When reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “Montaigne,” one stops to contemplate the following: “The man who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous and indifferent.”

Few people can read that paragraph and not pause to consider the assertions therein and to take measure of their own lives. Ms. Woolf states these precepts as if they are immutable laws; but whether immutable or not, they are aspects of human nature that are intangible and unquantifiable. Thus, few people will pay any attention to them; for her precepts cannot be proved or cannot be converted into dollars and cents. Nevertheless, they may be true and they may affect people’s lives, even if they are of the spirit. In fact, the forces man cannot see often have the greatest effect upon him, to wit: gravity and love.

To know oneself is to know the world, asserted Socrates. And the converse, to know the world is to know oneself, seems a reasonable corollary. But to know either oneself or the world is a matter of study, reflection and knowledge. Knowing the world is not a matter of travel, for travel gives one only a superficial understanding of it. Little is learned on a Caribbean cruise about oneself or the world. Socrates also observed that the reason a man learns little from travel is that he takes himself with him.

Knowing anything and gaining any independence of self is achieved mostly in solitude. And solitude is a condition unacceptable to most people. Since most people resist being alone long enough to look within, they never learn what is there and thus never enjoy spiritual independence, a state in which one has acquired some ballast in his ship of life.

One need not be a psychologist to discern that people go to great lengths and use many means to avoid solitude and an encounter with themselves. My neighbor walks but he has a walkman plugged in his ear. He cannot listen to himself for the half hour he walks, so he listens to the media mania that rides the radio frequencies. Some people leave a TV on from dawn to midnight whether they are listening to it or not. It’s company and it helps keep themselves from themselves.

It’s axiomatic that the less a person invests within the more he invests without. The person who is inwardly poor makes, if possible, an extravagant display outwardly. The sad truth is that people starve the soul and feast the person. A typical example is one who is a great talker, joke teller, back slapper, fancy dresser, Cadillac driver, whose arguments are many words and little substance and less coherence. He is all sail and no ballast.

A library is place of solitude and reflection. There, is the key to knowledge of oneself. Even though it is free and the repository of the best of thought, imagined and written by men and women of all time and places, it is never crowded. It is place where one meets oneself, so most people avoid it.

The crowd is found at the malls where the senses can feast upon a cornucopia of stuff and things, of sounds and sights, of trinkets and gadgets. The soul is silenced in such a place. In the marketplace, there is no tranquility, no peace within, no joy of solitude; for the senses are cloyed and communication with self stifled, the very conditions the visitor seeks.

Those who do not know themselves and thus do not know the world are inordinately susceptible to ceremony and convention. Unable to be guided by themselves, they are guided by consensus and others. They accept the religion of their parents or embrace the theology of one who purports to have the know-how to get them to Heaven. They are joiners and ceremoniously affirm loyalty to idealistic but often evil ends. The more sheep-like are inclined to follow madmen to disaster. Nazi Germany might never have been, if the populace had paused to think, to examine itself and the world, and acted independently of the demagoguery of Adolf Hitler.

Montaigne’s works would not have made the list of great books if writing skill was all that his possessed. He made the list because he was a humanist in the best sense of the word. He questioned ceremony, convention and consensus. He lauded solitude and the fruits thereof. He questioned the dogmatism that drove religious armies to slaughter one another over an iota of difference. His renown among humanists was enhanced when in 1676 his works were placed on the Index by the Catholic Church, that is, reading his works were forbidden to the faithful.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British novelist and literary critic. She was also a feminist, a woman whom Rush Limbaugh, if he ever read her works—which is doubtful—would have dubbed her, in his hammer manner, feminazi. She was a superb writer and a lucid judge of the writings of others. She suffered mental disorders, a common ailment among geniuses, and ended her life by drowning herself.

Knowing oneself begins by questioning everything except the obvious. One needs to know how he became what he is, why he believes what he does, why he is taught what he is and why he does what he does. He must study his history, the history of man and the history of life. He must learn everything he can about the world. Then on the basis of that knowledge, he must make his independent judgment of whether what society believes, teaches and lives is reasonable or unreasonable and act in accordance with his judgment to the extent he can and yet avoid, if possible,  social censure, starvation and the county jail.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s