Monday, April 24, 2006

Week 13, Michel de Montaigne

Notes on Michel de Montaigne’s Essais

“To the Reader”


2636. Montaigne is as always slippery—he says he wants to present himself in a natural way without artifice, but a few lines later, he makes a backdoor concession to artifice: “Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.” Montaigne’s imaginary reader is his recently departed friend Etienne. Donald Frame makes the point well—even though Rousseau criticized him for not being candid enough, Montaigne is not really writing confessions. The best way to ruin a friendship is constantly to talk about yourself and your own problems. A certain distance from oneself is necessary to the maintenance of friendship, and Montaigne’s reader is best understood as a friend. The other point I would like to make by way of introduction has to do with Kierkegaard’s idea about the incommunicable nature of serious reflection—those who think they are communicating directly about matters of the self or even deep philosophical issues are most deceived. Here is the introduction in French, with Renaissance orthography preserved:
C’est icy un livre de bonne foy, lecteur. Il t’advertit dés l’entree, que je ne m’y suis proposé aucune fin, que domestique et privee: je n’y ay eu nulle consideration de ton service, ny de ma gloire: mes forces ne sont pas capables d’un tel dessein. Je l’ay voüé à la commodité particuliere de mes parens et amis: à ce que m’ayans perdu (ce qu’ils ont à faire bien tost) ils y puissent retrouver aucuns traicts de mes conditions et humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourrissent plus entiere et plus vifve, la connoissance qu’ils ont eu de moy. Si c’eust esté pour rechercher la faveur du monde, je me fusse paré de beautez empruntees. Je veux qu’on m’y voye en ma façon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans estude et artifice : car c’est moy que je peins. Mes defauts s’y liront au vif, mes imperfections et ma forme naïfve, autant que la reverence publique me l’a permis. Que si j’eusse esté parmy ces nations qu’on dit vivre encore souz la douce liberté des premieres loix de nature, je t’asseure que je m’y fusse tres-volontiers peint tout entier, Et tout nud. Ainsi, Lecteur, je suis moy-mesme la matiere de mon livre: ce n’est pas raison que tu employes ton loisir en un subject si frivole et si vain. A Dieu donq. De Montaigne, ce 12 de juin 1580. Montaigne’s Essays.
“Of the Power of the Imagination”

2636-38. Montaigne begins the essay with the proposition that “A strong imagination creates the event” (2636). The rest of the essay partly confirms this proposition, but not in all cases or completely. He mixes with his own experience the experience of others and the authority of classical examples and folk wisdom, which he sometimes treats almost the same as his own experience. The very first example is illustrative: Montaigne recounts how an excellent doctor, Simon Thomas, told someone suffering from consumption (TB) that gazing upon the healthy Montaigne would make him feel better; but Montaigne suggests that a worsening of his own condition at the same time is entirely possible. Why shouldn’t the consumptive’s good fortune be Montaigne’s bad luck, if imagination is so strong a power in the curing and bringing-on of illness? He mentions also some strange cases: the Roman orator Gallus Vibius, who drove himself mad thinking about madness; the ancient King Cippus, who got so enthusiastic at a bullfight that he grew horns, and the story of “Marie Germain,” who supposedly changed sexes. On the whole, Montaigne gives most of the credit for “miracles, visions, enchantments,” and other such things to the workings of strong imagination. (2638).

2638-41. Montaigne soon steers the subject towards sexual relations—this was not really the initial theme or subject of the essay. So why does he move towards intimacy? He offers a rather comical example in which he colluded with an elderly female relative of some count or other to help the man overcome a bout of impotence. As it turns out, the hocus-pocus routine they develop seems to do the trick. Montaigne draws us towards the idea that we are not fully masters of our will or physiology—many things we think we control happen to us; we don’t make them happen. His main exhibit so happens to be the male sex organ, but he quickly indicts the body in its entirety: “I ask you to think whether there is a single one of the parts of our body that does not often refuse its function to our will and exercise it against our will” (2340).

2641-42. Montaigne also addresses psychosomatic phenomena of the sort we now call “the placebo effect”—tell me you are giving me medicine, and I may be cured even if it is only colored water or a sugar pill. I like the example on 2641 of the woman who thinks she has swallowed a pin—it reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza thinks he has swallowed a fly with his soup, and becomes hysterical, jumping up and asking everyone in the diner “What can happen?”

2643-44. Now that Montaigne is getting around to explaining his methodology as a writer, we find that George Costanza’s question is exactly what he wants to write about—“What can happen?” As he writes, “So in the study that I am making of our behavior and motives, fabulous testimonies, provided they are possible, serve like true ones. Whether they have happened or no, in Paris or Rome, to John or Peter, they exemplify, at all events, some human potentiality, and thus their telling imparts useful information to me” (2643). He exercises the power of reason and reflection on other people’s tall tales and his own experiences alike. The idea isn’t to arrive at historical or scientific truth; it is instead to bring out the difficulty of pinning down human experience to a codified body of knowledge. This is not the same thing as pessimism. Montaigne seems (even in his early phase as a writer) to have combined skepticism with curiosity. On the whole, he is far too curious ever to be a true stoic—no wonder he more or less rejects that philosophy in its purest form. I suppose that he operates rather like a psychologist, except that his aim is philosophical investigation rather than arriving at a cure for “the human condition.”

On these pages, Montaigne also says he writes about the past for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with his own defects—he declares himself “a sworn enemy of obligation, assiduity, perseverance” and will have nothing to do with “extended narration” (2643). But his main idea seems to be that when you write about the present, you encounter all sorts of obligations towards others—what you write or say is immediately consequential: “I consider it less hazardous to write of things past than present,” he says, “inasmuch as the writer has only to give an account of a borrowed truth” (2643). I return to Kierkegaard’s idea about the duplicity involved in treating difficult ideas as if they were capable of being rendered transparent and communicated with others. Montaigne says his old stories are not like medical drugs or present issues—they pose no immediate danger either to the reader or the writer. (2344) This statement may be a way of defending the author’s right to indirection and subtlety—a declaration on Montaigne’s part that he is not communicating anything directly, not teaching anything to anyone. This is a strikingly modern idea worthy of Kierkegaard or Heidegger or Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom said “nothing of the smallest importance ever actually occurs.” And if Oscar didn’t invert Hamlet’s sentence about great enterprises being blasted by “the pale cast of thought,” he should have.

Really what Montaigne has done is discuss a lot of foolish examples and lead us in circles respecting the true subject of his essay; finally, he comes around to making a cogent philosophical point—not a dogmatic statement, but a number of very sharp observations about the complexities involved in human behavior and reflection about human behavior. I suppose Ralph Waldo Emerson might as well have derived his motto—“whim” from Montaigne. ( “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.” Self-Reliance, 1841.) To be whimsical is not to be worthless—in fact, I suspect that the most serious people sometimes turn out to be the biggest fools and the most dangerous agents in the world. They have too little capacity to reflect upon their thoughts and actions, and insufficient humility to laugh at themselves. As for Montaigne’s role in French politics—in a time of extremism and violence, he promoted tolerance and reason, which probably seemed like pure whimsy to others engaged in their deadly earnest political pursuits and religious campaigns. The fact that reason seldom prevails is no excuse for abandoning it.

“Of Cannibals”


2644-45. Montaigne opens with a good observation about so-called civilized people: “I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind” (2644). At base, we have learned to covet, which makes us miserable, and instead of living in the here and now, we are always “somewhere else.” All of this comes down to saying that desire and cleverness get the better of us, and that is what we call “civilization.” Montaigne praises simple folk over their sharper fellows: “clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them” (2645), and interpretation means falsification to some degree.

2646. Montaigne says that we shouldn’t honor artifice over nature, and insists that the opposition between barbarous and civilized is a trick of language perpetrated by biased sensibilities: “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” As for our attempts to transform nature in our horticultural practices, he writes that “it is those [fruits] that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild.” As with plants, so with manners. We alter what is natural to suit our corrupted tastes, and then declare natural things and manners “savage,” a term connoting extreme disapproval.

Montaigne’s own bemused stance towards the native Brazilians contrasts markedly with this attitude. It seems clear that he privileges nature in the sense of “the natural environment”: “All our efforts cannot even succeed in reproducing the nest of the tiniest little bird,” he says—nature is not simple but wonderfully complex; creatures live in perfect accord with their environments, and show something like collective creativity in doing it, too, as his reference to the bird’s nest and spider’s web suggest. (Why should instinct, as we would call it today, be dispraised by comparison with eccentric individuality?)

2647. With respect to human beings, Montaigne says the term “barbarous” is appropriate if by it we mean only that a given group of people may be “fashioned very little by the human mind, and . . . still very close to their original naturalness.” Such people, he insists, live in a manner that surpasses even the highest ideals of the philosophers; they are better than the inhabitants of Plato’s Republic or “Polity.” Of course, that’s a radical redefinition of the term “barbarous,” which Montaigne is happy to offer. We may well question whether or not human beings were ever in precisely the state of animal-like “naturalness” Montaigne attributes to them, of course.

But perhaps we need not suppose he’s equating human naturalness with animal naturalness: the phrase “fashioned very little by the human mind” might suggest instead that native peoples are highly intelligent but not fiendishly self-conscious, not bent upon constantly transforming and inflecting their already impressive and even sophisticated ways of thinking and acting. It is Europeans and other “civilized” groups, by implication, who are constantly revolutionizing their own humanity and the understanding of that humanity. We might insist that this “permanent revolution” outlook is essential, that man is the self-transforming animal, and so forth—but I think Montaigne would just tell us it’s possible to take such an outlook too far and that matters as they stand in his own sixteenth-century Europe (or our twenty-first century America, for that matter) are a pretty good indication of why that isn’t a good thing to do. But as the rest of the essay indicates, Montaigne really isn’t much interested in making a passionate case for primitivism, either—it just isn’t his way with an argument. He’s writing skeptical, even at times proto-deconstructive, essais, not “position papers.”

2648-49. What exactly do the Brazilians believe? Well, says Montaigne, they praise courage in war and “love for their wives” (2648). They believe in an immortal soul and in the power of prophesy, though they suffer no failures to practice that occupation. (Prophets are sort of like artists as Horace describes them in Ars Poetica: nobody has any patience with a second-rate poet, though a second-rate doctor or lawyer may prove useful enough.) They practice cannibalism after a battle and collect the heads of enemy warriors, which they display right outside their own doors. Why do they roast and eat their enemies’ flesh? Not for the sake of the meal, reports Montaigne. Instead, they do it “to betoken an extreme revenge” (2649). That doesn’t sound so favorable, admits the author, who isn’t set on completely overturning or dismissing the hierarchy between savage and civilized. What he’s doing is exposing the fact that we wield this hierarchical set of terms as a kind of ruse: “I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling . . . (and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead” (2649). The contrast here is between straightforward, no-apologies-or-excuses-necessary revenge and fiendish torments palmed off as holy acts or “justice.” The uncivilized may do some unpleasant things, but it’s civilized people who make a fine art of barbarity and disregard the arbitrations of reason. On the whole, this business of cannibalism, and Montaigne’s treatment of it, suggests an awareness that it’s more difficult to privilege “the natural man” absolutely than it is to suggest that “Mother Nature” is superior to any of us.

2650-53. With respect to warfare, Montaigne says, the Brazilian natives make it “as excusable and beautiful as this human disease can be; its only basis among them is their rivalry in valor. They are not fighting for the conquest of new lands . . .” (2650). The idea here is that it’s “natural” to want no more land or goods than you can actually use; the desire for more is corrupt, and fighting over other people’s property is vicious. Of course, sometimes it’s said of modern humanity that we fight “even for an eggshell” (a phrase Shakespeare gives Hamlet) rather than for material possessions and power. But most likely Montaigne would say modern humans are just confusing lust for material gain and the pursuit of political power with genuine honor and appreciation of courage. The natives really fight for valor’s sake; we just say that’s what we are doing. Montaigne writes, “The role of true victory is in fighting, not in coming off safely; and the honor of valor consists in combating, not in beating” (2651). It’s the process that matters, not the outcome. As for the courage of prisoners facing sacrifice, says the author, they are reported to spit in the faces of those who mean to kill them. This behavior differs greatly from the European manner of surrender, ransom, and so forth: “Truly here are real savages by our standards; for either they must be thoroughly so, or we must be; there is an amazing distance between their character and ours” (2651).

2652-53. Montaigne notes that the Brazilian natives practice polygamy (allegedly without demur on the women’s part), and that their language rivals Greek for its beauty. He notes that three natives traveled to Rouen, France during Charles IX’s reign (1560-74), and that they thought it strange to see so many grown people obeying such a young child (Charles’ reign began when he was about ten years old). Similarly, they were incredulous that the very poor simply accepted their lot rather than just taking what they needed to survive. Montaigne supposes that those natives will someday pay a heavy price “in loss of repose and happiness” (2652) because of their trip to Europe. He notes with admiration what he heard (through the thick veil of translation, apparently) directly from one of the men about the advantages of rank being simply “to march foremost in war.” But his final remark returns us to the complex stance of the piece as a whole: “All this is not too bad—but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches” (2652). Perhaps Montaigne implies here that the value of communication between two very different peoples lies in mutual recognition of strangeness, in acknowledging the alien quality of other cultures, not in adopting others’ ways. Montaigne seems to me to be suggesting that civilization is at least partly a cover story for cruelty, lust, and greed. That’s a dreadful realization, but all the same, we are more or less stuck with being “civilized” and can’t return to or fully appropriate the manners of our “savage” fellow humans, uncorrupted of heart and will though they may be. The natives wear no breeches. They won’t conform, so most of us aren’t going to accept their ways or their best insights: everything comes down to taste and fashion with us; essence and truth aren’t worth much to those so taken with the show of things.

“Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions”


2653-56. In this brilliant foray into the vagaries of human conduct, Montaigne begins with the observation that “Those who make a practice of comparing human actions are never so perplexed as when they try to see them as a whole and in the same light” (2653). We are creatures of contradiction, and for sheer inscrutability, Montaigne says, we should praise the great Augustus Caesar, victor at Actium over Antony and Cleopatra and subsequent first emperor of Rome. Nobody has ever been able to figure him out—his whole life was a long series of actions that don’t add up to anything like a consistent, much less unified, character. (This inconsistency has made for entertaining variety in the artistic portrayal of the Emperor: Shakespeare casts him as ruthless and businesslike, a true Machiavel, as does the recent British series Rome, though the latter adds a twist of sadism and extreme iciness, while Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius characterizes Augustus as a good-natured, generous fellow. My guess is that he was probably all of those things, at different times and to different people.) And in truth, writes Montaigne, we are all somewhat like Augustus in our less exalted way: our vices stem from no grand Faustus-compact with the devil but are instead only the unstable product of “unruliness and lack of moderation” (2654). Similarly, our virtues fluctuate with circumstance and desire: yesterday’s virtuous woman is today’s shameless “wench,” and the courageous man of a recent battle or fight is just as likely to turn coward next time around (2655-56). In sum, “We float between different states of mind; we wish nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly” (2654).

2657-58. The inner self is composite, writes Montaigne: “I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word. Distinguo is the most universal member of my logic” (2656). The self is always shifting, and there seems to be no bedrock or core to it. What methodology does Montaigne offer those who insist upon plumbing the depths of human desire and conduct? Well, certainly no consistent path seems available. What seems like solid advice dissipates soon enough. At first we are told that “to judge a man, we must follow his traces long and carefully” (2657). But this is not a matter of observing external actions over a long period since “No one makes a definite plan of his life; we think about it only piecemeal,” and in any case, as the essay’s own examples suggest, even if we had a plan we couldn’t stick to it for two minutes running. “We are all patchwork,” writes Montaigne, “and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others” (2657), a point he derives from Seneca. All that’s left is to “probe the inside and discover what springs set men in motion” (2658). But that’s obviously a great deal easier said than done, as Montaigne goes on to admit by way of conclusion: “since this is an arduous and hazardous undertaking, I wish fewer people would meddle with it” (2658). True to his own epistemological skepticism, Montaigne hasn’t so much been trying to prove anything positive as to demonstrate the sheer difficulty of knowing human beings, of rendering them intelligible, either with regard to what they do, or what they say, or what they think and desire within themselves.

“Of Coaches”


2658-71. Since this entry is already rather detailed, I will just offer a brief observation about this essay: “Of Coaches” is typical of Montaigne in that the piece isn’t exactly about coaches, except for a few passages. It is about princely pomp and excess, the cruelty of the Spaniards when they conquered parts of the New World, and other things. I’ve read that the increased use of coaches might well serve as a symbol of excessive luxury and corruption, so in that sense the concept “coach” loosely associates the various topics with one another. Montaigne notes near the outset that he can’t bear to travel in coaches and prefers to ride on horseback, while various ancient and modern warriors and rulers have done some really remarkable things with coaches and chariots, some employing them for usefulness, others for ostentation (2660). There is no unitary cultural significance for coaches, or litters, or the various kinds of transport—that’s probably one point Montaigne is making in this whimsical essay. At the end the author returns to coaches, pointing out that the Peruvians’ last king rode in a litter, and the men vied around him for the honor of dying for him as litter-bearers. The implication seems to be that the last Peruvian king and his people showed kind of uncorrupted magnificence that modern Europeans can hardly hope to match.

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