Saturday, March 13, 2004

We Have Lived Quite Enough for Others

Michel De Montaigne's Essay, "On Solitude" could also be called "On Retirement" because that is what it is really about, how to make good of your retirement years. There comes a point in a person's life when it is time to withdraw from the world at large, to free oneself from vice by not contending with the vices of others. Not only must we withdraw from the world but also "we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession." To do that we must give up ambition, glory and fame which require that we live in and for the world. Retirement is the time to live for oneself, "we have lived quite enough for others: let us live at least this tail-end of life for ourselves." To live for ourselves it helps, Montaigne asserts, to have "a room of one's own" where we can be entirely free and establish "there our true liberty, our principal solitude and asylum." But our room is not a hermit's room. In fact Montaigne believes it is right to have a spouse, children, property and good health if you can swing it. You do not have to give away all your belongings and live in poverty. On the contrary, you should enjoy what you have, just be sure that your happiness does not depend on having that red sports car or the cabin on the lake. Things, and people, though they may contribute to our happiness, should not be the source of happiness. As Montaigne says, "let us make our happiness depend on ourselves." In our retirement we should be sure to have plenty to do. What we choose to do, however, should be for ourselves, should bring us pleasure. We must take care not to involve ourselves too much, become too busy, lest we get too stressed out and the pleasure turn to pain. Montaigne does not advocate religious solitude. There are few whose soul is wise and vigorous enough to reach such spiritual tranquility. He realizes that we are human, admits to his "commonplace" soul, and having such, must help sustain himself with "the pleasures of the body." He encourages us to "cling tooth and claw to the use of the pleasures of this life which the advancing years, one after another, rip from our grasp." Montaigne may have been a good Catholic, but that didn't stop him from appreciating the sensual. While "On Solitude" is a bit more formal feeling than "On Books," I am delighted once again at how modern and contemporary Montaigne's reasoning and outlook are. Much of what he argues in "On Solitude" can be read in self-help books, heard on talk shows and talked about on the therapist's couch. Is this a case of what's old is new again? Of recycling good advice? And if such advice has been around for so long, even before Montaigne since he gets much from Greek and Roman philosophers, why are we still in such a mess? Have we not been paying attention? Or is it a rebellion thing? That which is best for us we don't want; like passing up the vegetables because we want to leave room for the chocolate cake dessert. Even though Montaigne talks of solitude toward the end of one's life, I think there is much here to benefit a person throughout life. After all would anyone be worse off by heeding the advice of Epicurus:

You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself.