On Montaigne's Backshop



I have put Montaigne aside for a bit to pick up Evelyn Scott (as recommended by Richard at The Existence Machine), but before I turn away from him, there are a few passages I'd like to share.

As I read my way deeper into the philosophy I am assigned to read for classes, I feel a great gulf opening up between what I am seeking and the knowledge that is sought by others. I often feel like an utter fool when I sit in discussions about the brain and our perceptual systems, I cannot follow metaphysical discussions any further than their metaphors, and I have never yet grasped the logical underpinnings of much of the philosophy that is so important. What I am seeking, like Montaigne and so many others is a way of living that is fulfilling and good and as true as living might be.


Montaigne says in 'Of Solitude' that The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to ourselves. -- this goes beyond 'Know thyself' and admonitions to practice virtue. It is something greater and more thorough.

In the same essay he advocates 'the backshop' -- so similar to Woolf's 'Room of One's Own' -- a place wholly one's own, where one might be entirely free,

wherein to establish our true liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. In this we must hold our ordinary conversation with ourselves, and so privately that no outside relationship or communication may find a place there [...].

He goes on, interestingly and with a sinister undertone, but to stop for a moment -- is this 'backshop' not what so many of us have lost? It is a luxury for sure, one for those who have time and money to spare. But those of us who do, have we not foregone that luxury for our other 'luxuries' -- the television, the internet, the pasttimes of a culture fatted on observing itself go through the gestures of living? I am as guilty as the next, spending my largesse (time) on activities that disappear from my mind the moment I turn my attention. I often scold myself for not readin as I ought, for not exploring some new writer or thinker, and those criticisms are fair enough.

But I also begin to recognize that I approach reading in a new way now. No longer do I search for the meaning or explanation of things. No longer to I read to glut myself or to distract myself or to cram the crannies of my mind with quotations and observations. When I read it is to sink in somewhere -- to revel in the joy that is the word, the language, straining itself to express and to 'retrieve from formlessness' some experience of oneself or the world. And I have replaced the time I spent reading with time spent on something I have overlooked for far too long -- myself.

What do I mean? Here is Montaigne again on the 'backshop' as a foil to my own view:

There to talk and to laugh as if without a wife, without children, without followers and without servants; to the end that, when the occasion comes for us to lose them, it may be no new thing to be without them. We have a soul that can be turned upon itself; it can be its own company; it has the means to attack and to defend, to receive and to give; let us not fear that in this solitude we shall stagnate in tedious idleness, "In solitude to be to thyself a throng." Virtue, says Antisthenes, is content with itself, without rules, without words, without deeds.

Echoes of Rousseau and so many others -- attach your heart to imperishable beauty and never to something that can be taken from you. Live amongst others as is necessary, but preserve for yourself the distance of the Sage strving always to overcome and move beyond. This model enchanted me for so long -- the model of perfectibility, of elevation. But it does not square with the other tenets -- at least not for me. How can I know myself if it is from one, flawed point of view only? How can I live fully and learn to choose and act with nobility and virtue if I limit myself to a secure backshop where the only disturbances are those manufactured turbulances of the spirit?

Montaigne agrees with Pliny that one ought to study oneself -- to examine oneself closely -- but to do this one must not live apart from others, but live with them and amongst them. I am beginning to do this work (work that I've long known I must do). To live ethically one cannot live alone -- to be virtuous one cannot persist in solitude and one cannot feign the gestures of friendship and companionship while existing only in the backshop. Use the backshop to learn of yourself and to stretch your mind and your abilities, but do not grow comfortable there. Do not tell soothing half-truths about solitude and perfection -- do not jealously guard the moments of liberty one finds in solitude. Rather, fuse those moments together -- use those lessons -- become a person that acts in concert with others and yet preserves a core of vitality and authenticity born from those long excursions in self-study.

To borrow from Montaigne: This is not my teaching, it is my study; and it is not a lesson for others, but for me.