(For Sarah—for mentioning Montaigne during an Enneagram workshop)
For some strange reason, ‘Christmas’ offers many people an opportunity for a peculiar kind of celebration which seems to entail spending vast amounts of money. Over ‘Christmas’ 2011 I decided I’d celebrate in a peculiar manner by re-reading the selected essays of Michel de Montaigne. I first read these about fifty years ago and I was playing a hunch that they had a big impact on the way I came to view the world.
I have lost the copy of the essays I read all those years ago otherwise I have no doubt I would easily have been able to turn up the things I deemed important then because I have long been in the habit of underlining things of significance to me in books neatly in pencil.
The introduction to the new Penguin Selected Essays by the translator, Dr MAScreech, included several references which made me think I was on the right track with my hunch.
It seems that when Montaigne withdrew from the world he inscribed quotations on the roof of his library in much the same way as Gurdjieff did at Fontainebleu. For instance he might have had this (which is amongst the host of quotations in his essays, some of which I quote here from time to time) up there in his library:
‘Endeavour to make circumstances subject to me, and not me subject to circumstances…’ (Horace)
I emulated Mr G by covering in a similar fashion the six-sided conical ceiling of the summer-house I built at the end of last century. These act as anchors for ideas and serve for reminders of key things in the 4th Way. They feature boxed throughout the text of my farrago book ROOM THREE.
For Montaigne the possession of books was a delight… When I was about 16 I read Arnold Bennett (in Literary Taste I think it was) who said that the way to learning was first of all simply to surround yourself with books—so I’ve done just that for 50 years. Like Montaigne it pleases me greatly to be able to reach up to a wall of books and either find something I know is up there or discover something new on an autumn afternoon, as it might be. It delights me to lace my writing with quotations that seem to add something to what I write, confirm it, justify it somehow. Like Sartre’s Autodidact (in Nausea) I am always pleased when I discover that somebody more famous than I will ever be has expressed the same (or a similar) idea as I have tried (= ‘essayed’) to put into words. I always feel a need to honour and acknowledge earlier writers, not to put myself on their level but simply somehow to confirm a common basis in humanity. Montaigne says: ‘I only quote others the better to quote myself…’ I suppose I delight in quoting others because it gives me a better inkling of what I think I mean to say… As here, just now!
Learning is always for a purpose; it is instrumental; like Montaigne I have no desire to be ‘learned for its own sake’. Learning is life; Montaigne said ‘…my soul is ever in its apprenticeship and being tested…’ No completion; no finality till death…
Screech says ‘Montaigne held that philosophy should be delightful. He saw no need for it to be severe and forbidding…’ Them’s my sentiments too. A philosophy that larks about! Unless you can play the clown you are not entitled to be serious, say I.
Since my aim is to quote sufficiently from Montaigne’s essays to back up my hunch that I owe such a lot to him, I have gone to the on-line Gutenburg Project’s free version of Charles Cotton’s 1685/6 translation rather than run the risk of being extradited or incarcerated for infringing copyright by Penguin. However, I do owe my researches to reading the MAScreech translation over Xmas 2011.
At the age of 38, tired of the life he’d been leading, Montaigne
…retired to my own house, with a resolution, as much as possibly I could, to avoid all manner of concern in affairs, and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I have to live, I fancied I could not more oblige my mind than to suffer it at full leisure to entertain and divert itself, which I now hoped it might henceforth do, as being by time become more settled and mature; but I find—
Variam semper dant otia mentem—Leisure ever creates varied thought—Lucan
that… it is like a horse that has broke from his rider, who voluntarily runs into a much more violent career than any horseman would put him to, and creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself…
Notice that it was at the age of 38 that Montaigne decided he’d had enough of living life for the benefit of others. At that age he determined to ‘..live out the small remnant of life’ for himself. To do this he had to ‘call in [his] thoughts and intentions to [himself, in aid of his] own ease and repose…’
It is no light thing to make a sure retreat; it will be enough for us to do without mixing other enterprises. Since God gives us leisure to order our removal, let us make ready, truss our baggage, take leave of company, and disentangle ourselves from those violent importunities that engage us elsewhere and separate us from ourselves. We must break the knot of our obligations, how strong soever, and hereafter love this or that, but espouse nothing but ourselves: that is to say, let the remainder be our own, but not so joined and so close as not to be forced away without flaying us or tearing out part of our whole. The greatest thing in the world is for a man [sic] to know that he is his own.
Apart from the historical fact, this is such a useful metaphor for learning to be yourself, without attachments, on the road to the ideal state of Nothingness from which you can always choose to move carefully towards the idea of being ‘something-or-other’. Gurdjieff said approximately: ‘Until you can think of yourself as a Nothingness, going Nowhere, there’s no chance of change…’
I suppose that retirement from wage slavery in 1992 at 55 (17 years after Montaigne escaped the rat race) should have brought me a peace similar to what he had hoped for but, as in his case, the flow of ideas keeps growing apace, without, perhaps, much in the way of order or design.
‘This plodding occupation of books is as painful as any other, and as great an enemy unto health, which ought principally to be considered. And a man should not suffer him self to be inveigled by the pleasure he takes in them…’ (Florio) Ah books! What would life be without them?
The many worlds I still inhabit sustain multiple interests which have a habit of linking up in accordance with Ouspensky’s dictum written on the ceiling of my summerhouse, ‘All things are connected—they appear to be separated…’ Conversely, every world is managed by a different set of ‘I’s; people of the haiku world would not necessarily recognise the ‘I’s in me of that world as compared with the ‘I’s in me of the Enneagram world or the ‘I’s in me that flourish in the musical world, for instance. As Dr MAScreech points out ‘…Montaigne discovered that he could never pin down a stable I which he could study: his I as the writer was ever-changing; his I as the subject was ever-changing too…’
In 2006 Writer-I made the idea of the variable (or Multiple) ‘I’ the subject of a 200 page book, The Campaign Against Abstractionism.
Montaigne comments that he cannot provide a stable portrait of himself since he changes depending on context; he is never the same for two consecutive moments; he is not depicting a Being, but a Becoming. I think that when I first read this I must have felt so comforted—as a young man not long out of adolescence, I ambled from this to that in an vain attempt to figure out what it was all about.
As a kind of follower of the 4th Way now, I know that the only way to do this successfully is to engage in what’s called External Considering, to look objectively at one’s experience of life and track the Multiple-I’s that appear in different circumstances. Since everything can be looked at from these multiple points of view, nobody can have the last word on anything. As Montaigne points out ‘Men [and women] are vain authorities who can resolve nothing…’
Charles Cotton’s editor, William Carew Hazlitt, in 1877, said of Montaigne that ‘…What he did, and what he had professed to do, was to dissect his mind, and show us, as best he could, how it was made, and what relation it bore to external objects. He investigated his mental structure as a schoolboy pulls his watch to pieces, to examine the mechanism of the works; and the result, accompanied by illustrations abounding with originality and force…’
How Do I Imagine that my Reading of Montaigne’s Essays 50 years ago Affected Me?
I suppose the main thing might be that it perhaps set me up for an embrace of Gurdjieff’s instruction which I came across much later on to engage in constant self-examination without making judgements, without ever beating oneself up about anything.
Montaigne’s blend of Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism got into my soul (or somewhere like that) as did Thoreau with his statement that it was pointless reading newspapers—once you’ve read one, you’ve read the lot because you know that they will consist of reports on murders, bomb-dropping, political chicanery, sporting pastimes and celebrity antics—the things that make up civilisation as we know it. Why would you wish to remind yourself daily about such things? All superficial ‘A Influences’.
…if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity… And, come the worst that can come, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy are performed in a year. If you have observed the revolution of my four seasons, they comprehend the infancy, the youth, the virility, and the old age of the world: the year has played his part, and knows no other art but to begin again; it will always be the same thing…
Once we have got the hang of the pattern of life, we realise that things go round and round: for instance, by the time I went to school in 1942 Gradgrindism had begun to give way to a more enlightened more creative approach; then my great experience at Kingston Grammar School was flexibly anarchic; nowadays, mechanism, computers and the ticking of boxes are all the rage; but there are suggestions that we are producing a race of kids who cannot think for themselves—modern Gradgrindism will no doubt give way to a more creative approach in due course, though we have first of all to get through the Gove Factor. (Gove is the current posh Monster of What-he-likes-to-think-of-as-Education in the UK so-called Government…)
A constant state of flux does make it difficult at first to pin things down; it is impossible to say once and for all, “So this is how it is…” Any serious thinker is constantly on the go, putting this together with that, making sense of things by comparing, synthesising, making a collage of ideas, shaking up the kaleidoscope whilst essaying to keep a strong grasp on her own angle.
This is a daunting proposition. It threatens to overwhelm us and so we tend to limit ourselves to what we can see around us, what’s at the end of our all too simple nose. But how exciting! The true thinker embraces everything like Socrates when asked ‘of what country he was, he did not make answer, of Athens, but of the world…’
This great world… is the mirror wherein we are to behold ourselves, to be able to know ourselves as we ought to do in the true bias. [Montaigne] would have this to be the book [which should be studied] with the most attention. So many humours, so many sects, so many judgments, opinions, laws, and customs… So many mutations of states and kingdoms, and so many turns and revolutions of public fortune, will make us wise enough to make no great wonder of our own. So many great names, so many famous victories and conquests drowned and swallowed in oblivion… The pride and arrogance of so many foreign pomps, the inflated majesty of so many courts and grandeurs… so many trillions of men, buried before us… Pythagoras was want to say, that our life resembles the great and populous assembly of the Olympic games, wherein some exercise the body, that they may carry away the glory of the prize: others bring merchandise to sell for profit: there are also some (and those none of the worst sort) who pursue no other advantage than only to look on, and consider how and why everything is done, and to be spectators of the lives of other men, thereby the better to judge of and regulate their own.
Montaigne seems to be agreeing that the spectators at the Olympic Games are the most admirable types. These latter days though, the spectators will be roaring their heads off, shouting for the winners, wining & dining themselves in the corporate hospitality saloons, staying in hotels where they can afford £2000 per night in London 2012; hyped up to the eyebrows with various invented patriotisms, they will certainly not be sober & collected enough to learn much from the potential experience of being docile & ordinary down-to-earth observers.
It requires a certain quiet distancing to develop the ability to shuffle things into order. Until the synthetic nature of ‘reality’ can be grasped, until a certain amount of carefully observed repeated experience makes it clear that things are constantly shifting, it’s more less impossible to assert, “This is where I stand…” Until then
…my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling in the way; and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate.
I wonder if Tennyson read Montaigne…
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use…
And so I have kept at it, groping around in the dark, trying to catch up with untravelled worlds, never satisfied with one way of looking at things, delighting in subtle changes of emphasis from one writer to another, from one idea to another. Pursuing Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas!
I first read Montaigne’s essays around the time (early 1960’s) when I was toying with the idea of turning myself into a teacher. Montaigne offers some advice to an acquaintance about the general characteristics of a person suitable for her to choose to tutor her child. I think I probably welded a lot of this into my scheme of things:
…a tutor [should rather have] a well-made than a well-filled head; …seeking, indeed, both the one and the other… [but preferring to cultivate] manners and judgment to mere learning, and… should exercise his charge after a new method…
in order to get away from the usual method which is based on
…pedagogues [habitually thundering] in their pupil’s ears, as if they were pouring into a funnel, whilst the business of the pupil is only to repeat what [they] have said. Now I would have a tutor… permitting the pupil himself [sic] to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; …[just as] Socrates [had his] scholars speak, before he spoke to them…
Montaigne quotes Cicero: ‘The authority of those who teach, is very often an impediment to those who desire to learn…’
Authority alienates. Though I had never, of course, put it into two words of eight syllables, this I had felt during my time at school; I always put myself down in the face of authority while all the time, I lately realise, keeping my own secret counsel. As a result of my experience, for many years, teaching teachers how to teach, I used to assert that the task of teachers was to render themselves superfluous as soon as possible so that their students are given space to develop their own dynamic.
Before content becomes important, it’s the process of learning that has to be come to terms with—what has come to be called ‘learning how to learn’. Gregory Bateson called it ‘deutero-learning’…
…let the learner judge of the profit she has made [out of learning], not by the testimony of memory, but by that of life. Let the learner put what she has learned into a hundred several forms, and accommodate it to so many several subjects, to see if she yet rightly comprehends it, and has made it her own… …no matter if she forget where she had her learning, provided she know how to apply it to her own use… so the several fragments she borrows from others, she will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely her own…
I have so often quoted ANWhitehead (in Aims of Education) who says exactly this. Learning remains inert unless you can contrive ways of making into your own possession and work out how it relates to other subjects and to life itself. Unless we can do this
…our minds work only upon trust… Bound and compelled to follow the appetite of another’s fancy, enslaved and captivated under the authority of another’s instruction; we have… no free, nor natural pace of our own; our own vigour and liberty are extinct and gone.
Learners should ‘…thoroughly sift everything they read, and lodge nothing in fancy on simple authority and trust… Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing, nay, is inquisitive after nothing…’ Verify everything for yourself, said Gurdjieff.
Getting on the Inside of Things
It follows that ‘…to know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only the ability to retain what one has intrusted to memory… there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it…’
How do we get on the inside of things, to make them our own possession so that we can, so to speak, build endless structures of ideas on them? I suppose that the answer is to talk about them, turning the words over and over in an experimental kind of way, learning to ‘approximate to truth’ (JGBennett) by taking feedback into account. A systemic process. It’s pretty clear that a diligent respectful dealing with things in themselves will ‘force the words to express them…’ (Cicero). Handling ideas and trying them out in various ways for ourselves will turn them into our own possession. ‘When things are once in the mind, the words offer themselves readily… When things have taken possession of the mind, the words trip out accordingly…’ (Cicero)
Horace says: ‘Once a thing is conceived in the mind, the words to express it soon present themselves… The words will not reluctantly follow the thing preconceived…’
To confirm this, imagine what must be going on for a person who complains that they can’t quite put something into words—it’s surely an indication that they just haven’t got on the inside of what they think they want to say. If they could attach words to what they want to say, they would find out what they were imagining they were thinking; the words would probably still be an inadequate representation of what they think they want to say. But once it’s out in the open, the wording can always be refined by an honest thinker willing to spend time ‘approximating to truth…’ rather than concluding to start with that they’ve got it.
Montaigne made articulate what I came to feel about teaching & learning… What else did he do for me?
He alerted me to the possible pleasures of solitude or rather, perhaps, he served to firm up a predisposition towards the idea of being comfortable inside your own skin that was already in my being. ‘In solitude, be company for thyself…’ (Tibullus)
At the age of 38, then, Montaigne abandoned the world that most people imagine is the only world there is—making money, paying the mortgage, watching sport, attending popular events, chatting ‘on-line’, expressing vapid opinions and so on—and repaired to his fortress expecting the benefits of the solitary life. Ironically, the space he created for himself simply filled up with thinking.
Montaigne suggests that, the aim of life being ‘to live at more leisure and at one’s ease’, we do all really crave solitude, even those who ‘aspire to titles and offices and the tumult of the world…’ Such as they simply ‘…make their private advantage [of solitude] at the public expense…’ He would have us ‘…tell ambition that it is she herself who gives us a taste of solitude; for what does she so much avoid as society? What does she so much seek as elbowroom?…’ But not for Montaigne is the belief that the way to solitude is to elbow others out of the way by a kind of cash-force.
He quotes Horace: ‘Reason and prudence, not a place with a commanding view of the great ocean, banish care…’ Some inner shift of being is necessary to dispose of ‘…ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desires…’ otherwise we take all our cares with us: ‘…they often follow us even to cloisters and philosophical schools; nor deserts, nor caves, hair-shirts, nor fasts, can disengage us from them…’ Socrates was told about somebody who ‘…was nothing improved by his travels: “I can very well believe it,” said he, “for he took himself along with him… ‘Why do we seek climates warmed by another sun? Who is the person that by fleeing from his own country, can also flee from himself?” (Horace)
If we take all Leading-an-ordinary-life-I’s away to a secret place in the country, Being-happy-with-solitude-I will not stand a chance.
If a man [sic] do not first discharge both himself and his mind of the burden with which he finds himself oppressed, motion will but make it press the harder and sit the heavier… You do a sick man more harm than good in removing him from place to place; you fix and establish the disease by motion, as stakes sink deeper and more firmly into the earth by being moved up and down in the place where they are designed to stand. Therefore, it is not enough to get remote from the public; it is not enough to shift the soil only; you must flee from the popular conditions that have taken possession of your soul, you must sequester and come again to yourself: ‘You say, perhaps, you have broken your chains: but the dog who after long efforts has broken his chain, still in his flight drags a heavy portion of it after him…’ (Persius)
‘Our disease lies in the mind, which cannot escape from itself…’ (Horace)
Left to my own devices for even so short a period as a weekend, I know how time may be squandered unless I take charge of the minutes & hours, being careful not to let ordinary things intrude. A longer period is much easier to deal with because you can relax into it, and not mind the minutes, especially if the object is to go from place to place with a constant succession of new sights & sounds & smells. But it does all depend on you.
Since we will attempt to live alone, and to waive all manner of conversation… let us so order it that our content may depend wholly upon ourselves; let us dissolve all obligations that ally us to others; let us obtain this from ourselves, that we may live alone in good earnest, and live at our ease too.
What can one do without? What can one eschew that solitude be made more secure from distractions? Even without a desire for solitude, it’s worth noting how much we are attached to things; we identify our selves with external objects, people, things, opinions, excitements and so on, so much that we take it that the loss of anything we imagine close to us to be the loss of a part of ourselves.
The philosopher Antisthenes… said, that ‘men should furnish themselves with such things as would float, and might with the owner escape the storm’ (Diogenes Laertius) and certainly a wise man never loses anything if he have himself. When the city of Nola was ruined by the barbarians, Paulinus, who was bishop of that place, having there lost all he had, himself a prisoner, prayed after this manner: ‘O Lord, defend me from being sensible of this loss; for Thou knowest they have yet touched nothing of that which is mine…’ (St Augustine) The riches that made him rich and the goods that made him good, were still kept entire. This it is to make choice of treasures that can secure themselves from plunder and violence, and to hide them in such a place into which no one can enter and that is not to be betrayed by any but ourselves.
The riches & treasure of the mind… But what comes of separating ourselves from the people who are close to us? Family and friends? To separate my self from attachments to people, I have become very clear that human-beings lead their own lives; that while I have very strong bonds with other people, especially those closest to me, I cannot live their lives for them. But, sadly, what for me is simply disidentification can seem like coldness or being remote from humanity, when, in fact, for me, radical disidentification makes me feel paradoxically closer to others; in Meta-I it’s possible to see what’s going on for others without being involved oneself. Every now and again though it’s necessary to surprise people with an expression of proximity. But we must all have our ‘backshops’, secret rooms, summerhouses and sheds.
Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat. And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no exotic knowledge or communication be admitted there; there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity.
And that’s the problem: it is uncomfortable to my self to cause others to be uncomfortable with my own seeming lack of enthusiasm to be with them. It is really nice to have visitors but it’s maybe even nicer when they’ve gone so that the event may be clasped to the breast as the perfect and rounded meeting of people—it’s only when they’ve gone that it becomes this as it always does… It is always good to be with people in teaching situations but such a relief to be on your own again when you are able to review what went on like a multi-faceted jewel—this does not happen truly while the meeting of minds is taking place… Whatever we do with others ‘…in our ordinary actions there is not one of a thousand that concerns ourselves…’ Paradox: we can best keep things close to us by keeping them at arm’s length. ‘Can you conceive in your mind or realise what is dearer than you are to yourself?’ (Terence) ‘It is rarely seen that we have respect and reverence enough for ourselves.’ (Quintilian)
On the other hand, when I find myself in a friendship it often becomes something very significant. I have a few deep friendships; they are what matter to me. It seems to be something similar to Montaigne’s experience:-
I am very capable of contracting and maintaining rare and exquisite friendships; I greedily seize upon such acquaintance as fit my liking, I throw myself with such violence upon them that I hardly fail to stick, and to make an impression where I hit; as I have often made happy proof. In ordinary friendships I am somewhat cold and shy, for my motion is not natural unless with full sail: besides which, my fortune having in my youth given me a relish for one sole and perfect friendship has, in truth, created in me a kind of distaste to others… And also I have a natural difficulty of communicating myself by halves, with the modifications and the servile and jealous prudence required in the conversation of numerous and imperfect friendships…
I also enjoy relating to people at any time, investigating their innermost beings, provided my actual contact does not have to be a lengthy one. The measure of the very best of friends is that you can pick up with them from just where you left off, maybe many years ago.
What I would praise would be a soul with many storeys, one of which knew how to strain and relax: a soul at ease wherever fortune led it; which could chat with a neighbour about whatever he is building, his hunting or his legal action, and take pleasure in conversing with a carpenter or a gardener. I envy those who can come down to the level of the meanest on their staff and make conversation with their own servants…
Montaigne points out that ‘Plato requires three attributes in anyone who wishes to examine the soul of another: knowledge, benevolence, daring…’ To understand how others tick it is necessary to recognise these things in yourself.
Plato’s three attributes are not that far removed, if at all, from the KUB model, as I call it, in the Gurdjieff model:-
Knowledge can easily be amassed, as my old Greek master said on advising his students to drop geography in the third year at Grammar School when we had dropped Chemistry, Physics & Biology after the first year in order to take up the study of Ancient Greek. Benevolence, acquired through empathy and emotional Understanding, takes a bit longer to acquire, as does Being which accumulates as you seek to transform the products of thoughts & emotion into some kind of practice. Lots of Being but not much Knowledge = paucity of Understanding; lots of Knowledge but not much practical Being = paucity of Understanding; a balance of Being and Knowledge leads, other things being equal, to a growth of Understanding. The KUB model is a thoroughly natural process which can only be appreciated as you put it into operation, as Montaigne did:-
When I dance, I dance. When I sleep, I sleep; and when I am strolling alone through a beautiful orchard, although part of the time my thoughts are occupied by other things, for part of the time too I bring then back to the walk, to the orchard, to the delight in being alone there, and to me. Mother-like, Nature has provided that such actions as she has imposed on us as necessities should also be pleasurable, urging us towards them not only by reason but by desire. To corrupt her laws is wrong.
Our most great and glorious achievement is to live out life fittingly. Everything else—reigning, building, laying up treasure—consists of tiny props and small accessories…
Prepare Yourself for Retirement
Those preparing to retire might well do the process systemically in terms of Multiple-I’s just as Montaigne does and using his very own words (the systemic arrangement of them is mine though—double-click to enlarge) :-
Montaigne used the concept of Multiple-I’s, so many years before Gurdjieff? Not in so many words maybe, but reading what he wrote might well have been the moment when I conceived my passion for the concept. After I had read the words they would have been lodged somewhere in my being ready for the moment when I first read The Fourth Way…
…anyone who turns his [sic] prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent: chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal—I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is distinguo. [I make distinctions…]
We are all lumps, and of so varied a contexture, that every piece plays, every moment, its own game, and there is as much difference betwixt us and ourselves as betwixt us and others…
And what then do we get from retirement from the world? The aim is to act as a Whole person, Unified-I, Meta-I, Observer-I, Master-I (take your pick!) because, just as Seneca said, we should ‘Esteem it a great thing always to act as one and the same man…’ But before we can get to that stage it is sufficient to remember (to use him as an anchor, emblematic of the ideal) the man
… who was asked why he toiled so hard at an art which few could ever know about: “For me a few are enough; one is enough; having none is enough.” He spoke the truth. You and one companion are audience enough for each other; so are you for yourself. For you, let the crowd be one, and one be a crowd. It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness. We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs. You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself. Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there. It would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself, if you did not know how to govern yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.
The man Montaigne refers to might well have been my friend Mick Miller of Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire.
A possible way of dealing with the world successfully in retreat, as well as during one’s miserable sojourn in the ‘real world’, is to make yourself invisible. Twelve years ago while reading Maurice Nicoll’s Commentaries, I wrote this poem which is especially poignant to me right now since my cat Hanley is slowly dying of liver cancer.
my cat Hanley
turns himself into a cardboard cutout
as he approaches the shrubbery;
he essays to escape the notice
of the small bird teetering in liveliness
in the lavatera; stillness bestows invisibility
motionless in space
frozen thus you are not noticed
by the scavengers and the mountebanks
of the mind; there’s no doubt that you’ll experience
their questing their failure to locate you—
you will hear them twittering in the undergrowth
falling in the pond diving
from the summerhouse roof
when my cat Hanley leaps into action again
all the animals and birds instantly
see where he is rumble his little game;
the customary demons representing worries
irritations unpleasant thoughts conceits
anxieties from out of the thorny thickets
of the mind seize upon you once again;
the animals and birds roar and scream
and all the scavengers and mountebanks
of the mind shout GOT YOU!!!
you lose the sense of what is really you—
dismembered again—the anxious look
the hurried step the urgent voice on the telephone
sleepless nights and frantic days
(from Looking Closely Hub Editions 2000)
Being invisible (or equally desirable, as Leonardo da Vinci advises, being like smoke, sfumato—hence my passion for bonfires) presents you with the opportunity to be infinitely flexible.
It seems to me to follow that
…those are the bravest souls that have in them the most variety and pliancy: ‘His parts were so pliable to all uses, that one would say he had been born only to that which he was doing.’ (Livy)… Had I liberty to set myself forth after my own mode, there is no so graceful a fashion to which I would be so fixed as not to be able to disengage myself from it; life is an unequal, irregular and multiform motion. To be led by the nose by one’s self, and to be so fixed in one’s inclinations, that one cannot turn aside nor writhe one’s neck out of the collar is not to be a friend to one’s self, much less a master—it is to be a slave… Most men’s minds require foreign matter to exercise and enliven them; mine has rather need to sit still and repose itself… I had rather fashion my soul than furnish it… ‘to live is to think…’ (Cicero)
I like a Man Who Can Talk about His Library (after Sidney Greenstreet…)
When I first read Montaigne’s essays I suppose I might have had maybe forty books—an amount which could hardly warrant the name ‘library’. Now I have getting on for four thousand books which I am proud to call ‘library’.
I wonder now if my need to be able to occupy a room surrounded by books was set going, at least in part, by having read about Montaigne’s own passion. One of the great things about books is the way that the reading of them sows ideas that come up unexpectedly like snowdrops in spring.
When at home, I a little more frequent my library, whence I overlook at once all the concerns of my family. It is situated at the entrance into my house, and I thence see under me my garden, court, and base-court, and almost all parts of the building. There I turn over now one book, and then another, on various subjects, without method or design. One while I meditate, another while I record and dictate, as I walk to and fro, such whimsies as these I present to you here. It is in the third storey of a tower, of which the ground-room is my chapel, the second storey a chamber with a withdrawing-room and closet, where I often lie, to be more retired; and above is a great wardrobe. This formerly was the most useless part of the house. I there pass away both most of the days of my life and most of the hours of those days. In the night I am never there. There is by the side of it a cabinet handsome enough, with a fireplace very commodiously contrived, and plenty of light…
Montaigne shows us that his grasp of the world is thoroughly balanced in the 4th Way sense: he not only thinks about life and feels deeply about all aspects of it but he recognises the need to activate his whole body/brain system by physical activity.
Every place of retirement requires a walk: my thoughts sleep if I sit still: my fancy does not go by itself, as when my legs move it: and all those who study without a book are in the same condition. The figure of my study is round, and there is no more open wall than what is taken up by my table and my chair, so that the remaining parts of the circle present me a view of all my books at once, ranged upon five rows of shelves round about me. It has three noble and free prospects, and is sixteen paces in diameter. I am not so continually there in winter; for my house is built upon an eminence and no part of it is so much exposed to the wind and weather as this, which pleases me the better, as being of more difficult access and a little remote, as well upon the account of exercise, as also being there more retired from the crowd. ‘Tis there that I am in my kingdom, and there I endeavour to make myself an absolute monarch, and to sequester this one corner from all society, conjugal, filial, and civil; elsewhere I have but verbal authority only, and of a confused essence. That man, in my opinion, is very miserable, who has not at home a place where to be by himself, where to entertain himself alone, or to conceal himself from others. Ambition sufficiently plagues her proselytes, by keeping them always in show, like the statue of a public, square: ‘A great fortune is a great slavery…’ Seneca
I live from day to day, and, with reverence be it spoken, I only live for myself; there all my designs terminate. I studied, when young, for ostentation; since, to make myself a little wiser; and now for my diversion, but never for any profit.
What is it About Books?
I think it’s their handleability that does it; the feel of them, the smell of them, their permanence down the years. The pages you can turn never knowing what’s coming next like turning a corner in an unknown city or coming to the top of a long laborious hill intrigued by the idea of the coming view. Then there’s the idea that contained in their pages there are endless delights; riches beyond imagination. One does not have to go abroad to find such treasure. Elia, Lynd, Lucas & Lubbock, Mannin & Mansfield, Priestley & Pearsall Smith—the whole of life is there. I am nearing the time when I shall consider that my library is complete; its collecting has taken me 60 years; it contains more than anybody could probably read in a lifetime—I am coming to the end of my lifetime. Aware of this, I have spent a great deal of time in the last ten years doing a sort of resumé, revisiting the books that I take to have formed the basis of my Intellectual Life, as, for instance, Montaigne’s essays. When I see people on trains opening these e-contraptions I know for sure that my time has been and gone and when I find myself back in my library I breathe a sigh of relief that I am home once more and do not have to concern myself with the ‘Modern World’ which tips all its eggs into the e-basket imagining it to be The Panacea but does by no means improve itself in spite of all its contrived excitements. Bread and Circuitry.
I have been described as a ‘chain reader’: while I am reading one book I’m am wondering which one to go to next, a contrast or something by the same author, or in the same vein.
Books have many charming qualities to such as know how to choose them; but every good has its ill; it is a pleasure that is not pure and clean, no more than others: it has its inconveniences, and great ones too. The soul indeed is exercised therein; but the body, the care of which I must withal never neglect, remains in the meantime without action, and grows heavy and sombre. I know no excess more prejudicial to me, nor more to be avoided in this my declining age.
Until various bodily failures, I had always balanced the reading habit with great physical activity, gardening, cycling, walking; but in recent years reading and writing have taken precedence. Maybe I do need to make space for the exercise of the body as well as the soul…
I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, it is for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.
A great delight in my life has been the segment called ‘Reading on a Summer Lawn’ first alluded to in my more than curious novel Structures. Nothing please me more on fine summer days than to dump myself in a deckchair on a lawn and find myself in a book, more often than not with a pen and notebook by my side in case some sequence of words should suddenly form itself into a Found Poem. Books fold into one another; the images join and rejoin in a parade that can never end. I am never done with anything; it’s just possible that I deliberately avoid the trap of self-satisfaction which
…is a sign of diminished faculties or weariness. No powerful mind stops within itself: it is always stretching out and exceeding its capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve: it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; its inquiries are shapeless and without limits; its nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty… It is an irregular activity, never-ending and without pattern or target. Its discoveries excite each other, follow after each other and between them produce more…
The Writing of Books
Montaigne tells us, on many occasions and in different ways, that, in writing his essaies, he is not into a display of knowledge, not attempting to be encyclopaedic, but merely piling up words in the expectation that he will eventually find himself under, or inside, the heap.
These are fancies [his essays] of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself; …if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I now have has risen. Therefore, let none lay stress upon the matter I write, but upon my method in writing it… As things come into my head, I heap them one upon another; sometimes they advance in whole bodies, sometimes in single file. I would that every one should see my natural and ordinary pace, irregular as it is; I suffer myself to jog on at my own rate… My design is to pass over easily, and not laboriously, the remainder of my life; there is nothing that I will cudgel my brains about; no, not even knowledge, of what value soever.
It used to tax me no end that on closing the last page of a book everything I had read would fly out of the window; the completed book would literally be a ‘closed book’. It must have been some comfort to me to read that Montaigne considered himself to have a poor memory. It took me many years to understand that there is no such thing as ‘memory’—it is a meaningless abstraction—but only an activity called ‘remembering’; what contributed significantly to my enlightenment was the reading of Memory by IMLHunter. Once I had got rid of the bucket metaphor of ‘memory’—which gives rise to the idea that when you tip more things into your bucket it will overflow—I constructed a different metaphor for myself: ideas and concepts can be hooked up on a sort of celestial clothes-line that reaches from here to the stratosphere and back—so things can be retrieved by reconstruction, going on a journey. Remembering is a reconstructive process; ideas can be pulled off the clothes-line at random and be fitted together to make sense in whatever way one chooses. ‘As things come into my head, I heap them one upon another; sometimes they advance in whole bodies, sometimes in single file…’ Cudgeling the brain doesn’t work any more than trying to squash things into a bucket will.
Montaigne’s direction to pay attention to the way he writes is useful for anybody who might claim to experience ‘writer’s block’: he heaps things up and kind of hopes for the best; things gravitate to order especially when, as I do, you work always with the virtual question at the back of your mind: HOW CAN I CONNECT THIS WITH THAT?
It took me many years to create a flow in my writing but I think now that the seeds were sown by Montaigne. Before that I thought that you had to get it right first time; I had not got hold of the idea of an ‘essay’ (literally a ‘try’) as simply having a go at saying something; if it doesn’t work first time then it’s OK to have another go, and another and so on. What you’re doing is to interpret the way things are. Interpretations of interpretations… In recognising that he takes this route, Montaigne is slightly critical of others who build their writings by just interpreting those of others; there is too much interpretation, he seems to be saying, and not enough totally original writing about things in themselves. But he persists!
In any case, we interpret the world; then we interpret our interpretations, forever and forever. That’s all.
Our opinions are grafted upon one another; the first serves as a stock to the second, the second to the third, and so forth; thus step by step we climb the ladder; whence it comes to pass that he who is mounted highest has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one.
How often, and, peradventure, how foolishly, have I extended my book to make it speak of itself; foolishly, if for no other reason but this, that it should remind me of what I say of others who do the same: that the frequent amorous glances they cast upon their work witness that their hearts pant with self-love, and that even the disdainful severity wherewith they scourge them are but the dandlings and caressings of maternal love… My own excuse is, that I ought in this to have more liberty than others, forasmuch as I write specifically of myself and of my writings, as I do of my other actions; that my theme turns upon itself; but I know not whether others will accept this excuse.
That’s fine by me!
…all this hodge-podge which I scribble here, is nothing but a register of the essays of my own life, which, for the internal soundness, is exemplary enough to take instruction against the grain…
Self-knowledge Provides Knowledge of Others
Montaigne justifies his excessive self-examination on the grounds that it gives him enhanced insight into the nature of others.
That long attention that I employ in considering myself, also fits me to judge tolerably enough of others; and there are few things whereof I speak better and with better excuse. I happen very often more exactly to see and distinguish the qualities of my friends than they do themselves: I have astonished some with the pertinence of my description, and have given them warning of themselves. By having from my infancy been accustomed to contemplate my own life in those of others, I have acquired a complexion studious in that particular; and when I am once intent upon it, I let few things about me, whether countenances, humours, or discourses, that serve to that purpose, escape me. I study all, both what I am to avoid and what I am to follow.
The principle on which I have based all my teaching is that the more you find out about yourself you more you are likely to be able to empathise with what you might construct as the inner workings of others. First find out where you are currently fixated in Enneagram terms and then check out how you could make things better for yourself by talking about the fixations of others.
This is done bit by bit; change does not come bounding over the hill like the American Cavalry with dancing stars and fireworks. Change is the fruit of long tentative conversations.
The wise speak and deliver their fancies more specifically, and piece by piece; I, who see no further into things than as use informs me, present mine generally without rule and experimentally: I pronounce my opinion by disjointed articles, as a thing that cannot be spoken at once and in gross; relation and conformity are not to be found in such low and common souls as ours. Wisdom is a solid and entire building, of which every piece keeps its place and bears its mark: ‘Wisdom only is wholly within itself’ Cicero
This fits the ‘Artful Vagueness’ of Milton Erikson and Gurdjieff’s ‘Nothing must be given in a ready-made form’. Keep yourself to yourself and make brief utterances which people have to fit together to make sense for themselves—their own sense is what counts, not yours. Montaigne is happy to leave it to others to figure out his meanings—‘to settle our inconstancy, and set it in order…’ He would find it quite useful, he says, to find out what sense others might make of his ramblings but one has to be in the right state of mind to receive comment & criticism. ‘A man had need have sound ears to hear himself frankly criticised; and as there are few who can endure to hear it without being nettled, those who hazard the undertaking it to us manifest a singular effect of friendship; for it is to love sincerely indeed, to venture to wound and offend us, for our own good…’ On the other hand… ‘I think it harsh to judge a man whose ill qualities are more than his good ones…’ He would have the sensitivity to hold off in that case and maybe try to figure out some other way of helping.
How to Do Life According to Montaigne
By the time Montaigne was writing his later essays he admitted that… ‘my age is now past instruction, and has henceforward nothing to do but to keep itself up as well as it can…’ but he also thought he might have something to offer others in the way of advice. ‘I have lived long enough to be able to give an account of the custom that has carried me so far; for him who has a mind to try it, as his taster, I have made the experiment. Here are some of the articles, as my memory shall supply me with them…’
• I have no custom that has not varied according to circumstances; but I only record those that I have been best acquainted with, and that hitherto have had the greatest possession of me.
• My form of life is the same in sickness as in health; the same bed, the same hours, the same meat, and even the same drink, serve me in both conditions alike; I add nothing to them but the moderation of more or less, according to my strength and appetite.
• My health is to maintain my wonted state without disturbance. I see that sickness puts me off it on one side, and if I will be ruled by the physicians, they will put me off on the other; so that by fortune and by art I am out of my way.
• I believe nothing more certainly than this, that I cannot be hurt by the use of things to which I have been so long accustomed. It is for custom to give a form to a person’s life, in whatever way it please…
• …it is not long ago that I found one of the learnedest men in France, among those of not inconsiderable fortune, studying in a corner of a hall that they had separated for him with tapestry, and about him a rabble of his servants full of licence. He told me.. he made an advantage of this hubbub; that, beaten with this noise, he so much the more collected and retired himself into himself for contemplation, and that this tempest of voices drove back his thoughts within himself. Being a student at Padua, he had his study so long situated amid the rattle of coaches and the tumult of the square, that he not only formed himself to the contempt, but even to the use of noise, for the service of his studies. Socrates answered Alcibiades, who was astonished how he could endure the perpetual scolding of his wife, “Why,” said he, “as those do who are accustomed to the ordinary noise of wheels drawing water.”
Though this state of affairs appears from the way he writes about it to be admirable to Montaigne, he admits that he can’t do what he appears to be about to recommend: ‘I am quite otherwise; I have a tender head and easily discomposed; when it is bent upon anything, the least buzzing of a fly murders it…’ But my old Greek master said to us one morning, “Gentlemen, as you grow older you will find it possible to work and concentrate under the most adverse conditions..” Taking everything he said as gospel, I decided then and there that was how it would be for me but I’m not too sure that he applied his dictum to himself during the adverse conditions we often created for him in the course of our Greek classes; maybe his own inability to follow his rule accounted for the frequent fury he directed at us after which he would say, “I’m sorry, gentlemen!” He always called us ‘gentlemen’!
• Speaking is half his who speaks, and half his who hears; the latter ought to prepare himself to receive it, according to its bias; as with tennis-players, he who receives the ball, shifts and prepares, according as he sees him move who strikes the stroke, and according to the stroke itself.
• Experience has, moreover, taught me this, that we ruin ourselves by impatience. Evils have their life and limits, their diseases and their recovery.
• Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.
• …let the mind rouse and quicken the heaviness of the body, and the body stay and fix the levity of the soul…
• …let custom make you hope better for the time to come
• …use imagination as gently as you can… discharge it, if you can
• Let us keep our possession to the last; for the most part, a man hardens himself by being obstinate
• A man [sic] should addict himself to the best rules, but not enslave himself to them, except to such, if there be any such, where obligation and servitude are of profit.
The End of Things
One begins to fall apart a bit in various ways. I’m not sure that there’s anything to be done about it; nowadays the doctors consult their computer screens and offer you a pill or two; I avoid doctors and pills.
I consult little about the alterations I feel: for these doctors take advantage; when they have you at their mercy, they surfeit your ears with their prognostics; and formerly surprising me, weakened with sickness, injuriously handled me with their dogmas and magisterial fopperies—one while menacing me with great pains, and another with approaching death. Hereby I was indeed moved and shaken, but not subdued nor jostled from my place; and though my judgment was neither altered nor distracted, yet it was at least disturbed.
So long as I can get on my motorbike and drive off into the blue yonder I will be OK.
My good friend, your business is done; nobody can restore you; they can, at the most, but patch you up, and prop you a little, and by that means prolong your misery an hour or two: ‘Like one who, desiring to stay an impending ruin, places various props against it, till, in a short time, the house, the props, and all, giving way, fall together.’ Pseudo-Gallus
The book by which I have lived my life is The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies who ironically died at 39—just over half my age. To make up for poor health he expressed a craving for ‘soul-life’ and energy together with a complete indifference for what Gurdjieff would have called ‘A Influences’.
It is in myself that I desire increase, profit, and exaltation of body, mind, and soul. The surroundings, the clothes, the dwelling, the social status, the circumstances are to me utterly indifferent. Let the floor of the room be bare, let the furniture be a plank table, the bed a mere pallet. Let the house be plain and simple, but in the midst of air and light. These are enough—a cave would be enough; in a warmer climate the open air would suffice. Let me be furnished in myself with health, safety, strength, the perfection of physical existence; let my mind be furnished with highest thoughts of soul-life. Let me be in myself myself fully. The pageantry of power, the still more foolish pageantry of wealth, the senseless precedence of place; I fail words to express my utter contempt for such pleasure or such ambitions.
Life is composed of opposites between which we constantly swing as on a Pendulum: night & day, light & dark, winter & summer, hot & cold, misery & happiness, sickness & health, mystery & clarity, stupidity & wisdom, harmony & discord, openness & withdrawal, mess & order. Always the swinging… We could say that… ‘nature has given us pain for the honour and service of pleasure and indolence. When Socrates, after his fetters were knocked off, felt the pleasure of that itching which the weight of them had caused in his legs, he rejoiced to consider the strict alliance betwixt pain and pleasure; how they are linked together by a necessary connection, so that by turns they follow and mutually beget one another…’
We must learn to suffer what we cannot evade; our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrary things—of diverse tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, sprightly and solemn: the musician who should only affect some of these, what would he be able to do? he must know how to make use of them all, and to mix them; and so we should mingle the goods and evils which are consubstantial with our life; our being cannot subsist without this mixture, and the one part is no less necessary to it than the other. To attempt to combat natural necessity, is to represent the folly of Ctesiphon, who undertook to kick with his mule.
Without contraries no progression, says Blake.
I have made a kinaesthetic exercise out of the Pendulum concept; it is an integral part of my Enneagram course. The discovery one makes is to be able to find out what happens at the bottom of the Pendulum swing which is where energy is conserved. Gurdjieff calls it Third Force.
I try to rock asleep and amuse my imagination, and to dress its wounds. If I find them worse tomorrow, I will provide new stratagems… He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears… I only judge of myself by actual sensation, not by reasoning: to what end, since I am resolved to bring nothing to it but expectation and patience? Will you know how much I get by this? observe those who do otherwise, and who rely upon so many diverse persuasions and counsels; how often the imagination presses upon them without any bodily pain. I have many times amused myself, being well and in safety, and quite free from these dangerous attacks in communicating them to the physicians as then beginning to discover themselves in me; I underwent the decree of their dreadful conclusions, being all the while quite at my ease…
And What of the Hunch Itself?
I think that I have proved my original hunch—the one I set out to prove: that I learned much from reading Montaigne’s essays… They did have the effect on me that I believed they had had.
Or maybe I have simply reconstructed Montaigne as I would have him in my imagination.
Such is life…