Montaigne’s essay “On Restraining Your Will” is about emotional moderation. Montaigne recommends and strives to keep an even keel and not get carried away by feelings. Those whose passions get the best of them lose themselves–their reason and good judgment–and get lost in the concerns of others. While we owe a certain duty to others, we cannot forget what we owe to ourselves: “We should husband out soul’s freedom, never pawning it, save on occasions when it is proper to do so–which, if we judge soundly, are very few.”
Montaigne exhorts, “he who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself.” Yet, “The chief charge laid upon each one of us is his own conduct: that is why we are here.” To spend your life running around in the service of others, teaching them to be good, guiding and training, is not useful and has no merit if you do not spend time working on yourself and tending to your own soul.
In politics it is especially necessary to keep passion chained, if one does not, then one can be convinced of most anything. Montaigne could be describing our own time when he writes, “I have seen in my time amazing examples of the indiscriminate and prodigious facility which peoples have for letting their beliefs be led and their hopes be manipulated towards what has pleased and served their leaders, despite dozens of mistakes piled one upon another and despite illusions and deceptions.” Too much passion leads a person to follow blindly and unquestioningly, does allow one to see or admit the mistakes of one’s party, nor does it allow one to admit the other party has a good idea.
In order to not get caught up in overpowering emotion, one must make it a point to avoid what gets one riled up: “I avoid like the plague morose men of gloomy complexions, and I do not engage in any discussion which I cannot treat without self-interest or emotion, unless compelled to do so by duty.” To purposely place yourself in situations that you know will upset you is stupid. Only philosophers like Socrates are able to test and hold onto their stoicism in such situations. The rest of us would do well to “pray, not that our reason may not be assailed and overcome by worldly desires, but that it may not even be assayed by them, that we be not led into a position where we have even merely to withstand the approaches, blandishments and temptations of sin.”
It is far easier to head off strong emotion at the beginning than it is to let it go and try and stop it later: “If you do not stop the start, you will never stop the race.” Montaigne admits that he has difficulties in bridling his emotions, that sometimes he cannot restrain them, but he keeps trying nonetheless.
For four years Montaigne was Mayor of Bordeaux. The Jurors of Bordeaux elected him Mayor while he was traveling outside of France. Montaigne at first declined, but the Jurors insisted and he returned to take up his new post. Montaigne’s father was Mayor in his time and when Montaigne took office he vowed that he would not get caught up in it like his father did who spent time and energy on worrying about things he had no control over. Montaigne believed that most “occupations are farcical.” We are not our jobs but while we have them we must play “the role of a character which we have adopted.” But we must be careful not to “turn masks and semblances into essential realities, nor adopted qualities into attributes of our self.” Montaigne worked hard to clearly distinguish between The Mayor and Montaigne.
Montaigne conducted himself in office with as much good judgment and reason and as little passion as he could. He admits to having his critics and to not being entirely satisfied with the work he did. But he left no injury or hatred behind him and for that he is pleased. Montaigne complains that “Nowadays men are so conditioned to bustle and ostentation that we have lost the feel of goodness, moderation, even-temper, steadfastness and other such quiet and unpretentious qualities; rough objects make themselves felt: smooth ones can be handled without sensation.”
We should all strive to be smooth. If we are smooth that means we are tending to our own soul, we have learned to moderate our passion, and we do what is right for the sake of goodness, not for ambition, praise and attention.
Next week’s Montaigne essay: “On the Lame”