Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Montaigne: OF SOLITUDE

Look up the word “solitude” in Webster’s dictionary and you’ll find this definition: Solitude – (Noun) - 1. A state of social isolation. 2. A solitary place. 3. A disposition toward being alone. Read Montaigne’s essay “Of Solitude” and you’ll get a different meaning. What Montaigne has in mind isn’t so much what we think of as solitude (being alone), but rather being comfortable with one’s self in a state of retirement. This is an important topic for the multitude of baby boomers closing in on 55 or 60. What should they do? They would do well to consult Montaigne’s essay before giving notice to their employers. Montaigne may not have known about 401(k)’s or Medicare plans, but he’s well versed in human psychology and has sound advice for those thinking about leaving the rat race behind.

To start with, Montaigne says that “it is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move; we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester and repossess ourselves…we take our chains along with us; our freedom is not complete; we still turn our eyes to what we have left behind…” Just because we retire doesn’t mean we’ll change. Even if we move to a retirement community in Florida or Arizona, we take our life-long habits with us. What Montaigne has in mind isn’t just a change of address or climate, but a complete overhaul of our way of living. Old habits must be overcome and new ones take their place if we’re to find the comfort we seek. That’s easier said than done.

It wouldn’t be too soon to begin planning right now, whatever stage of life you’re in. According to Montaigne, each stage of life has its own unique function. He draws this conclusion from his own extensive reading of the classics: “Socrates says that the young should get instruction; that grown men should practice doing good; and that old men should withdraw from all civil and military occupations and live at their own discretion, without being tied down to any fixed office.” Montaigne’s essay is focused primarily on the last stage of life. He wants to know: how is the best way to live the years I have remaining? (For the record, Montaigne inherited his father’s extensive estate at 38, retired at 39, and died age 59.)

In short, his advice is this: “We have lived enough for others; let us live at least this remaining bit of life for ourselves. Let us bring back our thoughts and plans to ourselves and our well-being. It is no small matter to arrange our retirement securely…” So far, so good. Every good employer can help plan for a secure retirement. But no employer can tell you the best way to spend your retirement years. Only you can make that decision. And beware getting it wrong. An ancient maxim is Know Thyself, and Montaigne seems to know himself pretty well. He says “The occupation we must choose for such a life must be neither laborious nor annoying…This depends on each man’s particular taste: mine is not at all adaptable to household management.” Montaigne is sure that he doesn’t want to spend his retirement years doing yard work.

So what should we do then? Montaigne doesn’t prescribe any ultimate, guaranteed best way to spend your golden years. He knows what he wants to do, but he only gives general advice for the rest of us: “We must reserve only so much business and occupation as we need to keep us in trim and protect ourselves from the inconveniences that the other extreme, slack and sluggish idleness, brings in its train.” In other words, kick back and relax, but don’t get so relaxed that the plumbing backs up and the bills go unpaid. If you wanted those kinds of headaches, you may as well have kept on working. The whole point of retirement, as far as Montaigne is concerned, is so folks can have leisure time to prepare to go softly into that good night. We should use our retirement years wisely because there may be a long, long road ahead.

-- RDP


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