Limits and Learning


(Photo: Toa Heftiba,

In writing essays I have, for several years now, followed the godfather of essay writing, Michel de Montaigne, in regarding them as essais or ‘attempts,’ even ‘tests.’ “What do I know?” Montaigne famously asked as justification for writing so freely on so many diverse topics, sometimes in the same piece. He was intent on testing himself, finding out what he knew and how he could best express it.

He was also unafraid to admit his learning curve, both morally and socially. “When the discussion becomes turbulent and lacks order,” he says, commenting on the art of conversation, “I quit the subject-matter and cling irritably and injudiciously to the form, dashing into a style of debate which is stubborn, ill-willed and imperious, one which I have to blush for later.”

Me too.

I envy Montaigne’s ability to skip lightly from a discussion of learning how to die to cannibals to educating the young. All the way along he quotes from Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, Hesiod, Horace, and Plutarch, as well as friends and enemies, Josephus and St. Augustine. The man knew everybody worth knowing in ancient and medieval literature and philosophy.

His book, he said in a note to his readers, was for his family and friends, so that when they lose him (as they surely will soon) “they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.” Yet having written and published his essays, he returned to them continually, adding, subtracting, revising, polishing, cutting and trimming, mulling over them, grafting in new ideas onto the trunk of his earlier efforts. He wrote and revised until he died, judging his work never to be finished, but rather always in transit.

Saved from self-absorption by his cheerful humility, Montaigne writes about himself because “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” In a time when the individual was emerging from the crowd this was heady stuff; today it might be greeted with a yawn or roundly criticized as presumptuous and arrogant: “Who are you to say that you know my experience? Everybody is unique!”

What we have in Montaigne is a voice unafraid to speak up for itself, but one which will gladly learn from anyone, even those opposed to it. His confidence is infectious; he boldly goes where he has not gone before, relaying messages about his changes back to Federation Headquarters as they occur. His self-awareness is acute without being cloying: “And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump.”

Today, wanting to write and determined to try, I began with an idea that had leapt out from my current readings in history and historiography. Since I don’t outline before I write I trusted that having read and pondered and watered my tiny mustard seed of a thought I would be able to grow it into a bush that the birds could flock to in numbers. But from the first sentence I was riddled with doubt. If I took this particular path I would have to explain the background; if I assumed this point, I would cloud the context. On and on it went, the original beam forking into fractals, each one bending the light until I could no longer see.

“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” says Emerson. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” But that was precisely the issue! My thoughts had all been said and written before, usually better, by other people. A certain obsessive quality in me runs every idea through an originality sieve, sifting to find some gem that no one has thought of before.

That’s when I turned to Thomas Merton who wrote constantly and fluently on several dominant themes throughout his life. “No one need have a compulsion to be utterly and perfectly “original” in every word he writes,” says Merton. “All that matters is that the old be recovered on a new plane and be, itself, a new reality.”

Like most authors, Merton wondered if he was connecting, if what he wrote was making a difference in people’s lives. If a manuscript passed through the diocesan censors with minimal damage and then on to the publisher’s editing, Merton couldn’t help but worry that it was bland and forgettable. Later in life, musing on this need for writers to be needed, he says, “You give some of it to others, if you can. Yet one should be able to share things with others without bothering too much about how they like it, either, or how they accept it. Assume they will accept it, if they need it. And if they don’t need it, why should they accept it? That is their business. Let me accept what is mine and give them all their share, and go my way.”

Late in the day, going over this piece, those were words I needed to hear. I hadn’t written what I thought I would, but I had written, even though it was to stitch together the thoughts of others whose writing I admire. That was something, at least. “So do not worry about tomorrow,” said Jesus, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

There is that.

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