Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne is regarded as the father of the essay. We tend to define the essay as a deductive genre: I have my point to make, and I will take these prescribed, recognizable steps to convince you of my point. This is how students are taught to write, and it is a formula as old as Aristotle, a formula rooted in oratory. Montaigne subscribes to a radically different definition of “essay,” one especially suited for writing. The French word essayer means “to try, to attempt, to test.” An essay, in Montaigne’s conception, is a trial, a test-drive of an idea, a throwing of noodles against the wall.
Such is the case with the selections here, “On Friendship” and “That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn How To Die.” Rather than a systematic “argument,” we encounter a dialogue, a discussion. In the spirit of essayer, we can attempt to answer this first question: what are these essays doing together in this Mouse book? Why these choices?
Montaigne posits friendship as possibly the highest human good, a spiritual endeavor. “Friendship,” he says, “is enjoyed...proportionally as it is desired; and only grows up, is nourished and improved by enjoyment, as being itself spiritual, and the soul growing still more refined by practice.” Friendship is transcendent: of family relationships, social duties, and customs. Loyalty to one’s friend should cause one to defy all norms, says Montaigne. No doubt, Montaigne is describing what we might call a “bromance,” an intimacy between men only, who spend their free time sharing their deepest secrets. But it is certainly possible to update Montaigne’s spirit of friendship to account for modern life. “The sense I have,” he writes of friendship, “surpasses even the precepts of philosophy.” Friendship can not be thought into, only experienced. It is rooted in divulgence, communication, dialogue. This spiritual practice is available to everyone (an update of Montaigne’s attitude). Where, then, do you experience true friendship in your life?
If friendship “surpasses even the precepts of philosophy,” how can we connect the ideas in “On Friendship” to Montaigne’s propositions in “That To Study...”? Indeed, one might argue that Montaigne, in his passionate advocacy of pleasure against the terror of death, is not talking about philosophy, but about life itself. Montaigne suggests two ways to counter the sting of death: on one hand, one must pursue pleasure rooted in virtue; in doing so, on another hand, one must remain mindful of the presence of death, so as to diminish fear. Friendship dwells at the heart of this endeavor. It is the spiritual practice by which we cope with death, otherwise known as the felt sense of impermanence at the core of life’s goodness. In pursuing divulgence and sharing, we remove the sting of our aloneness in death. Montaigne echoes the wisdom traditions of the world’s religions and philosophies: death is part of life, inextricable from each moment. In the face of death every day, what higher good is there than friendship?
As you read these selections, here are some more questions to think on:
What is the nature of the universe, of God? Our current discourse on consciousness and evolution tends toward the impersonal. We still want to think of life in terms of knowable systems, within which an individual life, and even the life of our species, is a random manifestation of measurable of forces. We came about randomly; we will pass on randomly (and the world will be better off for it). Montaigne admits that he is obsessed with this idea - that the “universe” doesn’t seem to care when and how we die. But, what if we thought of the universe and God in terms of relationality, perhaps even friendship? Can God be your friend?
Aristotle posits three types of friendship: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, and friendships of virtue. Montaigne is interested in the latter type. Reflect on your relationships. Where do you see the three types in your life? Where do we find friends amid all our “connections”?
Montaigne says that true friendship is only possible in certain contexts, specifically male non-familial, non-professional relationships. Clearly, we can expand Montaigne’s definition. What does a “friendship of virtue” mean for you? Is female friendship different from male friendship? Can you be “friends” with your family members?
For Montaigne, friendship is a spiritual practice rooted in divulgence and sharing. Do you feel like your story is valued? Can you share your deepest secrets and desires? Do you have an outlet to divulge your spirit? Do we have to be our own “friend” sometimes?
Spend a week or so following Montaigne’s advice to think about death. What does that feel like? Is it possible to become so comfortable with your own death that you become less afraid of it?
Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor