It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.
What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.
The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.
Damon Linker has a must-read review of the book here. Waking Up is our latest Book Club selection, introduced here. Buy it here and join the discussion at email@example.com.
“The fact is that Waking Up lends a different picture of Harris (at least to me): an intelligent and sensitive person who is willing to undergo the discomfort involved in proposing alternatives to the religions he’s spent years degrading. His new book, whether discussing the poverty of spiritual language, the neurophysiology of consciousness, psychedelic experience, or the quandaries of the self, at the very least acknowledges the potency and importance of the religious impulse—though Harris might name it differently—that fundamental and common instinct to seek not just an answer to life, but a way to live that answer,” – Trevor Quirk, TNR.
Quirk doesn’t care for the new atheists and, until reading this book, was repelled by Sam’s public persona. But I’ve known Sam for a while now and always knew he was different from the others in his camp. His book is a place where the atheist, the spiritual and the religious can meet and argue. Join me in this month’s Book Club discussion of Waking Up. Get it here. We’ll be debating it in October. One reader’s on board:
What a timely choice for the next book! I’ve had a somewhat searching summer and finally gave myself the permission to identify as an atheist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve taken a stand on the issue of God’s existence, but for all my life I’ve had a mental block against the word atheist. Atheism, on its face, seemed to lack the rich language necessary to sort out a complex world. In its fight against irrationality, it had forgotten how to make us feel (with notable exceptions). This gap felt real to me, but allowing myself the possibility of atheism applying to me opened me up a bunch of writers and thinkers.
Naturally, at one point or the other, I found myself reading Sam Harris. I definitely don’t agree with everything he writes, but it’s undeniable that he writes well and demands from you your attention. Waking Up seems to fit exactly into this gap that I mentioned. I had pre-ordered it when Sam Harris announced the project. Very excited to read the book and see what fellow Dishheads thinks.
Send those thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, I couldn’t resist, could I? Sam Harris is a friend and great interlocutor. We’ve hashed out the issues on Israel and, indeed, religion itself in dialogues. See the Gaza conversation here; and the longer exchange of emails on religion here. I always learn something from him – and I have always thought of him as somewhat different than an atheist like Hitch. Why? I cannot imagine Hitch spending time in an ashram, or being dedicated to regular and disciplined meditation, or writing something like this:
I once spent an afternoon on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon … As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self – an “I” or a “me” – vanished. Everything was as it had been – the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water – but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
That’s a passage from Sam’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. It tackles big subjects – neuroscience, consciousness, meditation, faith – in his sometimes dense but always pellucid fashion. At times, the book is actually quite funny – there’s a part about him dealing with various water leaks in his house that cracked me up.
And the book’s argument is a rare and serious one: that it is possible to find a place in one’s mind where one is no longer in one’s mind. This elusive idea of consciousness is the basis of a peace and serenity and balance that we in the West have so often failed to achieve, even as our civilization constantly scales new heights. This can be achieved within a religious tradition – such as Buddhism or a Merton-like Christianity – but Sam also insists there need be no religion to the experience at all.
Now, I’m religious as well as spiritual, a believer in prayer and meditation as vital parts of any healthy faith life – while Sam is unrepentantly hostile to any idea of divine revelation, or anything but consciousness beyond our own delusional egos. And it struck me that many Dish readers – some engaged in our religious and spiritual coverage, some hostile to religion but open to the sublime and the spiritual – would get a huge amount out of the book, and the conversation it could prompt.
So drum roll … this is our September book of the month.
Buy the book now at Amazon and help us get a little affiliate revenue while you’re at it. I have a head start, because Sam got me an advance copy. He’s agreed to join the conversation in its final stages. I hope we can get somewhere in a debate often defined by polarization and cheap rhetoric – and see where we overlap and where we still differ.
And with your input, religious and spiritual people, I hope we can advance the conversation about spirituality as opposed to religion as well. I’ve long believed that the key thing we need right now is a revival of a Christianity less concerned with dogma and more focused on faith as a way of being in the world. Sam’s is as good a provocation on those issues as any out there. So join in! Get the book here – and we’ll start the discussion after the beginning of October. Send your thoughts to email@example.com and there’s a good chance you’ll see them posted.
A reader winds down our discussion by tying the lessons of Montaigne to the current crisis in Gaza:
It seems to me the most compelling angle to look at Montaigne right now is how living through the civil war of religion in France his whole adult life shaped his philosophy of moderation. I had no idea how bloodcurdling the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots were. That was just shy of half a century of neighbors dragging neighbors out in the streets to be tortured, killed, and perhaps slowly roasted over an open flame for witchcraft! All over what we now think of as slightly different flavors of Christianity!
Montaigne has been accused of being too bloodless and passive, with his stubborn refusal to pass definitive judgement and his pursuit of equanimity as a cardinal virtue. But if you consider the bloody backdrop of the times he lived through, his very moderation is the bravest and most radical stance I can think of.
You ask if Montaigne was an atheist or Christian. Montaigne was most certainly atheist, and his atheism, though concealed for obvious concern about the consequences of opposing the opinions of those “stronger in number.” Montaigne’s atheism shines through in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, written in the wake the French Wars of Religion in which thousands were slaughtered in a sectarian conflict.
In his Apology, Montaigne, by placing words in the mouths of others, openly ridicules the promise of heaven and knowledge of divine beings. One example: “The philosopher Antisthenes, as he was being initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest telling him, ‘That those who professed themselves of that religion were certain to receive perfect and eternal felicity after death,’—’If thou believest that,’ answered he, ‘why dost thou not die thyself?'”
Two more examples from the Apology: “‘Tis Socrates’s opinion, and mine too, that the best judging of heaven is not to judge of it at all.” And: “Nothing is made of nothing, God therefore could not make the world without matter. What! has God put into our hands the keys and most secret springs of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?”
Montaigne is, of course, cautious, with numerous references to the trial and execution of Socrates for disbelief in the gods, all expressed in a way that undermines any divine authority:
“For that which our reason advises us to, as the most likely, is generally for every one to obey the laws of his country, as was the advice of Socrates, inspired, as he says, by a divine counsel; and by that, what would it say, but that our duty has no other rule but what is accidental?”
Were Montaigne living today and free from the threat of persecution for his beliefs, his detractors would call him a “New” atheist.
Well, since this is a book club, we can now bring on Marshall MacLuhan the author Sarah Bakewell, to address the question. Here’s her response to the email:
Thank you for raising this fascinating topic! It’s one that I puzzled over constantly while writing the book, and I still feel that the answer is open to interpretation. To some extent (as with other areas) it depends partly on what one wants to read into Montaigne, because he is quite capable of pointing us in several different directions at once.
I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.
The next book club topic is to discuss whether Montaigne was Christian or Atheist? Puh-leeze. Does it matter? Does it matter to God Himself what you, me, Montaigne or anyone believes? Isn’t that a little prideful?
Do you think the first question God will ask all his Super Christian followers (or atheists) upon their death is what they believe in? Will their God want their opinions on evolution? Global warming? It’s like asking your dog’s opinion when casting your ballot.
It’s much more interesting to see how beliefs are played out. And for that, Montaigne/Sarah Bakewell is fabulous. We’re this Super Christian nation but that doesn’t always play out so well. Sure we don’t drown witches (anymore), but we torture and murder innocent people, turn refugee children away at our border. We justify these actions, as all extremists in crisis conditions do, by claiming exceptional times and unusual circumstances.
If, as Montaigne states, it’s just politics and therefore part of the cycle of decay and rejuvenation, then why react in such extremes? Why sue the President? Why intervene everywhere? Why listen to Hannity or McCain on anything? However bad things are, as Montaigne says, most of life goes on undisturbed. In the long view, fanatics wear themselves out. Preserving your dignity, your soul, and remaining true to yourself is forever.
Keep picking books like this one and the world will be a better place. No shit!
Send your thoughts on How To Live to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.
I am a lifelong liberal, perhaps for genetic reasons (as some recent studies have proposed), but most certainly because conservatism in America has, as you say elsewhere in your piece, degenerated into reactionary, xenophobic, fundamentalist, hate-inspired lunacy. So, yes, I am a lifelong liberal (also because as a gay man, now in his seventies, the liberal left always seemed to me to be more favorably disposed to accepting me and our kind, though slowly and reluctantly.)
But I tell you, I heartily and wholeheartedly agree with your statement. So I guess I’m a conservative too, at least one of your kind. Can you confess that maybe you’re a liberal too? The progressive objection to the way of Montaigne?
I haven’t met a leftist ideologue who thought there were “true” solutions since the sixties. You, fighting leftist gays when you were arguing for gay marriage and they were for rejecting your “virtually normal” ideas, may have soured your views of the left, but believe me, there were millions throughout the country who just wanted their rights, to be as lawfully legitimate as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. And we have prevailed, spectacularly.
The key here, it seems to me, is understanding conservatism as a disposition rather than as a fixed ideology. That suggests, of course, that it might pragmatically express itself, at times, as a form of political liberalism as we understand it.
One of the aha! moments I had in reading Oakeshott (who was deeply influenced by Montaigne) was when he actually described progressivism as an integral part of the Western conversation – one that a true conservative would not seek to extinguish, but rather respect and nurture. The genius of the modern European state was that it contained two core impulses – collective action and individual liberty – and the conservative mission was to find the right balance between them, at the right time, with a little preference for liberty.
That requires prudential judgment and a light, pragmatic touch. Oakeshott’s vision of the conservative politician was a “trimmer” – someone who trims the sails on a ship to exploit the current winds and weather. The point is merely to keep the ship afloat – not to reach the perfect desert island or to conquer distant lands, but for the sake of the coherence and steadiness of the whole. And when you look at Montaigne’s own political predilections, he fits smack dab in the middle of just such a disposition.
Bakewell, in How To Live, vividly brings to life the era of zeal and religious conflict that Montaigne lived in.
I am 65 years old. In 1958, when I was 9, I suffered a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed as flu, so I lay in my bed for a week getting sicker and sicker until I was taken to Lankenau Hospital outside Philadelphia. They treated me with drugs for three days and then operated.
I have a number of memories from the three weeks I spent in the hospital but my near-death experience is still very close to me 55 years later. I, too, have a vivid memory of looking down on myself from up high, the minister at my right hand, and my already grieving parents on my left. I remember seeing a bright light and feeling a great sensation of peace and comfort surrounding me. Then my father kept shaking me. He kept saying “Wake up! Don’t go to sleep!” He pulled me back from that gate or passage I was about to enter.
I also have another vivid memory which I have kept from that time. While I was passing in and out of consciousness I had a dream that has stuck with me.
Montaigne‘s near-death interval is very interesting – it makes me wonder how generalizable his description is to other peoples’ experiences. The pleasantness is an interesting surprise, because his physical behaviors manifest unpleasantness during this time. I can’t help but think of a friend of a friend, who, described the feeling accompanying beholding her newborn as “just like tripping on DMT.” There’s definitely some writing hypothesizing a connection between near death experience and DMT release; it does occur in some amounts in mammals. And it does seem that Montaigne‘s “out of body experience” allowed him to avoid the suffering associated with the experiences of the body at the time.
Another shares his own story:
What would someone 500 years ago, when people lived without indoor plumbing, have to say? And wouldn’t the writing be filled with difficult words, clumped together in long, flowery paragraph-free chunks? That’s what I thought, so before buying the book, I downloaded a sample and while reading it, remembered something I’d completely forgotten.
During sixth grade, I contracted Valley Fever. I was so sick for so long and nobody knew what was wrong with me. I found myself floating above myself, looking down, finally pain-free. I could hear the oldies (“These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “King of the Road”) playing on the radio that someone put beside my bed. But I simply let go and became more relaxed than anything I’d ever experienced in my uber-Protestant-work-ethic-running-around-in-circles-as-fast-as-you-can family. I knew I was close to death, but at eleven, what does that mean?
Montagne’s account of his own near-death experience brought this feeling back as if it were yesterday. The feeling of relief, of letting go, is beyond words, particularly when you are naturally tightly-wound. My adult kids hate it now when I tell them I look forward to death, as there is a peace you can never describe, and the opposite of competitive, hurry-hurry life trying to get ahead (of what?) in San Francisco. Fine, I tell them. They can join my parents in extreme FoxNews-like fear of death, which, when they talk about it, sounds more like they’re afraid of not controlling everything and everyone, and what will we do without that?
Think I’ll share a little Montaigne, particularly the chapter entitled, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.” It’s about as far as you can get from our family’s Mission Statement (“what are you doing reading when you could be doing something?”).
The book is available here if you’d like to join in. Think of it as a blast of sixteenth century sanity for a crazy 21st century world.
Next up: was Montaigne a closet atheist? Or a very modern kind of Christian? Send your thoughts to email@example.com. I’ll weigh in – but check out this Mark Lilla essay first.
I feel blindsided by joy and wonder reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightfully accessible book. I had no idea that this man from half a millennium past would give so many “that’s me” moments. Example: I’ve always felt that my forgetfulness was a plus. Something happens. I let go of it and it recedes to some far back place in my memory, unlikely to reappear. I’ve always referred to it as my Etch-A-Sketch mind. Lift up the plastic. All gone.
The other mindblower for me is allowing for doubt. This is a theme that has been mentioned many times in Dish posts. Its relevance in today’s world can not be overstated. Last year, I had a button-maker friend make me some “allow for doubt” buttons. I would notice many pitying looks when I wore it. I suppose nothing beats certainty.
I thought – essays? – on how to live? Heavy sigh. But I found the book at the library and decide that giving Montaigne a go probably wouldn’t kill me. I read the first chapter today while I sat at the pool during my daughter’s swimming lesson. It took me less than 15 minutes and I had time enough left to write a few pages.
It was a surprisingly light read. I was expecting tortured prose and deep, knee-bend navel gazing. But it was on death. An easy one and I was delighted to discover that Montaigne was a normal person for all his wandering in the mental back forty.
I have been convinced for some time that dying – the actual moments – is not at all what it appears to be and doesn’t need to be prepped for in any specific way (unless that makes a person feel happy or better in some way, though Montaigne‘s suffering over it in his youthful years would seem to suggest otherwise). I feel not vindicated, but reassured, after this first chapter.
I have low expectations for this experience, but I am determined to read a chapter a day. I don’t think he is going to be my bestie in literary terms, but he has made a good first impression.
That struck me also as something that jumped out. Today, we live our lives in terror not simply of death but of dying. In fact, we seem more afraid of dying than death itself. And Montaigne insists this may not be necessary at all. Dying might actually be pleasant. And not because he had confidence in Jesus (although he did have a priest preside over his eventual death at the age of 59). It was because an early near-death experience gave him a whole new take on the subject. On the surface, he was knocked off his horse, lost consciousness, started puking blood and began tearing away at his doublet as if a great weight were on him. But on the inside, all was calm, even light:
It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.
In this, as in everything, Montaigne seemed to trust his own nature, to let it be, to have confidence that, beneath the wandering flickers of our minds, something deeper endures, if only we can accept it. It’s that calm acceptance of what is, along with gladness for it, that makes Montaigne almost Taoist at times. P.M. Carpenter joins the conversation:
One non-political passage in Sullivan’s superb survey I identified with rather acutely:
If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be [his] staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching…. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.
In my young and soulfully beautiful wife’s death I never found comfort in Scripture–“mysterious ways” my ass, she died young because we pour tons more cash into weaponry than cancer research–although in our daughter, hope does sustain me. She is my best and dearest friend and she’s as soulfully gorgeous as her mother. The prospect of my own imminent death disturbs me little; I already know its cause–years of self-destructive behavior. This seems only fair. I knew what I was doing and I proceeded to do more of it. I deserve what I get. My wife did not.