Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience

There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason fails us, we use experience… That’s the way Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience” begins. Here we go again, you might think; another dry academic treatise; another boring philosopher. Ho hum. But Montaigne isn’t a philosopher. He’s a flesh-and-blood man. He understands the way ordinary people think and he knows how they feel about studying philosophy: Philosophy is very childish, to my mind, when she gets up on her hind legs and preaches to us… Montaigne doesn’t preach. He just tells us what he thinks because that’s the subject he knows best: I study myself more than any other subject. No matter our station in life we would be wise to do the same. Montaigne believes that the life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor’s or an ordinary man’s, it is still a life subject to all human accidents. Let us only listen: we tell ourselves what we most need. My own life should interest me more than reading about Julius Caesar. If my life seems dull in comparison to Caesar’s, that’s because I’m not paying attention. Of course we can learn a lot by reading. We can learn even more when we discuss what we read with other people. Montaigne asks: When do we agree and say, “There has been enough about this book; henceforth there is nothing more to say about it?” In a group discussion we always come away with more than we walked in with: new insights or ideas we hadn’t thought of while reading on our own. Still, when all is said and done we have to make up our own minds about what we think. No one can do it for us. We can read commentaries but Montaigne points out that it is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity. In other words, reading commentaries will help us gain more knowledge. But commentaries will not make us wise. Wisdom is something we can only get through the experience of living and thinking for ourselves.

So then the obvious question is: how should we live and think? This is a question every mature person must consider. Montaigne has given the question a lot of thought. His advice is surprisingly simple: The most usual and common way of living is the best… All that deep thinking, and that’s the best he can come up with? Actually, “the most usual and common way of living” is both more difficult and yet easier than it sounds. It’s difficult because over the years Montaigne learned that There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally… And he gives us fair warning that we can’t learn about life from reading about it in books. We have another mission: To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. Life will come naturally and gracefully to those who “live appropriately.” Montaigne has comforting words for modern-day slackers: We are great fools. “He has spent his life in idleness,” we say; “I have done nothing today.” What, have you not lived? That is the only fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations…Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all. To be socially and financially successful is a worthy goal, but to live well is enough for most of us. We may not ever be rich or famous or beautiful but Montaigne says the most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity. Montaigne believes just being an average person is a worthy goal. The modern world could use more philosophers who think like Montaigne.


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