– 15 Apr 2009

In a great book “The Consolations of Philosophy”, the author, Alain De Botton, writes on the wisdom of Michel de Montaigne.
Where clever people should get their ideas from

From people even cleverer than they are. They should spend their time quoting and producing commentaries about great authorities who occupy the upper rungs of the tree of knowledge. They should write treatises on the moral thought of Plato or the ethics of Cicero.

Montaigne owed much to the idea. There were frequent passages of commentary in the Essays, and hundreds of quotations from authors who Montaigne felt had captured points more elegantly and more acutely than he was able to. He quoted Plato 128 times, Lucretius 149 and Seneca 130.

It is tempting to quote authors when they express our very own thoughts but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we cannot match. They know us better than we know ourselves. What is shy and confused in us is succinctly and elegantly phrased in them, our pencil lines and annotations in the margins of their books and our borrowings from them indicating where we find a piece of our­selves, a sentence or two built of the very substance of which our own minds are made – a congruence all the more striking if the work was written in an age of togas and animal sacrifices. We invite these words into our books as a homage for reminding us of who we are.

But rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books may come to cast a problematic shadow. They may lead us to dismiss aspects of our lives of which there is no printed testimony. Far from expanding our horizons, they may unjustly come to mark their limits.
Such reluctance to trust our own, extra-literary, experiences might not be grievous if books could be relied upon to express all our potentialities, if they knew all our scabs. But as Montaigne recognized, the great books are silent on too many themes, so that if we allow them to define the boundaries of our curiosity, they will hold back the development of our minds.


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