Michel de Montaigne, On Solitude, Penguin Great Ideas, Series 4, no. 64 (London: Penguin, 2009)
First, this is the first of likely many reviews of various volumes of the Penguin Great Ideas series. This series is brilliant. It actualizes a point a great mentor of mine- Dr. Paul Vincent- made in a memorable chapel address years ago: the best books, those most worth reading, should be able to fit in the hip pocket of a pair of jeans. Moreover, Penguin brings a sense of style to these books. The understated elegance of the paperback production makes them a pleasure to read and addictive to collect. Blackwell’s 3 for 2 deals help. But with out further fuss- de Montaigne.
Michel de Montaingne is, in my opinion, not at his best in the titular essay: ‘On Solitude.’ I will return to my thoughts on it at the close of this essay. But to start, I must simply remark on the near perfect simplicity of ‘On the Length of Life.’ It is, to my mind, Montaigne at his best: speaking directly and with out undue recourse to classical allusion. He is witty and canny, notably pointing out the ludic undertones of the term ‘natural death.’ He bobs and weaves like a boxer having fun and it’s hard to keep count of the hits he registers because you are just enjoying the show too much. His effortless wit and ability to move quickly from trivial to sublime is on display in other essays as well, but at times, I think, his penchant for antiquity reduces some essays to chains of examples. Frequently he draws from Seneca, and often to great effect. And yet, I think this is where my creeping issues with de Montaigne begin. In his discussion of solitude he endorses a Senecan, stoic, withdraw or detachment. In a through away comment he mentions the stress of managing ones estates to point out that country retirement does not always equal rest, or properly: otium. There is, like in Seneca, a darker undertone. de Montaigne’s leisure was contingent upon the backbreaking labor of others. His patrician tone extends past his predilection for the ancients. It seems harsh, or unduly Marxist, to judge a man retroactively- he was no worse and likely much better than most of his class- and yet his exhortations on some issues are impossible to accept because the require an entire socio-economic system we have rejected wholesale. Perhaps my ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ occludes my judgement, but- I must say- I must reject the solitude he suggests precisely because it- to my mind- is a house built upon sand, and perhaps worse, watered in blood. Now, I don’t wish to put off de Montaigne entirely. When he speaks of life, of human emotions such as anger or constancy, he is scintillating. I guess I speak in the light of my days. Without being too political (and anyone who actually knows me knows how laughable the charge of liberalism is) it is hard to read anything today that does not recognize the problems of class, labor, and money. Montaigne’s virtue requires, to some extent, unvirtuous acquisition of the material means necessary to obtain the requisite otium he sees paramount to living the good life.