Moral Psychology

Writing, what for?

I love the word “blogosphere.” It’s a collective noun (first strike against it), and has a slightly disreputable ring to it (second strike). One pictures a horde of productive typists clamoring for attention. The word puts me into a defensive crouch, which energizes me to think–that’s what I love about it. When the clamor is loud, when the notes are all played forte, it’s hard to hear the music. I see an opening: I shall be playing piano.

Why write? Some want to convey information. More ambitiously, philosophers seek to discover ideas, while poets, with their craft, shape ideas to cast them in a particular light. I write for a different reason.

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

In his essay Of idleness, Montaigne writes that unless minds are “kept busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them,” they become flat-out unruly. Extending the equine metaphor, he then compares his mind to “a runaway horse” so wild that it gives birth to many chimeras and fantastic monsters. His self-imposed task is “to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness” by putting them in writing. In simple apprenticeship, I shall follow this great sage and contemplate and record my own chimeras and fantastic monsters.

Montaigne concludes his essay with a therapeutic turn that unfailingly gives me pause. “I hope,” he writes, “in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” Being no stranger to that baleful emotion, I think it best to part here with Montaigne, and be satisfied merely to contemplate my own terrifying thoughts, much as the later Montaigne would do.

The harshly judging “I” that in the early essays makes the mind ashamed of itself gives way, in the later essays, to a more forbearing observer, consistent with the skepticism Montaigne develops in the course of his project. In Of experience, his last and one of his greatest essays, he writes of the “natural infirmity” of the mind. The observing “I” that begins as an uncompromising judge develops into a witness skeptical of man’s natural capacities. Could it not be that he came to regard the harshness of his earlier self-judgment as a kind of monster, a symptom of the natural infirmity of the mind? Given our all-too-human makeup, the therapeutic prescription to shame the mind fails. Some thoughts, he seems to be saying, no matter how chimerical or fantastic, are best contemplated with an evenness of temper–or failing that, passed over in silence.