Sawing My Beams

The last book I read in 2010 was Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, not a self-help treatise, but a biography of the French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Montaigne did most of his thinking and writing in one of the towers of his chateau where he had his library and where he had the beams inscribed with favourite precepts. As he had been brought up to speak Latin as his first language, it is not surprising that these are all from classical thinkers. I have been wondering which aphorisms I might apply to the beams of my studio if they were visible. Here are ten of them.

1. Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child all your life. Cicero

I have a friend who thinks that revisionist history is only about authors selling their books. It would be odd if they were not interested in disseminating their views, but there is such a thing as peer review. If we do not read up-to-date history, we will have a Boy’s Own Comic notion of it.

2. Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Pascal

We might have hoped this would be an outdated observation, but it has become more and more relevant.

3. There is no item of information however insignificant, which I would not rather know, than not know. Dr. Johnson

For me to be curious is simply to be alive.

4. Anything that elicits an immediate nod of recognition has only reconfirmed a prejudice. Don Paterson

There wouldn’t be much point in either Montaigne or myself posting a series of wise sayings if this aphorism contained an absolute truth. Nevertheless, it is a good warning about being alert to lazy thinking.

5. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests. Adam Smith

Some Scots who are proud of their great Enlightenment figure but can’t take his economic message are always trying to suggest that modern thinkers, who like to quote him, have somehow got his message wrong. Yet there is no way you can say that Adam Smith is talking about a planned economy.

6. La pire chose, c’est de vouloire être à la mode si cette mode ne vous va pas. Poulenc

The music of Poulenc should make any artist confident that there is no need to think that worthwhile art should follow a linear progression. The visual arts may be somewhat derrière garde in this respect compared with what is happening in literature and music.

7. Formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego. Auden

I do deplore the self-indulgence of so much free verse, nearly always read in a special way that tries to say ‘This is so profound, full of deep insights and ultra-sensitive.’

8. I love the correspondence of viva voce over a bottle, with a great deal of noise and a great deal of nonsense. Sir Joshua Reynolds to James Boswell.

A good summing up of what makes a great evening.

9. My watch cost more than your car.

This is apparently a favourite insult of the super-rich. I’ve never been particularly concerned about people having much more money than myself and this sort of inanity makes me even more contented with my lot.

10. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it. Montaigne

To end with, one from the great essayist himself. When you think of what Keats and Masaccio achieved before dying in their twenties and Schubert, Raphael, Mozart, Seurat et al who were cut off in their thirties, one can’t help thinking that in these days of longer life expectancy, we tend to forget that we don’t live for ever.