It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.
Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. I got distracted from that and moved on to other things. But I am going to get back to it now. Look for more posts in the coming days. In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.
A fresh-ish start on a difficult topic. Bear with me.
I take vanity to be the central concept of Montaigne’s writing: it is the concept that joins his Christianity to his skepticism, in fact it is the concept that makes his skepticism Christian. I suppose this claim might be a stumbling block for many, and for a variety of reasons. The one I want to address now is this: “You take the Essays (particularly the Third Book) as deeply colored by Ecclesiastes. For you, the line, “Per omnia vanitas” is the running heading of the Essays. But Ecclesiastes is, remember, a description of life “under the sun”–uncompromising, cold, objective, human–a description of a world without God. So how can Montaigne’s Ecclesiastes-saturated essays be a form of Christian, again: Christian, skepticism?” But that is not how I understand Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes I understand as itself revelation: What is shows us is human life as revealed by God. What it shows us is not something we can lift ourselves out of by coming to faith in God, as if faith in God undid the vanity of human life. It doesn’t. God is Mystery; faith is Mystery; and the relationship of both to the vanity of human life is Mystery. That does not mean that we know nothing about God, faith or the relationship of human life to each or both, but it does mean that we cannot make simple, formulaic comments about it. (It is not safe to say, for instance, that the view of human life in Ecclesiastes is one that simply requires the supplementation of grace in order for it to undo its vanity. There’s something right about that, sure; but it is not a matter of simple supplementation.) Human life is vanity. God and faith in God do not change that straightforwardly, although God and faith in God allow for hope and patience in the vanity of human life.
Montaigne’s skepticism is his way of reckoning with the vanity of human life–a vanity still present in human life even when it is lived in Christian categories, a vanity in fact most fully disclosed in such living. This does not mean that human life is devoid of value or of values, but it does mean that those values are, in an important but difficult sense, contradictory. Happiness is vanity; but we should gather such happiness as we can. Work is vain; but we need to work. Neither happiness nor work is fully satisfying, but neither is without value. Their value is enigmatic, contradictory. As such, the role of each in human life is not open to easy survey–and to think either is so open is to fail to reckon with the view of human life God reveals, to fail to remember life’s existential deficiency. (Note that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, the Church-Man, has had this revealed to him not in ecstatic vision but in the midst of his own life’s striving: “I marked…”, “I found…” “I learned…”. It is important that the book is written first-personally. But what is marked, found and learned is not something that the Church-Man takes himself to have come to know independently of God’s revelation of it to him. What is true under the sun is not anyway available to be known under the sun.)
For Montaigne, as for the Church-Man, knowledge is vain. We should seek it, cannot, in one sense, help but seek it: “There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge.” But even when we have it, each of us must ask: “What do I know?…I am an investigator without knowledge.” –No matter what we do, we are all unprofitable servants. –We know what we know, but knowing it does not eliminate our emptiness or neediness, as we expect it to do. Nothing we can know can change what we are, make us new and different and better creatures. More often than not, what we know turns out to be an encumbrance, a burden, a curse; knowing what we know makes us worse. (The Serpent’s lesson, taught in the Garden.) At best, it tends to puff us up. Puffiness is Montaigne’s aversion.
Can a philosophy be grounded on the considered experience of its author? –So grounded, we could understand it as open to analysis and to disagreement, but not as straightforwardly vulnerable to argument based on general principle. I ask because it strikes me that many of the philosophies I care most about can be understood as grounded in this way, as grounded in their author’s considered experience. Montaigne’s, of course; but Cavell’s too, of course. Many philosophers who turn in the direction of ‘empiricism’, ‘experience’–can I think be best understood as appealing to his or her own considered experience. They are not best understood as appealing to experience (full stop), are not worried about (or much worried about) theorizing the rational or a-rational bearing of experience (full stop) on belief or knowledge. They are neither rationalists nor empiricists, although stretches of their philosophical terms, constructive or critical, sound empiricistic.
A give-away for the sort of philosophy with which I am concerned is a moment at which the philosopher talks of experience as something to which we can be loyal, something to which we can rally, something that can obligate us, something that can be educated. Another give-away is talk about experience as accumulating, as having weight.
Emerson calls the skeptic, calls Montaigne, the Considerer. (See the quotation in EoM1.) What does this mean? It is tempting, I believe, to take it to mean something like judge. But I do not think that is the meaning, or at least it is not the primary meaning of the term. It is better to situate the term in contexts like this: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…” Kierkegaard, commenting on this scriptural passage, writes: …[C]onsider them, that is, pay close attention to them: make them the object, not of a hasty glance in passing, but of your consideration…Alas, how many are there who truly consider them in accordance with the Gospel’s instructions.” I am not claiming that Emerson has Matthew 6 in mind when he chose the word ‘Considerer’, but I do think that he is using the word in that way, Kierkegaard’s way. My point is that the Considerer does not understand himself as standing over and above what he considers. No, he is enmeshed in what he considers, and his considering it is his way of learning how to cope in and with it all. To consider them to to attentively submit to them, to let them impress themselves upon you. But that only works to the extent that you are in sympathy and likeness to what you consider. –And this is another useful point of comparison with Kierkegaard, since one upshot of his edifying discourse on “What We Learn from the Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air” is that the lilies and the birds can teach us nothing if we take ourselves to be nothing like them.
Of course, the drift of Emerson and Kierkegaard seems very different. Emerson is describing something linked with prudence; Kierkegaard is describing something contrasted with prudence. For Kierkegaard, the lesson of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air is that we are only independent in complete dependence on God. To learn the lesson of that complete dependence is not merely to believe that it is so but to live out that complete dependence. So do the lilies and the birds. What we learn from them must be reduplicated in our lives, or we have not really learned it. –But understood this way, the drift of Kierkegaard and of Emerson is not so very different, though sketching out the similarities would take more time than I have. For now, let me just note this: Each passage targets our vanity. Kierkegaard, following scripture, tells us to learn from, submit to, the birds of the air. Emerson, following his genius, tells us we are but poppinjays, little vulnerable conceited poppinjays. Let us be Considerers–but not in vain.
Here is one of the great passages in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne:
Let us have a robust manly life, let us know what we know for certain. What we have, let it be solid, and seasonable, and our own. A world in the hand is worth two in the bush. Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.
This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic, this of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting, doubting even that he doubts, least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good. These are no more his moods, than are those of religion and philosophy. He is the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own foe; that conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other. It is a position taken up for better defense, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained, and it is one of more opportunity and range; as, when we build a house, the rule is, to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.
The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility. The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion A theory of Saint John, and of nonresistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial. We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first, and limber as the second. We want a ship, in these billows we inhabit. An angular dogmatic house would be rent to chips, and splinters, in this storm of many elements. No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea. The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwellinghouse is built. Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature. We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errours, houses founded on the sea.
The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players…
The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own, some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success: that he has evinced the temper, stoutness, and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust. For, the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness. Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers. Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having itself a positive quality, some stark and sufficient man…These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.
Emerson here complicates together a remarkable number of lines of thought. It will take me more than one post to identify some and to follow them out. The line of thought I want to identify and follow out now is the characterization of Montaigne’s skepticism Emerson offers.
What strikes me about what Emerson offers is its modulating from an epistemological, through a moral and finally to an existential register. Montaigne’s life is skeptical, he lives skeptically. But that is not to say of his life that it centers on doubt. Like Kierkegaard’s Climacus, Emerson’s Montaigne mistrusts De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. For a skeptic of Montaigne’s sort, any reconsideration on knowledge is not ultimately so much epistemological, an attempt to determine how much, and exactly what, we know, as axiological, a reconsideration of the value and place of knowledge in our lives. What we need, we might say, is shipshape knowledge, knowledge fit for our billowy life. The point is not whether knowledge is possible, but what value knowledge can have in a properly solid and intelligible way of living. The secrets of life do not yield themselves up to epistemological methods, not even the method of doubt, but instead to a life lived in wise limitation–where that limitation is experienced, either by the person living it or those living lives he touches, as a fullness, a kind of charm–as something to rally to. It is not experienced as mere self-denial, as a disownment of robustness, good temper, stoutness. Quite otherwise. The wise limitations limn the soul of man, allowing it to be taken as the blueprint for a house always already launched on the sea, built and rebuilt afloat. It is with the sea that we need to find sympathy and likeness.
We believe that above the surface of the water, in the sky, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success; we believe that below the surface of the water, in the depths, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success. But a world in the hand–on the surface of the waters–is worth two in the bush, whether we figure the bush as sky or depths. We want to live without having to adapt, despite the fact that adapting is what we do, natural to us. But Montaigne will have us adapt, have us exercise our skills and strive for success. Compared to the bush-worlds, the world Montaigne tells us we are in is a world in which we must be gamesters, must be game. But we can play the odds, so to speak, and build neither too high nor too low. We may not have security but we can defend ourselves. Our seafaring lives can be both stark and sufficient.
Right at the beginning of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson writes:
Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals. The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these sides, to find the other.
I take this to be a method–Emerson’s method. For us, raised as we have been to believe that there is a gulf fixed between sensation and morals, the method is hard to imagine. To play the game one way, finding the morals in sensation, seems romantic. To play the other way, finding the sensation in morals, seems crass. And anyway, what exactly is Emerson saying? Facts have sides? They can be rotated, reoriented, so that the apparent side changes?
I am not really going to answer these questions. Instead, I want the asking of them to provide the occasion for saying this: Emerson writes scripture. As he says in his essay on Goethe, “we too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.” This is a close to a skeleton key to Emerson as I know. The broad outlines of Emerson’s work become clear when we reflect on it. Christian dogma treats Jesus, the God-Man, as the one who unites the heavens and the earthly world. Emerson will dispense with the dogma but without dispensing with its structure: the heavens do need to be united to the earthly world. Jesus was taken to have done that in fact, ontologically, we might say. But for Emerson Jesus is a man, merely a man. Jesus, like Montaigne and Goethe, is a representative man, the greatest of representative men. Still, a mere man. For Emerson the Incarnation–the uniting of the heavens to the earthly world–is not something that has been done. It is something that must needs be done. Incarnation, for Emerson, is not so much a fact or a point of departure; it is more a conquest and a goal. He writes toward it. He writes his Bible.
Emerson urges his readers to unite the heavens and the earthly world in themselves; he asks his readers to become Incarnations. Well, that is not quite right: he reminds his readers that they are always already Incarnations, but them to become more fully Incarnations than they are; his readers are to strive toward an ever more perfect unity of the heavens and the earthly world in themselves. The heavens and the earthly world need to more fully interpenetrate one another. The centerpiece of Emerson’s understanding of human greatness–this is it. Over and over Emerson reminds and urges his readers: Incarnate yourselves!
For Emerson, each human being is and is called to Incarnation. Emerson begs us to hear and heed that call. Because we are Incarnations we can hear it. Because we can become more fully Incarnations we must heed it.
Emerson’s line about facts is an Incarnational method, a reminder that the good gamester of thought always understands each fact in relation to the heavens and the earthly world, and always works to reveal one when the other threatens to eclipse it. To fail in the method is either to become a Docetist or an Ebionite about yourself, to leave your task of uniting the heavens and the earthly world undone.
…[S]ince the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne my be unduly great, I will, under the shield of the prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a world or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip.
A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the essays remained to me from my father’ library, when a boy. It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience. It happened, when in Paris, in 1833, that, in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, I came to a tomb of Auguste Collignon, who died in 1830, aged sixty-eight years, and who, said the monument, “lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne.” Some years later, I became acquainted with an accomplished English poet, John Sterling; and, in prosecuting my correspondence, I found that, from a love of Montaigne, he had made a pilgrimage to his château, still standing…and, had copied from the walls of his library the inscriptions which Montaigne had written there.
“I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.” My life has been punctuated by books: Plato, in high school; Plotinus and Schopenhauer and Santayana, in college; Kant and Austin, in graduate school; Wittgenstein and Frege, in my first years at Auburn; Marcel and Montaigne, in recent days. Who knows what book will speak to him? Or when? But some books do speak so sincerely to our thought and experience that we cannot help but believe those books written by us–for how else could they have so undeniably been written for us?
Often when we read, the book says to us, “Your concern is not mine. My hour has not yet come.” But then, later, the book’s hour does come, and it reveals itself on time: emerging from a pile of books knocked over in the corner of the study; called forth by some phrase in another book; mentioned repeatedly in conversation: and then we read, we drink deep; the good wine was kept until now. I simply cannot say with what delight and wonder I read Philosophical Investigations when I found I could read it, when its hour had come. The thrill of the Preface to Foundations of Arithmetic had me running, more or less, up and down the department hallway, trying to get anyone whose office door was open to listen to me as I read passages from it aloud. When I read Frege’s Three Principles, I had the feeling of great doors flung open suddenly–something I desperately wanted to understand was opened to me, even if it was not yet mine. I think too of littler things: the comic marvel of Austin’s footnotes; the incisive charm of Sellars’ occasional metaphilosophical pronouncements (“The landscape of philosophy is not only not a desert, it is not even a flatland”); and so on. The many and varied pleasures of philosophical reading.
Emerson lived with Montaigne’s essays. He did not just read them. Our lives are read within our favorite books; the books are not read within our lives. The covers of our favorite books enclose us. Our lives are bound by our reading.
What should be said about the way Montaigne writes? He writes essays–as he says, if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays, he would make decisions, but his mind is always in apprenticeship and on trial. On apprenticeship and on trial: what Montaigne says of his mind I apply to his words. His words are on apprenticeship and on trial. His words are apprenticed to his subject, they are on trial by their use. The question is: will this word do? Do what it needs to do, stand the test it must stand, carry the burden it must carry. Above all, his words must portray passing, not being. They must be capable of illumining the moment of obligation in experience, where ‘moment’ means both a brief period of time and an important point in a course of development. But they must be able to do so in a way that does not make of the moment of obligation anything that steps free of the experience, that steps free of time. Even the moment of obligation in experience passes. So his words must be chosen in such a way that they do not arrest time or run from it.
One of the deepest peculiarities of Montaigne’s essays is that they too pass in time, in his time and in the reader’s time. Consider the way in which most essays are organized spatially and not temporally, even where on occasion their logico-rhetorical form is temporal. Most essays are written in such a way that the entire essay is to be understood as ultimately present to the reader’s mind all at once, in a timeless present, as it were. The introduction to the essay is not earlier than the body, or the body earlier than the conclusion; no, the introduction is above the body, which in turn is above the conclusion. Although it may take the reader time to work from top to bottom, all the parts of the essay are compresent, and understanding it means coming to hold all its parts together in compresence, in what Augustine might have called the present of the present, available to one contemporary summary observation. But Montaigne’s essays pass. The introduction become the past of the body which becomes the past of the conclusion. Each part jettisons the earlier part, takes its place in the present. The essay is thus not available to observation, but instead to memory, where it is still not present all at once, but rather passes in review.
Now I should say that I am not venturing into the metaphysics of composition or of reading here. Instead I am picturing two different processes and two different understandings of composition and reading. The crucial idea is that the parts of Montaigne’s essays replace each other, they do not exist together with the other parts. That does not mean that the earlier parts do not bear on the later, but rather that they bear on the later parts in a different way. Montaigne changes as he writes the essay. Sometimes he intends to change; sometimes he just does. And the moment of obligation in his experience changes too. So what he writes now may not agree or harmonize with what he wrote earlier. But since what he is presently writing supplants what he wrote earlier, he sees no reason to treat the disagreement as vitiating the essay. The essay may contradict or be in tension with itself but it does not contradict and is not in tension with the truth. The conclusion of his essay concludes the essay but it is not a conclusion in the logical sense. The essay starts and ends but its beginning is not a function of its ending in any argumentative sense, although the beginning and the ending are thematically united, united by subject.
The essay I have been leaning on as I have written this is Montaigne’s “Of Repentance”. I have been leaning particularly on its opening paragraphs. That essay’s title provides a way of focusing what I have been struggling to say. Montaigne’s words are always in apprenticeship and trial. Because of this, Montaigne writes so as not to have to repent for his essays: He does not teach, he tells. He tells us what he sees as he sees it. What Montaigne tells now may contradict what he told earlier, or at any rate may not chime perfectly with it, but what he tells now never contradicts him–he remains always in creative fidelity to himself. He also remains in creative fidelity to the relevant moment of obligation in experience. But he does not worry about remaining in creative fidelity with what he has already told; that is, in an important sense, gone. He did his best with it as he does with what he is telling, but he is no longer responsible to it.
Spending time trying to unify a Montaigne essay wastes time. If an essay is out of agreement with itself, then it is. There is no deeper unity. But that does not mean that each essay is out of agreement with itself. It may be that the later parts of the essay are such that, although they do not follow from the earlier, they follow the earlier, in the sense that they progressively enrich and deepen the creative fidelity of Montaigne’s treatment of himself and of his subject.
Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion–the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing more than a languid motion.