“Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#16) — On Montaigne and how to remember the books you read” (Mark Storm)

MEDIUM, April 3, 2018

On the ceiling beams of the Tower where he wrote his famous Essais, Montaigne had sayings carved into the wood; Latin and Greek quotes from the classical authors to inspire him. One of these is from Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia, ii. 7): “Solum certum nihil esse certi et homine nihil miserius aut superbius” (“It is only certain that nothing is certain, and that nothing is more proud or miserable than man”). (Photograph by Peter Webscott, 2013)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On Montaigne and how to remember the books you read

“Montaigne complains unwearyingly of his bad memory,” Stefan Zweig wrote in his short biography of Michel de Montaigne. It is one of Zweig’s final works, written shortly before his suicide in 1942.

“He regards this — together with a certain idleness — as the real Achilles heel of his being. His faculty for perception, his discernment, is exceptional. What he sees, what he observes, what he recognizes, he does with the lightning eye of a falcon. But then he is too nonchalant, as he is ever reproaching himself, to order these discoveries in any systematic way, to expand on them in a logical sense, and, as soon as he grasps a thought, he loses it again, lets it drift away. He forgets the books he has read, has no memory for dates and misplaces the momentous events in his life. Like a river, all flows over him, leaving nothing behind: no deep conviction, not solid opinion, nothing fixed, nothing stable.”

Montaigne himself wrote, “Memory is a wonderfully useful tool, and without it judgement does its work with difficulty.” Adding, “it is entirely lacking in me.” And also, “There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognise almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.”

Zweig continues: “This weakness, which Montaigne endlessly bemoans, is in fact his strength. An inability to remain fixed at a certain point allows him always to go further. With him nothing is ever set in stone. He never stops at the boundary of past experiences; he does not rest on his empiricism; he amasses no capital; before properly consuming them his spirit must acquire experiences over and again. So his life becomes an operation of perpetual renewal: ‘Unremittingly we begin our lives anew.’ The truths that he finds may in the coming months or even the coming years be truths no more. He must be forever searching. Thus is born a multitude of contradictions. Now he appears an Epicurean, now a Stoic, now a sceptic. He is at one and the same time all and nothing, always different and yet ever the same, the Montaigne of 1550, 1560, 1570, 1580, the Montaigne of yesterday.

Montaigne’s greatest pleasure is in the search, not the discovery. He is not one of those philosophers who seek the philosopher’s stone, the convenient formula. He cares not for dogma, precepts, and has a horror of definitive assertions: ‘Assert nothing audaciously, deny nothing frivolously.’ He has no defined destination. All roads are open to his pensée vagabonde. He is only a philosopher in the manner of Socrates, whom he revered above all others because he left behind no dogma, no teachings, no law, no system, only an example: the man who seeks himself in all and who seeks all in himself.”

“You could call this intellectual free association,” Jane Kramer wrote in Me, Myself, And I (The New Yorker, September 2009), “but it is far too sterile a term for the mind of Michel de Montaigne running after itself, arguing against argument, reading his thoughts and his aging body at least as carefully as he reads his books… [+]

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