The early Montaigne essays seem like a symphonic overture to me. They don’t go into any depth about anything, but they introduce numerous themes that return throughout his project. His fourth essay, “How the soul discharges itself against false objects when lacking real ones,” makes no mention of stoicism and quotes none of the school’s philosophers. Yet it’s a very interesting statement about one of the core concepts of this philosophic school.
Achieving equanimity or ataraxia is one of the core goals of Stoicism — reaching a level of inner peace and freedom from distress that keeps a person from reacting to all of life’s petty injustices and disturbances. But without ever mentioning this state, Montaigne makes a strong case in this essay that the Stoics are overreaching with this goal, asking human to put aside something that’s so deeply ingrained in our nature that even other animals sometimes react the same way.
To illustrate, Montaigne gives us a series of historical vignettes on this theme:
It seems that the soul too, in the same way, loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless it is given something to grasp on to, and so we must always give it an object to butt up against and act upon.
Most of the examples are forms of self mutilation — such as banging your head against a wall or cutting yourself. But this kind of displacement can be on the positive side as well — showing warmth and affection towards a pet, for example, that you cannot show to a human at that moment.
Montaigne sums it all up by saying:
We shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our own minds.
But what I find interesting about this line, and the essay in general, is that Montaigne doesn’t write it in the spirit of the Stoics, demanding that moral people do better and find their equipoise. Rather, he seems to be reveling a bit in this unruliness, enjoying this human quirk as something we all do and should just admit as part of our human folly.
What I believe Montaigne is saying is that of course it’s silly. But consider the idiom used in English to describe a situation like this — don’t beat yourself up over it. This kind of action is so ingrained in us that it’s become our reflexive response in English to our tendency to self criticize.
The Stoics would have us beat ourselves up over it. And I think Montaigne is deftly pointing out, that’s a flaw in their system. You can’t expect to be perfect, you can’t live in total control. Accept your outbursts, your instinct to punch the table you just stubbed your toe on, and the extra attention you paid your dog when you were missing someone beloved.
Achieving genuine equanimity, in Montaigne’s philosophy, is learning to laugh at yourself, admitting there’s a whole lot that you do not know, and trying to do better next time.