March 3, 2014

David Brooks: The Strengths of Ease and Ardor

Loved this piece on two historical essayists, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne. They were different personalities and subscribed to different, even opposing, ways to live, but each has some appeal to tackling modern life and its perplexities, as Brooks summarizes.

Montaigne recommended to accept change, "the flux." "Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can't accept the elusiveness inside."  Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself......if others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense....we are all steeped in it, one as much as the other, but those who are aware of it are a little better off...."

Brooks: ..."He was amiable, 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, on the other hand, feared insanity, frights of the imagination, fears and jealousies. He emphasized self-conquest, defeating one's own fears, tackling them head-on. His goal was self-improvement and "the moral improvement of his readers." His character was "marked by compassion but also a fierce sense of personal responsibility."

Brooks concludes: "we can each pick what sort of person we would prefer to be...Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife....Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve."

Here is the entire commentary which I read in the Seattle Times today, March 2, 2014. So much rang true to me. Good fodder for thought and conversation.

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