Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge
“There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.”
By Maria Popova
“There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” the poet May Sarton wrote in her ravishing ode to solitude. “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote a generation before her as he reckoned with the heart of a healthy relationship. It may be that our relationship with ourselves — the extent to which we are able to be intimate with our own spirit and make of that intimacy a sanctuary — is a matter of learning to stand guard over our own solitude.
That is what Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) explores in some passages from his relentlessly insightful meditations predating psychology by centuries, rendered in a new translation by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his altogether wonderful book The Art of Solitude.
Montaigne spent much of his own life in solitude — the crucible of his enduringly insightful meditations on the fundaments of life. With life-tested surety, he allays the three great fears haunting solitude — boredom, the loss of social rewards, and self-confrontation. He writes:
We have a soul that can turn in on itself; it can keep itself company. It has the means to attack and defend, to give and receive. Don’t worry that solitude will find you hunched up in boredom.
Rather than boredom, such inner stillness leads us to what Bertrand Russell so memorably termed “fruitful monotony” — an inner quieting that becomes fertile compost for creativity. But even at its most generative, solitude succumbs to the basic binary of life: being any one place means not being another — an equivalence that metastasizes in the classic fear of missing out. Montaigne cautions against such preoccupation with the external world and calls for the vital self-mastery of learning to govern the internal:
It should no longer be your concern that the world speaks of you; your sole concern should be with how you speak to yourself. Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.
To succeed in solitude, he argues, is to learn to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation,” so that you can begin to observe the mind as it happens unto itself — the happening that is our entire experience of life. He writes:
It is a tricky business to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.
Others study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lie it down to rest.
Complement with Emerson — Montaigne’s Transcendentalist inheritor — on how to trust yourself and what solitude really means and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, sex, and creativity, then revisit Montaigne’s cumulative wisdom on how to live.