …. in its excesses philosophy enslaves our native freedom and with untimely subtleties makes us stray from that beautiful and easy path that Nature has traced for us.

But what is that beautiful and easy path that nature traces? Here is where Montaigne gets radical. He believes that the moral and legal constraints of marriage are a setup and if we actually follow the rules, we do grave harm to ourselves and our spouses:

I want to teach husbands the following – if, that is, there are any who are still too eager:  even those very pleasures which they enjoy when lying with their wives are reproved if not kept within moderation; you can fall into license and excess in this as in matters unlawful. All those shameless caresses which our first ardor suggests to us in our sex-play are not only unbecoming to our wives but harmful to them when practiced on them. At least let them learn shamelessness from some other hand! They are always wide enough awake when we need them. Where this is concerned what I have taught has been natural and uncomplicated.

Maybe we need a proxy debate between Montaigne and Esther Perel. Montaigne seems to be endorsing Perel’s “mating in captivity” thesis, while rejecting her prescription for breaking out of it. He certainly would not agree that spouses should look to bring eroticism into long-term relationships and says so explicitly:

Marriage is a bond both religious and devout: that is why the pleasure we derive from it must be serious, restrained and intermingled with some gravity; its sensuousness should be somewhat wise and dutiful. Its chief end is procreation, so there are those who doubt whether it is right to seek intercourse when we have no hope of conception, as when the woman is pregnant or too old. For Plato that constitutes a kind of of homicide. There are whole peoples, including the Mahometans, who abominate intercourse with women who are pregnant, and others still during monthly periods. Zenobia admitted her husband for a single discharge; once that was over she let him run wild throughout her pregnancy, giving him permission to begin again only once it was over. There was a fine and noble-hearted marriage for you!

I am less interested here in the alternative lifestyle angle that Montaigne is suggesting here (which actually puts him more in line with Perel’s most recent work than the previous paragraph suggests) and more interested in how all of this thought springs from Montaigne’s embrace of moderation. When we think of moderation in contemporary terms, we think of social norms, splitting the difference and taming our most aggressive impulses.  But Montaigne isn’t saying that at all. He argues that there are irrational and animal forces within us that inevitably push us towards act of folly. Pretending that they can be channeled in a socially acceptable way, for Montaigne, is just as immoderate as acting out on those passions in explicitly disallowed ways. And just in case you don’t get his point, he cites some historical examples, such as this one:

The kings of Persia did invite their wives as guests to their festivities, but once the wine had seriously inflamed them so that they had to let their lust gallop free, they packed them off to their quarters so as not to make them accomplices of their immoderate appetites, sending instead for other women whom they were not bound to respect.

Montaigne uses these illustrations to argue against literal marital law and ethics, but he is not explicitly endorsing the actions of the Persian kings.  Here is how he wraps up the point:

In short there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate. But, seriously though, is not Man a wretched creature? Because of his natural attributes he is hardly able to taste one single pleasure pure and entire: yet he has to go and curtail even that by arguments; he is not wretched enough until he has increased his wretchedness by art and assiduity.

“The wretched paths of Fortune we make worse by art.” — Propertius

Human wisdom is stupidly clever when used to diminish the number and sweetness of such pleasures as do belong to us, just as she employs her arts with diligence and fitness when she brings comb and cosmetics to our ills and makes us feel them less. If I had founded a school of philosophy I would have taken another route – a more natural one, that is to say a true, convenient and inviolate one; and I might have made myself strong enough to know when to stop.

That last note is important, because Montaigne is not suggesting that we freely give in to these wild forces and animal pleasures, he’s actually suggesting that we train ourselves to know when to stop, even if we have already created an ethos that would make those actions permissible.

It is difficult to follow Montaigne’s path and still lead a passionate, fulfilling life. Maybe it is not a path anyone under a certain age should attempt, it could be purely for those taking the final turn in life.  I will have more to say on that subject in the next essay.

Having squeezed some insights about mental health and moderation out of Montaigne’s closing essay On Experience yesterday, I have decided to stay on that piece to discuss physical health today. It is basically all that anyone can think and talk about now. The news about the COVID-19 pandemic grows more grim every day. With more information about the disease also comes confusion — witness the proliferation of stories about “atypical symptoms” of the disease that will make anyone feeling under the weather frightened that they too have the dreaded coronavirus.

I have fallen into this category, I am sorry to say. Two days ago, I started having some gastrointestinal issues while running. I have since picked up some malaise and muscle aches. I also feel a headache coming on. Normally, I would just say that I caught a stomach bug, which brought on some dehydration, which made my muscles feel a little more sore than usual post run and could trigger a headache. I am not running a fever nor have I developed a cough. In short, by the CDC description of COVID-19 symptoms, I shouldn’t worry. But those stories ….

We are being told every day to act as if we have the virus, so I suppose my actions going forward shouldn’t change much at all.  I have been tethered to the house for three weeks now. I believe that I have followed the best advice in keeping distance, avoiding physical contact, washing hands, and not touching my face. But who knows — I have made many trips to Mariano’s and Target, perhaps I caught something when I grabbed an item off the shelf or when I used the payment card processor.

At first glance, it does not appear that Montaigne would have taken too well to developing new social distancing health habits:

My regimen is the same in sickness as in health: I use the same bed, same timetable, same food and same drink. I add absolutely nothing except for increasing and decreasing the measure depending on my strength and appetite. Health means for me the maintaining of my usual route without let or hindrance. I can see that my illness has blocked one direction for me: if I put trust in doctors they will turn me away from the other, so there I am off my route either by destiny or their Art; there is nothing that I believe so certainly as this: that carrying on with anything to which I have so long been accustomed cannot do me harm. It is for custom to give shape to our lives, such shape as it will – in such matters it can do anything. It is the cup of Circe which changes our nature as it pleases. How many peoples are there, not three yards from us, who think that our fear of the cool evening air – which ‘so evidently’ harms us – is ludicrous; and our boatsmen and our peasants laugh at us too.

I am not one to pull wisdom from the ancients when it comes to science. Montaigne had many wise things to say about mental health, but his admonition to ignore doctors and stick to routines is just flat out wrong. Neither should we take our lead from the Bible when it comes to most health advice or even a medical textbook from 100 years ago.

In fairness to Montaigne, he did admit that as he grew older, he tempered many of his habits, even if it meant giving up some of his favorite pastimes:

Although I was brought up, as much as is humanly possible, for freedom and flexibility, nevertheless as I grow older I am becoming through indifference more fixed in certain forms (I am past the age for elementary schooling; now old age has no other concern than to look after itself); without my noticing it, custom has imprinted its stamp on me so well where some things are concerned that any departure from it I call excess; and I cannot, without turning it into an assay of myself, sleep by day, eat snacks between meals, nor eat breakfast, nor go to bed after supper without having a considerable gap, say three hours or more, nor have sexual intercourse except before going to sleep, nor do it standing up, nor remain soaking with sweat, nor drink either water or wine unmixed, nor remain for long with my head uncovered, nor have my haircut after dinner. I would feel just as ill at ease without gloves or shirt, or without a wash on leaving the table and when getting up in the morning, or lying in a bed without canopy and curtains, as I would if forced to do without things which really matter.

I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time getting past the sex standing up part.  Believe it or not, this is not the only reference to that position in Montaigne’s essays — he was a fan. I wonder, does that mean both are standing? Because I’m not sure that I’ve ever done that.  Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, health. Montaigne was a believer in habits, but was flexible enough to change when conditions warranted. So maybe, if the crowds swayed him to follow their wisdom, he too could have taken up the social distancing habits and become a proper scold like the rest of us. If he could give up sex standing up, who knows, maybe he would have been ok always wearing a mask in public too.