Pet owners may ask a question similar to that asked by French philosopher Montaigne (1552-1592): “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” Montaigne wondered about dogs too. When we watch our dog twitching and offering a few woofs in his sleep, we wonder if he is dreaming of a rabbit in the same way we dream.
These are genuine questions for Montaigne. He thought he had something to learn from animals. It is notable that in Montaigne’s time, many humans thought that animals were not really sentient and did not experience pain.
Montaigne was deeply concerned to understand how he as a human being was in the world. He was not interested in making grand claims about mankind or human nature. He was not a Big System Builder. Rather, he was interested in only making proclamations about one man—himself.
For Montaigne, if he does not understand himself, he really cannot understand much else that goes on in the world. Without self-understanding, he really cannot be happy. He will have a skewed set of expectations because he doesn’t really know what he wants or how to get it. What he will get is misery.
But how did Montaigne go about understanding himself? His essays are chock full of his observations of his daily living. He turns himself into an object of study, at times humorously or with unabashed perplexity about himself. He writes about his kidney stones, wine preferences, and even about his penis. He also frequently quotes Plato, Ovid, Cicero, Pliny, and many classical authors. Today, some might say Montaigne is guilty of TMI—Too Much Information. But to Montaigne, the ordinariness of life is the substance of life. It is the stuff of philosophy.
One of the methods that Montaigne cultivated was imagining the world from radically different perspectives from his own. At issue is that one cannot often see what is before his very eyes because it is so familiar. So, in some sense, Montaigne needed to switch his glasses to see himself and the world differently. He understood that by looking at others (humans and nonhumans), he could see himself better because he was getting a fuller picture of himself and the world. He gets a fuller picture of himself when he comes to understand how others see him. He gets a fuller picture of the world by trying to imagine what a sniffing dog experiences that he as a human cannot.
What is it like to contemplate that he is the plaything of his cat or that he has something to learn from a dog? It is a remarkable inversion of what was assumed to be the natural order of things. It is a divestment of arrogance. Arrogance is perhaps the greatest hindrance to self-understanding and understanding of the world, and so it is a special target of Montaigne. He writes, “on the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, on our rumps.”
Replacing arrogance is the virtue of humility. Humility creates an attitude of openness that makes more genuine self-understanding possible.
Montaigne’s approach to self-understanding is useful for people struggling with addiction and living in recovery. Montaigne prompts us to recognize the dangers that follow from a lack of imagination in active addicts and even (or especially) in people in recovery.
If one arrogantly believes he sees the world rightly, accurately, and fully, he is closed to the possibility that he can learn anything from anyone else. He cannot imagine himself in any sort of similar position to these other people because, in some ways, he sees himself as different (and superior) in kind.
In the case of an active addict who minimizes or denies his problem, he cannot imagine that people in recovery—people like that—have anything to offer him. He cannot see himself in them nor can he see himself through their eyes. This inability to see/understand himself makes him closed to the possibility that he is making himself miserable and more hopefully, his life could be different or better.
People in recovery can also come to have an arrogance about their sobriety that shuts down imagination and leads to a close-mindedness. If a sober person believes he has this addiction vanquished, knows all he needs to know about himself including that he will never relapse, he cannot imagine he could learn from the person who has relapsed. He cannot imagine how radically his life could change. He is not open to the possibility that he could lose all that he has. Nor is he open to the possibility that these people help him to keep what he has and can help to make life even better.
How does one begin to cultivate the capacity of imagination as a way to be open to possibility? By learning to listen. It sounds basic and ordinary but Montaigne brings us right to the basic and ordinary. We sit on our rumps and we listen. Then we listen some more, especially to those who seem so different from us and from whom we’re not sure we can learn anything.