On constancy


One of my favourite of Montaigne’s Essays is the first in Book II: ‘On the inconstancy of our actions’. He explains how fickleness and variability is in our nature:

Of Man I can believe nothing less easily than invariability: nothing more easily than variability.

In other words, we are the very opposite of large rocks, indifferent to the flowing of a tumultuous river. Our opinions and emotions change with the weather and the seasons.

I can certainly see myself in this introspection:

Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal — I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.

Why does this matter? Because to live an intentional life, we need to know both what we’re aiming at and what we think about things:

No wonder, said an Ancient, that chance has so much power over us, since it is by chance that we live. Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have in your head the idea of the whole. What is the use of providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint? No man sketches out a definite plan for his life; we only determine bits of it. The bowman must first know what he is aiming at: then he has to prepare hand, bow, bowstring, arrow and his drill to that end. Our projects go astray because they are not addressed to a target. No wind is right for a seaman who has no predetermined harbour.

Today’s reading in The Daily Stoic includes this commentary:

In a scene in Steven Pressfield’s classic novel about Alexander the Great, The Virtues of War, Alexander reaches a river crossing only to be confronted by a philosopher who refuses to move. “This man has conquered the world!” one of Alexander’s men shouts. “What have you done?” The philosopher responds, with complete confidence, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”

I shall think my time on this earth successful if I manage to learn how to sit quietly in a room, alone. 

Image CC BY-NC uncoolbob