The Incarnate Purpose: Essays on the Spiritual Unity of Life by G. H. Percival
It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep. Through his exercitation , he had learned not to fear his own nonexistence. Death could have a friendly face, just as the philosophers promised. Montaigne had looked into this face—but he had not stared into it lucidly, as a rational thinker should.
Instead of marching forward with eyes open, bearing himself like a soldier, he had floated into death with barely a conscious thought, seduced by it. In dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there. You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.
Bakewell writes:. He would go on to attend to sensations and experiences, not for what they were supposed to be, or for what philosophical lessons they might impart, but for the way they actually felt. He would go with the flow.
While the riding accident could happen to any young man in the Renaissance, Bakewell points out that what made Montaigne unique was his impulse not only to write about it, but to extract from it a wealth of insight and to let it inform his understanding of a multitude of existential questions. In fact, this yearning to distill the tumultuous bustling of the mind into attentive thought is what drove Montaigne to write in the first place. Blakewell explains:. In a simile borrowed from Virgil, he described his thoughts as resembling the patterns that dance across the ceiling when sunlight reflects off the surface of a water bowl.
Just as the tiger-stripes of light lurch about, so an unoccupied mind gyrates unpredictably and brings forth mad, directionless whimsies. It generates fantasies or reveries — two words with less positive associations than they have today, suggesting raving delusions rather than daydreams. He called this a reverie too, but it was one that held out the promise of a solution. So he picked up his pen; the first of the Essays was born. That, Bakewell argues, is precisely what Montaigne sough — and, ultimately, found — in writing:. Montaigne, like most educated minds of his day, was greatly inspired by the philosophy of the ancients, particularly Seneca, who insisted that salvation is to be found in paying full attention to the natural world, and Plutarch, who advised that the key to achieving peace of mind is in focusing on what is present in front of you in each given moment.
But this was far from an easy endeavor — Montaigne himself lamented in one of his essays:. It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.
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What was unusual in him was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed. The two kinds of movement interact like variables in a complex mathematical equation, with the result that one can find no secure point from which to measure anything.
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To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.
If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience—but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are.
To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown. But as much as Montaigne taught us about writing, he arguably taught us even more about reading — after all, the two are inextricably intertwined , for a good writer is invariably a good reader. What Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him [was] the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries.
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He borrowed some from the ancient Greek philosophers — for instance, the quest for spiritual equilibrium through freedom from anxiety, known as ataraxia. Bakewell brings us back to the art of paying attention:. Ataraxia means equilibrium: the art of maintaining an even keel, so that you neither exult when things go well nor plunge into despair when they go awry.
To attain it is to have control over your emotions, so that you are not battered and dragged about by them like a bone fought over by a pack of dogs. Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life.
Paradoxically, however, Montaigne frequently used the opposite of mindful attention — deliberate distraction — to quiet his worries. A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it. I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. If I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky. Bakewell offers an anecdote:. Once, trying to console a woman who was unlike some widows, he implies genuinely suffering grief for her dead husband, he first considered the more usual philosophical methods: reminding her that nothing can be gained from lamentation, or persuading her that she might never have met her husband anyway.
All we need do is let ourselves be as we are. Another lesson from Montaigne has to do with relinquishing control — something particularly prescient in the context of publishing, remix culture, and peer-to-peer sharing. Working long before the establishment of copyright law, Montaigne had no illusions about creative ownership. Montaigne knew very well that, the minute you publish a book, you lose control of it. Other people can do what they like: they can edit it into strange forms, or impose interpretations upon it that you would never have dreamed of. Even an unpublished manuscript can get out of hand.
In fact, in his time, shortly after the golden age of florilegia , copying was a legitimate and very common literary technique.
Bakewell relays this beautifully, with a brilliantly placed Nina Simone reference:. There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition.
Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life. He even enjoyed it. People form strange ideas of you; they adapt you to their own purposes. I see a couple possibilities. First, meaning could imply that our lives are for something larger, or greater than themselves.
My Aim In Life Essay for Students and Children
A meaningful life could be conceived as a node within a larger web working towards a goal or an ideal. This kind of thinking is what drives the consumptive capitalist engine; it dislocates our attention from the present to the future. In the same vein that Alan Watts concluded life is about doing excellent things for their own sake , conceiving of meaning as for something else somehow subordinates the question.
We might conceive of meaning as the state where we no longer feel the impulse to ask such questions, where life is existentially satisfying enough as is, and we cease feeling that itch on the backside of our psyches. Here, meaning would be the end of philosophy in one sense, perhaps of speculative philosophy, and the start of it in another, perhaps as the living of it. Wittgenstein remarks:.
A third possibility is to conceive of the question as actionable. A brief sketch:. Meaning reaches for the highest questions of human life, for which we must begin from the lowest, deepest ground of human experience. But this ground of being looks suspect.
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