In this essay, Montaigne gives us a catalog of his personal failings. Some of it is amusing, and the section about the connection between honesty and memory is brilliant. Sarah Bakewell did an outstanding job recounting it in her book, so I see no need to elaborate.
But despite plenty of interesting material, this essay badly needs some editing. It rambles all over the place and repeats too many points from previous Montaigne essays. About two thirds of this way through, Montaigne seems to sense that it’s not going so well. And he gets defensive about it:
I make no apology for daring to commit to writing such ignoble and frivolous matters: the ignobility of my subject restricts me to them. If you will you may condemn my project: but the way I do it, you may not. I can see well enough, without other people telling me, how little all this weighs and is worth and the madness of my design. It is already something if my judgement, of which these are the assays, does not cast a shoe in the process.
Okay, fair enough Michel. Actually, I had no complaints in mind about the project … but this essay in particular. So he continues:
I am under no obligation not to say daft things, provided that I do not deceive myself in recognizing them as such. It is so usual for me to know I am going wrong that I hardly ever go wrong any other way: I never go wrong by chance. It is a slight thing for me to attribute my silly actions to the foolhardiness of my humour, since I know no way of avoiding regularly attributing my vicious ones to it.
Well, I guess I could follow Montaigne’s lead by providing my own rambling piece this evening, but I don’t have the time for that. I could also give a laundry list of my personal quirks and annoying mannerisms, but that might run on even longer that Montaigne’s … and to be honest, I’m in no mood for a brutal self examination. My job has done enough to wreck my self esteem lately without me piling on.
So I’m going to focus on just one paragraph from Montaigne, one where he turns from criticisms about himself to criticisms of his culture:
I feel a distaste for others and for myself. Perhaps we really do live in a time which begets nothing but the mediocre. However that may be, I know nothing worthy of any great ecstasy of admiration nowadays; moreover I know hardly any men with the intimacy needed to judge them; the ones whom my circumstances commonly bring me among are not on the whole concerned with cultivating their higher faculties but are men to whom has been proposed no beatitude but honor and no perfection but valor.
While I won’t go as far as Montaigne, I would characterize our current age as skewing towards the mediocre as well. It’s unfortunately, because there’s no need for it. People alive today have magical technology at their disposal. We follow generations of great scientists, writers, philosophers, statesmen … this should be an era of mind-blowing creativity.
But it hasn’t materialized because we’ve become obsessed with numbers. I don’t know if this is an inevitable consequence of capitalism or not, but I believe that we’re enslaving people with management techniques and accounting systems that attempt to boil down all human activity to something that can be counted.
Then again, I don’t have the energy to dig into the oppression of numeracy tonight. I’ll just end with these thoughts, backed by Montaigne — there’s little wonder that most people would rather have a career based on numbers, not words … most people don’t have the courage to live a writer’s life. If a writer’s work is poor, there’s no escape from it:
Poets are never allowed to be mediocre by the gods, by men or by publishers.
A numbers wizard can fool the people much of the time with razzle dazzle and promises. But a writer? Overpromise the quality of your words and you’ll suffer immediate, blunt feedback:
Dionysius (the elder) thought more highly of his poetry than of anything else of his; at the season of the Olympic Games, as well as sending chariots surpassing all others in magnificence he also sent golden awnings and royally tapestried marquees for the musicians and poets who were to recite his verses. When they were performed, the charm and excellence of the way they were recited at first attracted the attention of the people; but when a little later they came to weigh the incompetence of the work itself, they began to show contempt for it; as their judgement grew more harsh they threw themselves into a frenzy and angrily rushed to knock over all his marquees and to tear them to shreds.