The ideas in this post have taken a long time to reach the light of day. The fact that they are doing so now is down to reading a fascinating book about someone who was blogging before blogs were invented.
He was the most human of writers, and the most sociable. Had he lived in the era of mass networked communication, he would have been astounded at the scale on which such sociability has become possible: not dozens or hundreds in a gallery, but millions of people seeing themselves . . . . . from different angles.
She points out that his attraction is that we find ourselves reflected in his account of himself. And sure enough I did when I came to Chapters 6 & 7 in her book. She writes of his debt to philosophy, particularly the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics.
She describes stoics (page 114) as being ‘especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.’ They sought to achieve equanimity by confronting sources of discomfort head on. Epicureans were more inclined to avoid unpleasantness by turning ‘their vision away from terrible things, to concentrate on what was positive.’ The sceptics, she claims, sought to get to the same destination by a rather different route (page 124):
The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously.
The way the trick is worked though is the really interesting bit. You deal with problems by what the Greeks termed epokhe. That triggered an immediate frisson of recognition in me because I recognised behind that unfamiliar Greek word a more familiar French one: époché. I’d seen this in books on existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy where it is used to mean ‘bracketing’ when referring to assumptions and beliefs (see Spinelli). This meant placing them in brackets to put some distance between yourself and your operating assumptions so that you could inspect them in a more detached way. Epokhe, according to Montaigne, meant suspending judgement, a very similar concept.
It’s beginning to be obvious why this latter version of scepticism meant something to me as I have always been taken by the power of suspending my identification with my ideas so that I could reflect on them and maybe change them, including my ideas of who I am. Reflection is a word also used in existentialism to convey this concept of disidentification, about which I have written at length in other posts. My encounter with Montaigne even at second hand in this way was rather uncannily mirroring me. He evinces the same kind of doubt and uncertainty about the validity of his preconceptions as has been my default position for as long as I can remember.
Interestingly Montaigne did not find this kind of scepticism at odds with his Christian Faith. This is a point to which I shall return.
Before we lose the initial thread completely I need to go back to why I resonated to Montaigne’s version of Stoicism and Epicurianism as presented by Sarah Bakewell.
The emphasis I derived from the stoic position was endurance, facing discomfort down. For me this connects with the idea in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that you need to develop the capacity to enact your values in the face of discomfort and not use discomfort as an excuse to do nothing of use or value. For me this is closely allied to the idea of duty. Epicurianism on the other hand seemed to value avoidance and distraction as a means of defusing unpleasantness. Seen this way these two philosophies capture an apparent polarity that splits my mind on many occasions.
Duty calls me to exert myself which I might do until fatigue and stress flip me into escapism: I then distract myself with something less demanding. Initially it may seem as though duties and distractions are genuinely opposite. However, whether something seems a duty or a distraction can shift depending upon my point of view and most importantly what value I detect as in reality underpinning the activity.
A duty undertaken not for its objective usefulness or moral value but as a means of making a good impression on others suddenly becomes suspect. An apparent distraction such as watching Hamlet or Lark Rise to Candleford on television may inspire a deeper understanding of people or rekindle a strong sense of community that makes me a better person capable of greater empathy and kindness: what was despised as a temptation from the path of duty becomes the means of enriching my sense of common humanity.
So what seemed initially the clear contradiction between duty and distraction turns out to be a false dichotomy. My encounter with Montaigne via Bakewell has suddenly become not just a mirror but a microscope. It has brought a subtle problem into clearer focus.
This shouldn’t really have come as such a surprise to me. Since my teens I have lived with and partly through Shakespeare, and Shakespeare and Montaigne are kindred spirits.
Jonathan Bate describes this in his brilliant book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age (page 410):
If there is a single book that . . . brings us close to the workings of the mind of Hamlet, it is Montaigne’s Essays. Scholars debate as to whether or not Shakespeare saw Florio’s translation before it was published in 1603. The balance of evidence suggests that he probably did not, but rather that his mind and Montaigne’s worked in such similar ways that Hamlet seems like a reader of Montaigne even though he could not have been one.
And I’ve known of this connection for a long time but been too lazy or unwilling to grapple with Montaigne directly even in the most recent skilled translation of the complete essays by Screech which I bought in 2003. One of the reasons why I have been unable to convince myself that I should invest the necessary effort in reading its 1200 pages is that I cannot make up my mind whether to do so would be enacting a duty in the face of discomfort or succumbing to a distraction that would lead me away from the path I ought to be pursuing. You see the problem? It’s also clear why I find Montaigne’s tentative scepticism so appealing. I’m like the old joke about the man who went to the psychotherapist saying: ‘I have this terrible problem. I have to qualify everything I say. Well, almost everything.’
Time to return now to the problem we mentioned earlier: how is such doubtful dithering compatible with faith? A possible key to this is touched on in Bakewell’s book (page 130). She quotes Montaigne:
We must really strain our soul to be aware of our own fallibility.
She goes on to say:
There was only one exception to his ‘question everything’ rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt.
While this went down well during his life time, it’s interesting to note that sometime after his death he ended up on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books where he remained for a hundred and eighty years.
Clearly this is not a stance without its complications. In an age of evangelical atheism and creationism how does this idea that we can doubt everything but faith hold up?
For Bahá’ís this is an interesting issue in that our scriptures give us some hints about how this apparent contradiction might be managed in our own lives. Bahá’u'lláh tells us:
All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.
(Arabic Hidden Words: Number 67)
Our understanding is therefore never going to be the same as the truths the Revelation is seeking to convey. Bahá’u'lláh also seems to distinguish between the sort of cast-iron certainty we sometimes have about our understanding and Certitude which is the highest form of faith.
When the channel of the human soul is cleansed of all worldly and impeding attachments, it will unfailingly perceive the breath of the Beloved across immeasurable distances, and will, led by its perfume, attain and enter the City of Certitude….
(Kitáb-i-Íqán: page 126 UK Edition)
And He explains what exactly the City of Certitude is:
That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation.
(Op. Cit.: page 127 UK Edition)
So certitude is about our relationship with the Word of God itself, not about our relationship with what we think Revelation means. In the first section of the Íqán Bahá’u'lláh has made it very clear how wide of the mark of divine purpose the understandings of mankind can be. This maps closely onto the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book Revelation and Social Reality between religion and Revelation. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.
Therefore a deep scepticism about my own understanding can be quite compatible with an unswerving faith in the Scriptures of a religion. Such a position is in fact preferable to a cast-iron commitment to our current interpretation of our religion which will either crack under the hammer blows of the tests life smashes into us or be used as a weapon with which to crack the skulls of our so-called enemies.
How amazing that the blogs of a sixteenth century Frenchman resonate so strongly with my 20th Century mind. We still have a lot to learn from him it seems. Perhaps I should tackle Screech’s book after all.