In a compelling piece in yesterday’s New York Times (Ease and Ardor, 2.27.14), op-ed columnist David Brooks takes a close look at two of the greatest essayists who ever lived: Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson.
Brooks notes how the two men tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, yet emerged with different attitudes towards adversity and living life: Montaigne focused on self-understanding and self-acceptance, while Johnson sought self-conquest and self-improvement; where the former sought a life of wisdom and restraint, the latter pursued a life of improvement and ardor.
The article inspired introspection on my part as regards my own personality type on this spectrum, and ways I might strike a better balance. I share here a slightly abridged version of Brooks’ article.
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Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was one of the influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. He grew up in a deeply polarized society, a France torn by religious wars, and tried to make his way in the brutal world of politics. Montaigne was afflicted by the death of children and the death of his best friend. He himself was nearly killed in a riding accident.
This external disorder was matched by internal disorder. He was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him with chimeras and imaginary monsters: “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” Montaigne advised us to accept the flux, to be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he saw around him he attributed to people in a panic who were not able to accept the elusiveness inside.
Montaigne set out to do a thorough investigation of himself so he wouldn’t be surprised so often: “Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile. If he has a bad memory, he’ll tell you. If he has a small penis, he’ll tell you.
“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.”
This honest self-inventory produced a kind of equipoise. Montaigne didn’t strive to create an all-explaining ideology. He didn’t seek to conquer the world. Instead, he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant. He was at ease with life, and even with death. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry, he says. Nature will instruct you.
Samuel Johnson ( 1709-1784) was an inflential English poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was charming, but not amiable. Like Montaigne, Johnson lived with great disorder. He probably had Tourette’s syndrome and couldn’t control his body. He feared insanity. He also worried about the terrors thrown up by the imagination — nighttime fears and jealousies.
Whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson emphasized self-conquest and self-reform. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward. Social, not solitary, he described human nature in general as a way to understand the common predicament. Many of his sayings display a skepticism about human nature: “A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself…. Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
He was a moralist, writing essays on the vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt, boredom and sorrow. He pinned down and named everything that terrified him. He wrote biographies of moral exemplars that readers could emulate. He lashed out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”
Formerly a dissolute and depressed youth, he molded himself into something large, weighty and impressive. His character was marked both by compassion and by a fierce sense of personal responsibility. His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.”
Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife. Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher who constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve.