Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson are two of the greatest essayists who ever lived. They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.
Montaigne grew up in a deeply polarized society, a France torn by religious wars. He tried to make his way in the brutal world of politics. He was afflicted by the death of children and the death of his best friend. He himself was nearly killed in a riding accident.
This external disorder was matched by internal disorder. Montaigne was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him with chimeras and imaginary monsters: “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”
Montaigne advises us to accept the flux. Be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can’t accept the elusiveness inside.
Montaigne set out to do a thorough investigation of himself so he wouldn’t be surprised so often: “Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile.
“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.”
This honest self-inventory produced a kind of equipoise. Montaigne didn’t strive to create an all-explaining ideology. He didn’t seek to conquer the world. Instead, he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant. He was at ease with life, and even with death. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry, he says. Nature will instruct you.
Johnson was charming, but he was not amiable. Where Montaigne sought a life of wisdom and restraint, Johnson sought a life of improvement and ardor.
Johnson also lived with disorder. He probably had Tourette’s syndrome and couldn’t control his body. He feared insanity. He also worried about the terrors thrown up by the imagination — nighttime fears and jealousies.
But whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson put the emphasis on self-conquest. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward. Social, not solitary, he described human nature in general as a way to understand the common predicament. Many of his sayings display a skepticism about human nature: “A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. … Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
But then Johnson sought out to earnestly reform and correct his sins. His diaries are filled with urgent self-commands to stop being so lazy. He was a moralist, writing essays on the vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt, boredom and sorrow. He pinned down and named everything that terrified him. He wrote biographies of moral exemplars that readers could emulate.
Johnson battled error and vice. Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were “the wild beasts of the Arena.” He would lash out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”
His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.”
Formerly a dissolute and depressed youth, he molded himself into something large, weighty and impressive. One biographer wrote that “iron had entered his soul.” He created his own character, which was marked by compassion but also a fierce sense of personal responsibility.
Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. We can each pick what sort of person we would prefer to be. But I’d say Johnson achieved a larger greatness. He was harder on himself. He drove himself to improve more strenuously. He held up more demanding standards for the sort of life we should be trying to live, and constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval.
Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife, but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, and among people who spent more time thinking about the commercial climb than ultimate things.