Self Knowledge: Solitude and the Return to Self

After focusing briefly on the negative, reactive reasons for withdrawing from the world, Montaigne concluded that same essay On Vanity with the positive, by focusing on what there is to gain by muting the outside world. First, he lets out one of his most endearing bits of self criticism:

Being a citizen of no city, I am very pleased to be one of the noblest city that ever was or ever will be. If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off –though I don’t know.

For some reason, that little “though I don’t know” at the end makes the whole paragraph for me. Montaigne built up a nice little head of steam turning his personal project into a model for a well-lived life, but in typical Montaigne style, refused to own it that way. He never did. It was always idiosyncratic for him, and that’s why he’s so much fun to read. His inanity and nonsense were his alone, and anyone copying his route would be sure to provide their own version of it, not his.

How many of us these days feel like we are inhabiting our own noble city, one with different borders than in our routine lives? Perhaps you have already created your own new routines in this new city. You may even be in contact with people you had “seen” less often in the past, but have now become an essential part of your virtual life. In these circumstances, it is interesting to me that I sought out Montaigne’s comfort. I could have chosen another writer I love and recreated my Montaigne approach — perhaps with a modernist like Nietzsche or Proust, or a postmodernist like DeLillo or Gaddis.  With Montaigne, I never feel like I am on the outside looking in on his work. His thoughts feel more like an extension of my own, even when I disagree with them.

Montaigne moves on to a similar point next:

The common attitude and habit of looking elsewhere than at ourselves has been very useful for our own business. We are an object that fills us with discontent; we see nothing in us but misery and vanity. In order not to dishearten us, Nature has very appropriately thrown the action of our vision outward. We go forward with the current, but to turn our course back toward ourselves is a painful movement: thus the sea grows troubled and turbulent when it is tossed back on itself. Look, says everyone, at the movement of the heavens, look at the public, look at that man’s quarrel, at this man’s pulse, at another man’s will; in short, always look high and low, or to one side, or in front, or behind you.

This is such a powerful point Montaigne is making and it feels especially poignant to me now. Montaigne’s project is very much a solitary pursuit, but there is no question that what it amounts to is akin to psychoanalysis. What he can elicit alone, in conversation only with himself and the voices of dead authors in the books that surround him, is remarkable. Many of us try to find similar insights by sitting with a solitary trusted analyst or therapist.

I have tried various forms of therapy for a number of years and while I have gained some important insights along the way, I have also held back and felt resistant to fully sharing parts of myself that might reveal hidden parts of me. Very recently, I surrendered to trusting a therapist in this way and the result was exactly as Montaigne described — it was a troubled and turbulent sea turning back upon itself. Feeling a kinship for another inside of this maelstrom was especially strange and I had no foundational basis for interpreting the relationship. Freud called it transference and said the feelings are just an extension and replacement of feelings we have for other important people in our lives. Sometimes it felt that way.  Sometimes it felt like romantic love. Sometimes it felt like talking to a mirror image of myself. Sadly, the process ended abruptly and not well, leaving me with this interior storm and no one to help me navigate it.

Nearly simultaneous to this interpersonal storm, the world began retreating into social distancing isolation. And as Montaigne might have anticipated, there has been a strange comfort in slowly shifting my focus away from the deeply personal and painful internal conflict to the external one we are all living within now. I have found additional comfort in reaching out and trying to help others in this time. The outward gaze has saved me from an internal struggle that I am not prepared to handle.

This, of course, is directly the opposite of what Montaigne suggests, and I am not taking issue with him. Ultimately, I come down on his side of the argument and took enough positive away from my first intimate relationship with a therapist to see the value of going back there, someday, when I am ready to face those storms again. For now, I have retreated, to paraphrase Elliott Smith, to the “cold comfort of the in between.” I look partially outward to Montaigne and how his words might help the outside world deal with these seemingly unique times, and I let Montaigne tease out of me some of those interior stories I might not be so willing to tell publicly without his cover.

Montaigne closes On Vanity with a beautiful wrap up of it all, a perfect explanation for why a mission of solitude offers rewards that cannot be found in the external world. I doubt many of us are willing to fully go there in a time like this, but if we are willing to devote just a little bit of this time alone in such a way every day, perhaps we can have a taste of what Montaigne is describing: that we can become creatures who are a little less needy of earthly desires by first identifying and acknowledging their source.

It was a paradoxical command that was given us of old by that god at Delphi: Look into yourself, keep to yourself, bring back your mind and your will, which are spending themselves elsewhere; into themselves; you are running out; your are scattering yourself; concentrate yourself; resist yourself; you are being betrayed, dispersed, and stolen away from yourself. Do you not see that this world keeps its sight all concentrated inward and its eyes open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity for you, within and without; but it is less vanity when it is less extensive. Except for you, O man, said that god, “each thing studies itself first, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labors and desires. There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe; you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce.”