Doug Bruns

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In Books, Philosophy, Writers on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

My drinking buddy, Michel de Montaigne

Let me begin by recommending a book: How to Live, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Before I go too far afield allow me to delineate Bakewell’s subtitle. The one question is: How to Live? And the twenty attempted answers:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Be born
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Survive love and loss
  • Use little tricks
  • Question everything
  • Keep a private room behind the shop
  • Be convivial; live with others
  • Wake from the sleep of habit
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Do something no one has done before
  • See the world
  • Do a good job, but not too good a job
  • Philosophize only by accident
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect
  • Let life be its own answer
How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

In a review of Bakewell’s book (2010) I wrote the following by way of introduction:

I was first introduced to Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) about thirty years ago. I was in graduate school. I don’t remember the class, nor the other required readings. But I remember Montaigne. I eventually dropped out of graduate school, but Montaigne stayed with me. It was, perhaps, and I honestly mean this, the most important contribution to my intellectual development from that period. If not the most important, certainly the most long-standing. In fact, when this book came to my attention, How to Live, and I received the reader’s advance copy, I happened to be reading Montaigne yet again, as I have done off and on since we were introduced.

I say, “since we were introduced” purposely, for that is what it felt like at the time. I read him in that class and recall thinking, Who is this, this kindred spirit, this wise new friend? And the magic of that moment continues to this day. I read him still. I read him this morning. Over and over again, I turn to my old French friend.


We reject the impersonal and the arbitrary here at “…the house…“; so rather than paste a bunch of internet-farmed imgres-3Montaigne quotes on the page, I thought I would share with you some of the passages outlined in my personal copy of The Essays. Here goes:

“If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way….Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die; and it is one of the lightest, if our fear did not give it weight.”

“Those who know me…know whether they have ever seen a man less demanding of others. If I surpass all modern examples in this respect, it is no great wonder, for so many parts of my character contribute to it: a little natural pride, inability to endure refusal, limitation of my desires and designs, incapacity for any kind of business, and my favorite qualities, idleness and freedom.”

“The only thing I aspire to acquire is the reputation of having acquired nothing.”

“The discomforts of old age, which need some support and refreshment, might reasonable make me wish to be a better drinker; for drinking is almost the last pleasure that the years steal from us.”

“If we sometimes spent a little consideration on ourselves, and employed in probing ourselves the time we put into checking up on others and learning about things that are outside us, we would easily sense how much this fabric of ours is built up of feeble and failing pieces.”

“Our appetite is irresolute and uncertain: it does not know how to keep anything or enjoy anything in the right way. Man, thinking that it is the fault of these things, fills and feeds himself on other things that he does not know and does not understand, to which he applies his desires and his hopes….”

“Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.”

It is my hope that, if you’re not familiar with Montaigne, you might be compelled to rectify that. If you already count the man among your literary friends, then you are already fortunate. I’ll leave you with a last quote: “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”

Thanks for reading!


The Grand Canyon and other philosophies

In Life, Philosophy, Travel on November 13, 2021 at 2:47 pm
The Grand Canyon

I’ve been engaged the last couple years in correspondence with a young man in prison. He is a family friend who made a bad decision. He has a bent for big ideas so naturally the two of us have had a great deal to talk about. We had a recent exchange, a portion of which I wish to share with you here. So here we go.

Greetings from the Grand Canyon. Thanks for your most recent letter. You had some interesting things to share which I want to get to in a bit (the motivations for doing something, doing it for the parole broad, for credibility among the other inmates, and so on.) But first an update. I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of cool things in the world. I’ve been able to go to places like China to see the Wall, Nepal to see Everest, and so on. Yet I’ve never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. We went to the North Rim first. There had been a snowstorm a few days before and about 3 inches of snow remained on the ground. It was cold and the campground had a heavy canopy of Ponderosa Pines so it was dark, making it all the colder…After leaving the north rim, we traveled four hours around the canyon to the south rim. Goodness! From the south rim you see all the way down into the canyon and can trace the Colorado River twisting and turning. You have a clear view across the canyon, and the layers of sedimentary rock are fully exposed, giving you a glimpse into the evolution of the planet of almost 70 million years… I’ve been reading John McPhee’s, Annals of a Former World. McPhee is a staff writer for the New Yorker and one of our best and most interesting non-fiction writers. He wrote the book several years ago and it subsequently won a Pulitzer. It’s a big book at almost 700 pages and the topic is daunting, geology. I’ve avoided it for years. Who wants to read a 700 page book about geology? But time had run out. I couldn’t travel the West, seeing the highway cut-throughs, canyons, mesas and plateaus and not attempt to understand a little better what I was looking at. McPhee pulled me right in. Compelling prose, beautiful writing and a surprisingly fascinating topic. Consequently, the Grand Canyon seemed even more remarkable, given that I had a modest understanding of what I am looking at. And the canyon played a bit into our correspondence as well. Read on.

It clearly settled on me the insignificance of my existence standing on the rim, 70 million years of geological evolution in front of me. It is sort of like looking at the night sky from a mountain top. The human brain is not able to consider or grasp distance as astronomy employs it. We simply cannot think of a light year intelligently—the speed of light (186,000 m/sec) times 31,556,952, the number of seconds in a year. It’s the same with geology. We cannot grasp the concept of tens and hundreds of millions of years. These things, the night sky and geology, are good exercises in the practice of humility. When I say that my insignificance was starkly tangible, I do not want to suggest that I was distressed or upset. However, it was obvious: my sense of self and the ego that I’ve nurtured over the years really make no difference in the scheme of things. All the generations of human beings—and all the ancestors of our evolution—amount to a insignificant blip of time when tagged onto earth’s age, and even less when you consider the universe. We humans with our plans and schemes, our stark-raving consumption, our wars, loves, and ideals—it amounts to nothing in geologic time. So what is to be done? In the face of such a thing, how do we proceed, how do we scratch out a sense of meaning and worth?

In your last letter you said that your motivation these days is to do good work. That’s a wonderful start. But what does it mean to do good? What is good? What is bad, or as some people call it, evil? Things that were once considered good or bad, have often switched roles. Something that was good, say a hundred years ago, might now be considered bad. For instance, it was good to build Hoover dam and harness the flow of the Colorado. The dam provided hydro-electric power for LA and much of the southwest. But now, Lake Mead, behind the dam, is at it’s lowest level ever recorded. The Colorado River is disappearing, with less flow than ever. The dam might not be a slam-dunk towards the good in the long scheme of things. Remember that zen story I shared with you about the farmer whose horse ran off? The neighbors said, ”That’s too bad.” The farmer replied, “we’ll see.” The horse returned and brought more horses with him. “Good for you,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” he replied. His son attempted to tame one of the wild horses but broke his leg. “Too bad,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. The son is saved from conscription because of the leg. And so on. The farmer, in his wisdom, recognized that we never really know how something will turn out. The Greeks developed the notion of skepticism. Montaigne was a skeptic, famously quipping, “What do I know?”Honestly, it’s the only proper way of looking at the world once you come to appreciate the enormity of things beyond your control. Your motivation to do good is admirable, don’t get me wrong. If only more people were so motivated.

You made a comment about being judgmental and practicing a double-standard. That is the challenge of being a human being, isn’t it? I have no problem with being judgmental, at least in the fashion of being evaluative. We must make judgments all the time. What is the right thing to do? What is that person up to? Do I go or do I stay? In some sense, everything we do is based on judgement. Everything eventually boils down to choice. It’s when we start to pin the tags of good and bad on judgements that things get tricky. My old friend Nietzsche wrote a book, Beyond Good and Evil. The essence of it is, good and evil are concepts. They are social norms that come and go. There is no absolute good, nor absolute evil. No Platonic idea of good and evil, especially if you take that big social construct, religion, out of the picture. Being human is such a tricky thing. But then you know that first hand, don’t you?

You closed your last letter discussing how your actions might be perceived in one fashion or another depending on who is the observer. A fellow inmate might view your actions one way, the parole board another. You need both on your side, yet they might be opposing perspectives. That is a quandary, an essential ethical problem. You obviously recognize this and are attempting to orchestrate the best path to take. What is good, what is bad? That is the human condition, isn’t it? A mine field, indeed. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of the first century, had something to say about this:

“As the proposition, ‘Either it is day or it is night,’ is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.”

Epictetus suggests that concepts like day or night are substantial and not subjective. But there are other things in life that are not so cut and dry. You might desire a large portion at a dinner party—you might think that would be “good” for your appetite—but in fact such a thing would not be good, as there are other things to consider. For example, he suggests that our behavior should be evaluated as to how it effects those around us, in this case, specifically the host at the dinner part. This, I think, falls under your heading of “doing good.” That is, making your best effort and using good judgement in order to best contribute to your immediate social situation. But even that can trip you up. Several years ago my cousin in California was dying of cancer. She sought me out after many years, decades even, of no communication between us. We were not on bad terms, we’d just gone our different ways. For a year I flew back and forth, Maryland to California, to help and attend to her. I was there on the day she died and I believe I brought her comfort. All that was to the good, right? But if we zoom out and take into consideration the particulates released at 30,000 feet and how air travel contributes to global climate instability, one might say that no, it wasn’t good. Thinking beyond the immediate social situation, my flying back and forth was quite problematic in that I was contributing to the demise of the climate in a radical way. So much depends on our perspective. Again, we must try to do the right thing but can never be assured of the consequences. As a rule of thumb, however, the longer the view the better the likely outcome.

I so enjoy getting your letters and really appreciate that you take the time in your schedule to write and send them. We have covered a lot of ground over the last year, ground I would probably not have traveled without your companionship. Thank you for that.

And so my letter to a young inmate came to a close.

This is a long post and if you’ve made it this far I applaud you for your endurance. Thanks for reading, stay safe, do good work, as best you can determine, and be kind most of all.

Life Studies

In Death, Dogs, Literature, Philosophy on October 27, 2019 at 9:00 am

I study lives. My text book is the biography. The first grown-up book I read was a biography of Mark Twain. I was, I think, in 6th grade. The most recent book read, finished a couple days ago, is Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s biography of Emerson, subtitled The Mind on Fire. Before that, earlier this summer, I re-read Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live. I read Bakewell as a set up to my summer reading of Montaigne’s long essay, An Apology of Raymond Sebond. That essay consumed much of my summer Colorado reading. Though I’ve been reading Montaigne for thirty years I’d not tackled Sebond and wanted to devote my time and energy to it uninterrupted, pencil and notepad in hand. But let’s return to studying lives.

Richardson’s Emerson is wonderfully written and ranks in my reading life as a high point. Half-way through I said to Carole, book in lap, “This book is changing my life.” Last year’s reading of Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite!, A Life of Nietzsche, had a similar effect. Richardson’s Emerson, however, reached deeper for a reason I’ve yet to comprehend. Interestingly, Nietzsche described Emerson as “a glorious, great nature, rich in soul and spirit…the author who has been the richest in ideas in this century.” Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche never turned against Emerson. I was so enthused by Richardson’s Emerson I found a used copy of his Thoreau, A Life of the Mind. I am excited to start that book.

Plutarch’s Lives

I study lives. An enduring life, rich and deep, is a wonderful thing and the shape and nature of such a thing has forever been of serious interest to me. Early on I recognized that some lives are, frankly, better lived and better expressed than others. Plutarch’s Lives, a study of lives in parallel, one virtuous, one lacking in virtue is the best ancient example of this notion. The rare exemplary life is unique–unique in its creativity, or perhaps in its impact on humanity. Or maybe, in the best case, in its goodness. Such a life is defined by character and intention; it is purposeful and directed; instructive and inspiring. How better to devote my reading life? I do not seek distraction. I do not seek entertainment. I seek to understand how this most important and precious thing, life itself, is to be best exercised, best experienced, best designed. How to live is the essence of creativity.

* * *

There is something I’ve noticed shared by many of these lives, something important.

Toward the end of Richardson’s biography he summarizes some of the lessons Emerson learned in later life. He writes: “At the core of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these impressions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses….these are the perceptions that Emerson retains.” He continues with a list, starting…:

“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this is all there is. Everyday is the day of judgement.” [My italics.]

The list continues however I want to focus on these particular lessons as they are often shared by other lives I’ve studied. Nietzsche, for instance, had his “Theory of Eternal Return.” “Da Capo!—Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.” In perfect health, one should “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return of one’s life,” the same life down to the very last detail. With this Groundhog Day idea at the forefront of thought one will live moment by moment with the expectation that should the moment be repeated it would be agreeable by design. In this fashion, to be Emersonian about it, everyday is the day of judgement. I cannot imagine a way of being more present in the world.

H.D. Thoreau

Or consider the last days of Thoreau. Friend and neighbor Parker Phillsbury visited Henry David a few days before his death. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau summed up his life and philosophy in response: “One world at a time.”

One world at a time, indeed. No concern about future reward or punishment. No effort wasted on what cannot be known. Just a focus on this world, here and now. A major theme of the important and creative lives I’ve studied is the theme of a cultivated and nurtured life devoted to living in the present. These are nerve-end lives, sparking and full of energy, thirsty for experience and immediacy.

I come to these ruminations from a place of sorry and darkness. I lost my beloved Lucy girl recently. This is not a thing I am prepared to talk about here, except for the following. My days with Lucy over the last few years were marked by a deep and conscious appreciation of our lives together. Many a morning walk I watched her and acknowledged that this was not lasting, that someday our lives, like all lives, would end in separation. I was, with painful awareness, searing moments into my consciousness, thereby stamping them with all the more value and potency. In her death I turn with gratitude for these moments of present awareness. Gratitude cannot assuage fresh grief but it is a degree of balm.

The days are gods and we are best obliged to honor them with an awareness and a presence. Do not take them for granted. Embrace each moment, turning from nothing. Such is divinity in the making.

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” said Emerson. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

The Most Influential Book

In Books, Reading, Uncategorized on February 10, 2019 at 3:38 pm
Château de Montaigne where the Essays where written.

I was recently asked about the book that has exerted the most influence over me. This is a big question, as I’ve been a reader all of my life. I’m no longer a young man and that means a lot of books have contributed to my reading life. Many of them have had an influence over me. For instance, I remember reading Mark Twain as a little boy. I consumed everything he wrote. He made me want to be a writer. Of course, the social and cultural implications of his books were lost on me. Instead, I was reading for the great stories and adventures. Huck and Jim flowing down the Mississippi. Tom and Becky in the cave, and so on. Twain taught me to love reading. Later, as an adolescent, it was Henry David Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify,” he counseled. I only wish I’d followed his advice earlier. Thoreau, among others, taught me to love ideas. As a young man I set upon a self-defined course of reading, the design of which was to consume what I deemed to be the so-called important books, particularly of the modern era. Joyce, and Proust, for instance.

But the question remains. What single book has exerted the most influence over me? I was recently discussing the desert island idea with a reader friend. You know, what five books would you want if stranded on a desert island? I spent a good bit of time considering this. Here’s my list of five desert island books: Moby Dick, Walden, Plutarch’s Lives, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Montaigne’s Essays. These are the books with which I could spend the last of my days and be satisfied — as satisfied as one can be, that is, stranded on a desert island. While compiling my list it occurred to me: The book exerting the most influence over my life is Montaigne’s Essays.

The Master and his book.

To me, the Essays, contain all the essential knowledge and information necessary to being a good human being. They point to beauty, the human condition, history, philosophy, to the meaning of life, and so on. I am not, of course, unique in this evaluation. The Essays have withstood the test of time for a reason. (They were written in the 16th century.) But the influence, for me, extends far beyond the normally recognized genius of the collection. Montaigne has been my guide and teacher. It was my Montaigne who told me that I should read Epictetus. And from there, like a spider plant sending out shoots, I sprang to Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch. He introduced me to his friend Seneca and from there I moved on to Tacitus, then Gibbons. But Montaigne’s influence worked in another direction too.

E.B. White at work in his Maine boathouse.

Several years ago while browsing in a used bookstore, I opened a copy of the Essays of E.B.White. I read the introduction where White discusses the challenges of being an essayist. The intro includes the sentence, “But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.” I bought and consumed the book, in the assurance of Montaigne’s approval. Consequently, I not only become a life-long E.B. White fan, but he influenced me (and by implied determinism, Montaigne influenced me) to move to Maine after reading his collection, One Man’s Meat. Maine changed my life. And so it goes on, the influence.

* * *

In both Eastern and Western ancient culture, wisdom represents the culmination of all virtue. Montaigne presents himself in a likewise manner to me. In all of literature (and history, and philosophy, and psychology…well, you get the picture), Montaigne represents the culmination of all that is of enduring value. “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do,” he wrote, “they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.” And for that I am grateful.

The appeal of hygge-ness

In Books, Memoir, The Examined Life on March 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm

It is raining this evening. And the cold has returned. I sit with a scarf wrapped around my neck. The oven is heating up, and with Carole out of town I am left, again, to my own devices. The pelting rain against the window is comforting. In Finland, where the winter nights are long and punishing, they have a word for such coziness, “hygge” (pronounced ‘hooga’). There is an aspect of hygge-ness to a night like this.

I packed up books today. I am no longer attached to my library as I once was. In a previous house, I had a carpenter build floor to ceiling shelves, end to end, maybe twenty linear feet by ten feet high. Once we had a party at the house and a guest, looking at the shelves, said, “You’ve read all these books?” It was the question by which the shelves came to justification. They were trophy shelves.  It was nothing less than ego exercised. A few books remain, but we don’t have room now. Nor does ego require them any longer, being the lesser thing than it once was.

We all have our trophies, no? They are, really, nothing but excess exemplified. And I don’t have time, patience, nor, most importantly, room for excess any longer.

I put Montaigne into a box with the other books, but opened him randomly first:  “I wish to be remembered as the man who accumulated nothing.” It was the perfect send off. I have always been able to count on my French friend for support. It could have been Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The best teachers speak the same language.

As the rain falls, and the books get packed away, as my literary friends go to a place of dark resting, I contemplate, as is my nature, the meaning of all this. I have no sufficient answer. And I am comfortable with that. I know this at least, that sufficient answers are rare and hard to come by. It is the question that is most important. As another significant teacher recently put to me: What is the most important thing? And what is most important about the most important thing?