After several trips to the woodshed, we were sure that David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, had learned his lesson but here he is again with his holier-than-thou screed. Come on David, let’s get this over with.
“Michel de Montaigne [often credited with inventing the essay] and Samuel Johnson are two of the greatest essayists who ever lived. They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.”[i] Given that both these brilliant writers lived in the same Paradigm-B and struggled with essentially the same false self, they were less different than might appear to the casual observer. Our Mr. Brooks looks upon reality with less than a gimlet-eyed gaze.
Both Montaigne and Johnson had to deal with the same disorderly monkey-mind familiar to all of us. “Montaigne was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him chimeras and imaginary monsters: ‘I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.’”[ii]
Many of us know that had Montaigne had the guidance of a more disciplined meditation practice he would have continued to observe the nature of his mind and eventually he would have become the observer of his mind detached from its irrationality.
“Montaigne advises us to accept the flux. Be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can’t accept the elusiveness inside.”[iii] True, we don’t want to “react” to the deluded mind but rather transcend its content—we want to choose to respond, then let go and thereby return to the peaceful present moment.
Montaigne came close to a profound insight but again, he did not understand the structure of human consciousness provided by Simple Reality. “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense [P-B worldview]. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don’t know.”[iv]
Whereas Montaigne came close to Krishnamurti’s insight that suffering is caused by resistance or reaction to what happens in one’s life, Johnson chose to gird up the loins of his false self and fight back. “Johnson battled error and vice. Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were ‘the wild beasts of the Arena.’ He would lash out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, ‘I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.’ His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give ‘ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.’”[v]
Now we come to the crux of this essay. David Brooks considers which of the two men he thinks provides the best example, the healthiest identity for him to emulate: ease (Montaigne) or ardor (Johnson). Brooks’ choice: “We can pick what sort of person we would prefer to be. But I’d say Johnson achieved a larger greatness. He was harder on himself. He drove himself to improve more strenuously. He held up more demanding standards for the sort of life we should be trying to live, and constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval.”[vi]
Poor David! So here we are back to those religious and civic precepts, the “fear driven and guilt-laden thou shalts” that have worked so well in the past. If people are behaving badly it’s because they are not “driving themselves strenuously” enough or engaging in enough self-loathing. Should we take off our shirts David and lash our backs with leather thongs as we walk in a procession of the sinners. We are not penitent enough, is that it?
Which man from what little we have learned about them in this essay created the most suffering for himself? The acid test in reducing suffering as we have learned in Simple Reality is learning to choose response instead of reaction in order to live in the present moment. Mr. Brooks, we will finally have to give up on you and let you live your life in what appears to be an almost continuous state of reaction. But if you ever want to reduce the anxiety and stress in your life we recommend that you revisit the advice you said Montaigne would have given—“be cool with it.”
[i] Brooks, David. “Ease and Ardor.” The New York Times. February 28, 2014, page A21.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.