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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Rereading the Classics [Montaigne]

Page references in the notes in parentheses are to the Modern Library Giant with the 1603 translation by John Florio, the friend of Giordano Bruno and very likely of Shakespeare. My own copy, purchased well-used, already browning and worn fifty years ago, is still quite serviceable.

Montaigne’s attitude does not vary through the thousand pages of his essays. His curiosity, learning, skepticism, tolerance, and taste are all evident from the first essay (on “By Divers Means Men Come to a Like End”) to the last (“Of Experience”). The reason for this consistency is announced at the outset of his work when he declares to his readers “it is my selfe I pourtray.” He aims not at sublimity but rather “mine owne genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study.” For this project he found it necessary to invent a new form, the essay and a new formulation of skepticism based on “natural judgement.”

Though born to a high position and corresponding social responsibilities, he retired from public life in his late thirties [1] to cultivate his private studies and to record his thoughts in an ever-growing volume.
For the reader this desertion of many social duties and the resulting introspection resulted in the most delightful of books. Since Montaigne is primarily interested in his own regard for what he studies rather than in final truths about the object itself, all topics come to seem equally fruitful and all conclusions tentative. Freed from the Procrustean demands of dogma to regularize his vision, which he recognizes as inherently flawed, he may, like a poet, be loyal to the precise recording of impressions. In this way he produced an altogether new sort of prose, a candid “trail map” of consciousness utterly absorbing to any reader who finds pleasure in meditative ratiocination or who relishes the sensibility of others.

What other volume can one open at random to find such entertaining and irresistible data as these, chosen only just now and wholly, I guarantee, at random.

1) With a vivid and persuasive image, he says our unnecessary appetites crowd out the natural like visitors outnumbering the residents of a city. A few lines later, Montaigne provides a series of stories of beasts in love with humans. (418)

2) “A physitian boasted unto Nicocles, that his Arte was of exceeding great authority, It is true (quoth Nicocles) for, it may kill so many people without feare of punishment by Lawe.” (690) [2]

3) He sketches out a marvelous set-piece, the description of a performance
sponsored by the Roman emperor Probus featuring first, thousands of ostriches,
bucks, stags, and boars imported to be hunted by the common people, followed by a day of lions, leopards, and bears “to be baited and tugged in pieces,” and finally three hundred pairs of gladiators. (817)

Sauntering through his pages is, so far as I am concerned, the best way to read Montaigne, with little concern for form and less for conclusions, but with a continual delight in his unpredictability, erudition, candor, and style. Only a relaxed and expectant audience can appreciate the divagations of the scant two page account “Of Smels and Odors.” (Bk. 1, Ch. LV) The essay begins not from direct observation, but from a book, noting Plutarch’s report that Alexander’s body had naturally a “sweet smelling savour,” but this bookish opening, it seems, was designed to lead directly to its inverse in all-too-real lived experience. Most people, Montaigne says, are “cleane contrarie” to Alexander, which is to say, they stink. He continues to develop the polarity between unpleasant body odor and a “clean” smell, which is to say, no smell at all. He indicts perfumes as a partial mask of fouler scents. Then succeeds a whimsical account of his mustaches as guardian of his nostrils of service in avoiding not only stench but even contagion. This suggests Socrates’ reputation for resisting plagues, implying that not only world conquerors but also wise men may develop semi-supernatural powers. Physicians might, he thinks, make better use of what today enjoys a bit of a vogue as aromatherapy. This leads to a recognition of the role of incense in religion which slides rapidly into the use of spices in cuisine. The reader next relishes a snapshot of the extravagant kitchen of Charles V, the vapors from which would perfume the whole neighborhood of the palace. He concludes by noting his distaste for the “fennie and marish” location of Venice and the “durtie uncleannesse” of Paris. The rapidly shifting focus is reminiscent of montage in filmmaking or successions of images in poetry.

His style, too, is lush and sensual, though at the same time colloquial. Montaigne indulges to the full a “late” fondness for citation, bricolage, architectural sentences, and endless paragraphs, running for pages, as though they confess their inability ever quite to contain their meaning, but which approach ever closer with each telling detail. He cites the ancients because he realizes we have no evidence for anything beyond our own experience and what we can learn of the experience of others. He piles one quotation upon another, knowing that it is never enough, the case will not be settled, we will be collecting evidence to the end of our days, and, if we reach no satisfying conclusion, we will at least have diverted ourselves in the most human of ways.

Montaigne’s method led to an extraordinary modernity, not just in the assumption that the subjective is for better or worse inevitable and not a choice at all, but also in its complement, a tolerant pluralism, both ethnic and religious. His essay “On the Canibales” goes so far as to treat the West Indian natives as representatives of a better-than-golden age, “little bastardized” by civilization. (164) Even their poetry he finds to have the loveliness of ancient Greek. (170) Though they killed and ate captives of war, they were impressed that the Portuguese were yet more “smartfull” and “cruel” and had to teach the Indians ingenious methods of torture. (436)

There is however, a philosophic basis for Montaigne’s sensibility, though it is not my project here to refine the schema of some critics that portrays him moving from Stoicism through Skepticism to Epicureanism. I am a tourist only in philosophy, satisfied to call him a skeptic throughout. What matters to me in his thought I hardly distinguish from Richard Rorty. In my own figure I would call his philosophy consistently paradoxical in that it requires a rejection of the ordinary claims of philosophy, a rejection the Renaissance Frenchman shares with Zen and Dada but with few in his own day. What could be plainer than the personal medal he had coined engraved with the maxim of the great skeptic Pyrrho “epecho” (“I abstain” or “withhold judgment”) and the French “Que sçay-je?” The likeness of Pyrrho’s expositor Sextus Empiricus was prominent among the savants he had carved in the woodwork of his personal library. His Christianity was sufficiently doubtful that his book spent centuries on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. [3]

The fullest exposition of his skepticism and the longest individual essay is “An Apologie of Raymond Sebond.” Sebond, a professor of theology at Toulouse, had argued that reason was not incompatible with faith. To him illumination can arrive only through divine revelation, primarily in scripture, but, once one has learned the basic facts of god’s reality, the entire creation will testify further to the divine will. Similarly, human logic, once harnessed to the Church’s teachings, can amplify and reinforce religious truth. Montaigne’s father had, toward the end of his life, asked that his son undertake a translation of Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, perhaps to strengthen his own faith as well as the faith of other French readers. Montaigne praises Sebond’s wit and piety, and, after translating the work, went on to write his own defense of the theologian’s ideas, ostensibly adding another polemical work on behalf of Christianity. But he deviated considerably from his learned and orthodox source.

For Montaigne grace is more elusive and reason more deeply suspect than it was to Sebond. Montaigne argues for a radical skepticism that insists we cannot know anything at all. Though he makes occasional orthodox obeisances to Christian doctrine, his rhetoric mounts an ever more devastating attack against the possibility of attaining any sort of truth at all. Backed into a corner of utter unknowing, he will then plaintively note that only through god’s favor can one be sure of the indubitable truths of religion. But to the reader, and, one suspects, to the author, they did not seem at all so certain.
Montaigne speaks to us directly, and many have commented on the extraordinary modernity of his colloquialism (and eloquent it is) and his lack of ethnocentrism. Perhaps even more dramatically contemporary is Montaigne’s desperation in his final grasp after some sort of redemptive assurance which seems always futile, Sisyphean, Existential. It is both a cliché and a fact that Montaigne exemplifies the Renaissance assertion of the individual. His break with the corporate body of the Church and his wavering faith are part of the price he paid for his integrity.

The result, however, is a thoroughly radical doubt. With charming modesty he says, though “Knowledge is, without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament . . . yet I doe not value it at so excessive a rate as some have done.” (385) This elegantly understates his view. For Montaigne the celebrated case of Martin Guerre whose impersonator deceived even his wife for years suggests that nothing can be certainly known. (933) He cites Plato saying that nature, far from shadowing forth eternal truths is “nothing but an aenigmaticall poesie,” which he describes, in a compressed version of Plato’s cave [4] as “an overshadowed and darke picture, enter-shining with an infinit varietie of false lights.” All philosophy, he concludes, is itself no better than a “sophisticated poesie” whose propositions “are all dreames and mad follies.” (481)
He concedes that “Atheisme” is, course, “execrable” (386), yet he finds no reason whatever to embrace religion’s dogmas. Even Augustine, he notes, admitted that “many things may be, and have been, whereof our discourse can never ground the nature and the causes.” (398) His voice seems more desperate than confident when he argues that only the divine can make man more than man (547) and that “it is faith onely, which lively and assuredly embraceth the high mysteries of our Religion” (388) Faith itself can be suspect, too. For Montaigne the fact that children and the aged tend to piety implies that religion were “bred by imbecility.” (393) Similarly those who find god only in times of affliction have a flimsy sort of belief. (392) A pretense to certainty may cloak what amounts to nothing more than a means of social control. (457) Well aware that god has been conceived in a great variety of forms (459), he expresses a sympathetic awareness of non-Christian religious systems, declaring that due to the “generall blindnesse” of our minds, humans must have images to worship. “As for me,” he continues “I should rather have taken part with those who worshipped the Sunne.” Heliolatry is at least potentially monotheistic, but Montaigne further says he prefers to follow “those that worshipped the Serpent, the Dogge, and the Oxe” than to credit the “hurly-burly of so many Philosophical wits” (461) Quoting Xenophanes’ celebrated claim that the beasts would imagine beast-gods, he extends it to imagine the theology of a pious goose. (477)

How feeble, he says, is religious belief when everyone can see that people pay more regard to the opinions of their neighbors, kinsmen, and masters than they do to what they claim to believe to be god’s will. The universality of a fear of death indicates men do not truly believe. (391) Montaigne agrees with Hamlet that only “feare” “keepes a foole joined to his bodie.” (443) It is clear that in general Christians behave no better than Turks or pagans, and the organized church is notoriously corrupt. [5] Most people merely “perswade themselves” that they believe. “Justice . . . is used but for a cloake and ornament.” (389) For him conviction – of anything at all, mind you, and not just the consolations of faith -- is nothing but accommodation to our own weakness and ignorance, asserted in the interests of pitifully egocentric opportunism. He categorically declares that it is beyond human power to know “the least part” of the universe. (396) All opinions are but “smoke and wind.” (435) All the great thinkers have “sported themselves with reason, as of a vaine and frivolous instrument, setting forth all sorts of inventions, devices, and fantasies, sometimes more outstretched, and sometimes more loose.” The whole is endlessly variable, amounting to nothing but “dreames” and “devises.” (490)

His own intellectual lineage is obvious since his pages throng with classical citations while Biblical ones are all but absent. He admits to being “altogether ignorant” of Scripture, (387) though he scrupulously shrinks from explicit agnosticism or heresy. His closest ancestor in thought is surely Pyrrho, (449) the radical skeptic for whom the knowledge that we can know nothing at all leads to a relaxation, a release of mental tension that allows the ataraxia sought by Epicureans and Stoics as well as by Buddhist monks and Shaivite saddhus. For him the celebrated glories of philosophy seem nothing more than parlor tricks to pass the time. “Difficulty is a coin that wisemen make use of, as juglars do with passé and repasse.” (453) He mercilessly pares away pride, insisting on “ the emptinesse, vacuitie, and no worth of man.” (395) The demonstrations of philosophers may be at first appealing, but fact is that their opposites could be proven just as convincingly. “Nothing seemeth true, that may not seeme false.” (his italics, 451) Where can truth be sought, when no two sages agree, and “reason yeeldeth appearance to divers effects? (525-531) There is little room for compromise when “humane science cannot be maintained but by unreasonable, fond, and mad reason.” (535) “Philosophie presenteth unto us, not that which is, or she beleeveth, but what she inventeth.” (484) He cannot remind us often enough that the dubious consolations of philosophy amount to nothing but “foolish vanitie” built upon “fond ridiculous foundations.” (436)

Much of the essay, in fact, goes beyond even skepticism to a chastening of all human pretensions. For Montaigne people cannot even claim an intellectual advantage over beasts. “What sufficiency is there in us, that we must not acknowledge from the industry and labours of beasts?” Apart from the fact that we cannot make out their consciousness with any precision, they clearly have superior senses in some ways. Even the activities of spiders have depths we cannot plumb. (401-3, 541) A hog may act is a more sensible manner than people. (436) The mad may indeed enjoy greater felicity than the sane, (442) and the naked cannibals are at least as civilized as Europeans. The “primitive” New World natives are calmer and happier than over-sophisticated European hypochondriac neurotics. (438, 444) Whatever powers our minds may possess are as often as not overturned by illness, intoxications, and stupefaction. (494) The “spittle or slavering of a sick dog” can vanquish even Socrates’ reason. (495) “The least things in the world wil turne [our reason] topsy-turvy.” (509)

Not knowing even themselves, (505-6) people’s opinions are a sort of natural phenomenon like winds (519) and for this reason, acceptance of generally received truths is the best policy. “Keepe your selves in the common path, it is not good to be so subtill, and so curious.” (503) In fact the ignorant and the foolish are not only happier than people of a more intellectual cast, they are also better lovers. (437) Montaigne quotes Horace to the effect that the illiterate’s erection is the equal of his better’s. (433)

The picture is bleak indeed, though balanced by the writer’s evident delight in the multifarious and endlessly fascinating world about him. He argues along with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans that positive pleasure is a phantom; the best one can experience is a lack of pain. He quotes Ennius: Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali. Even sex is only a release of tension; true ataraxia is undesirable if not unattainable. (439)

Montaigne approaches a sort of via negative mysticism, but he is far too susceptible to emotion to find real transcendence. He does indeed call man “a thing of nothing,” (445) but nirvana means nothing, an it may well be that Ultimate Reality is better known by our not knowing, by the divine “cloud of unknowing,” as the medieval author had it. When Montaigne condemns any proposition – especially anthropomorphism -- about the divine, citing Cicero and Plato, he might also have noted the line from Exodus . [7] “but my face shall not be seen” or Maimonides or Aquinas, for that matter.

Montaigne concludes his third and last book with a citation from Horace which from his pen is far from dryasdust, but rather poignant, and heart-felt, and touching. The author hopes in his “old yeares” to be sound of mind “nor wanting musicke to delight my eares.” He had spent his entire life in the energetic exercise of that definitive human characteristic, adeptness at manipulating symbols, both in the exhilaration of composition and in the connoisseurship of appreciation of his fellow humans. The ancient concept of philosophy, in Greece as in China and India was the study of how to live a good life. In this sense Montaigne was among the wisest of philosophers.

1. He was persuaded to assume the local role of mayor of Bordeaux.

2. Montaigne had a suspicious distrust of doctors and for years refused their treatment of his kidney stones.

3. Among the authors forbidden by the Church before the end of the list in 1966 were Dante (only the Monarchia), Rabelais, Descartes, Hume, Pascal, Rousseau, Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal.

4. Bk. V, the Republic.

5. Montaigne ingeniously notes that, though this fact might lead one to unbelief, another might find it miraculous that so crime-ridden a body as the Catholic Church can maintain its sacred role. This becomes then another instance of wholly ambiguous truth, both substantial and empty at once. (I am thinking of Nagarjuna with those adjectives.)

6. Odes, Bk. I, 31.

7. Exodus 33:20. For Maimonides see, for instance, The Guide for the Perplexed, I, 37; for Aquinas Summa Theologica, I, Q, 3.

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