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“Now since we are undertaking to live, without companions, by ourselves, let us make our happiness depend on ourselves; let us loose ourselves from the bonds which tie us to others; let us gain power over ourselves to live really and truly alone – and of doing so in contentment.”Michel de Montaigne
There is nothing more amicable and hostile than man. He is unfriendly by wickedness and congenial by character. Dare you may say you are unencumbered by wrong for having to deal with the immorality of others, but they too were upbraided for sin who tormented the villains. Two choices: you either abominate the sinful or follow their example. Both recourses indicate menace – if you become a monster, there are many alike; if you despise the many, you find much disparity.
Accordingly, if your soul is not made lighter to the pressure of the load, carelessly moving about only swells the strain, in the same way a cargo is more steadfast and less disruptive when strapped in position. More injury is inflicted by moving the victim about. You unsettle his sickness and worsen his shape. For that reason, it is not sufficient to retreat from the crowd or move to another state. You have to depart from the rabble’s features that lie within yourself: it is your self that you must identify and regain. In his Odes, Horace says: “Why do we leave for lands warmed by a foreign sun? What fugitive from his own land can flee from himself?”
If we are taking responsibility to live without the help of fellows, we ought to make our contentment hinge on ourselves. We have to slacken the fetters that bind us to others. This is your power: to master your rule and learn to sincerely live alone, wholly content and at ease. You have lived amply for others, assisting their interests while compromising your own. Now you must learn to live for yourself, fetching your beliefs and thoughts back to your own good health and prosperity.
When the Barbarians ravaged the city of Nola, Paulinus [The local Bishop] grew poor and was incarcerated. But his prayer betrayed an appreciable single-mindedness: ‘Keep me O Lord from feeling this loss. Thou knowest that the Barbarians have so far touched nothing of mine.’ The means that elevated him and the favourable goods that made him righteous remained unharmed. Paulinus shows beyond doubt what it means to pick out unbribable riches; secreting them in a place no man can invade or reveal. Before everything, man should have vigorous health; as well as children, spouses and worldly goods. Still, we should not grow cemented, making our contentment pivot on them.
Lay aside a room only for yourself, devoid of hindrances; there you will bring sovereignty into being, your foremost peace and refuge. Inside, your usual dialogue should be of yourself, with yourself: so acquainted with ourselves that the external world finds no place within its confines. You should converse, chuckle and marvel as if you had no family, belongings or lovers. Ergo, when the time of loss draws near, it shall not be a novel and insufferable circumstance to sustain yourself in their absence. Our soul is intelligent and adaptable, it can bear its own companionship and has the means to assail and protect; to give and be given. In such isolation, let us not dread bending in burning indolence.
“In lonely places, be a crowd unto yourself.”
Why do we take a stand against Nature’s laws, enslaving ourselves by making our pleasure depend on others, thereby handing over our vital power? To disagree with nature is to grow impotent. Do not paralyse your force by ensaring yourself in other people’s laces; it’s catastrophic. And among other indulgences, you must abdicate the fulfilment that comes from others’ assent. By your resolute nature, even your hideouts ought to be illustrious and admirable. Constancy is unwavering even when nobody is gazing; virtue does not falter when it is solitary and does not seize the chance to disparage its own good when tempted. Further, a man with nothing to add should desist from taking. We must draw in our strengths and retain them within; and those who can upturn the burdens of love and let them flow inwards should not be reluctant to do so. During that degeneration that makes an insistent man a futile impediment to others, allow him to skirt round becoming a futile impediment to himself; allow him to spoil, adore and restrain himself – regarding in his reason, concerning in his moral sense. He can not lose balance in their company without sensing disgrace. Respectable men are few and far between in this day and age: “It is rare for anybody to respect himself enough.”[Quintilian]
Move, then, to the extemities of delight but guard yourself against that mingling agony of going too far; if you don’t know when to hit the brakes, you will meet the inexorable suffering of superabundance. As Persius says in his Satires, “Let us pluck life’s pleasures: it is up to us to live; you will soon be ashes, a ghost, something to tell tales about.” But we clutch our shackles and take them with us, still gaping at the things we casted aside in times bygone. Indeed, your liberty is not absolute and your imagination not absolutely enlivened. Really, the masses are willing to trade their most dear pleasures and life itself for the people they care for. And seeing that their intimate dealings don’t sufficiently awaken trouble, they start battering and bullying their head with the worries of their nearest relatives. Those chains you carry must be unfettered and from this point onward, lash to nothing but yourself; let the stand be yours yet not too affixed that it cannot pull apart a bit of your self. For as Montaigne says, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself.”
“That mind is at fault which never escapes from itself.”
Young man are to be instructed; developed men are to engage in heroic exploits; aged men are to depart from civil and soldierly duties and live the remainder of their life as they desire, unhindered by fixed burdens. When Pliny the Younger instructed his friend Cornelius, he said ‘I counsel you in that ample and thriving retreat of yours, to hand the degrading and abject care of your estates over to those in your employ, and to devote yourself to the study of letters so as to derive from it something totally your own.’ The sages impartially enlighten us to extricate ourselves from traitorious cravings and learn to discriminate good pleasures from those raptures weakened and fused by suffering. It has been said that most joys stroke and cuddle us only to stifle our composure, just like the Philistae [termed by the Egyptians – meaning thieves]. If a hangover preceded insobriety, no man would tipple in surplus – pleasure tricks us by walking at the fore rather than behind, thereby secreting her course.
The severity of their law is flattened by custom – their sexual cravings are spurned and pacified by self-denial and nothing can safeguard them save application and utility. The delights and ecstasies of this valued existence will truly deserve our relinquishment in another perennial lifetime. But if you can resolutely blaze your soul with the zest of a high-spirited trust and aspiration, you will have found a reality filled with the finest pleasures. So, bother yourself over what you say to yourself, not over others’ say of you – depart inwards, but arrange to embrace yourself, as it is folly to delegate yourself to yourself if you are incapable of self-rule. Let us take Propertius’ word, then, and “Let each man choose the road he should take.”