Montaigne Strikes Back, and so do I.

I will start by disclaiming that it has indeed been a long time since  I sat down and put pen to paper (so to speak), but it does not mean that i have not, from time to time over the past year and a half, seriously considered rekindling this blog. But inertia can be a daunting force as I’m sure all of us know, and seriously considering something is much different from actually doing it.  I’ve thought about how I would make my glorious (read: hesitant and self-conscious) comeback: some sort of blog on reacclimation to American culture (but that time came and went); some sort of extension of the previous blog, where instead of French experiences elucidated by Montaigne’s essays I would have instead local and work-related experiences (this topic, too, now seems stale and untimely). But none of these ideas, seriously considered as they may have been, was enough to dislodge my inert feet, frozen in their blogging tracks.

What it took ultimately was reading this blog by Ryan Holiday, who, “at age 21…became Director of Marketing at American Apparel, the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. He gets more done than five average people combined, and practical philosophies help to make it possible. His previous post, entitled Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs, has nearly 300 comments.”  Interestingly enough, he draws a lot of his motivation from….(you guessed it)… Montaigne himself.  His main theme is, “ourselves as a job.”

“Ourselves as a job” is an idea that is not foreign to me, although i had never thought of it in quite those terms.  Self-improvement pervades our culture, but what actually constitutes improvement can vary from person to person, family to family, region to region.  On the other hand, there are some ideas that remain constant. Attending college, I think, is one such constant.  I don’t think it’s contentious to say that attending college is valued because it is, in its most essential role, designed for us to improve ourselves.  But how exactly we’re improving ourselves (or are meant to improve ourselves) at college is again up to debate. Are we making ourselves more marketable for better and more lucrative careers? Are we studying the arts so we can more fully appreciate our own culture and other people’s cultures? Are we studying how to create art so we can contribute to this culture? Or perhaps we’re improved by intellectual conversation with others, or intense introspection, or philosophy? Is this self-improvement purely for out own benefit? Or is it for the greater good and betterment of society? Clearly, having posed these rhetorical questions, the meaning of this word “self-improvement” is too ambiguous, too flexible and riddled with loop-holes, to make it truly useful to us who actually are interested in self-improvement.  A new word is thus necessary, with a firmer definition, a word that won’t let us shirk our noble intentions.

This idea of a job: now that’s one we can understand. Jobs are good: they make us money; they force us to make something of ourselves, where otherwise we would fritter away the days uselessly; they contain us and impose upon us; they are inexorable. Mess around at your job and you get fired, don’t make money, can’t pay for all the things you need to pay for. Jobs are consequential. Ourselves as a job then, is an idea that is not so easy to slither away from, not so easy to cite excuses or reasons for inaction.  Funny that the job is the serious thing here, the important thing, and not ourselves.  (But this is a semantic debate for another time.)

The reason that Montaigne is such a good example for Ryan Holiday to cite is that Montaigne made his introspection and his philosophizing his “job.” It was a job in the sense that it was a work in progress, but it wasn’t a job in that it made him money or in that he depended upon it for survival.  Holiday would have us all follow Montaigne’s example, but unlike Montaigne, who had the ease and the leisure of a French lord, we cannot sit back on our blue-blooded haunches and make this a full-time job.  Even if we acceded to Holiday’s exhortation, the best we could possibly hope for would be a part-time gig.

But all of these warnings and disclaimers aside about whether “job” is the right word and whether we can be rightly expected to emulate Montaigne’s extreme example: when it comes right down to it, Montaigne made some good points, and he found (but also built) great wisdom within himself by searching for it and working at it.  And why shouldn’t we also do this for ourselves?  We can lead happier, more fulfilled lives if we make it a point to understand life and our role in it.

It can be easy, as Holiday says, simply to watch TV and play games in our free time.  The path of least resistance is how rivers make their impressive snaking journeys from the mountains to the sea, but it is not how humans develop muscle and experience and knowledge.  In the essay that I read after overcoming my year-and-a-half-long inertia, “Of the Inequality Amongst Us,” Montaigne makes a similar point.  He tells us, “Compare with such a one [a person “free from bodily pain that may exercise its mind agreeably, exempt from care and fear”] the common rabble of mankind, stupid and mean-spirited, servile, instable, and continually floating with the tempest of various passions, that tosses and tumbles them to and fro, and all depending upon others, and you will find a greater distance than betwixt heaven and earth.”  For our purposes this powerful “tempest of various passions” is not only unthinking, unreasoning emotion, but also the modern causes of insipid thought (TV, even sometimes the news, games).  It is the one who sometimes reads Montaigne instead of defaulting to the nearest reality TV show who is able to overcome the combined numbing effects of the exhaustion of a typical day of work and the insipidity of modern technology.

What is most interesting about this particular essay of his is that he is trying to show us the right way to judge a person.   Take our natural method for judging animals, for example, and apply it to people:

“So we praise the swift horse, for whose easy mastery many a hand glows in applause, and victory exults in the hoarse circus.” — Juvenal

and not for his rich caparison; a greyhound for his speed of heels, not for his fine collar; a hawk for her wing, not for her gesses and bells.

Why, in like manner, do we not value a man for what is properly his own?  He has a great train, a beautiful palace, so much credit, so many thousand pounds a year: all these are about him, but not in him.

He continues:

Why, in giving your estimate of a man, do you prize him wrapped and muffled up in clothes? He then discovers nothing to you but such parts as are not in the least his own, and conceals those by which alone one may rightly judge of his value. ‘Tis the price of the blade that you inquire into, not of the scabbard:  you would not peradventure bid a farthing for him, if you saw him stripped.  You are to judge him by himself and not by what he wears; and, as one of the ancients very pleasantly said: “Do you know why you repute him tall? You reckon withal the height of his pattens.” The pedestal is no part of the statue.  Measure him without his stilts; let him present himself in his shirt.  Then examine if his body be sound and sprightly, active and disposed to perform its functions.

So, while this may be a rant against rich and powerful people who are considered to be great and good merely because of what they own, their palaces and fine clothes, it essentially boils down to the simple truth that people do have a certain value of their own.  He borrows an Aristotelean sentiment: a nose is good if it smells well; an eye if it sees well; a person whether s/he is “sound and sprightly, active and disposed to perform [his or her] functions.”  This truth applies to the rich, who are falsely over-valued because of their gadgets and gee-gaws (read: money and fancy clothes), but also to that “common rabble of mankind, stupid and mean-spirited,” who are rightly disdained–but only so long as they take no interest in honing their essential humanness and overcoming the tempest of various passions.

Be the blade–not the scabbard–and a sharp blade at that.

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7 thoughts on “Montaigne Strikes Back, and so do I.

  1. rangermike50 says:

    Not wading back in, but going straight into the deep end. Good to have you back.

  2. Kyle says:

    James,

    It’s great to read (hear) your voice again!

    Regarding your post: It feels Puritan for Montaigne, Holiday and perhaps yourself to single out “jobs” as the most or only virtuous endeavor. Additionally, we have plenty of prominent cultural icons and narratives which deal with the ramifications of obsession with work. And not to be polemical, or to erect a straw-man, but have you listened to someone justifying a juice cleanse? They sound as though they possess a mental disease, trembling with vital nutrient deficiency, and muttering inconsequentials at the pedestal of self-improvement. Granted these are extreme cases but several considered arguments against the religion of work exist. In the Gay Science Nietzsche describes the haste with which Americans work as evident of a lack of spirituality (of course he just says it, as though it were obvious, so there), and he claims this manifests itself as a lack of subtlety and joy (329). I don’t know, do you feel like your life is lacking in subtlety and joy? I could probably stand for more.

    Additionally, with regards to how we judge animals, humans do possess an unavoidable difference – our consciousness. Sure football is great, and really big people can do fantastic things with their bodies, but beyond the lovely podium upon which they stand to receive something shiny, are we in agreement that through their diligent self-nourishment they represent the acme of humanity? And while I’ll admit to admiring fit women, we call virile ogling objectification in recognition to there being something more to a human than their aesthetic.

    I feel like all of done is cried in adolescence defiance, “No, no, no! I don’t want to work!” Which is true, I don’t want to because it’s Friday. How the hell did you get up to post this before 7 am?

    Cheers,
    Kyle

  3. Allison says:

    But do the job for money and the job for self-betterment have to be mutually exclusive? For most of us mean-spirited rabble, yes. But they don’t have to be. It’s something to strive for. I guess I would have to read the essay to really know who Montaigne’s “such a one” is who is spared the cares and tempests of the rabble, and if there is even an equivalent in our modern society. It seems like the ability to rise above the “rabble of mankind” is more democratic now than ever, if all one has to do is read Montaigne instead of watching telly and generally choose to live a life of intellectual exception. If that’s what it is.

  4. Allison says:

    I think Montaigne is not referring to the “job” of man as working at hedge fund for for Starbucks. As James says, it’s the idea of devoting our spare energies to understanding life and our role in it.

    And I don’t think that Montaigne is advocating that you stare at women doing CrossFit. When he is talking about admiring animals, the point is that we admire the creature for what it is, not for its adornments. We admire its natural qualities, it simply embodying the essence of its horse-ness, or its hawk-ness. So why can’t we admire our fellow humans, and respect and revere ourselves, for our very human-ness?

  5. Patrick says:

    Jimbo and fellow commenters,

    I’m also ecstatic at the opportunity to read your posts again! I agree with Allie’s interpretation; I think he uses “job” as a means of conveying a sense purpose and intent with the ultimate goal of self-betterment as opposed to “fritter[ing] the days away uselessly.” Something I find myself guilty of far more often than I would care to admit.

    Here’s to going straight into the deep end,
    Patrick

    • Kyle says:

      Team,

      I agree with the interpretation of Montaigne’s use of “job,” but I disagree that it’s an exception among the activities we could be doing. I think 1st year was wonderful. There was definitely not an overabundance of understanding life going on. 2-4th year were filled with self-improvement initiatives, but also a decrease in overall happiness and an increase in alcohol consumption. So I don’t know, there’s something anecdotal. And I don’t want to go so far as to claim that it’s not worth doing, nor do I think people should be hedonistic or lethargic. It’s just the nomenclature is a little intrusive semantically, conveniently dividing activities into polar-opposites. Who knows, maybe watching Breaking Bad was self-improvement. Despite my interest in chemistry, I’m less likely to try cooking meth. That counts, right? Also, it’s Friday, don’t we get a two day break from our jobs on Friday?

      Cheers,
      Kyle

  6. jamesrnelson says:

    I agree that “job” is an imperfect word, and I was actually trying to use it a bit tongue-in-cheek. In trying to tie in Holiday’s post I was adopting his word as maybe a more pragmatic way of instilling the idea of self-improvement. I don’t think that the point of the “job” is to give up TV and to feel like you are “working” at improving yourself. I think what’s important and maybe more accurate is to be dedicated to yourself and to seek the value in the things you do. I, for example, also believe that there is value in watching Breaking Bad. It doesn’t only teach you the perils of cooking meth; it also exposes its viewers to raw emotions and difficult moral dilemmas, which hopefully they may never have to experience for real, but which can at least be instructive in this fictitious iteration.

    As far as Montaigne’s Aristoteleanism is concerned, what is important in my mind is that we value a human for his/her human-ness, as Allie said. Human-ness isn’t only peak human physicality. It’s also peak human conscientiousness, empathy, humor, goodness, intelligence, inquisitiveness, etc. (this list could go on for pages).

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