Montaigne: Greatness of soul is found in mediocrity

Montaigne even went so far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found “in mediocrity” – a shocking remark and even, paradoxically, an extreme one. Most moderns have been so trained to regard mediocrity as a poor, limited condition that it is hard to know what to think when he says this. Is he playing games with the reader again, as some suspect he does when he writes of having a bad memory and a slow intellect? Perhaps he is, to some extent, yet he seems to mean it too. Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions. For him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman. Like Tasso, they seek to transcend the limits and instead lose their ordinary human faculties. Being truly human means behaving in a way that is not merely ordinary, but ordinate, a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “ordered, regulated; orderly, regular, moderate.” It means living appropriately, or a propos, so that one estimates things at their right value and behaves in the way correctly suited to each occasion. This is why, as Montaigne puts it, living appropriately is “our great and glorious masterpiece” – grandiose language, but used to describe a quality that is anything but grandiose. Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition. This could not be further removed from Rousseau and his feeling that he is set apart from all humanity. For Montaigne:

There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being

He knew, all the same, that human nature does not always conform to this wisdom. Alongside the wish to be happy, emotionally at peace and in full command of one’s faculties, something else drives people periodically to dash their achievements to pieces. It is what Freud called the thanatos principle: the drive towards death and chaos. The twentieth-century author Rebecca West described it thus:

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to this agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, pp. 200-201. Bakewell refers to this line from Montaigne’s essay “Of Repentance”: “The virtue of the soul does not consist in flying high, but in walking orderly; its grandeur does not exercise itself in grandeur, but in mediocrity.”


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