Monday, 5 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 8: Of Idleness

Montaigne writes here about the danger of having an idle mind, and he thinks about his own decision to retire to his home and ponder, undisturbed, till his death


‘The soul that has no established aim loses itself’ ... Like a horse broken free of its rider, my mind is beset with all kinds of phantasms and monsters, ‘one upon another, without order or design’

We sometimes see earth that has lain untilled for a long time sprout all kinds of weeds and wild herbs that are unprofitable. To make it perform, we must cultivate and prepare this earth with the appropriate seeds. We also see women sometimes, who have had ‘no knowledge of man’, and they bring forth formless lumps of flesh; they also need to be ‘husbanded with another kind of seed’ in order to generate life. It is the same with minds; if not applied in some kind of study that will ‘fix and restrain’ it, the mind will ‘run into a thousand extravagances, eternally roving here and there in the vague expanse of the imagination’.

Aeneid talks about how when ‘trembling beams of light … from the sun, or from the image of the radiant moon’ are reflected upon pools of water, they ‘swiftly float over every place around.’ In other words, the idle mind will light upon all kinds of foolishness and idle fancy. ‘The soul that has no established aim loses itself’.

Martial said, ‘he who lives everywhere, lives nowhere’.

Recently, I retired to my own house and decided to avoid all distraction and to spend my remaining life in privacy and repose. I thought I could do no bigger favour to my mind than allow it to’ entertain and divert itself’ as it wished, and I hoped it would, in time, become ‘more settled and mature’. But I find the contrary. ‘Leisure creates varied thought,’ Lucan says. Like a horse broken free of its rider, my mind is beset with all kinds of phantasms and monsters ‘one upon another, without order or design’. Being free to ‘contemplate their strangeness and absurdity’, I have decided to commit these to writing, ‘hoping in time to make it (my mind) ashamed of itself’. 

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