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My MacBook has a shiny screen. Trawling the internet, I saw myself reflected in its depths: my tabs—Facebook, Wikipedia, The Financial Times—and then me, above and behind, peering. Just a short break from the Plato dissertation.

A Facebook friend had posted the link to a website called 6 Billion Others, and, with little else to do but work, I accepted his invitation. I was confronted by a wall of multicolored faces—six hundred and thirty of them, approximately. I found myself attracted to a brown-skinned fellow with impressive orange headgear and three teeth nestled within a huge white beard, so I clicked on him. He turned out to be an Indian aged a hundred and twelve. That was all I found out.

The idea of 6 Billion Others is to travel the world filming interviews with random people on various subjects: the meaning of life, God, happiness, love, anger, death, fears, education, identity, money. Each of the interviewees appears in connection with one theme only.

A tribal elder pushes a piece of wood through his nose, complaining of having been denied the opportunity to pass this sacred practice on to his children, and pointing wistfully to the moral degeneration that ensued. A newly appointed village chief is livid at having had to sell a few sheep to pay for his investiture party. A balding punk with a tiara of spiky blue hair professes respect for his parents. And yet for all the disconcerting peculiarity and variety of their circumstances and convictions, I felt something in common with each.

6 Billion Others reminds us of the narcissism in us all. In the ancient myth, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. But narcissism is more than preening self-regard; we can use the term in an expanded sense to denote the various ways that we value ourselves more highly than, from a neutral perspective, it looks like we ought to. Its opposite would be self-effacement.

To understand how 6 Billion Others shows this, it helps to compare it to Earth From Above, he previous work by its creator, French photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. There the goal was to humble the self-important viewer by making him view the world from the air. Helicopter photography discloses the vastness of the earth’s surface, the indomitability of its mountains and oceans and the splendor of its landscapes, implicitly relegating mankind to a merely minor and transient phenomenon in the grand sweep of natural history. But like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, Earth From Above skips between the earth’s highlights as if desperate to capture the imagination of fickle aliens considering a vacation. Wonder ends up metabolized as novelty: the first close-up of a snow leopard, the heart-shaped mangrove forest. The viewer remains comfortably unchallenged.

6 Billion Others is another attempt to engender humility, to make us see our own presuppositions as contingent and our lives as no more valuable than those of distant others. The wall of faces is a figure for the whole planet; in principle, any of the planet’s six billion humans could have been chosen for interview. But to the interviewees, the camera presents the opportunity to display what they consider their unique selves; they clearly relish the camera’s attention as it focuses on the colors and contours of their faces and the singularity of their views. They act as if they’re special, and as we watch them we find ourselves agreeing. Yet when viewed from above, from the perspective of one who can click on any face in the wall, what stands out is how much the interviewees have in common. By getting the visitor to engage in a cycle of starting at the wall, delving into a subject and then returning to the wall, 6 Billion Others forces him to oscillate between local and global perspectives, the one encouraging self-importance, the other self-effacement.

Both Earth From Above and 6 Billion Others might be compared to a basic moral exercise like imagining yourself in somebody’s else’s shoes. The aim is not to abandon your own perspective, but rather to see it in a new light, colored by an awareness of its limitations. But if Arthus-Bertrand’s new project shares the strategy of his previous one, it also shares its failings: for the most part it simply feeds the viewer’s curiosity and leaves him as he was. I for one just dashed around the site like a tourist with an hour to spend at the Louvre, heading wherever my fancy took me—an Indian here, a Tibetan there—and tarrying nowhere. I mined the segments for tidbits and trivia and flitted back to Facebook.

Basic Information
Sex: Male
Hometown: Manchester, United Kingdom
Interested In: Women
Political Views: Marxist-Conservative
Religious Views: Whatever I Can Get
Personal Information
Activities: Essay Writing
Interests: Irony, Earnestness, Myself
Favorite Music: Bob Dylan
Favorite Books: Anything by Ovid
Favorite Quotations: “And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.” – Montaigne

 

6 Billion Others reminds you to be humble, but only as much as you want it to. Click as you please; have some fun; post the link on Facebook. Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. It’s free and anyone can join. As I flipped between the two tabs, they seemed to call for each other like tragedy and comedy. One makes you feel small; the other makes you feel big.

I want to be important and so do you. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, but even the self-effacing social worker wants to be the one that makes the difference. He just wants to be important for something he considers important. Suppose you’re building a house. First day you plan; second day you buy materials; third day you lay foundations. Fourth day you come back and discover a house on the site. A crack team has stolen in overnight and built it. In one way you’re happy: the goal has been achieved with a minimum of effort. But in another way you feel robbed: you have achieved nothing.

We all want to matter. It is by now a commonplace that modern social structures, such as cities, bureaucracies and professions, can leave individuals feeling as unimportant as 6 Billion Others suggests they really are. It’s much easier to believe in our importance when we view ourselves within small contexts. Through its networks and groups, Facebook simplifies the globalized world into manageable cyber-villages, with many of the costs and benefits of real villages, from the lack of privacy to the comfort of being recognized. The difference is that on Facebook each of us gets to rule our own village, inviting and expelling members as we see fit.

This power makes us feel important, and Facebook’s autobiographical element also caters to our narcissism. Like mirrors, our profiles allow us to see ourselves as an outsider might. But lives do not come carved into Facebook’s categories of basic and personal information. I don’t know what my favorite film is. To come up with one, I don’t observe my behavior; I think about what best reflects the kind of person I take myself to be. I give myself the face I want—literally with my profile picture, metaphorically with my activities. No one looks terrible on Facebook, unless they happen to be deeply humorous; no one masturbates. We are as we would like to be.

We would all like to be interesting to other people, to have them spontaneously ask after our travel tips, family histories and medical conditions. Hence the basic rules of seduction (ask questions) and courtship (I’ll ask you if you’ll ask me). The barely suppressed alacrity of the 6 Billion Others‘ interviewees shows how simply being asked to contribute our views in public flatters us. And taken together, the mass of Facebook profiles would form a sort of user-generated 6 Billion Others: a compilation of miniature essays that reflect something universal precisely through their particularity, namely the fact that we derive pleasure from considering our particular experiences to be of near-universal interest. As Montaigne, the archetypal self-absorbed essayist, put it: “Everyone thinks his own fart smells as sweet as apples.”

Montaigne was quoting Erasmus, who was quoting Apostolius, who was citing a Greek proverb. Many quote great authors pretentiously, like someone who carefully places an old classic on his living room table when friends come round for dinner. When Montaigne quotes a thinker, it’s as if he’s inviting him to the meal itself, to participate in the twists and turns of its conversation. As for me, when contemplating the philosophical feast that is internet narcissism, I had only one companion in mind.

Plato ties narcissism—or the love of one’s own, broadly understood—to the desire for honor. In Republic he contrasts this with two other basic kinds of desire, one for truth and one for satisfying the appetites. These kinds of desire are fundamentally different, for Plato, in a way that the desire for burgers and the desire for hot dogs are not. Personalities can be differentiated according to which of the three basic kinds predominates. We all desire truth, honor and the satisfaction of our appetites, but everyone is either a truth-lover, an honor-lover, or appetitive, according to which desire is most important.

Imagine a scientist who knows he could win the Nobel Prize if he massages his results to make them fit his theory; imagine he is capable of covering his tracks. He is faced with a conflict: one part of him says he should tell the truth and forgo the award; another that this is the chance of a lifetime. Truth-lovers would decide one way, honor-lovers another. This is not to say an honor-loving scientist would not want to discover the truth: he gets some pleasure from doing so, and in normal circumstances institutions such as peer review make that the best way for him to earn praise. But when he goes after the truth, he does so within a life organized around the pursuit of honor, and this will become clear in certain situations. This means that—even at the best of times, and whether he knows it or not—he pursues scientific knowledge in an honor-loving manner. So “truth-loving,” “honor-loving” and “appetitive” are not only personality types differentiated by ultimate ends, but also modes of desiring. To be appetitive, for example, is not only to organize one’s life around appetitive satisfaction, but also to pursue truth and honor appetitively.

This account of human psychology is complex and abstract, as is the argument behind it, but Plato did not arrive at it through abstract thought alone. His doctrines were sparked by engagement with the world around him, the world of Athenian democracy. The seminal event in his life must have been the patently unjust death of his beloved teacher, Socrates. For this Plato blamed democracy, which he thought shaped Athenians to think appetitively, with a shallowness that left them unable to distinguish a true philosopher from a mere rhetorician.

Plato claims our personalities are not formed independently of our contexts, even if we have certain innate predispositions. Different kinds of society encourage the development of different kinds of people. Spartans, he suggests, tended to be honor-lovers. Context is most important for appetitive people, a category Plato subdivides into three. There are oligarchs, democrats and tyrants; each is more purely appetitive than the last; each is named after the social structure which most encourages its development.

Plato thought the appetites had a natural tendency to expand. In oligarchs, though, they are constrained by what economists call a low discount rate: the oligarch values future over present satisfaction, so he hoards money, rarely spending it on anything but necessities. Democrats have no such self-discipline, so their appetites grow to include various luxuries: they try everything on the buffet, even if they’re full. Their appetites expand only quantitatively, though, not qualitatively. There are certain things they simply will not do. In contrast, tyrants will kill and rape just for the fun of it.

The difference between democrats and tyrants is shame: democrats are ashamed to contravene social norms, whereas tyrants are not. Context is therefore most important for democrats. If social norms permit casual sex, for example, they will engage in it; if not, they won’t. Since social norms are the only constraints separating democrats from tyrants, absolute power will corrupt them absolutely. If Caligula had been born to a different family, he might have turned out a democrat.

Were Plato alive today, he would be intrigued by the internet as a context of its own, a separate world within which we go about our business and which shapes us as we shape it. He would have thought it encourages us to become appetitive and in some cases tyrannical. It’s no accident that pornography is so prevalent on the internet; frictionless appetitive satisfaction is the medium’s very essence. The provider of services has very little power over the consumer; everything is geared so the latter can get what he wants, when he wants, at the minimum cost; if dissatisfied, he can easily move to another provider. The customer is king. The invisible hand fondles him.

The ease of porn comes from the way it bypasses the material world and its constraints. We don’t need to seduce, only to click; we can suspend the usual friction of human interaction. The pleasure we derive is correspondingly more virtual than real. Although the most immediate goal of porn is orgasm, more importantly it allows us to gratify our curiosity, to be excited by novel situations and practices, as well as giving us the feeling of power as we bend another to our will.

So porn is less about the bodily appetites than “appetitiveness,” the attempt to satisfy the two other fundamental kinds of desire-for knowledge and recognition—in an appetitive manner. The first sign of this is the voracity of our desire. We want to see more and more, and imagine ourselves dominating in ever new ways. But this leads to the second sign of appetitiveness: inherent dissatisfaction. In Republic, Plato argued that if we tried to experience knowledge or recognition appetitively, we would cut ourselves off from the true pleasures they have to offer, leaving ourselves with what he called “shadow” pleasures. There’s something humiliating about the loneliness that porn implies; our revenge, virtual domination, is no revenge at all.

The pseudo-satisfactions of the porn form extend beyond the sexual domain of the internet. Even the basic practice of keeping multiple tabs open results in the appetitive metabolism of their content. We turn the world into a buffet; even if one dish is better than the others, we can’t restrict ourselves to it. 6 Billion Others takes this form within one tab. We get to pick and mix our cultures and topics like jelly beans and licorice, to hop from island to island in search of distraction; nothing gives us pause.

Wikipedia is the epitome of intellectual porn. How difficult it is to look up one and only one item, how tempting to cross-reference, to open new tabs, to flit and flip. I went to check Caligula’s dates. Then I clicked and clicked and clicked until I felt sick. No one takes notes from Wikipedia. You think it will satisfy your curiosity, but scratching the itch only makes it worse. You think it will make you look clever, but it just feels dirty. You can win a pub quiz with your iPhone—but Wikipedia is a house built by others, and you’re squatting.

Plato asked a question: what if you had a ring that would make you invisible whenever you wanted? Would it still be best for you to behave morally? Even if it were best, would you be able? The internet gives us the ring. When you visit a website, no one can see who you are or where you’ve been. Long after I had succumbed to the siren call of the web, but some time before being seduced by Facebook and then 6 Billion Others and then Facebook again, I’d been skimming a Financial Times blog by the economist Willem Buiter. What had struck me was the cruelty of the anonymous responses.

  • — “You are a prime example of an otherwise fine thinker caught up in the trappings of the ivory tower vista.”
  • — “1. Don’t try an economic discussion when you should have a political one. It just doesn’t make sense. 2. Analyse first, then draw conclusions. 3. Don’t forget history.”
  • — “The ruin of money is the ruin of ideals, and lives, Professor Buiter. I see from your comments that you are a poor academic. Your experiment in living out your theories will be the ruin of others. No matter. You get paid your pittance, and feel superior. Ego profit for you. Material and emotional poverty for the masses.”

 

I rather suspect these people would not say such things to Buiter’s face. Different kinds of communication afford different degrees of distance: face-to-face contact; phone conversation; letters, emails and texts; anonymous comments. The closer you are, the more accountable you become. Vanity can enforce virtue; crime reflects badly on you.

The internet encourages us to become appetitive, but it also allows us to play tyrant. Seneca claims that Caligula once executed a youth on account of his “elegance and foppish haircut.” If you have absolute power, why put up with metrosexuals? The internet gives us all the power to tailor the world to our preferences. If I like something, I click on it; if not, I don’t. If I can’t concentrate, I open a new tab.

But in that case why would the angry commentators go to Buiter’s blog at all, or stay there? Why read an academic economist if you don’t want to read an academic economist? This has the structure of neurotic conflict—why dump her if you can’t bear to lose her? Just as neurotics are meanest to those they love best, so perhaps we only rip Buiter to shreds because we think him worth it. To read Buiter’s blog is to accept his authority as professor, an authority that makes him an opponent worth defeating.

But a virtual confrontation is qualitatively different from a real one. Since we can say whatever we like without our own performances being graded and judged, there is no real contest, only a shadow one. Short-circuited from the beginning-like all attempts to satisfy the desire for honor tyrannically—this can yield only shadow pleasures: if Buiter cannot resist us, there is no “ego profit” to be reaped by subduing him. The frustrations of this situation quickly spill over into anger. In a journey with no friction, you get nowhere—but your wheels spin faster and faster.

Internet commentators seem to sense that their anonymity is a double-edged sword. Granted, it enables you to say what you like with impunity. But the trouble with being invisible is that you’re invisible. You get no recognition for your actions, no credit for your insights. To go back to Plato’s example, even if you did have the ring, wouldn’t you want to take it off now and again? How else to enjoy your coronation ceremony? Or pose for your official portrait? If you couldn’t remove the ring, you would forever be a non-entity.

Denied any kind of platform or authority, the commentators find Plato’s ring clamped upon their upraised middle fingers. Why does no one intervene to stop their cruelty? This is the humiliation that really infuriates them. They wish they were the kind of people who couldn’t get away with such spitefulness, the kind constrained by other people’s perceptions. That would mean other people recognized them, that they were visible, important.

Do you know how many friends I have? In how many networks? I collect friends like I collect books: they look good on the shelf and one day they might come in handy. Many are so unthumbed I couldn’t put a face to the name, if it weren’t for the obvious. As I hopped back and forth between Facebook and Plato, I felt reassured. The dissertation might never be published; I might never get a job. But how can someone with 164 friends not be important?

We’re all characters in search of an audience. Without one, our experiences seem not to matter, or even not to have happened—which may be why we spend most of our time at important events texting and taking photos. In updating our Facebook profiles, we pretend to be satisfying an audience eager for news. There are various techniques, from status updates—”This week, I will be mostly eating carrots”—to changed profile pictures—”This week, I look considerably different”—to that most peculiar of edifices, The Wall—”Great to hook up with you! You were wild!” But on Facebook we cannot be weighed on the scales and found wanting. The audience never coughs from boredom; we ourselves get to judge how significant our thoughts, activities and experiences are.

The battle for true honor inherently involves others, whether as rivals or evaluators. If Mohammed Ali is the greatest boxer, Joe Frazier loses out; glory is bestowed by the public. Facebook short-circuits the quest for honor by taking others out of the equation.

Since you are the only editor of your profile, you tend to upload more information than anyone could possibly digest. Inflation results. Each new interest makes you less interesting; each added friend devalues the others; each extra photo confuses the portrait. This may be because the profile structure admits of no hierarchy. The first and twentieth films are equally your favorites; the wittiest quotations cannot be set off from the rest. But if everything is important to you, nothing in particular is; on a flat surface, nothing can stand out. The more you add, the more the self at the center of your self-centeredness gets lost. This is democratization in Plato’s sense. While at first sight Facebook promises to make us all special, in the final analysis it renders true honor impossible.

This may be why my most eccentric friends abstain from Facebook altogether. What they fear is not exposure but anonymity—the way Facebook obliterates distinctions between people, reducing their passions to hobbies and turning their happiness into the beaches and monuments, parties and pets common to us all. They’re afraid to be just another face in the wall.

“What to do?” I wondered. We all want to be important, but we can’t all be, and certainly not through Facebook. A terrifying realization thus dawned on this lifelong self-absorbed slacker: as Montaigne famously put it, “fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.” Narcissists have to work.

I have been using the term “narcissism” broadly, to signify various kinds of self-importance, but the most basic narcissistic pleasure comes from looking at oneself. We all have this impulse, but by organizing their whole lives around it narcissists show us its essential tendency. As Ovid tells it in Metamorphoses, Narcissus was unhappy. Staring into a pond, the young man fell in love with his own reflection. Every time he touched it, it would disappear. Every time he spoke to it, it would reply silently. Locked in this cage of impossible desire, Narcissus withered away.

Pygmalion fared better. He was equally aloof and self-absorbed, rejecting the girls who courted him just as Narcissus had. But his action was different. He sculpted a statue so beautiful and lively that he actually fell in love with it, spending his days caressing, dressing and undressing it. Venus rewarded his efforts by bringing the statue to life so that he could marry it.

The two myths symbolize an old truth of which we still need reminding: the narcissist can never be satisfied by looking at his own reflection; he must create something. What you produce reflects you; you can see yourself in it. When you make something—a house, a poem, a cake even—you see your will embodied in it. In loving it, you love something that embodies but nonetheless transcends and hence constrains you. Perhaps this is why narcissists tend to become artists.

Take Ovid himself. Plato would probably have accused the author of The Art of Love of being the poet laureate of appetitiveness, but as a man Ovid was an archetypal honor-lover. In AD 8, he was exiled by Augustus for undermining public morality and (it is thought) peripheral involvement in a conspiracy regarding the emperor’s succession. He was sent to Tomis, on the Black Sea, and ended up dying there. A narcissistic character to begin with, his exile poetry is nauseatingly, if understandably, self-obsessed. He decries the barbarism of the locals and the mercilessness of the weather (Tomis is now a holiday resort). He constantly pleads his friends to beseech Augustus and Tiberius on his behalf, if not to pardon him then at least to move him somewhere more hospitable. His poems are a strange combination of self-exculpation and self-aggrandizement with self-doubt and self-abasement. He says he has done nothing wrong and then begs for forgiveness. He declares his name will resound down the ages and then wonders whether his friends remember him.

This desire to be remembered is what interests me about Tristia and Black Sea Letters. Ovid was tormented by the thought of playing to an empty gallery. The language of his exile poetry often suggests his very existence depends on his friends’ memories of him. If they forget him, he is dead.

When such memories steal upon you, despite my absence
      I'll be there, just as I was, in your mind's eye;
and for my part, though I dwell far off, under heaven's axis
      -the star that ever rides above the waves-
yet in my heart (my sole chance) I still behold you,
      we often converse below the frozen pole.
You're here, though you don't know it; very often you're present
      (though remote), come from the city at my command.
Now do the same for me-let your happier region
      hold me forever in your mindful heart.

 

I’ll let you be in my memories if I can be in yours. By itself, this would be tender and charming. In the context of Ovid’s repeated pleas to be remembered, against the background of his mortifying realization that Roman life was going on without him, it becomes desperate—and no less moving for that.

The strange dialectic of Ovid’s exile poetry, its oscillation between fantasies of recognition and fantasies of irrelevance, reminds us that narcissism is a response to the fear of insignificance. Everyone has an honor-loving component, even if it doesn’t dominate their lives. But in writers we can see the phenomenon particularly clearly. As Samuel Johnson put it, “There is nothing more dreadful to an author than neglect, compared with which reproach, hatred, and opposition, are names of happiness; yet this worst, this meanest fate every man who dares to write has reason to fear.”

Happily, the desire for glory ties even egotistical writers to serving an audience. Because writing is an act of communication, it is hard to write without conceiving of an audience that wants—or at least needs—to hear what you have to say. There would be little point in proving the earth is not flat, for instance. Even if you are a lone voice in the wilderness, you must imagine someone, someday, hearing you. But to get your readers to think about you, as every writer craves, you have to think about them. And the basic metric of your success, unsound though it undoubtedly is, will be fame and neglect.

Ovid confesses he only wrote to become famous. That is why exile was a “living death” for the poet, since “writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark. An audience stimulates brilliance, to praise a talent swells it: fame indeed is the spur.” But to win his audience’s favor, he had to write something that illuminated their lives.

Imagine Ovid with Facebook. He could have poked his friends and thrown sheep at them. He could have exchanged virtual gifts and written on Walls. He could have cycled through the same status updates, endlessly: “Publius Ovidius Naso is—in exile / waiting to be recalled / thinking of his friends / scared of the natives / too cold for words / missing his mistress / innocent / apologetic / the best poet alive / not made for this kind of thing / enduring a living death without complaint.” Before long, Emperor Augustus would have had to unfriend him.

More importantly for us, Ovid might never have become a distinguished poet. He might have placed “writing poetry” among his interests, but never actually produced anything. If so, he would surely not have been remembered down the ages; he would not have won true honor. Luckily, he tethered his narcissism to a real audience, whose approval he craved and whose critical judgment produced the friction that alone allows for great art. Instead of a relationship timeline, Ovid gave us The Art Of Love.

“Here you have not my teaching but my study: the lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else.” So wrote Montaigne.

The lesson I took from pondering narcissism and the internet was: get back to work! But to forever bolt the door of my ivory tower would surely be a mistake. Plato wrote dialogues, as opposed to treatises, for a reason. He believed that philosophy begins and ends with the particular lives we lead: in our interactions with each other, problems arise that call for further conversation and reflection. No one can isolate himself from his surroundings if he is to lead an examined life, because to know oneself is to know one’s world.

For much of the day, the internet is my world; to know myself, I must know it. So rather than simply moralizing, why not see our obsession with Facebook as representative of a noble, if frustrated, desire to examine our lives? When I create my profile, I consider who I want to be. What is this but the question of how to live? “My profession, my craft, is living,” wrote Montaigne. If living is a task given to each of us, we must all endeavor to become experts. An expert builder has to ask what bricks and mortar are capable of, what a house is for, and what configuration of materials will best do the job. The same goes for an expert at living. What is life for? Who am I? How may I best arrange myself? To answer these questions we must attend to ourselves above all. If this is narcissism, then a degree of narcissism looks indispensable for the good life.

So the challenge isn’t to purge ourselves of narcissism, but to express it productively, to depart from our own peculiarities in order to arrive at a wisdom that transcends them. We can see Facebook users grappling to do this, for instance in those groups formed around observations about ordinary life. “I Love It When Bus Drivers Wave To Each Other!” is the title of one; another is “I Highlight Words On The Computer Screen As I Read Them!” These “anecdotal groups,” as we might call them, certainly give their members the narcissistic pleasure of making their foibles public. But don’t they also perform a service by allowing the articulation of something at once specific to us and inclusive of others? The hope expressed by these groups, it seems, is that self-expression need not isolate us. They testify to our need to universalize the particular.

In so doing, they point to the tradition founded by Montaigne. The personal essay exploits personal anecdotes for the purpose of discussing philosophical questions. By making his own life exemplary in this way, the essayist earns the same kind of narcissistic pleasure as Facebook users get from anecdotal groups. And, conversely, everything ever written turns out to be about him. “For many years now the target of my thoughts has been myself alone; I examine nothing, I study nothing, but me; and if I do study anything else, it is so as to apply it at once to myself, or more correctly, within myself.”

But Montaigne’s essays are not pure self-indulgence. In fact, the form of his writing embodies the humility with which he proposes universal truths. The essay begins with a particular occasion in the author’s life—it could be a quotation or a song—which provokes him to general reflection; it deliberately emphasizes his particularity—his experiences, his library, his humor—in an attempt to overcome it; it takes the digressive form of real conversation—with its many parentheses—and applies to it a subtle discipline. The desire to find the world in oneself is of course unspeakably narcissistic. But in stressing his own particularity through anecdotes, quotations and turns of phrase, oddity of structure and even overstatement of claims, Montaigne entices the reader to accusations of partiality and invites him to come up with something better. You should think your own way through the topic, he seems to say: I offer myself to you as one of the books on your shelf, to be called upon in your essay, the essay that is your life.

The essayist believes that if learning has value it must help us understand our selves and our world. Yet to perform this function it must establish truths that are accessible to others. Plato began and ended with the finitude and fragility of human conversation, but on his way he drew conclusions of the utmost abstraction and generality. Similarly, in aiming to illuminate his own life, Montaigne’s work must transcend his particularity and discover universal truths that illuminate lives beyond his own. If the essayist looks outward to look inward, he also looks inward to look outward. This means that—in contrast to Facebook updates—there are better and worse essays, and that this isn’t, in the end, a simple matter of awards and applause. A good essayist must enable the reader to discover something about his own life, his own self and world. In the best essays, we find ourselves reflected.

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