In solis sis tibi turba locis: In solitude, be a multitude to thyself

In solis sis tibi turba locis.
In solitude, be a multitude to thyself.

–Tibullus

Montaigne quotes Tibullus, in his The Essays from the chapter, “Of Solitude”;
but first opens the chapter with an appeal and challenge to those in public office and of high station and ambitions, as to their real aspirations:

The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXXVIII

OF SOLITUDE

Let us pretermit that long comparison betwixt the active and the solitary life; and as for the fine sayings with which ambition and avarice palliate their vices, that we are not born for ourselves but for the public, let us boldly appeal to those who are in public affairs; let them lay their hands upon their hearts, and then say whether, on the contrary, they do not rather aspire to titles and offices and that tumult of the world to make their private advantage at the public expense. The corrupt ways by which in this our time they arrive at the height to which their ambitions aspire, manifestly enough declares that their ends cannot be very good. Let us tell ambition that it is she herself who gives us a taste of solitude; for what does she so much avoid as society? What does she so much seek as elbow-room? A man may do well or ill everywhere; but if what Bias says be true, that the greatest part is the worse part, or what the Preacher says: there is not one good of a thousand:—

“Good men forsooth are scarce: there are hardly as many as there are gates of Thebes or mouths of the rich Nile,”

Stilpo having escaped from the burning of his town, where he lost wife, children, and goods, Demetrius Poliorcetes seeing him, in so great a ruin of his country, appear with an undisturbed countenance, asked him if he had received no loss! To which he made answer, No; and that, thank God, nothing was lost of his. This also was the meaning of the philosopher Antisthenes, when he pleasantly said, that “men should furnish themselves with such things as would float, and might with the owner escape the storm;” and certainly a wise man never loses anything if he have himself. When the city of Nola was ruined by the barbarians, Paulinus, who was bishop of that place, having there lost all he had, himself a prisoner, prayed after this manner: “O Lord, defend me from being sensible of this loss; for Thou knowest they have yet touched nothing of that which is mine.” The riches that made him rich and the goods that made him good, were still kept entire. This it is to make choice of treasures that can secure themselves from plunder and violence, and to hide them in such a place into which no one can enter and that is not to be betrayed by any but ourselves. Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat. And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no exotic knowledge or communication be admitted there; there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity:—

“In solis sis tibi turba locis.”

[“In solitude, be a multitude to thyself.”–Tibullus, vi. 13. 12.]

While some doubts may be cast on Montaigne’s unique personal definition of Solitude, and we can’t all have our own country estate to retire to and lead a life of solitude maintained by a retinue of servants (ironically) “in train and attendance”; we certainly should have our own “backshops”, whatever and wherever they may be.

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