How to Talk to Yourself: Montaigne's Advice for Solitude

Age-old wisdom for being holed up with nothing to do but think to yourself.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne/Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully I’m not the only one who has worked themselves into a panic. It seems only natural to do so when left to our own devices (in both senses of the word). But in panic-inducing times like these, though they are unprecedented in my lifetime, I dust off old Montaigne, the 16th-century French statesman-turned-essayist who had a rare gift for letting his mind run wild. 

In his essay “Of solitude,” he talks about how the art of being on your own only begins when you get “away from the crowd,” since you haven’t yet gotten away from that crowd of thoughts within yourself. Echoed in our contemporary sentiment of “Wherever you go, there you are” (though without the self-helpy gloss), Montaigne knew firsthand how much of city life, friends and family, and all that we hold dear (and resist) comes along with us into our refuge. “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust,” he writes, “do not leave us when we change our country.” 

The paradox of isolation, for Montaigne, is just that: even before Twitter, we have a constant stream of consciousness, made up mostly of conversations with (absent) others. We must “sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves,” he says, in order to be truly alone, and thus be truly free.

When Montaigne first tried to do that, he had little success. In fact he fell into a deep depression. Retiring early from public office, he retreated to his newly-inherited chateau, and holed himself up to read and think by his lonesome. With great pomp and circumstance, he announced as much on his study wall, inscribing in Latin how he vowed to return to “the bosom of the learned virgins” (i.e. his books). But then before long, he found himself utterly at the mercy of his thoughts--taking off in every direction like a “runaway horse.” 

The only way he could tame this beast, he devised, was to write it out, hopefully making the mind “ashamed” of its many meanderings, digressions, obsessions, “chimeras and fantastic monsters.” Over a thousand pages later, twenty-some years’ worth of this practice of transcribing thought...well, Montaigne appears to have failed in his attempt. At least his note to the reader warns us at the outset: “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” 

Luckily, the resulting collection is just that--his Essais, French for attempts. Montaigne coined this term for his art, allowing an easygoing nature (not results-driven) to enter into the spirit of the project, and arguably in that he succeeded: while we don’t have a moment at which the writer’s head finally went silent (far from it), we do see a lightening up over time. What started off as a “melancholy humor” over the relentlessness of human inner life eventually transforms into something perhaps like curmudgeonly acceptance. Could this be, as Drew Bratcher suggests in The Paris Review Daily, our "antidote to self-isolation?" 

In this context, “Of solitude” is a curious phenomenon, as it basically implies that in order to survive your own company, you need someone to “talk” to. For Montaigne, that was the page--though arguably only as a stand-in for his dear friend Etienne de La Boetie, who he lost to the plague. For us, perhaps it’s Twitter, or something else (for me, this writing)--again as stand-in for all we’ve lost, and continue to lose, to COVID-19. Ultimately, Montaigne says, “our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves,” and it’s worth asking what kind of company you keep.

The recommendation from Montaigne here is suspiciously Stoic, but I think there’s a tender side waiting to be exposed: don’t get too attached. You’re going to lose, eventually, all of those things that are the object of thought. “We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can,” Montaigne writes; “but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.” 

In Montaigne’s case, the prediction proved true: his wife, though he didn’t lose her, was always a distant figure in his writing, and suspicions abound about his supposedly dead bedroom; his children he did lose, one after another, in infancy, until his one surviving daughter was born around the completion of this essay; his goods, though considerable, are momentarily forfeited as he and his family are driven out of Bordeaux by the plague (for six months, living on the road); and finally, after a protracted battle with kidney stones, his health fails him too, and he dies of quinsy. That's all it took, losing just about everything, as Robert Zaretsky put it in the New York Times, for the old man to find himself.

What's his concrete solution to all this grief? “We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” 

Now this “back shop” might conjure up something like Happy Gilmore’s “happy place,” which he could go to whenever overtaken by nerves before a putt. But that’s not it--Montaigne says “reserve,” not “go to.” This is rather something like a resource we can always count on, the way H-E-B stocked up in advance of this crisis, planning for pandemic since 2005: if the shelves of our heart get raided, and there’s not even toilet paper left on the floor, we know we have some extra in the back. (Though even the Texas supermarket juggernaut failed to predict the run on TP.) 

Montaigne spent two decades alone in a room scribbling his internal monologue. This Herculean feat of self-observation notwithstanding, he insisted that he didn’t think anything different than you or me. “On the highest throne in the world,” he pronounces from his lofty perch, “we still sit only on our own bottom.” The trick, if there is any, is to have some humility about what goes on upstairs, even at a time of crisis. When you grieve, grieve; when you panic, panic; just don’t think too much about it. (Or, if you do, grab a pen.)