Montaigne ended his life by saying “Que scais je?” <what do I know?> on his deathbed.
Montaigne. A man who probably spent more time thinking and searching for answers than anyone else in history. And he ends his life asking “what do I know?”
And thinking was his life.
“ … a man of thought must feel the thought that is parent to the universe.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson on Montaigne <from Representative Men>
As I sifted through some boxes of books the other day I came across my beautiful 1946 edition of The Essays of Montaigne. A wonderful book which explores thought on an astounding array of topics <cannibalism to idleness to imagination to friendship to the custom of wearing clothes>. When reading it one truly understands when Emerson says “he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.”
I love it because Montaigne is this everyday person <the way he writes> … and the ultimate thoughtful thinker.
Reading his essays is like having a conversation with a casual acquaintance on a variety of topics … skipping from thought to thought like children exploring the old forest in the backyard with a new friend.
He makes you think of little things … in big ways.
Auguste Collignon’s grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery reads … “lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne.”
True then <late 1800’s>.
The essays of Montaigne provide context to thinking <even today>. And frankly we could do a lot worse than living a Life formed on the virtue of Montaigne’s Essays.
And I believe that is what Ralph was trying to tell us.
Thinking, in general, is cheap.
Easily done and easily wasted.
Individual thoughts can roam aimlessly without any direction and without regard for any repercussions they may reap as they leave those, who actually think about those thoughts, behind.
The real thinkers?
The real thought?
At some point to be ‘real’ it must explore the foundation …seek the roots of individual ideas and thoughts. Something to provide context and ground the thought in something meaningful beyond ‘I think.’.
Without feeling the ‘thought that is parent to the universe’ you may find your thinking, and thoughts, comfortable in the mind … you may even find you are even pretty satisfied with yourself … yet you have simply reached a place where thoughts can vanish … untraceable and undiscovered.
They are thoughts floating at the mercy of Life’s breeze.
At its worst it is lazy thinking. At its best it is simply mental masturbation.
Thoughts are truly invisible until they meet its parents … and look at each other eye to eye. That is what I believe Emerson was asking us to think about. It is a fair request.
As Emerson stated:
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 two sides, to find the other: given the upper, to find the under side. Nothing so thin but has these two faces, and when the observer has seen the obverse, he turns it over to see the reverse. Life is a pitching of this penny,- heads or tails. We never tire of this game, because there is still a slight shudder of astonishment at the exhibition of the other face, at the contrast of the two faces. A man is flushed with success, and bethinks himself what this good luck signifies. He drives his bargain in the street; but it occurs that he also is bought and sold. He sees the beauty of a human face, and searches the cause of that beauty, which must be more beautiful. He builds his fortunes, maintains the laws, cherishes his children; but he asks himself, Why? and whereto? This head and this tail are called, in the language of philosophy, Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real; and many fine names beside.
<note from me: Emerson was a wonderful writer … wasn’t he?>
Emerson called Montaigne a skeptic. With all due respect I am not sure I agree. Montaigne was a pragmatic thinker. He avoided the extreme <even found extreme ‘wrong’>. As Emerson did suggest … “He labors to plant his feet, to be the beam of the balance.” I do not believe that is a skeptic. I find that pragmatic. I find that using a good dose of common sense. And I even find that for a true deep thinker he had the ability to make the thinking non-complicated.
As all thinkers should … he believed in all and believed in nothing. He took scraps of truth found in everything and pieced them together as if building a puzzle.
“ … not at all of unbelief; not at all of universal denying, nor of universal doubting. He is the considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that a man has too many enemies than that he can afford to be his own foe.” – Emerson on Montaigne
We cannot be all like Montaigne. He was a special man … with a special mind. But we can all be better thinkers … better considerers … better at husbanding our thoughts.
I will end with 2 thoughts <hopefully deep thoughtful thoughts>:
Here is Emerson’s full quote reference.
The final solution in which skepticism is lost, is in the moral sentiment, which never forfeits its supremacy. All moods may be safely tried, and their weight allowed to all objections: the moral sentiment as easily outweighs them all, as any one. This is the drop which balances the sea. I play with the miscellany of facts, and take those superficial views which we call skepticism; but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes skepticism impossible. A man of thought must feel the thought that is parent of the universe; that the masses of nature do undulate and flow.
Reason, the prized reality, the Law, is apprehended, now and then, for a serene and profound moment amidst the hubbub of cares and works which have no direct bearing on it;- is then lost for months or years, and again found for an interval, to be lost again. If we compute it in time, we may, in fifty years, have half a dozen reasonable hours.- Emerson
‘… Reason is apprehended now and then for a profound moment amidst the hubbub of cares … we may in 5o years have a half dozen reasonable hours.’
And that, my friends, is stated by one of the greatest thinkers of that generation discussing one of the greatest thinkers of another generation..
Bigger thoughts, big ideas and deep thinking, are exceptions rather than the rule.
True deep thought has its rare victories.
We may feel reasonable in how we think and when we think … and how often we think deeply about things … but the profound moments of reason are fleeting and rare.
Why do I say that?
I don’t say it to discourage anyone from deep thinking <because frankly all of us should do so more often> but rather simply to give perspective.
It is a good reminder to keep those of us who like to think … well … humble.
Deep thought comes at a price. Or maybe better said … deep thinking does not increase the value of self worth <or ego>.
Montaigne said: “There is no man, in his opinion, who has not deserved hanging five or six times; and he pretends no exception in his own behalf. Five or six as ridiculous stories,”too, he says, can be told of me, as of any man living.”
So not only is clarity of Reason few within a life time … but it is combined with the fact we, probably in the same quantity as the few victories, connect thought to action in a way that “we deserve hanging.”
Deep thought’s price is few victories and a few, possibly mortal, mistakes.
Deep thought is not for the faint of heart or for those who need ‘wins’ to feel good about themselves or find self actualization <or self esteem>.
Deep thought is not always ‘reasonable’ nor even right all the time. So what does that mean? Deep thought is that, and only that … deep. Being thoughtful does not mean being right.
Why do I say that?
Once again not to discourage deep thinking but rather to suggest deep thinking is a journey in which you will find scattered right and wrong thoughts as way stations along the way. And you will most likely stop at a number of both types of stations to rest your thinking.
The real moral? Keep moving. Stay on the journey <and avoid getting hanged>.
Thinking is good.
Deep thoughts and thinking is even gooder.
My deep thought ends like this.
Montaigne ended his life on his deathbed saying “Que scais je?” <What do I know?>
Not everyone can live that kind of life … but if you can? Whew. What a Life.
Would not that more of us said this to ourselves every day … what do I know?
Emerson … “Consent yourself to be an organ of your highest thought, and lo! suddenly you put all men in your debt, and are the fountain of an energy that goes pulsing on with waves of benefit to the borders of society, to the circumference of things.”
Consent yourself to be of your highest thought.
Good advice for anyone.