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.
Consider the life of the professor. He studies. He reads. “Of the reading of many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” He talks. He, fortune favoring, learns to understand a few things. He teaches young people, who again, fortune favoring, learn to understand a few things. He teaches young people who, again fortune favoring, praise him at lunch and quote his words, sometimes correctly. They may think he’s bright. He writes a book, or more than one book, and once more, fortune favoring, he receives a check for royalties, twice each year, invests this money in common stocks and eventually buys his wife a fur coat. He makes his mark in knowledge, in praise, and some money. He serves on committees. He wins a prize. He has his say at faculty meetings. Once he gave a public lecture. There was applause. He is known as a solid citizen. At sixty-five he says that he has had enough, and perhaps some others join him and say that they have had enough, too. So he retires. He grows old and dies.
Is there any special way of adapting the words of the Preacher to the life of the professor? It is common, no doubt, and in the name of Aristotle to give special honor to the intellectual life. What about that?
The point of Ecclesiastes is certainly that how you go on in life seeking to achieve distinction, the immortality, you so much set your heart upon, in this world, makes no difference. You may leave your name in the rock, but your name in the rock will mean nothing to anyone. How you carve it, what initials you write after it, Ph. D., will not keep it alive. The harm in your life, your mistake, your sin, does not consist in your becoming rich, or in your being famous, or in your knowing so much. It is in your expectations, in your esteem of any one of these, in your expecting a profit. So we are back to the original corruption. Why should your life, your labor, serve you? If you look upon your life in these terms, then, of course, you must see that your labor will not serve you. Your labor can serve only greed, to make you more greedy, insatiable you. Must you be paid for your life, which is a gift to you?
“Your life is not your own.”