Michel de Montaigne rejected the consolations of philosophy. He thought empathy and human solidarity had their limits. We often "spoiled our lives with joyless moralizing and self-regarding high-mindedness." What Montaigne taught us instead was "the passionate vindication of life itself." And not some fantasy of "living your best life," but all the ordinary routines of human existence. If you were going to enjoy life, you had to enjoy ordinary human life itself. And so the lesson from Montaigne is to find solace "in the pleasures, rhythms, and resilience of the human body itself. In doing so, he moved the search for consolation away from the mind to the feeling . . . that life was worth living simply because you could feel its rhythms coursing through your veins."
Montaigne stayed aloof from society in his later life, but David Hume did not. Ignatieff portrays how for the young Hume, the intellectual development of his skepticism of reason was "an anguished process of self-discovery." Note: I've long wanted to write a book about how new philosophical ideas arose from personal crises, and by this chapter I realized that Ignatieff has done something similar with this book. He writes of Hume's sociability as consolation:
In seeking diversion in the company of others, Hume was acknowledging how much he needed others to escape the maze of his own mind and how little reason actually contributed to consolation of any kind. We need human society in order to escape ourselves, to see ourselves as others do, to compare our understanding with theirs, to share a common world of feeling. . . . he realized that he could not make sense of life or bear it except in company with others.
Earlier this year I read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he talks about social connection as the antidote for depression. It seems a little trite when one reads it, but as Ignatieff points out, for Hume it was learned from actual experience, as he struggled to overcome his depression and that's what helped him.
What explains the different forms of consolation--Montaigne's private reflection or Hume's being social? I imagine something of individual temperament? Or maybe different things work for different people at different times? I know when I've been struggling I've needed both--time for personal reflection and time to get away from it by the society of others. What about you?
Hume provides yet another lesson. He was one of the first Western intellectuals to die publicly rejecting any belief in God, and thus without the consolations of religion. Many of his contemporaries found that unfathomable. But Ignatieff writes that Hume then pioneered a new way to die, in that one could die well and content without religious faith. And in doing so, Ignatieff writes, Hume had modeled that "the test of a good life" was "whether you had been true to your ambitions and fashioned a path for yourself." In doing so, Hume "had crafted a new form of consolation: autobiography as a narrative of self-realization."