Whatever walked there, walked alone.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Now that’s how you start a ghost story.

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“The ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn”

Telemachus climbed aboard.
Athena led the way, assuming the pilot’s seat
reserved astern, and he sat close beside her.
Cables cast off, the crew swung to the oarlocks.
Bright-eyed Athena sent them a stiff following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:
“All lay hands to tackle!” They sprang to orders,
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with stays
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sail high.
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
All running gear secure in the swift black craft,
they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine
and poured libations out to the everlasting gods
who never die — to Athena first of all,
the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-gray eyes —
and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.

The Odyssey, trans Fagles

Montaigne: Our death is no great thing

When we judge of the assurance of other men in dying, which is without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life, we must be mindful of one thing: that people do not easily believe that they have reached that point. Few men die convinced that it is their last hour; and there is no place where the deception of hope deludes us more. It never stops trumpeting into our ears: “Others have certainly been sicker without dying; the case is not as desperate as they think; and at worst, God has certainly worked other miracles.”

And this comes about because we set too much importance on ourselves. It seems that the universe somehow suffers by our annihilation and that it has compassion for our state; because our vision, when altered, represents things to itself as being likewise altered, and we think they are failing it in proportion as it is failing them; like travelers at sea, for whom mountains, countrysides, cities, heaven, and earth move right along with them and at the same pace:

We leave the port, and lands and towns retreat. [Virgil]

Who ever saw old age not praising times past and blaming the present, charging the world and the ways of men with its own misery and chagrin?

The old man shakes his head and heaves a sigh,
Compares the present day with days gone by,
Praises his father’s lot, and to satiety
Prates of the dead, and of their piety. [Lucretius]

We drag everything along with us.

When it follows that we consider our death a great thing, and one which does not pass so easily, nor without solemn consultation of the stars: so many gods in an uproar about one single head [Seneca]. And we think so all the more, the more we prize ourselves. What? Should so much learning be lost, with so much damage, without the special concern of the destinies? Does a soul so rare and exemplary cost no more to kill than a plebian and useless one? This life, which protects so many others, on which so many other lives depend, which employs so many people in its service, which fills so many places, is it displaced like one that holds only by its one single knot? Not one of us is convinced enough that he is only one.

Montaigne, “Judging the death of others”

Montaigne on Skepticism

Why, they [the Pyrrhonists] say, since among the dogmatists one is allowed to say green, the other yellow, are they not also allowed to doubt? Is there anything that can be proposed for you to admit or deny, which it is not legitimate to consider ambiguous? And where others are swept – either by the custom of their country, or by their parental upbringing, or by chance – as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion, to such or such an opinion, to the Stoic or Epicurean sect, to which they find themselves pledged, enslaved, and fastened as to a prey they have bitten into and cannot shake loose – to whatever doctrine they have been driven, as by a storm, to it they cling as to a rock [Cicero] – why shall it not be granted similarly to these men to maintain their liberty, and to consider things without obligation and servitude? The more free and independent because their power to judge is intact [Cicero].

Is it not an advantage to be freed from the necessity that curbs others? Is it not better to remain in suspense than to entangle yourself in the many errors that the human fancy has produced? Is it not better to suspend your conviction than to get mixed up in these seditious and quarrelsome divisions?

What am I to choose? What you like, provided you choose! There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know.

[The Pyrrhonian] expressions are: “I establish nothing; it is no more thus than thus, or than neither way; I do not understand it; the appearances are equal on all sides; it is equally legitimate to speak for and against. Nothing seems true, which may not seem false.” Their sacramental word is ἐποχή, that is to say, “I hold back, I do not budge.” Those are their refrains, and others of similar substance. Their effect is a pure, complete, and very perfect postponement and suspension of judgment. They use their reason to inquire and debate, but not to conclude and choose. Whoever will imagine a perpetual confession of ignorance, a judgment without leaning or inclination, on any occasion whatever, he has a conception of Pyrrhonism.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

Montaigne: “we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot”

Of this there is general agreement among all the philosophers of all sects, that the sovereign good consists in tranquillity of soul and body. But where do we find it?

In short, ‘neath Jove alone the wise man dwells:
A king of kings, free, honored, handsome, wealthy;
Save when he has a cold, above all healthy. (Horace)

It seems in truth that nature, for the consolation of our miserable and puny condition, has given us as our share only presumption. This is what Epictetus says, that man has nothing properly his own but the use of his opinions. We have nothing but wind and smoke for our portion. The gods have health in reality, says philosophy, sickness in thought; man, on the contrary, possesses his goods in fancy, his ills in reality. We have been right to make much of the powers of our imagination, for all our goods exist only in dreams.

Hear this poor calamitous animal boast: “There is nothing,” says Cicero, “so sweet as the occupation of letters, of those letters, I mean, by means of which the infinity of things, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens in this very world, the lands and the seas, are revealed to us. It is they that have taught us religion, moderation, greatheartedness, and that have wrested our soul out of the shadows to make it see all things, high, low, first, last, and middling. It is they that furnish us with means to live well and happily, and guide us to pass our age without displeasure and without pain.” Does not this man seem to be talking about the condition of God, ever-living and almighty? And as for the facts, a thousand little women in their villages have lived a more equable, sweeter, and more consistent life than his.

A god it was, great Memmius, a god,
Who was the first that way of life to find
Which we call wisdom now; whose artful mind
Brought life from such great storms, such depths of night,
Safe into such a haven, such clear light. (Lucretius)

Those are very magnificent and beautiful words; but a very slight accident put this man’s understanding into a worse state than that of the lowest shepherd, notwithstanding that Teacher-God [Epicurus] of his and that divine wisdom.

Nothing is so common as to encounter cases of similar temerity. There is not one of us who is so offended to see himself compared to God as he is to see himself brought down to the rank of the other animals: so much more jealous are we of our own interest than of that of our creator.

But we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot, and sharply and boldly shake the ridiculous foundations on which these false opinions are built. As long as he thinks he has some resources and power by himself, never will man recognize what he owes to his master; he will always make chickens of his eggs, as they say. He must be stripped to his shirt.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, trans. Donald Frame.

Lest anyone be tempted to declare Montaigne a radical, let’s be clear: only pages before this he was advocating submission to the authority of the Church and her teachings. Which means he’s not even a modernist, let alone a postmodernist. What strikes me as most valuable here is his 1. rejection of that cult of the philosophers which forgets they also shat and copulated and had runny noses, and 2. recognition that “a thousand little women in their villages” have lived every bit as well as Cicero. I suspect that, for Socrates (and those with similar turns of mind), an unexamined life would not have been worth living. Yet there have been millions of people unnoticed by history who have lived noble lives free of philosophical introspection.

The source of Montaigne’s appeal to the English (and to me)

William Hazlitt managed to squeeze Montaigne, as well as Rabelais, into a piece called “On Old English Writers and Speakers.” He justified their inclusion thus: “But these we consider as in a great measure English, or as what the old French character inclined to, before it was corrupted by courts and academies of criticism.”

If they like the Essays’ style, English readers were even more charmed by its content. Montaigne’s preference for details over abstractions appealed to them; so did his distrust of scholars, his preference for moderation and comfort, and his desire for privacy – the “room behind the shop.” One other other hand, the English also had a taste for travel and exoticism, as did Montaigne. He could show unexpected bursts of radicalism in the very midst of quiet conservatism: so could they. Much of the time he was happier watching his cat play by the fireside – and so were the English.

Then there was his philosophy, if you could call it that. The English were not born philosophers; they did not like to speculate about being, truth, and the cosmos. When they picked up a book they wanted anecdotes, odd characters, witty sallies, and a touch of fantasy. As Virgina Woolf said a propos Sir Thomas Browne, one of many English authors who wrote in a Montaignean vein, “The English mind is naturally prone to take its ease and pleasure in the loosest whimsies and humors.” This is why William Hazlitt praised Montaigne in terms guaranteed to appeal to an unphilosophical nation:

In taking up his pen he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind, in its naked simplicity and force.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live

“Putting a very high price on one’s conjectures”

Contemporary demonologist Jean Bodin argued that, in crisis conditions such as these [the apocalyptic fervor during the French Wars of Religion], standards of evidence [for witchcraft trials] must be lowered. Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to “legal tidiness and normal procedures.” Public rumor could be considered “almost infallible”: if everyone in a village said that a particular woman was a witch, that was sufficient to justify putting her to the torture. Medieval techniques were revived specifically for such cases, including “swimming” suspects to see if they floated, and searing them with red-hot irons. The numbers of convicted witches kept rising as standards of evidence went down, and the increase amounted to further proof that the crisis was real and that further adjustment of the law was necessary. As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. It was all accepted with hardly a murmur, except by a few writers such as Montaigne, who pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was “putting a very high price on one’s conjectures” to have someone roasted alive on their account.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, p. 209

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.”

Montaigne on animals

[Montaigne] was not the only writer of his time to oppose hunting or torture. What is unusual in Montaigne is his reason for it: his visceral rapport with others. When speaking to the Brazilian Indians in Rouen, he was struck by how they spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their “other halves” starved on their doorstep. For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. “It is one and the same nature that rolls its course.” Even if animals were less similar to us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive.

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

This obligation applies in trivial encounters as well as life-or-death ones. We owe other beings the countless small acts of kindness and empathy that Nietzsche would describe as “goodwill.” After the passage just quoted, Montaigne added this remark about his dog:

I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

He indulges his dog because he can imaginatively share the animal’s point of view: he can feel how desperate the dog is to banish boredom and get his human friend’s attention. Pascal mocked Montaigne for this, saying that Montaigne rides his horse as one who does not believe it to be his right to do so, and who wonders whether “the animal, on the contrary, ought really to be making use of him.” This is exactly right – and, as much as it annoyed Pascal, it would have pleased Nietzsche, who final mental breakdown is (unreliably) reported to have begun with his flinging his arms around a horse’s neck on a Turin street and bursting into tears.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, pp 179-180

Deep time: “a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity”

On the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles north of Norway. Photo by Greg White

Contemporary culture seems accustomed to hopping from one apocalypse to the next. This isn’t entirely bad in and of itself; the apocalyptic language surrounding the ozone layer hastened action on the CFC ban, just as Rachel Carson’s doomsday prophecies in Silent Spring (1962) accelerated the banning of the anti-malaria insecticide DDT. Apocalyptic language works, particularly in an easily distracted culture. It is perhaps the only thing that does work. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction,” Carson said in a speech in 1963. But perhaps Carson had it backwards: perhaps it is our attraction to disaster stories and 11th-hour crises that allows us to focus our attention on nature and to marshal energy towards its preservation in the first place.

Along with the language of catastrophe comes a very specific articulation of time. We think of our relationship to the environment in the immediate. Global warming, we’re told, will decimate all life within our lifetimes, or in our children’s lifetimes. In this way, environmental discourse resembles the ranting of religious millenarians, who stubbornly maintain that the apocalypse will happen on their watch. As of 2010, 41 per cent of Americans say that they expect Jesus to return to Earth by 2050. This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.

Standing opposed to this narrow band of apocalyptic time is “deep time”, a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity. The concept of deep time originated with the 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, and was popularised by the American writer John McPhee in his book Basin and Range (1981). For McPhee, the chief attraction of deep time is its ability to move us out of short-term thinking: “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time,” he wrote. “And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

Colin Dickey, “The Global Seed Vault can anchor us in deep time