Letters to Montaigne (2003 - 2004)

The following entries are excerpts from my first book
entitled Letters to Montaigne. Completed in 2004, each
essay is written in the form of a letter and is addressed
to the 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Informal in tone, they cover a variety of philosophical subjects.



Sunday
Jul172011

on emerson and Imaginary Bookstores  

Monsieur Montaigne,

In your essay entitled, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, you wrote,

Most of the finest actions of the soul proceed from, and need, the impulsion of the passions.

Well, Monsieur, I couldn’t agree with you more. Another wonderful thinker, of whom you are certainly unfamiliar, named Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote,

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Having been born many years after your passing, Mr. Emerson was also interested in your essays. He even wrote his own essay about you – referring to you as The Skeptic. Though his assessment of your writing is certainly thoughtful and well considered, I wish that he had not labeled you in such a way. From my experience, labels, though helpful, can also become counter-productive. Such labels can even elicit a claustrophobic feeling within the person, or the soul, being labeled.

For example, I tend to resist being labeled passionately and with a healthy Emersonian enthusiasm; and, I suspect, quite ironically, that you might respond to Mr. Emerson’s label with an equal amount of disapproval. If the two of you were still alive today, I would love to hear your response to his essay about you. I bet that you would offer him many examples of how you are indeed a great and passionate believer of many specific and undeniable truths. Perhaps you only seem skeptical to Mr. Emerson because you often find it necessary to distance yourself from the foolishness of popular opinion and the arrogance of certain know-it-all thinkers. In a way, perhaps your skepticism is nothing more than a defense – a healthy and passionate defense developed to preserve your humble sort of authenticity. Or perhaps your skeptical response to certain propositions is similar in tone to that of Socrates. As you know, whenever he was faced with a person of inappropriate confidence, Socrates simply sought to open the other’s mind to different and even contrary possibilities. So, while you might appear to some as a skeptic, to others, you might also appear to be a great proponent of humility – someone who passionately celebrates the virtue of an open mind under all circumstances. I think that this is more how I see you.

I wonder if Emerson chose to see you as a skeptical thinker in order to further his own philosophical assertions. And, I wonder if I have essentially done the same thing. Of the many words Emerson wrote about you, for some reason, I have chosen to focus on the term skeptic. Perhaps I too have my own hidden agenda. Perhaps my agenda is to passionately defend and protect the independence of my own spirit. And, because I feel a certain connection to you, Monsieur, perhaps I am trying to defend the independence of your spirit as well. But, now, after having just written the previous sentence, I feel ashamed. Obviously, your spirit and your name need no protecting – especially by me. Maybe I have only just called attention to my own sensitivity to being labeled. Perhaps when people inaccurately label me, I should just remain calm and remember the words of Seneca,

A great soul speaks more relaxedly and assuredly.

It does seem true that, on occasion, it is unwise to waste words on unfounded accusations. I’m sure that, at times, by engaging in a debate, without intending to, I often legitimize my adversary’s assertion. And moreover, in this case, perhaps Emerson isn’t really an adversary. Perhaps he is just unaware of how certain independent spirits don’t like being labeled. I hope I am not quibbling unnecessarily. To clarify, let me just say that, for the most part, I agree with the opinions and assertions of Mr. Emerson. In fact, both he, and his contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, are two of my favorite American thinkers.

Abraham Maslow, another gifted thinker you might have enjoyed meeting, wrote a great deal about highly developed personalities. He referred to them as self-actualizing individuals. From his studies, he understood that many highly evolved personalities resist being labeled and classified. He even wrote an essay on the subject entitled Resistance to Being Rubricized. Essentially, Mr. Maslow, along with another famous American thinker named William James, believed it unwise to attach labels to people – as it interferes with the healthier notion that we are all unique and complex souls with something special to offer the world. If we embrace or accept being labeled, in a way, we admit our own lack of divinity.

Which reminds me of another related topic for discussion. Why must we label wise thinkers and writers the way we do? Why is Socrates found in the Philosophy section of our bookstores, while you are found in the Essay section? And, why are Maslow and James found in the Psychology section? Aren’t many of these thinkers interested in living wise and useful lives? Aren’t many of them talking about the same things? Maybe all of these labels and categories are interfering with our ability to see that many thinkers, no matter where or when they lived, have actually been fascinated by the same underlying concepts. From my experience, the wisest people simply understand that living is learning, and it is important to enjoy the search. If I were to ever own a bookstore, I would likely organize my bookshelves in a more intuitive, less categorized way. I might organize the shelves like so.

I. Wise Writers of Useful Non-Fiction
(Seneca, Montaigne, Emerson, Maslow, James, etc.)

II. Cerebral Writers of Useless Abstract Theory
(Currently Out of Stock)

III. Creative Writers of Meaningful Fiction and Poetry
(Bronte, Hardy, Mallarme, Kafka, Camus, Rilke, Salinger, etc.)

IV. Superficial Writers of Escapist Fantasies
(Currently Out of Stock)

V. Witty Writers for Laughing and Smiling
(Also See Sections I & III)

OK. Maybe that’s enough for today. I hope you don’t mind my distaste for that skeptic label. If you ever wanted to poke fun at Monsieur Emerson, you could tell him that he’s just another one of those American Transcendentalists – a second rate Mystic of sorts.

Sincerely,
Brian Crean

Ps. I almost forgot these other sections of my imaginary bookstore.

VI. Geographical Maps & Travel Books
VII. Books about Gardening, Cooking, and Eating
VIII. Picture Books about Art and Photography
IX. Books to Read with Children
Sunday
Jul172011

On Schopenhauer and Being Bald 

Monsieur Montaigne,

Lately, I have been reading the work of a philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer. He was German and wrote mostly at the beginning of the 19th century. Just as Emerson labeled you a skeptic, many scholars throughout the years have labeled him a pessimist – which, as you might guess, seems unfortunate to me. But, I won’t go into that again.

In a work entitled Counsels and Maxims, he dedicated a chapter to The Ages of Life. And among other things, he wrote,

A great writer gives his best work to the world when he is about fifty years of age.

And,

The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.

Because I am now 35 years old, I find all of this really quite interesting. Perhaps I should not bother writing this series of letters to you after all. Perhaps I should continue reading and aging for a few more years, and then, on my 40th birthday, I should start again. Didn’t you begin your essays when you were 38?

I particularly like Schopenhauer’s writing style, by the way. It’s more personal, open, and honest than most philosophical writing. For the most part, he doesn’t really try to remain objective and impartial, or if he does try, he doesn’t do a very good job.

Embracing one’s subjectivity is a rare and wonderful thing in the world of philosophy. I think that you would enjoy many of Schopenhauer’s later writings. Perhaps, even, the three of us are alike in a few ways:

1. We are each interested in the practical, useful, or well-grounded areas of philosophy.

2. We each have somewhat sensitive constitutions and are easily affected by our environments.

3. We each have wandering minds and personal writing styles.

4. We were each born under the sign of Pisces.

5. We were, or are, each bald.

I wonder when you started losing your hair? I started losing mine when I was about 20 years old, and when I was about 25, I started trimming my hair very short. I’m not familiar with the French or German attitudes about hair loss, but where I am from, men tend to worry a great deal about losing their hair. For some reason, baldness seems to be associated with weakness. In my culture, there are an abundance of advertisements for curing baldness.

“Are you suffering from hair loss?” they ask.

Well… I would say no. I am not suffering from hair loss. Instead, I am celebrating my forehead gain. While other men with full heads of hair are bothered by all kinds of hassles and hair care expenses, I am not. Furthermore, I never have to worry about looking unkempt in the morning, and in more than 10 years, I have not experienced a single bad hair day.

Although I was initially very self-conscious about losing my hair, I have since grown to embrace my older and simpler appearance. And while I am certainly not flashing or debonair, for some strange reason, it seems that a few women continue to be attracted to me. Perhaps this is because I am comfortable with my appearance despite my lack of hair. Although I am not yet 40, maybe I have the mind and head of a 40- year-old. Or maybe I have what some people call an old soul.

From the little I have read of astrology, persons born under the sign of Pisces are said to have old souls. They are also supposed to bloom later in life. Because Pisces natives are considered to be sensitive dreamers, they often develop unrealistic expectations of the world while they are young, which means that they then experience a great many disappointments.

I think this is interesting given that Schopenhauer once wrote,

In the bright dawn of our youthful days, the poetry of life spreads out a gorgeous vision before us, and we torture ourselves by longing to see it realized. We might as well wish to grasp the rainbow! The youth expects his career to be like an interesting romance; and there lies the germ of disappointment.

He also wrote,

The chief result gained by experience of life is clearness of view. This is what distinguishes the man of mature age, and makes the world wear such a different aspect from that which it presented in his youth or boyhood. It is only then that he sees things quite plain, and takes them for that which they really are: while in earlier years he saw a phantom-world, put together out of the whims and crotchets of his own mind, inherited prejudice and strange delusion: the real world was hidden from him, or the vision of it distorted.

I wonder if some people call Schopenhauer’s writing pessimistic because he needs to remind himself not to get carried away by any dreamy or unrealistic expectations of how he wishes the world to be. If I may say so, Monsieur, your writing seems to emphasize a practical or grounded approach to living as well. Would it be presumptuous of me to guess that your essays help you to stay clearly rooted in the world?

I suspect that, like you, the older and wiser Schopenhauer would make a very pleasant dinner guest. On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn’t think about such things. After all, since I am only a 35-year-old Pisces, I don’t want to set myself up for an unwise and youthful disappointment. But, I still think that it would be nice to shake Mr. Schopenhauer’s hand and look directly into his eyes. Perhaps I am just curious to compare his physical presence to my own. It would also be nice to have a living philosophical comrade with whom to talk. I think that I tend to bore some of my friends when I talk about my reading and writing. OK, that’s enough for today.

Take care,
Brian

Ps. Pisces are also supposed to like the arts, water, and snacking. Popcorn is my favorite snack.