Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them. Michel de Montaigne, Essais 3.5, “On some verses of Virgil”
Not bad for a privileged, wealthy white guy from more than four centuries ago. Regular readers of this blog know of my appreciation of and love for Michel de Montaigne. Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aristotle, David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, William James . . . these are some of the philosophers and theologians who have shaped and ch allenged me over the years. Anne Lamott, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Kate Bowler, Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Wiman . . . these are but a few of the contemporary authors who have had a shaping influence on my life.
But Montaigne occupies a special place for me because he had the courage to put himself—a normal person—on public display, because he taught me how to honestly investigate myself, and because he is one of my writing heroes. The best compliment I ever received concerning my own writing was when, a number of years ago, a colleague told me that my blog essays reminded him of Montaigne.
I am on sabbatical during the upcoming Fall semester (yay!), but when I return to the classroom in January, one of the courses I will be teaching is an Honors colloquium on Montaigne. This is a dream course for me—I’ve had the opportunity to teach it once before. But that was during the Spring 2020 semester. After a great first several weeks with eight or nine completely engaged Honors juniors and seniors, we were forced—as was the rest of the world—into Covid-19 isolation and spent the rest of the semester doing our best on Zoom. It was a memorable course, but I’m greatly looking forward to having a full semester in person.
To put me in regular contact with Montaigne, I have been posting daily “Words of wisdom from Montaigne” on my Facebook page for the past month or so and will continue to do so throughout the remainder of the summer and through autumn. There is no end of possible wise words, since Montaigne’s Essais come in at around 700 pages and would have been longer had the man lived longer. The Essais went through three editions, each noticeably longer than its predecessor. One thing Montaigne was not good at was self-editing.
As I sifted through an indefinite number of candidates for “daily words of wisdom from Montaigne,” I came across this paragraph from his essay “Of giving the lie”:
If no one reads me, have I wasted my time? . . . I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me—a book consubstantial with its author.
This one hit home like a ton of bricks. I have five published books and more than two dozen peer-reviewed articles under my belt, yet I know that more people come to my blog in a month than have read all of my hard-copy books and articles put together. I can live with that, except that over the past two or three months the traffic on my blog has taken a noticeable nosedive as well. I get enough regular encouraging comments from blog readers to justify the continuing effort, but I confess that it has occurred to me a few times recently that perhaps this blog has run its course.
Which raises the question; Why am I doing this? A particularly pertinent question since I have two more book projects on my plate during the upcoming months of sabbatical. Does the world really need two more books from me that only a vanishing small number of people will ever read? Especially since as a tenured full professor I don’t have to publish anymore? What, or more precisely who, am I writing for?
This is where the passage from Montaigne helps. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asked, “How do I know what I am thinking until I hear myself say it?” Wittgenstein must have been an extrovert. I realized a long time ago that for me, the appropriate question is “How do I know what I am thinking until I write about it?” Montaigne was apparently the same sort of person. By turning my introspective writing energies toward myself, specifically toward the intersection of my professional role as a teacher of philosophy and my lifelong commitment to the life of faith, I have learned a great deal both about myself and my conception of what is greater than us. For me, writing is both a form of therapy and spiritual exercise.
I have noted several times on this blog over the past eleven years that I did not expect to be blogging for this long. I actually don’t like blogs very much, and I don’t read any blogs regularly. I don’t consider them to be a particularly useful source of insight; rather, they tend to be an exercise in regular self-promotion with a dash of narcissism thrown in. Maybe that’s what this blog is as well, but I hope not.
After being urged to start blogging by some respected mentors and friends, I told Jeanne eleven years ago that I would do this until it became just another damn thing that I had to do. What keeps me going is the personal value I gain from a consistent exploration of the matters I consider here. When asked several years ago about who this blog is for, I answered that “I guess this blog is for people like me.”
In “Of experience,” the final essay of the Essais, Montaigne writes that.
The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.
I have come to love that description of a beautiful life. I would love to write a New York Times best seller. I would love mine to be the first likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create before I die. I would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post.
But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.