A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.1 People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.2
Seeing, hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.3 My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?4
My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.5
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.6 Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.7
Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.8
The paragraphs above are a thought experiment that I’ve played out – the success of this project, I’ll leave to the reader to decide. The object was to gather thoughts about thinking – introspections about introspection – and see where it leads. Some transitions between the thoughts might have smoothed things out, but I prefer the poetic coarseness of the piece as a whole.
The curious part to me is how the thoughts circle back to the start. It begins with a human thinking outward about the world, then turning inward to discover that interior thoughts, no matter how philosophical, inevitably convert into autobiography. And by telling this personal story, we actually create a vessel for the reader to feel for himself or herself – this in turn becomes the reader’s inner narrative.
This is how Montaigne saw his own work:
For many years now the target of my thoughts has been myself alone; I examine nothing, I study nothing, but me; and if I do study anything else, it is so as to apply it at once to myself, or more correctly, within myself …. No description is more difficult than the describing of oneself; and none, certainly, is more useful.
There’s a paradox for me in these thoughts … not only do I admire Montaigne, but many other artists who look deeply within: Marcel Proust, Friedrich Nietzsche and John Lennon, to name a few (who were all quoted above.) But as for revealing my own feelings? Well, let me put it this way … I saw an analyst for awhile and he remarked that I always seemed bored to death talking about myself and only came to life when talking about ideas.
What am I supposed to write about – how my micromanaging, middle-manager boss drives me insane? How my three-year old twins have mastered the art of the tantrum? The tedium of playing in an online baseball league just because you don’t want to disappoint old friends? Sure, I suppose there’s something universal in my feelings that helps describe the human condition, but seriously, I wouldn’t want to read about that stuff, why would you?
Well, actually, Montaigne has something to say about that:
Engaging people in talk about oneself is inevitably presumption. Still, if I am to carry out my plan I must not put an interdict on an activity which makes that sickly quality public, since it is in me and I must not hide that defect; I do not merely practise it: I make a profession of it.
And circling back to the Nietzsche quote about all philosophy being autobiography, Montaigne uses Socrates as an example of it:
What does Socrates treat more amply than himself? And what does he most often lead his pupils to do, if not to talk about themselves – not about what they have read in their books but about the being and the movement of their souls?
All of which leads me to feel more than a bit inferior in this project … I’m just the gardener here, I’ll let the great souls blossom with their inner beauty. I could never, for example, put myself on display as Montaigne declares here:
I am all on display, like a mummy on which at a glance you can see the veins, the muscles and the tendons, each piece in its place. Part of me is revealed – but only ambiguously – by the act of coughing; another by my turning pale or by my palpitations. It is not what I do that I write of, but of me, of what I am. I hold that we must show wisdom in judging ourselves, and, equally, good faith in witnessing to ourselves, high and low indifferently.
Which I suppose is why I’m a 45 year old speech writer – a ghost writer of sorts – not the one on stage, nor the one who receives acclaim for the words. Rather, the one hounded by mediocre middle managers for not following capricious directions. But even in self pity, Montaigne holds no quarter for me:
To say you are worse than you are is not modest but foolish. According to Aristotle, to prize yourself at less than you are worth is weak and faint-hearted. No virtue is helped by falsehood; and the truth can never go wrong. To say we are better than we are is not always presumption: it is even more often stupidity. In my judgement, the substance of that vice is to be immoderately pleased with yourself and so to fall into an injudicious self-love.
Okay, Montaigne, so I won’t sell myself short. I have ideas and things to say and too bad if people can’t appreciate what I have to say. Uh oh … he has some less than flattering words for that mental state too:
If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.
Hey, like I said, I’m just the hired help around here, don’t mind me. But wait … I think Montaigne is about to close with a thought that bails me out. If I’ve come to an understanding of my own wretchedness, Montaigne thinks I’m pointed in the right direction:
Because Socrates alone had taken a serious bite at his god’s precept to ‘know himself’ and by such a study had reached the point of despising himself, he alone was judged worthy of being called The Sage. If any man knows himself to be thus, let him boldly reveal himself by his own mouth.
1 Soren Kierkegaard
2 Ralph Waldo Emerson
3 Walt Whitman
4 Virginia Woolf
5 John Lennon
6 Friedrich Nietzsche
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Marcel Proust