Thinking of Montaigne at the Summer House



Such as accuse mankind of the folly of gaping after future things, and advise us to make our benefit of those which are present, and to set up our rest upon them, as having no grasp upon that which is to come, even less than that which we have upon what is past, have hit upon the most universal of human errors, if that may be called an error to which nature herself has disposed us, in order to the continuation of her own work, prepossessing us, amongst several others, with this deceiving imagination, as being more jealous of our action than afraid of our knowledge.

–Michel de Montaigne


I must confess to a lifetime’s worth of early morning restiveness, for I too gape after future things and this state is upon me with the first light. I grasp at what I imagine is to come. Accordingly I start my days in error. My mind is no freshly scrubbed tabula rasa. Early. The sun up. The mink is fighting down by the dock. He’s presumably fighting another mink. Me? I wake to the catterwaul and begin making mistakes of the deceiving imagination–being more jealous of action than afraid of knowledge.

Oh what the minks and Montaigne have done to me!

The first mistake–mine–is to imagine the future. The imagination–mine–is caught in fancies of poor or ghastly outcomes. The knowledge that these outcomes never materialize, indeed that my every deleterious fancy has failed to occur does not matter for Montaigne is correct: we are, when in a state of imagination, afraid of our knowledge. Who will imagine a good life? Perhaps Montaigne is also correct to infer that nature prevents us from living restfully in the present. No wonder the apes groom one another.

I have no grasp upon that which is to come. Please comb my hair for me.

Of course Montaigne would have us ponder these lines from Ovid:


“Scilicet ultima semper Exspectanda dies homini est; dicique beatus Ante obitum nemo supremaque funera debet.”

[“We should all look forward to our last day: no one can be called happy till he is dead and buried.”—Ovid, Met, iii. 135]

Of course the consolations of Philosophy are meager. Please comb my hair for me.  

I must tell you that these are my thoughts before I rise from bed.

Let the favors and disgraces of fortune stand for nothing. I told you Philosophy was meager.

Oh but you should see me when I’m not on vacation.

“Qui capite ipse suo instituit vestigia retro,”

[“Who in his folly seeks to advance backwards”—Lucretius, iv. 474]

I will not worry today about my graying hair, my bad back, or the compound brutish uncivil qualities of public life.

I will advance without a thought by taking a long swim.


I have no evidence of Montaigne’s swimming life.



0 thoughts on “Thinking of Montaigne at the Summer House

  1. OK, I’ve constructedthe sign that will hang over the entrance of your summer house on Rattlesnake Island:
    ‘In the year of Christ 2010, at the age of fifty-five, on the seventeenth day of August, Stephen Kuusisto, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still (pretty much) entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’
    Here’s hoping that your tranquility is not disrupted by descending kidney stones like poor, old Michel!


  2. The Fantod Pack is a blessing and a curse — sometimes it’s better not to know. And now that my readings on Gregory Orr have enlightened me that the word “blessing” means to “sprinkle with blood”, I’ll never use it again without thinking of this. The image that spring to mind is of a Transyvanian count singing, “If you are worried, and you can’t sleep…”


  3. I’m thinking that perhaps what you’re saying is that this morning is not the best time for another charting of your future using the Fantod Pack.


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