Monday, 27 November 2006

How to be alone

The title of my blog comes from a quote from the fantastic philosopher Michel de Montaigne so it is only right that I devote an entry to him but before I go on with the topic I must give my two favourite quotes of his.
"Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses"
The other quote deals with a pretty similar theme:
"Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies"
Montaigne was a man who believed that you can live a virtuous life even if you speak no ancient Greek, fart and not know the ancient philosophers, but as long as you strive towards wisdom (even if you never stray too far from folly). He spent a large amount of his life in isolation, locked up in the most wonderful library atop a tower in his estate in Perigord, France. He was not only surrounded by his amassed book collection but by sixty or so maxims from ancient Greek and Roman scholars (including the likes of Cicero, Seneca, Virgil and Socrates) carved into the wooden beams.

As you can imagine from Montaigne's style of life, he was not afraid to live alone, he was in fact keen to make the most of it:
"Now since we are undertaking to live, without companions, by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves; let us loose ourselves from the bonds which tie us to others; let us gain power over ourselves to live really and truly alone -- and of doing so in contentment"
His first piece of advice seems almost intuitive, to keep occupied though to tailor that occupation the best way to suit one's humour. Unusquisque sua noverit ire via -- let each man choose the road he should take. But, nothing should be done to excess:
"Whether we are running our homes or studying or hunting or following any sport, we should go to the very boundaries of pleasure but take good care not be involved beyond the point where it begins to be mingled with pain".
Montaigne and I share a method of occupation and he singled it out for a special mention:
"Books give pleasure: but if frequenting them eventually leads to loss of our finest accomplishments, joy and health, then give up your books."
His second piece of advice is not to expect too much from your time alone. He baulks at the ideas of Pliny the Younger and of Cicero, ideas of attaining glory for 'ambition is the humour most contrary to seclusion'.
"We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs...withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome you there"
Okay, I'd be the first person to admit that Montaigne's ideas for how to be alone are, well, pretty naff and if you asked Montaigne himself whether one should be alone he would in all probability say no but learning to be alone will always be an important thing to learn because it is an inevitability in life that we will spend time with only ourselves as companions.
"We should have wives, children, property and, above all good health...if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them"
So how should we be alone? Montaigne seems to say that's really up to you, find out what works and then do it, just not to excess. It's not a way of living that he would suggest we chose, but one we learn to accommodate. Life can throw up the most unexpected incidents, we may lose our families, be thrown in jail, in essence we are a slave to fortune. The most telling quote from his essay 'on solitude' comes from the founder of the school of cynical philosophy, Antisthenes, 'man ought to provide himself with unsinkable goods, which could float out of a shipwreck with him'. Learning how to be alone is Montaigne's unsinkable good.


Heather said...

excellent blog title. thanks for explaining its origins. and great post also. i especially like that last quote you cited.

you've got a very interesting blog here and i'm really enjoying your entries. i hope you continue it for awhile. :)

Paolo said...

Thanks Heather.

I was worried that the style of my blog was a little too impersonal but I suppose as long as I write about things that I like and that interest me, then people will learn as little or as much about me as they're willing to.

I'll keep writing as long as the ideas keep coming.