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rumors journal continued


One of the most interesting passages from "Montaigne: A Biography" by Donald Frame is about Montaigne's ideas on the soul. "Soul" is such an overused word these days, with a heavy coating of sticky new-age meanings, that I would like to give a definition that's current, unsentimental, nonmetaphysical and close to what I believe Montaigne means.

The definition is what Eric Maisel in "The Van Gogh Blues" calls "the X factor" of human character, which means: "We don't know the secret of our own genetics, how easy or hard it is for us to change our basic nature, or how our beliefs are woven together. This X factor produces, if not utter mystery, enough mystery that our understanding of who we are is obscured and limited." Maisel does not equate the X factor and the soul, but I am doing so to bring out Montaigne's meaning.

First, Montaigne says the key thing about soul is that it is arbitrary, which amounts to the soul's ability to take things as it will, as it must according to its nature, which varies widely from person to person. Indeed, his main reason for thinking that the soul is arbitrary is the diversity of human opinion:

"That things do not lodge in us in their own form and essence, or make their entry into us by their own power and authority, we see clearly enough. Because if this were so, we should receive them in the same way. ... Thus, external objects surrender to our mercy; they dwell in us as we please. ... [we know things by our faculty of knowing, not] through the power and according to the law of their own essence."

He goes on to say that the soul molds objects and events to itself and its every condition [our faculty of knowing], "out of the many thousands of attitudes at its disposal."

He concludes: "Things in themselves may have their own weights and measures and qualities; but once inside, within us, she [the soul] allots them their qualities as she sees fit ... health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty and their opposites — all are stripped away on entry and receive from the soul new clothing, and the coloring she chooses ... wherefore let us no longer make the external qualities of things our excuse."

He's not saying we can simply decide how to view the world or feel about the blows of life; some things are beyond our power to understand and change, others not. But maybe our existence will improve if we better understand how human character works, how our knowing functions. Perhaps most importantly, he is saying the diversity of human opinion erodes easy claims about an objective world.

I find it an incredibly powerful and psychological expression of how the X factor operates and how it can, if we're not careful, cloak our inevitable subjectivity behind a veil of mistaken objectivism, and all this 350 years before Freud and the advent of psychotherapy.  

19 JANUARY 2004

I want to refine Montaigne's idea that, "all [qualities] are stripped away on entry and receive from the soul new clothing."

It's not so much that the X factor re-clothes on entry the events and objects of the outer world, but that the X factor is always intent to seek out ideas or experiences that can be costumed in our hopes and dreams. And once dressed in our projected qualities, those things become the bearers of our deepest truths and hallmarks of what we deem "objective" reality.

Subjectivity, first unconsciously projected then enthusiastically introjected, so powerfully passes for objectivity that almost no amount of careful introspection can show it up for what it is: us. This is the illusion that passes for reality, what the sages have warned of for millennia, that personality unknowingly projected on the world and welcomed back as truth is the opposite of sanity and wisdom.




“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb