Sticky Social Situations: Why Montaigne Sought Solitude

So maybe this will become an everyday thing after all …

Let me take a moment to recap. In the first post of this series, I laid out Montaigne’s very stark case for solitude and how we need to create rooms for ourselves, where we can make the many facets of our personalities express themselves and laugh. In part two yesterday, I let Montaigne elaborate a bit more on why he sought solitude. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the company of people, quite the contrary.  What Montaigne was fleeing was “all slavery and obligation” or what he called “the throng of affairs.”

Today I’m going to spell out why Montaigne found the obligations of social life so constraining. The text comes from another essay in Part III of Montaigne’s collection entitled On Vanity.  Here, Montaigne dives into the question of public morality and ethics and how people tend to make a show of their morality while living lives wildly inapt to their ethos. He says:

We have no wish to be good men according to God, we cannot be so according to ourselves. Human wisdom has never yet come up to the duties that she has prescribed for herself; an if she ever did come up to them, she would ever aim and aspire, so hostile to consistency is our condition. Man ordains that he himself shall be necessarily at fault. He is not very clever to cut out his own duty by the pattern of a different nature than his own. To whom does he prescribe what he expects no one to do? Is it wrong of him not to do what it is impossible for him to do? The laws which condemn us not to be able, themselves accuse us for not being able.

Montaigne never comes out and says that he’s been embroiled in public scandals, but he certainly gives the sense of it. I empathize with what he is saying. People have a hunger for gossip and once a drop of blood enters the water, the sharks will soon follow. If you’ve ever been in an office where a love affair crept into near-open, you have experienced the strange sensation of people both eager to condemn and vaguely disappointed that the particular scandal passed them by. While the most frequently uttered phrase in a scandalized office may be “how could he?” the words “what did he see in her?” are often not far behind.

Given Montaigne’s much admitted affection for beautiful women, his gregarious nature, and his high public position, I would not be surprised if scandal followed him around uncomfortably often. At a certain point, a retreat to the parapet seemed like the only rational solution. But I don’t want to minimize Montaigne’s point about public affairs by making them all too literal. He was using the word affair more broadly and also as a metaphor.  He continues:

At worst, this deformed liberty to present ourselves in two aspects, the action in one fashion, and the speeches in another, may be permissible for those who tell of things; but it cannot be so for those who tell of themselves, as I do; I must go the same way with my pen as with my feet. Life in society should have some relation to other lives … The virtue assigned to affairs of the world is a virtue with many bends, angles, and elbows, so as to join and adapt itself to human weakness; mixed and artificial, not straight, clean, constant, or purely innocent.

There is a great deal of sadness in what Montaigne is writing here. This is a man who enjoys the company of others. He craves connection, and devotes his life to it. Making those one to one connections are not difficult for him. But too often, he finds those relationships thrown into an extra layer of abstraction, a social code that further defines how people broadly are expected to behave. While Montaigne often speaks of the laws that create this abstraction, more often these rules are unwritten and are mastered only by the people who love the abstraction more than the people who live in it. (It’s interesting to me how Marcel Proust later picks up on this idea of social constructions, but I don’t wish to digress down that 3200 page rabbit hole at this time.)

I mention the sadness because there’s one thing that Montaigne is never, and that’s morose. He is one of the most joyous writers of any age and never for a moment does a Montaigne reader doubt that he starts every day with a strong purpose to live it completely. Therefore, it’s very jarring to read an aspect of Montaigne with a bitter tinge. Notice too, however,  that he does not dwell on the negative. He uses it as an affirmation of his own approach. Montaigne must enter solitude because it is the only way to stay true to core values.

I’ll end with a quote where Montaigne explains how social constraints keep people from expressing their true selves.  I can’t help but apply his imagery to myself, running in public, trying to follow the rules of social distancing. Even purely by accident, I always find amusing parallels of alignment with my sage:

He who walks in the crowd must step aside; keep his elbows in, step back or advance, even leave the straight away, according to what he encounters. He must live not so much according to himself as according to others; not according to what he proposes to himself but according to what others propose to him; according to the time; according to the men; according to the business.