Montaigne was despised by both sides during the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics that ravaged France from 1562-1598, writes historian Robert Zaretsky in an essay (June 29, 2020) for the NYT. He was known in his time as a politique: Someone who “for the sake of all tries to find common ground in a land savaged by zealotry.” Zealots hate those who do the hard slow slogging work of incremental reform.
We remember Montaigne today as one of the most civilized and wise voices in an age (the sixteenth century) in which cataclysmic events such as war and plague threatened the populations of Europe. But in his own time Montaigne was an active person, a mayor in the Bordeaux region.
His wisdom is distilled in a series of Essays, literally forays into or explorations of a variety of subjects, which he wrote at his estate well outside the gates of the city over which he was mayor. His equanimity comes shining through these essays, making it hard for a contemporary reader to realize that he wrote them while the world seemed to be falling apart all around him. The lesson he learned in his own savage time, the lesson that comes through his essays, is that we can come to rely upon ourselves when the world is in turmoil. Or to put this theme another way: nothing external to us need affect our inner calm and equanimity.
There’s a wonderful song by the Avett Brothers that communicates a similar message, “Ain’t No Man.” The first lines go like this.
There ain’t no man can save me,
There ain’t no man can enslave me,
Ain’t no man,
A man that can change the shape my soul is in.
There ain’t nobody here
Who can cause me pain or raise my fears
Cause I got only love to share
If you’re looking for a truth I’m proof you’ll find it here.
This morning as Debbie and I were having our tea together, and I was reading through the usual political shenanigans, catastrophic injustices and worrying scientific information catalogued in the morning news, Debbie was looking at real estate listings in the Outer Hebrides.
Seriously. She’s looking for someplace inconvenient to live.
Of course, we both know that Montaigne and the Avett Brothers, as well as Seneca and Epictetus the Stoics, and Buddha and the Dalai Lama, not to mention our Lord Jesus, were right: the world has always been a mess, there never was a golden age when everything worked and dangers didn’t exist, and if your happiness, and security, and comfort, and hope depend upon the world around you, you’re going to suffer all the time. All the time.
I had just pulled out one of several volumes of Seneca in our bookshelf this morning, and was availing myself of his enduring wisdom, when my long-time assistant at Louisville Seminary sent me an email sharing the obituary in the Indianapolis paper of my old friend the Reverend Dr. John Wimmer.
John died a few days ago at the age of sixty-three after courageously fighting cancer for two years. The obituary was well written. It said the kinds of things that a good obituary is intended to say: chronicling John’s distinguished academic and ministry career, his executive service as founding director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and, of course, his service as a program director for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., where he helped thousands upon thousands of congregations and pastors across the country with millions upon millions of dollars in grants.
There’s so much more the obituary could have said, however, that only John’s friends knew (many more things than I will ever know); many of these things demonstrate his quiet strength, compassion and courage, not least his faithful endurance of the malignancy that eventually took his life.
One of the secrets to John’s patient endurance and cheerfulness was his dedication to Stoicism, that philosophy which echoes through the ancient world and surfaces in the pages of the New Testament. It was John who, knowing my love of Stoicism many years ago, put me onto Evagrius Ponticus, that great and enigmatic soul of the early Church. John, with whom I had discussed my regular silent retreats at Gethsemani Abbey, told me about a Trappist monk formerly of that monastery, who had discovered connections between Stoicism and Evagrius. John and I traded correspondence on these connections and on Stoicism. But that’s only the external story.
John was a unique gift to me during a time of great perplexity and difficulty, when hardly a day passed that I didn’t feel like packing it in. Like the Stoics he loved, John’s interest in philosophy and faith was practical. A philosophy isn’t something to just think about, it is a way to live. And John found in his philosophy and faith a guide through life’s challenges right up to the end.
There’s an old story about a man who has fallen into a hole. Its sides are steep. Lots of people shout down advice to the fellow. Nothing they suggest works. Finally along comes an old friend. Instead of saying anything, he jumps into the hole with the guy, who then says, “Why the heck did you jump into the hole. Now we’re both stuck down here.” The friend smiles and says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before. I know how to get out. Come with me.”
This morning I had another conversation. Debbie and I are entertaining one of our grandchildren this week, our daughter Jessica’s daughter Grace. Some of you have met Grace. She’s stayed with us in New Orleans a number of times. Debbie and Grace had gotten dressed to run a few errands. Grace came bouncing into the den, twirled around so I could admire the new dress her Mimi had bought her, and then came over to my chair.
I was reading Seneca at that moment, thinking about John. The chapter of Seneca’s letters I was looking at is “On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World.” Seneca’s lesson, as ever, was that if we turn our happiness, security and sense of well-being over to the world’s conditions, we will be “servants to a multitude of masters.”
Some few of us have the freedom, the physical freedom, if you will, to try to flee the world, to find quiet places of rest and repose. Most people in the world do not have this freedom. And it was never in the nature of Stoicism or Christianity simply to escape the world’s trials to an insular oasis.
However, we all have a much greater freedom. This greater freedom comes from the awareness that If our enduring, long-term happiness depends upon finding the right place to live, far from the external conditions that frighten us today, we shall be disappointed. Indeed, if we wish to live in a manner than promotes the common good, we will have to find a philosophy of life that sustains us in this world.
Nothing outside ourselves can create the necessary conditions for enduring happiness. This is the mature, sustaining perspective of Seneca and other Stoics. Seneca was not just a theoretician. His philosophy provided him the inner strength to labor among the political and cultural elite of Roman society, not simply in the knowledge that he had a country estate to which he could repair, but in the confidence that the mind provided him an impregnable inner citadel from which he served in the world around him. Not even the sword, which eventually was wielded by an executioner sent from the Emperor, could penetrate those walls.
“Grace, you seem very happy,” I said that morning.
She beamed. Why not be happy? She and her Mimi were dressed up and going to run their masked errands that might include a swing by Chick-fil-A.
I took my finger and tapped the middle of her forehead.
“The secret to happiness,” I said, “is right in here, not out there,” I said motioning to everything outside of her. “Can you remember that?”
She nodded. And I said it again, tapping her forehead again. I want her to remember this, long after I’m gone.
Thank you, John.