The Risks: Avoiding Failure in Solitude

Having circled around solitude for the past five days, I can now return to Montaigne’s original essay on the subject, On Solitude, and look to fill in some of the detail. One of the weaknesses of my original approach to Montaigne — in addition to treating all essays as if they deserved equal treatment when clearly they do not — is that I did not have the ability to go back to previous essays and tease out more meaning after reading further down the line. I will try to avoid that mistake this time out.

On Solitude is not a simple prescription for everyone to follow Montaigne’s lead, quit your job and start writing. He spends quite a bit of time in the essay observing what solitude might mean for different types of people — whether it is a career or life change, retirement, or adopting different types of activities that could fill up the days spent alone.

Montaigne also asserted that it is possible for solitude to fail, if not lived properly:

Seek no longer that the world should speak of you, but how you should speak to yourself. Retire into yourself, but first prepare to receive yourself there; it would be madness to trust in yourself if you do not know how to govern yourself. There are ways to fail in solitude as well as in company. Until you have made yourself such that you dare not trip up in your own presence, and until you feel both shame and respect for yourself “let true ideals be kept before your mind” (Cicero.)

That last line is very interesting to me — dare not trip up in your own presence.  What does that mean? It evokes for me a feeling that started to build about seven years ago and only seems to be fading now. For most of my life, I was very comfortable being alone, working alone, and tending to hobbies alone. I enjoyed reading, writing, running, and any number of solo activities. But something in me started to change around the time my children were born, and it really clicked in once I started to develop more social hobbies, like taking music classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

I began to enjoy social activities more and to seek out opportunities to be with other people. As this became more deeply ingrained in me, I started to build up a fear of being alone. Business trips would become scary — I hated nothing more than being in those sterile rooms with nothing but my thoughts, even though they promised a rare opportunity for uninterrupted sleep. I could still write freely, but needed a little more distraction than before. I would often seek out coffee shops or later coworking spaces when I was freelancing. While music took on an increasingly important role in my leisure life, practicing alone was something I avoided, partly because it was so difficult for me to find solitary time in my crowded house, but also because I associated music with being in a group and playing it alone didn’t recreate that joy.

Much of the social shift has been very positive for my life, and I am significantly happier now than I was before it happened. But I would still like to overcome that fear so that I could enjoy a more social life but not fear solitary moments that might spur creativity and renewed energy. The social distancing crisis of 2020 seems to be doing the trick. I was forced back into many of the routines and habits that I shed in the past decade and am discovering new joys in them. I appreciate the time that I get to listen to music or podcasts uninterrupted as I run, something that I cannot do during group exercises. I like being able to write for long stretches without having to worry about buying another expensive coffee. I do miss people and cannot wait to return to my old habits, but I hope that I have now reacquired some even older habits that I can reintegrate into my life so that I can feel more balanced and capable of adapting.

I feel like I am well on my way to not tripping up in my own presence. But what about the second half of Montaigne’s line — the one about shame and respect for yourself? These are two concepts that are very rarely held in unity. Shame is very often felt as a personal disrespect. As I have already discussed in previous essays, Montaigne is not preaching here about living a perfect moral life. He clearly doesn’t believe that’s possible. But he does believe in self control and a big part of that self control, especially for someone in solitude who is examining his or herself freely, is knowing what and when to share.

This is part of what makes Montaigne’s form of self examination different from modern forms of therapy, and a lot of the personal blogging that takes place on sites such as Medium. The modern ethos is all about free disclosure — let your desires loose, share them and hope to find kinship with others who share that outlook. Perhaps for younger people, this is a perfectly valid and necessary form of expression. However, for the people who Montaigne is hoping to reach, that brand of free expression doesn’t show proper shame and respect for self. Someone the age of, say, Donald Trump is acting undignified if he takes up the social media habits of Kanye West. Part of the culture may embrace this, but it makes an older man seem shameless and lacking personal respect.

Turning it back to myself, if I were to use my essays as an opportunity to hurl invective at whoever was annoying me that day or to go into embarrassing detail about personal desires, I would not only be violating the spirit of Montaigne’s work, I would be engaged in an act of self harm. It’s something I have been able to avoid in my essays so far, but I feel the need to be on guard, because I cannot claim to always be so careful in other media, such as email. One to one, I am sometimes tempted to overshare my feelings, both good and bad. Focusing my creative energies in this direction is one way that I can hope to fight those temptations.

Even Montaigne felt this tug from time to time. Part way through his massive essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne has this astonishing moment of clarity, where he recognizes that he’s writing in an unusual style for him that could leave him open to attack. I need to paste this quote on my wall as a reminder the next time I am tempted to lead with my (usually angry or hurt) feelings while writing:

For your sake, Patroness, I have abandoned my usual practice and have taken some pains to make this into a very long chapter. Sebond is your author; you will, of course, continue to defend him with the usual forms of argument in which you re instructed every day; that will exercise your mind and your scholarship. The ultimate rapier-stroke which I am using here must only be employed as a remedy of last resort. It is a desperate act of dexterity, in which you must surrender your own arms to force your opponent to lose his. It is a covert blow which you should only use rarely and with discretion. It is rashness indeed to undo another by undoing yourself. We must not seek to die as an act of revenge.