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Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe / Unsplash

William James' stream of consciousness, that fundamental fact of our existence that cannot be stopped (we "think" like we breathe, not like we walk or fish or watch TV . . . thinking cannot be stopped) "explains without moralizing what that wonderful self-observer Montaigne found as the chief mark of man: he is [diverse and wandering], a creature of moods and changing views, not a passive recorder of the surrounding world but a congenital 'perspectivist,' and thus easily thrown off in judgment, memory, and purpose--a specialist (as it were) in misunderstanding." Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James.

I need to read more Montaigne. And more James and Barzun, for that matter, but especially Montaigne. His skepticism is so piercing, it gives a dose of humility to every person who has the self-honesty to apply Montaigne's observations to himself.

I wonder: What did Montaigne do with that skepticism? I've never heard of him using it as a slide into nihilism. As far as I know, he simply used it to mock and observe, without building anything out of it. Now don't get me wrong: In a fallen world, especially a fallen world filled with people who don't appreciate their fallen place, the mocking observations play an important role. Such humor is its own good.

But still, surely there some positive lessons you can draw from Montaigne's observation that man is existentially silly. Here are a few possibilities that occur to me:

*Humility--deep but always available at the surface of our consciousness--ought to be the hallmark of our existence.

*St. Therese's Little Way might be the only safe way, especially in the modern world. In the "old days," you stayed within the confines of your family and village. You kept on the ways of the straight and narrow because those were the only ways open to you. You may have been existentially silly, but the silliness wouldn't land you in too much trouble if you the modicum of humility to follow the prescriptive norms imparted by your place and time. In the modern world, there is no such natural straight and narrow, so your silly self is apt to flail away in all sorts of direction, thereby putting your silly self on display . . . and in peril.

*The people who don't realize they're existentially silly are the ones to be distrusted the most. They fail to grasp the most fundamental element of their own existence and ought not to be trusted with anything at all . . . much less the reigns of governance.

*We live in a culture of people who don't understand their existential silliness, and therefore we ought to distrust the culture.