I'm only in semi-lockdown: face-to-face teaching is still happening in reduced circumstances for a little longer but compared with my former 10 hours per day in the office, life is changed utterly. Has it meant that I've written those books? Got those grant applications written? Tidied the garden?
No, of course it hasn't. Nor have I horsed through nearly so many books as I expected. There's been a lot of sleeping, compulsive slacking and - weirdly - I wake up every morning with my hands gripping the uprights of my bedhead like a prisoner begging for parole. Go figure.
However, I'm not alone. I've been slowly browsing Montaigne's essays. It's a shame he was born and died in the 16th century: he'd have been a superb social media content provider. Perhaps even an influencer! Here he is on idleness in isolation:
When I lately retired to my own house, with a resolution, as much as possibly I could, to avoid all manner of concern in affairs, and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I have to live, I fancied I could not more oblige my mind than to suffer it at full leisure to entertain and divert itself, which I now hoped it might henceforth do, as being by time become more settled and mature; but I find – “Variam semper dant otia mentem,” [“Leisure ever creates varied thought.”—Lucan] that, quite contrary, it is like a horse that has broke from his rider, who voluntarily runs into a much more violent career than any horseman would put him to, and creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.
If that's not the birth of a blogger, I don't know what is. The Essays are fascinating - often very short, quite aphoristic, often charming in their sense of self-doubt (one essay is titled 'What Do I Know?', which might rule him out of contention as a purveyor of hot takes on 24-hour news channels), and only occasionally a bit 'you what mate?', but very personal, in a break with the literary conventions of the day. I remember the essays being mentioned in my undergraduate degree, but I never got round to reading them (see above, or blame my tutors' obsession with us reading every single word of Henryson and Dunbar, upon whose work I have not built a career - sorry, Scotland). In contrast to me, Montaigne retired to his agreeable tower in the Dordogne, stocked with a sizeable (for those times) library of 1500 books and industriously wrote his essays.
Amongst them is chapter 38, Of Solitude. Written during a period of plagues and wars, Montaigne has a sharp eye for the motives of the public office-holder in such times:
let us boldly appeal to those who are in public affairs; let them lay their hands upon their hearts, and then say whether, on the contrary, they do not rather aspire to titles and offices and that tumult of the world to make their private advantage at the public expense.
Between the American election, the Grenfell Tower enquiry and the daily revelation of pandemic-related corruption on an almost incomprehensible scale, it's hard to imagine many public figures passing this test. But the danger, says Montaigne, is to ourselves: avarice and corruption are contagious - only a fool doesn't offer a bribe if everyone else is doing it. How would you get anything done otherwise? We're all isolated or semi-isolated for health reasons, but Montaigne - who voluntarily withdrew from public life for a number of years - insists that the wise man withdrawn because he isn't strong enough to resist the inner temptation to join the crowd and become corrupt otherwise (a point taken up in The Miners' Next Step, a syndicalist classic from South Wales which warned a hundred years ago that the workers' representatives, once wined and dined by the class enemy, would inevitably lose sight of their purpose). Even if you hide yourself away, says Michel, you're left with your own strengths and weaknesses, played out on a domestic rather than a public stage.
Now the end, I take it, is all one, to live at more leisure and at one’s ease: but men do not always take the right way. They often think they have totally taken leave of all business, when they have only exchanged one employment for another: there is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom. Wherever the mind is perplexed, it is in an entire disorder, and domestic employments are not less troublesome for being less important. Moreover, for having shaken off the court and the exchange, we have not taken leave of the principal vexations of life:“Ratio et prudentia curas, Non locus effusi late maris arbiter, aufert;” [“Reason and prudence, not a place with a commanding view of the great ocean, banish care.”—Horace, Ep., i. 2.]
ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desires, do not leave us because we forsake our native country
I wondered during the first lockdown whether we would all decide to be kinder, gentler, less selfish people having experienced clean air and quiet streets: the rush to buy yet more SUVs and re-fill the verges with litter swiftly disabused me of that notion, yet I can't say I'm a better person for it either. The same things and people annoy me; I have 'left undone the things that I ought to have done, and done the things that I ought not to have done' (to steal from the splitters' prayer-book). Perhaps the idea of turning enforced idleness into an opportunity for spiritual renewal is rightly the precinct of the wellness cranks and hucksters: life's too fraught for most of us, so perhaps we shouldn't feel too guilty about turning to biscuits and box-sets instead of writing that novel or copying the Sistine Chapel on your living room ceiling (though that would be cool). Michel considers gardening and prayer as potential hobbies but rejects them both. He's not really convinced that his preference - reading and writing - is any better. It's morally and physically injurious:
“This plodding occupation of bookes is as painfull as any other, and as great an enemie unto health, which ought principally to be considered. And a man should not suffer him selfe to be inveagled by the pleasure he takes in them.”
The answer, he says, is to avoid being sucked into a kind of competitive virtue - don't believe that everyone else is designing vaccines or achieving enlightenment via yoga in their spare rooms. Other people might be claiming to read only the Great Works, but Montaigne is brave enough to admit that sometimes you just need to relax with some trash:
I for my part care for no other books, but either such as are pleasant and easy, to amuse me, or those that comfort and instruct me how to regulate my life and death…Wiser men, having great force and vigour of soul, may propose to themselves a rest wholly spiritual but for me, who have a very ordinary soul, it is very necessary to support myself with bodily conveniences
We definitely shouldn't go as far as Montaigne: while his counsel of self-reliance sounds great, there's a disturbing quality to his extreme definition of independence that in our day would end up in foil-covered windows and bags of excreta:
Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.
Cope with absence and loss, fine - but it's a radical isolation that insists community is a luxury rather than a necessity (one suspects he doesn't count the staff). Montaigne sees solitude as the justified reward of the public servant who has given his all and has nothing more to add to society: a time to recover, but also to prepare for death, something he feels is overlooked in our activity. We've probably done plenty of that this year, though the powerful seem happier contemplating the deaths of countless others in pursuit of abstract ends than valuing each one.
That's probably enough. But next time you hear Johnson or Rees-Mogg coming out with a Latin tag, remember what Montaigne says about this kind of performance, in 'Of The Art of Conference':
…we see so many silly souls amongst the learned, and more than those of the better sort… Knowledge is a thing of great weight, they faint under it: their understanding has neither vigour nor dexterity enough to set forth and distribute, to employ or make use of this rich and powerful matter… the weak ones, says Socrates, corrupt the dignity of philosophy in the handling, it appears useless and vicious, when lodged in an ill-contrived mind. They spoil and make fools of themselves:“Humani qualis simulator simius oris,
Quern puer arridens pretioso stamine serum
Velavit, nudasque nates ac terga reliquit,
[“Just like an ape, simulator of the human face, whom a wanton boy has dizened up in rich silks above, but left the lower parts bare, for a laughing-stock for the tables.” —Claudian, in Eutrop., i 303.]
Neither is it enough for those who govern and command us, and have all the world in their hands, to have a common understanding, and to be able to do the same that we can; they are very much below us, if they be not infinitely above us: as they promise more, so they are to perform more.