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The eloquence that diverts us to itself is unfair to the content
– Montaigne

The essays of Montaigne were first published in 1580, over 400 years old at this point. What I find remarkable is the relevance of his writings even today, and perhaps as a consequence, the many times I have encountered references to Montaigne and his quotes in books not about him. It is as if every aspect of human nature one might contemplate on has already been contemplated in fine detail by Montaigne, annotated with quotes from the ancients. Here are a select few of his quotes from an old edition of his selected essays, with my superfluous commentary

The absurdity of our education is that its goal has been to make us not good or wise, but learned

Montaigne might very well have been tweeting this yesterday. As a thought experiment, if Montaigne was taken seriously, if education really strove to make us wise and good, could humanity have averted the two World Wars and 60+ million deaths? Or put another way, what is the risk of not adopting this bit of important and timeless advise for the future of the world?

It is always a gain to change a bad state for an uncertain one

What Montaigne is saying is that if you are stuck in a rut, and you have a choice where there is a  50% chance of being stuck in a rut vs not, then go with that choice. Except, he says it better

Example is a hazy mirror, reflecting all things in all ways.

If you have wondered how the same incident or story could be interpreted by two people in different ways, here you have it. We observe not just with our eyes, but with our minds.

He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fears

Or to quote his fellow Frenchman born 200 years later, Balzac – ‘Our greatest fears lie in anticipation’. I can tell you that just being aware of this maxim works an antidote.

The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives

A more familiar version of the above is ‘practice what you preach’, though the Montaigne version sounds so much more profound

Let him be made to understand that to confess the flaw he discovers in his own argument, though it is still unnoticed except by himself, is an act of judgement and sincerity, which are the principal qualities he seeks; that obstinacy and contention are vulgar qualities, most often seen in the meanest souls; that to change his mind and correct himself, to give up the bad side at the height of his ardor, are rare, strong and philosophical qualities

Montaigne is getting borderline judgmental here (meanest?), though he might very well be channeling Nostradamus, divining the collective aspiration of a nation.

The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity


Reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy , and in one of the first chapters on the rise of the Greek civilization, is a wonderful exposition of prudence vs passion.

First, prudence, or forethought, a key aspect of civilization from the earliest civilized societies to our present day:

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in spring in order to have food next winter, except for a purely instinctive form of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from a spontaneous impulse.

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion… On the one hand, the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.

The civilized Greek society had its detractors, and one of them was the cult of Bacchus – worshippers of the god of wine, intoxication and spiritual ecstasy. It is in the context of this group within civilized Greek life that Russell contrasts passion against prudence

The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, spiritual or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence has destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm”, which means, etymologically, having a god enter into the worshipper, who believed he became one with the god.

Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication (mental intoxication, and not intoxication by alcohol), some sweeping away of prudence by passion.

Which one is better then – A prudent life? or the passionate life?

Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence vs passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party

I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entertaining games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts) are a collection of notes and jottings that were meant to be groundwork for a book on a defense of Christian religion. “Much of the theological argument implied in these utterances has little appeal to the modern mind”, reads the introductory note, “but the acuteness of the observation of human life, the subtlety of the reasoning, the combination of precision and fervid imagination in the expression, make this a book to which the discerning mind can return again and again for insight and inspiration.”

The passage quoted above is a part of several long and short notes on the topic of diversions. Pascal contends that we engage in activities and amusements as a diversion, for without such diversions, one would be left to contemplate on oneself, and would become weary by painful and disquieting thoughts.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

A recurring example that Pascal uses is that of hunting hare; one is reminded that it was the 17th century in which he lived and wrote. According to him, the chase is what excites and diverts one, rather than the possession of the game.

The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.

Our folly lies in believing that possession of the end will bring us happiness, and not realizing that it is the pursuit that keeps us from being unhappy. The journey is the destination.

Their error does not lie in seeking excitement, if they seek it only as a diversion; the evil is that they seek it as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy. In this respect it is right to call their quest a vain one.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is perhaps better known for his mathematics than his philosophies, notably his work on probability that includes developing the idea of expected value, a key concept in modern economics and finance, and for inventing the first mechanical calculator at the age of 19. In addition to expository passages such as the one described above, the Pensées are a treasure trove of pithy aphorisms

A mere trifle consoles us, for a mere trifle distresses us.

Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us where we desire to go.

and quotable quotes

The great and the humble have the same misfortunes, the same griefs, the same passions; but one is at the top of the wheel, and the other near the center, and so is less disturbed by the same revolutions.

A monk asked Zhàozhōu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, “Wú”.

Example of a Kōan. Don’t ask.

If you convince yourself that you’re amongst the elite or that you alone are privy to the eternal truths about how to govern, then you can become a very dangerous person.

From an interview in Salon with Simon Blackburn, on his recent book on Plato’s Republic. Of particular interest is the context in which the above statement is made.