Montaigne, Mary Emerson, and the Race to Own Yourself
"Always do what you are afraid to do." —Mary Moody Emerson
In this issue:
Montaigne’s paradoxical path to power
The genius of Mary Moody Emerson
Quivr: Private open-source AI tooling for writers
Important: Today is the last day you can request an invitation to join our 4-week writing accelerator starting this Monday. Requesting an invite does not obligate you to enroll, but you need to request an invite today if you’d like the option to enroll. Request an invitation (5 min).
Montaigne’s Paradoxical Path to Power
One of the key lessons from the life of Montaigne is that true humility is, paradoxically, a path to power. If you're seeking power, the desire often thwarts the accrual. When you are sincerely humble and relinquish the drive for power, you become capable of thinking, acting, and writing in ways that are unique, authentic, compelling, and unpredictably impressive. These intermediate products of humility command respect and admiration through a slow, gradual process that is invisible and counterintuitive to the extreme.
Montaigne was only capable of his fundamental innovation in the history of writing—namely, the invention of the essay as a modern genre—because he completely and genuinely withdrew from society. He gave up on everything. He had no ambitions or goals for his writing, other than to determine, for himself, what he really believed to be true. There was no sense of gravity, no aspiration. He did not anticipate or feel entitled to recognition of any kind whatsoever. He optimized for nothing other than personal freedom and mental sovereignty. By ignoring all social, cultural, and political incentives, he accidentally entered onto an entirely new way of thinking and producing written work.
We also see this paradox of power play out on a longer timescale. For it is only many years later, after more than ten years of imperceptible creative labor, that he unexpectedly finds himself, at age 50, nominated to the mayorship of Bordeaux. Here is how Stefan Zweig describes this event in his biographical essay on Montaigne:
As I intimated recently in The Medium and the Light, I think humility remains badly misunderstood and under-appreciated. For too long have we been swayed by an uncritical, second-hand Nietzschean antipathy to meekness and all that sounds like "slave morality." In the deepest enactments of sincere humility we seem to find the most extraordinary and paradoxical becomings.
Mary Moody Emerson: "Society is like a corpse that purges at the mouth”
You've heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but there's a second genius in the Emerson family you've probably never heard of. Mary Moody Emerson was "the best writer in Massachusetts," according to her nephew Ralph. I recently learned about aunty Mary in a 1996 biography of Emerson by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
A mysterious and eccentric woman, Ralph's aunt (on his father's side) was more like a prophet than a writer. She was known for her great physical energy, bursting in and out of rooms like a banshee. Her obituary in the Boston Commonwealth said she had "the power of saying more disagreeable things in half an hour than any person living." Four feet, three inches tall, Mary Moody wore a burial shroud when she traveled and slept in a bed shaped like a coffin. You can begin to understand why she is sometimes remembered, if she is remembered at all, as an eccentric Dickensian character in the larger plot of Ralph's biography.
Yet to call her even a "great writer," is an understatement. She is almost closer to a prophet. She lived her entire life in destitution, which she did not seem to mind, and she wrote about the advantages of poverty. Although she had the occasional suitor, she never married. She always knew she could never have a normal life. She woke up before dawn every morning to read and write. She was entirely self-educated. She read Milton, Shakespeare, Cicero, Plato, Plotinus, Coleridge, Marcus Aurelius, Herder, Locke, Byron, Spinoza, Wallstonecraft, Rousseau, Goethe, and of course Scripture, plus theologians like Samuel Clark and Jonathan Edwards.
She was essentially an idiosyncratic Calvinist theologian of a peculiar New England kind. She was deeply pietist, and yet a freethinker seemingly always on the cusp of not believing. She did not conform to anything or anyone other than her own search for the truth, and she took nothing secondhand. As Emerson once said of her Genius, she was "always new... unpredictable. All your learning of all literatures and states of society of Platonistic, Calvinistic, English or Chinese would never enable you to anticipate one thought or expression."
Mary Moody Emerson
The four notebooks of her writing that Emerson reread throughout his life have never been published. A selection of her letters has been published as The Selected Letters of Mary Moody, but it's hard to find. The authority on Mary Moody seems to be Phyllis Cole, who wrote her biography. Mary Moody deserves to be studied more deeply, and I suspect she will be.
One of her slogans that she always told the Emerson boys was, "Always do what you are afraid to do." She had no time for gossip or the opinions of high society: "Society is like a corpse that purges at the mouth," she said. She believed that one should speak freely on every topic, pass judgment on every text, and develop an original perspective especially on what matters most: the nature of life, death, and eternity.
I love people who live as if the truth matters. Mary Moody Emerson was one of those people.
Quivr: Private Open-Source AI Tooling for Writers
If an original thinker has content spread across multiple sites like Twitter, Youtube, and blogs—I'm not too worried about companies sucking up all that data for massive general-purpose models. Maybe the creators have some right to something, but who cares about that? It seems like a red herring.
If you're publishing original and thoughtful work across the internet, your unique alpha is only a latent dimension of all that data.
That's the important thing, and it can’t be fully synthesized or exploited by anyone unless a third party decides to organize all of that specific data and develop it's implicit direction as a specific project. That will never be profitable for a third party to do, since the creator will always have a huge advantage developing that particular alpha (essentially many TBs of tacit knowledge the third party can’t access).
This is why I'm very interested in private, open-source AI tooling for writers (I think about this use case more than any other). It seems like eventually every original creator must own and control a private, proprietary model. The software productivity gains from LLMs are racing against commercial projects trying to sell you your own clone. As those companies grow, it will also get cheaper and easier for creators to create and manage their own proprietary clones.