Monday Morning Montaigne: Of husbanding your will

There’s a lot going on in Of husbanding your will (pp. 932-954): Montaigne relates the experience of his two-term stint as mayor of Bordeaux (by good luck, he didn’t have to do anything dramatic); he explains how the idea of giving up one’s own desires for the “greater good” is horseshit (or, at best, a noble lie to make normal people do good); he ties habit and nature into one (so as to remove excuses for either); he looks inward to show how, contra Oscar Wilde, the best way to defeat temptation is to run the other way at the slightest sign of it, since that’s a lot easier than dealing with it once it’s in your heart); . And most importantly (to me), he reminds us that You Are Not Your Job.

Most of our occupations are low comedy. “The whole word plays a part.” (Petronius) We must play our part duly, but as the part of a borrowed character. Of the mask and appearance we must not make a real essence, nor of what is foreign what is our very own. We cannot distinguish the skin from the shirt. It is enough to make up our face, without making up our heart. I see some who transform and transubstantiate themselves into as many new shapes and new beings as they undertake jobs, who are prelates to their very liver and intestines, and drag their position with them even into their privy. I cannot teach them to distinguish the tips of the hat that are for them from those that are for their office, or their retinue, or their mule. . . .

The mayor and Montaigne have always been two, with a very clear separation. For all of being a lawyer or a financier, we must not ignore the knavery there is in such callings. An honest man is not accountable for the vice and stupidity of his trade, and should not therefore refuse to practice it: it is the custom of his country, and there is profit in it. We must live in the world and make the most of it such as we find it. But the judgment of an emperor should be above his imperial power, and see and consider it as an extraneous accident; and he should know how to find pleasure in himself apart, and to reveal himself like any Jack or Peter, at least to himself.

So don’t be your job. Figure out where it ends and you begin. And don’t bore the crap out of me by complaining about the estoeric aspects of your workplace and coworkers. I promise to do the same; I’ll only bore you with rants about Montaigne. And there are only 3 more of those. (On deck for next week: Of cripples!)

Oh, and one other takeaway from this essay: accumulating wealth or wisdom in old age is useless: “Mustard after dinner.”

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