From How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Among less emotionally wrought readers, one much affected by Montaigne’s remarks on cruelty was Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard Woolf. In his memoirs, he held up Montaigne’s “On Cruelty” as a much more significant essay than people had realized. Montaigne, he wrote, was “the first person in the world to express this intense, personal horror of cruelty. He was, too, the first completely modern man.” The two were linked: Montaigne’s modernity resided precisely in his “intense awareness of and passionate interest in the individuality of himself and of all other human beings”—and nonhuman beings, too.
Even a pig or a mouse has, as Woolf put it, a feeling of being an “I” to itself. This was the very claim that Descartes had denied so strenuously, but Woolf arrived at it through personal experience rather than Cartesian reasoning.
What brought this incident back to Woolf, as an adult, was reading Montaigne. He went on to apply the insight to politics, reflecting especially on his memory of the 1930s, when the world seemed about to sink into a barbarism that made no room for this small individual self. On a global scale, no single creature can be of much importance, he wrote, yet in another way these I’s are the only things of importance. And only a politics that recognizes them can offer hope for the future.
Writing about consciousness, the psychologist William James had a similar instinct. We understand nothing of a dog’s experience: of “the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts.” They understand nothing of ours, when for example they watch us stare interminably at the pages of a book. Yet both states of consciousness share a certain quality: the “zest” or “tingle” which comes when one is completely absorbed in what one is doing. This tingle should enable us to recognize each other’s similarity even when the objects of our interest are different. Recognition, in turn, should lead to kindness. Forgetting this similarity is the worst political error, as well as the worst personal and moral one.
In the view of William James, as of Leonard Woolf and Montaigne, we do not live immured in our separate perspectives, like Descartes in his room. We live porously and sociably. We can glide out of our own minds, if only for a few moments, in order to occupy another being’s point of view. This ability is the real meaning of “Be convivial,” this chapter’s answer to the question of how to live, and the best hope for civilization.