103 Greatest Hits: On Vanity

By Montaigne’s own admission, this essay doesn’t break much new ground. Although it covers some vital Montaigne issues — including the supremacy of culture in governing human behavior over law — it’s value lies mainly in explaining the project. In that respect, the essay hints at a nuance in Montaigne’s thinking not previously explored: that cultural forces necessary to keep a society running smoothly may conflict with what is required to attain individual happiness.

Montaigne begins, as he often does, disparaging this project and his life’s work:

The Law ought to impose restraints on silly useless writers as it does on vagabonds and loafers. Then my own book and a hundred others would be banished from the hands of our people. I am not joking. Scribbling seems to be one of the symptoms of an age of excess. When did we ever write so much as since the beginning of our Civil Wars? And whenever did the Romans do so as just before their collapse? Apart from the fact that to make minds more refined does not mean that a polity is made more wise, such busy idleness arises from everyone slacking over the duties of his vocation and being enticed away. Each individual one of us contributes to the corrupting of our time: some contribute treachery, other (since they are powerful) injustice, irreligion, tyranny, cupidity, cruelty: the weaker ones like me contribute silliness, vanity and idleness. When harmful things are compelling then, it seems, is the season for vain ones; in an age when so many behave wickedly it is almost praiseworthy merely to be useless.

Jump forward to the information age and I would contend that writing is one of the least vain activities in which you can be engaged. It’s not like Americans spend their time building things or harvesting wheat anymore — for the most part, we spend our time and energies providing goods and services for people wealthier than we are, or helping them build an even greater fortune. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of it — it just seems to me that the line between serious and trivial work disappeared ago, with the exception of those who make a living in the military or as emergency first responders. Despite his protests, I think Montaigne senses the actual work — and the value of that work — even as he’s hesitant to surrender his modesty. He has to give a bawdy counterexample to demonstrate his project’s relative worth:

Anyone can see that I have set out on a road along which I shall travel without toil and without ceasing as long as the world has ink and paper. I cannot give an account of my life by my actions: Fortune has placed them too low for that; so I do so by my thoughts. Thus did a nobleman I once knew reveal his life only by the workings of his bowels: at home he paraded before you a series of seven or eight days‚ in chamber-pots. He thought about them, talked about them: for him any other topic stank. Here (a little more decorously) you have the droppings of an old mind, sometimes hard, sometimes squittery, but always ill-digested.

Montaigne then reveals a new piece of his psyche that somehow escaped all previous essays — he needs this project because he lacks a male heir:

My chief aim in life being to live it lazily and leisurely rather than busily, she has taken from me the need to proliferate in wealth to provide for a proliferation of heirs. For a single heir, if what has been plenty enough for me is not enough for him, that is just too bad. His foolishness would not justify my wishing him more.

And even if his project proved to be worthless — which it clearly did not — just providing him an escape from the world of toil would have been reward enough:

What would I not do to avoid reading through a contract and shaking the dust off piles of papers, a slave to my affairs and, worse still, a slave to other people‚ like so many folk who do it for the money! For me nothing is expensive save toil and worry: all I want is to be indifferent and bovine. I was made, I think, more for living off somebody else, if that could be done without servitude and obligation. And when I look at things closely I am not sure whether, for a man of my temperament and station, what I have to put up with from business and agents and servants does not entail more degradation, bother and bitterness than there would be in following a man born greater than I who would give me a bit of guidance and comfort. Slavery is the obedience of a weak and despondent mind lacking in will.

It may sound harsh to compare the world of office toil to slavery, but I accept that characterization. My own experience is that I willingly follow and serve natural leaders, but have great difficulty accepting the opinion and authority of those who are, at best, my peers. I readily accept, and welcome, fact checking and genuine editing, but loathe heavy-handed rewriting from people who could never succeed at the jobs I’ve held. Montaigne’s position is that people continue to accede to this style of life due to our fear of nonconformism:

We cheat ourselves of what is rightly useful to us in order to conform our appearances to the common opinion. We are not so much concerned with what the actual nature of our being is within us, as with how it is perceived by the public. Even wisdom and the good things of the mind seem fruitless to us if we enjoy them by ourselves, if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of others.

Extrapolate this behavior to a full society and you end up with a cobbled-together mess:

I learn from our example that, whatever the cost, human society remains cobbled and held together. No matter what position you place them in, men will jostle into heaps and arrange themselves in piles, just as odd objects thrust any-old-how into a sack find their own way of fitting together better than art could ever arrange them. King Philip made just such a pile from the most wicked and depraved men he could find. He built them a city which bore their name and sent them there. I reckon that out of their very vices they wove for themselves a political fabric and an advantageous lawful society.

Returning to a previous theme from several essays, Montaigne still holds that custom is what governs a society best. So there’s a contradiction in Montaigne’s thought, that a successful culture requires a level of conformism, but this same conformism is keeping individuals from reaching their true potential and perhaps from attaining happiness:

The best and most excellent polity for each nation is the one under which it has been sustained. Its form and its essential advantages depend upon custom. It is easy for us to be displeased with its present condition; I nevertheless hold that to yearn for an oligarchy in a democracy or for another form of government in a monarchy is wrong and insane.

It’s an important point, but Montaigne doesn’t develop it here, returning instead to the fact that he’s said much of this before:

In these ravings of mine, what I fear is that my treacherous memory should make me inadvertently record the same thing twice. I hate going over my writings and only unwillingly probe a topic again once it has got away. I have no freshly learned doctrines; these are my normal ideas. Having doubtless conceived them a hundred times I am afraid that I may have mentioned them already.

Montaigne apologizes for changing subjects frequently, but also explains the method behind the madness:

I change subject violently and chaotically. My pen and my mind both go a-roaming. If you do not want more dullness you must accept a touch of madness, so say the precepts of our past masters and, even more so, their example. There are hundreds of poets who drag and droop prosaically, but the best of ancient prose, and I scatter prose here no differently from verse sparkles throughout with poetic power and daring…. Since I cannot hold my reader’s attention by my weight, it is no bad thing if I manage to do so by my muddle. Yes, but afterwards he will be sorry he spent time over it. I suppose so: but still he would have done it! And there are humors so made that they despise anything which they can understand and which will rate me more highly when they do not know what I mean. They will infer the depth of my meaning from its obscurity ‚Äì a quality which (to speak seriously now) I hate most strongly; I would avoid it if there were a way of avoiding myself. Aristotle somewhere congratulates himself on affecting it: a depraved affectation!

Montaigne then explains why the third edition essays are so much longer — never realizing that the quality of the product has markedly improved as well:

Because the very frequent division into chapters which I first adopted seemed to me to break the reader‚ attention before it was aroused and to loosen its hold so that it did not bother for so slight a cause to apply itself and to concentrate, I started making longer chapters which require a decision to read them and time set aside for them. In this kind of occupation, whoever is not prepared to give a man one hour is prepared to give him nothing; and you do nothing for a man if you only do it while doing something else. Besides I may perhaps have some personal quality which obliges me to half-state matters and to speak confusedly and incompatibly.

There’s actually very little confusion in the third volume — but there is a great amount of muddle in this very long, highly meandering piece. Montaigne suggests at one point that his entire project might be a massive, unedited mess. Untrue in general, but perhaps in particular:

Reader: just let this tentative essay, this third prolongation of my self-portrait, run its course. I make additions but not corrections: firstly, that is because when a man has mortgaged his book to the world I find it reasonable that he should no longer have any rights over it. Let him put it better elsewhere if he can, not corrupt the work he has already sold. From such folk you should buy nothing until they are dead. Let them do their thinking properly before they publish. Who is making them hurry? My book is ever one: except that, to avoid the purchaser going away quite empty-handed when a new edition is brought out, I allow myself, since it is merely a piece of badly joined marquetry, to tack on some additional ornaments. That is no more than a little extra thrown in, which does not damn the original version but does lend some particular value to each subsequent one through some ambitious bit of precision. From this there can easily arise however some transposition of the chronological order, my tales finding their place not always by age but by opportuneness.

There is one amusing sidebar element to Montaigne’s essay worth mentioning — he starts to imagine how future readers might interpret what he writes. This is interesting, for one, because it’s the first time that Montaigne recognizes that the project might have lasting value.

When all is said and done I have no wish (as I know often happens whenever the dead are recalled to memory) that people should start arguing, claiming ‘This is how he thought; this is how he lived’; ‘If only he had uttered a few last words he would have said this or given away that‚”I knew him better than anyone else.’ Here I make known, as far as propriety allows, my feelings and inclinations. I do so more freely and readily by word of mouth for any who want to know; nevertheless if you look into these memoirs of mine you will find that I have said everything or intimated everything. What I have been unable to express in words I point towards with my finger: Those slight traces are enough for a keen mind and will safely lead you to discover the rest.

Which I believe is quite right — and I find it amazing how badly the essays have been misinterpreted through the centuries, especially in regard to his views of religion. Montaigne may be unclear in parts, but in total his worldview was elucidated with remarkable clarity. Which, interestingly enough, is the point that he returns to the question of personal freedom and culture:

My own manners deviate from current morality by hardly more than an inch, yet even that makes me intractable for this age and unsociable. I do not know whether I am unreasonable in losing my taste for the society I frequent, but I do know that it would be unreasonable if I complained that it had lost its taste for me more than I for it.

Montaigne ends with one of his most rebellious statements — that for all of the support he lends throughout the project for the status quo and for respecting culture, his genuine affections might be on the side of the troublemakers and rabble rousers in life:

I, on the contrary, strive to give worth to vanity itself, to doltishness, if it affords me pleasure, and I follow my natural inclinations without accounting for them thus closely.

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