Montaigne’s third essay “Our emotions get carried away beyond us,” features the first of many quotes from Seneca:
Wretched is a mind anxious about the future.
What’s interesting about this quote is that it punctuates one of Montaigne’s strongest Stoic thoughts, which I also find more interesting than Seneca:
We are never ’at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be — even when we ourselves shall be no more.
That part about people being no more was highly scandalous in its time. Montaigne consistently expressed the view that humans only exist when body and soul are conjoined.
And there’s also the element of mindfulness here, that we fail to fully appreciate and experience the present and feel ourselves pushed forward in time towards a destination that is actually nothing more than death. That’s probably a thought more akin to Heidegger than the Stoics, but it’s genuine Montaigne.
But I think there’s something else here that I find compelling. This idea of always being outside ourselves is meaningful to me, but I would describe it a bit differently. I tend to create abstractions of human beings, a simplified, “figured out” version of people that permits me to interact with them in a safe manner. And it usually includes some element of that person combined with something in myself, so there’s a degree of empathy to it, even if the abstraction is largely negative.
In other words, to feel safe with other human beings, to have a degree of trust and predictability with them, I have to fictionalize them. Otherwise, I would be caught up in my own emotional reactions to them and wouldn’t be able to function. So if someone touches off a sense of insecurity in me, I find the insecurity in them. If I feel attraction or affection towards someone, I interpret their words or actions in a way that makes me believe the feeling is mutual. It’s simple projection, everyone does it, but I tend to be highly conscious of the process.
Behaving this way can feel like a superpower at times — I think it makes me a much better speechwriter, because I just have to write to the abstracted character. But it can also create significant problems for me because I have to remind myself that I‘m interacting with a real person, with their own feelings, motivations and drives, not the abstracted character.
When interactions become almost entirely over forms of text messaging, it can also create a version of solipsism, where I’m conducting a wide range of discussions with myself in the guise of having them with other people, purely writing to the characters and trying to elicit expected responses from them. Every day of my working life, in some respects, feels like a day writing a novel, because I’m just interacting with myself and making up drama along the way.
So, returning to Montaigne, even though I’m mostly working from home, I am never actually ”at home,” interacting with the world as it truly exists. I exist in this vacuum sealed universe with my own thoughts and narratives, getting frustrated when my characters rebel and force me to divert the story. I like to punish myself for never writing any fiction, but I’m actually writing it non stop. It’s just called my life.
This is actually nothing like what Montaigne was describing, but it is my lived experience. And the most fascinating part to me is that this existence naturally draws me to the most complicated, hard to abstract human beings, because they are the only people with the ability to surprise me and make me feel alive.