Saturday, 7 April 2012

Book 2, Chapter 12: An Apology for Raymond Sebond Part 1



 Man and Other Animals



The natural, original disease of man is presumption. Man is the most sensitive and frail of all creatures, and the most given to pride. He sets himself above the Moon, brings the very heavens under his feet. He equals himself to God and sets himself apart from all other creatures. Although they are his fellows and brothers, he imagines them having limited force and faculty. How can he presume to know the hidden, inner life of other creatures? What leads him to conclude that they have the attributes of senseless brutes?

When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her? We entertain ourselves with mutual monkey-tricks. There are times when I initiate and she refuses, and vice versa.
Why do we assume it is a defect in the animals and not in us that we cannot communicate with them? We do not understand them any more than they understand us. They may think of us as brute beasts for the same reasons as we think of them to be so. It is no great miracle we can’t understand them, when we can’t even understand the languages of our neighbouring countries.
We have a vague understanding of what animals mean: they have the same of us, in about equal measure. They fawn on us, threaten us and entreat us – as we do them. Between themselves, they can converse perfectly. They understand each other, not just within one species but across different species. A horse knows when there is anger in a certain bark of a dog, and with other barks, it does not react the same way. Even in animals that don’t make sound, we know they have some means of communication between them, from the way they work together. Their very movements serve as arguments and ideas.
What aspects of our human competence cannot be found in animals?

Is there any system more organized and efficient in the allocation of tasks or maintained with greater constancy than that of the bees? How can we imagine that something so striking in its orderliness is conducted without reasoned discourse and foresight?

Take the swallows; when spring comes they ferret through all the corners of the house and find the best place to build their nests. Is that done without judgment or discernment? Then, the nest itself is so beautifully and wondrously woven together. Why would birds make a circle rather than a square, or an obtuse angle rather than a right angle, if they didn’t have some awareness of their properties of effects? Do they bring water and then clay without realizing that hardness can be softened with damp? When they cover the floors of their palaces with moss or down, do they not foresee that the tender limbs of their little ones will lie more softly and be more comfortable?

And why does the spider make her web denser in one place and slacker in another, using this knot here and that knot there, if she cannot reflect, think or reach conclusions?
We should realize how superior they are to us in most of their works and how weak our artistic skills are when it comes to imitating them. Our works are coarser, and yet we are aware of the faculties we use to construct them: our souls use all their power when doing so. Why do we not consider that the same applies to animals? Why do we have to imagine they have some slavish natural inclination just because their work surpasses all that we can do by nature or by art? When we assume this, aren’t we saying that their brutish stupor is superior to our divine intelligence?
Now, some people complain that Nature has clad all other creatures in shells, pods, husks, hairs, wool, spikes, hide, down, feathers, scales, fleece, or silk according to their necessities. She has also armed them with claws, teeth and horns for attack and defense, and taught them to swim, run, fly, or sing. Man, on the other hand, is sent to earth naked, and without learning, can do nothing but wail. Such a view is false. Nature is much more just than this.
Our skin, like theirs, can firmly resist intemperate weather. There are places where people live without any clothes at all. And besides, we ourselves leave our face, feet, hand, legs, shoulders, or head uncovered and don’t have problems enduring wind or air. As for the wailing, many animals too cry and whine an infants. And eating – for us, like for the animals, does not have to be learned. A child, once able to feed himself, would know how to go in search of food. Earth, with no farming and no arts, produces more than enough for our needs. Perhaps not for all seasons, but she doesn’t do that for animals either.  See how ants store for the barren season.
As for weapons, we have more natural ones than many other animals, and we have a greater variety of movements. Nature also teaches us instinctively how to acquire means of protection. Note how elephants sharpen their fighting teeth, bulls throw up dust around them when they fight, wild boars wet their tusks, and the mongoose smears itself all over with kneaded and compressed mud to serve as body-armour. Arming ourselves with sticks and iron bars is equally natural.
As for speech, I believe if a child were brought up in total solitude, he would come up with some kind of language to make himself understood.
One thing I admit: man is the only animal who can imagine things which are and which are not. He can imagine his wishes, or the false and the true. But he pays a high price for this advantage – it is the chief source of his problems: sin, sickness, confusion, and despair.
I hope I have shown that there is no rational reason to believe that animals are forced to do by natural inclination the same things we do by choice and ingenuity. They use similar faculties. Therefore, we should admit animals employ the same method and reasoning as us. Why should we think they have some kind of natural instincts that are different from our own? Our empty arrogances make us attribute our skills to ourselves rather than to Nature. It is more honourable that we be guided by the natural properties of our being.

When the Thracians want to cross a frozen river, they first let a fox loose on it. The fox brings its ear close to the ice to see how near to the surface the current is running, and in this way estimates the thickness of the ice. Would it not be right to think the same reasoning passes through its head as would pass through ours – that it thinks and draws consequences with a natural intelligence similar to our own? ‘That which makes a noise is moving, that which moves is not frozen, that which is not frozen is liquid, and that which is liquid bends under weight’. Attributing this just to the foxes supersonic hearing is ridiculous.
Should we pride ourselves on our ability to capture them and make them work for us? But aren’t slaves in the same position? And soldiers too! Tyrants have no problem finding men to swear their lives to them, and whole armies are bound to their captains in this way. Trained gladiators vow to fight to the finish too. The men who serve us do so more cheaply than our falcons and horses, who have to be taken such good care of. We bow to all kinds of menial tasks for the convenience of our animals, feeding, cleaning etc. Those who keep animals can be said to serve them, not be served by them. Furthermore, there is a nobility in animals where no lion has ever been enslaved to another lion, and no horse to another horse.
We say man has scientific knowledge, based on reason and skill, because he knows what plants are useful as medicine and which are not. Yet, the goats of Candia can be seen picking out dittany from a million plants when they are wounded by spears, and if a tortoise swallows a viper, it at once goes in search of origanum as a purge. The dragon wipes its eyes clear and bright with fennel, elephants remove darts and spears thrown in battle from their own bodies with more skill than we ever could, and with less pain. In their cases, why do we not call it reason and skill? In order to lower them and raise ourselves up, we say Nature is their teacher. This does not deprive them of knowledge and wisdom, it only attributes it even more surely to them.
Animals are also not incapable of instruction. We have have our fill of talking parrots, dogs doing monkey tricks, and so on. But I am more moved by the guide-dogs that lead blind men. I watch these dogs stop at certain places where they know their owners will get alms, or walk on uneven paths so their masters walk on level ones beside them, or even avoid narrow streets that they themselves could easily pass through but that they know will be troublesome for their owners. How do they know to neglect their own interests and serve their master? And how do they know a path might be wide enough for itself but not for a blind man? Could all this be grasped without thought or reasoning?
more later …. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Book 1, Chapter 22: Of Custom, And That We Should Not Easily Change A Law Received (1 of 3).


In this essay Montaigne points out the absurdity of things we do that we consider absolutely normal. 
A story to illustrate the power of custom: a country-woman grew used to playing with and carrying a young calf in her arms, and continued to do so daily so that, even when it was grown to be a big ox, she found she could still lift it.
Custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress who, little by little, slyly and unperceived, imposes her authority. She begins gently and humbly and, with the benefit of time, fixes and establishes herself. Then she unmasks a furious and tyrannical face, against which we no longer have the courage or the power to even lift up our eyes. We see her, at every turn, forcing and violating the rules of nature.

Think of how much custom stupefies our senses. My perfumed doublet gratifies my own senses at first, but after I have worn it for three days running, it is only pleasing to bystanders. The ability of custom to effect our impressions is also evident in those who live near steeples and noisy bells. I myself live in a tower where a great bell rings every morning and evening; the noise shakes my very tower, and was at first unbearable to me. Now, I am so used to it, that I hear it with indifference, and often don’t awaken at it.
When Plato reprehended a man for playing dice, he said, "you chide me for a very little thing." "Custom," replied Plato, "is no little thing."
I find that our greatest vices develop in infancy, and the people who nurse us at this time play a crucial role. Mothers are often amused when their children are cruel to animals, and fathers are pleased when they hear their son being rude or domineering to a poor peasant, seeing this as a sign of strength, and when they see him cheat his playfellows by treachery or deceit, they think this witty. Yet these are the roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason, that afterwards grow to prodigious bulk, cultivated by custom. It is a very dangerous mistake to ignore these vile inclinations due to the the tenderness of their age, and the triviality of the subject. In fact, nature speaks more sincerely at this age, as inward thoughts are more undisguised. Also, the ugliness of deception does not consist nor depend upon the difference between pounds and pennies. If they only play with marbles, would they not do the same with money? Children should carefully be instructed to abhor vices for the natural deformity of the vice itself. ,This way, they may not only avoid them in their actions, but abominate them in their hearts.
I was brought up to deal with everything in a plain and straightforward way of dealing, and have always had an aversion to all trickery and foul play, even in childish sports and recreations (and, indeed, it is to be noted, that the plays of children are not performed in play, but are taken very seriously by them).
The other day, I saw someone, born without arms, who has taught his feet to perform the services his hands should have done him so well that it seemed his feet had forgotten their natural role. Indeed, the fellow calls them his hands; with them he cuts anything, charges and discharges a pistol, threads a needle, sews, writes, takes off his hat, combs his hair, plays cards and dice, and all this with as much dexterity as any other could do with his hands. The money I gave him—for he gains his living by showing these feats—he took in his foot, as we do in our hand. I have also seen a little boy flourish a two-handed sword, handle a spear with great skill, and crack a whip as well as any coachman in France.
Even more amazing is the effect that custom has on our mind, for she has the power to establish our judgments and beliefs. She can plant any opinion, no matter how crazy, to any part of the world she wants, and it becomes established as law.  That’s why Cicero said that it is a shame for the philosopher to seek testimony of the truth from minds prepossessed by custom.
All kinds of absurd and ridiculous fancies can enter into human imagination, and become public practice. There are people, amongst whom it is the fashion to turn their backs upon him they salute, and never look upon the man they intend to honour. There is a place, where, whenever the king spits, the greatest ladies of his court put out their hands to receive it; and another nation, where the most respectable people stoop about the king and take up his excrement in a linen cloth. Let us here steal room to insert a story.
A French gentleman I knew always blew his nose with his fingers (a thing very much against our fashion), and he justified himself for so doing by asking me what privilege this filthy excrement had, that we must carry about us a fine handkerchief to receive it, and, what was more, afterwards wrap it up carefully, and carry it all day in our pockets, which, he said, could not be much more nauseous and offensive, than to see it thrown away, as we did all other evacuations. I found that what he said was not altogether without reason, and by being frequently in his company, that slovenly action which we make a face at, when we hear it reported of another country of his grew familiar to me. 
Things appear to us to be miracles because of our ignorance of nature. When we become accustomed to something, no matter what it is, our judgment of it is blinded. Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them;  nor with any more reason.
We pretend that our consciences come from nature, but in fact they come from custom. Everyone has more respect for those opinions and behaviours that come from his own people, and can only depart from them with great reluctance. Long ago, the people of Crete, if they wanted to curse someone, prayed that they become involved in bad customs. Custom seizes and traps us in such a way that we can’t even think objectively about what it asks of us. We suck it in with our milk, it seems. We were born conditioned to follow it. The thoughts and ideas that we find everywhere around us appear to us to be universal and genuine, and therefore based on reason. God knows how unreasonable it actually is.
When we hear a good sentence, we should immediately consider how it touches our own concerns. If we did this, we would find that it was not so much a good saying, but in fact a severe lash to the ordinary stupidity of our own judgment. But men never question what they are told, and only do what they are directed to do. Instead of applying these sentences to their own lives, they very ignorantly and unprofitably commit them to memory.
There are peoples, where, his wife and children excepted, no one speaks to the king but through a tube. There are places where brothels of young men are kept for the pleasure of women; where the wives go to war as well as the husbands, and not only share in the dangers of battle, but, moreover, in the honours of command. Others, where they wear rings not only through their noses, lips, cheeks, and on their toes, but also through their paps and buttocks; where, in eating, they wipe their fingers upon their thighs, genitories, and the soles of their feet: where children are excluded, and brothers and nephews only inherit.
There are places where they lament the death of children, and feast at the decease of old men: where they lie ten or twelve in a bed, where women, whose husbands come to violent ends, may marry again, and others not: where the condition of women is looked upon with such contempt, that they kill all the native females, and buy wives of their neighbours to supply their use; where husbands may repudiate their wives, without showing any cause, but wives cannot part from their husbands, for what cause soever; where husbands may sell their wives in case of sterility; where they boil the bodies of their dead, and afterward pound them to a pulp, which they mix with their wine, and drink it; where they believe the souls of the blessed live in all manner of liberty, in delightful fields, furnished with all sorts of delicacies, and that it is these souls, repeating the words we utter, which we call Echo; where they fight in the water, and shoot their arrows with the most mortal aim, swimming; where, for a sign of subjection, they lift up their shoulders, and hang down their heads; where they put off their shoes when they enter the king's palace; where the eunuchs, who take charge of the sacred women, have, moreover, their lips and noses cut off, that they may not be loved; where the priests put out their own eyes, to be better acquainted with their demons, and the better to receive their oracles; where every one makes to himself a deity of what he likes best; the hunter of a lion or a fox, the fisher of some fish; idols of every human action or passion; in which place, the sun, the moon, and the earth are the 'principal deities, and the form of taking an oath is, to touch the earth, looking up to heaven; where both flesh and fish is eaten raw; where the greatest oath they take is, to swear by the name of some dead person of reputation, laying their hand upon his tomb; For we know entire nations, where death was not only despised, but entertained with the greatest triumph …
(This list of strange customs goes on for pages and pages)

Monday, 2 April 2012

Book 1, Chapter 27: Of Friendship (3 of 3)

In the final part of this moving essay on friendship, Montaigne compares the common friendship to the extraordinary, and discusses the differences between friends and acquaintances


I was so used to being his double in all places and in all things, that I feel no more than half of myself. There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him
Cicero reports that when Blosius, best friend to Tiberius, was asked how much he would do for his friend, he replied, "All things". He was asked how he could say all things:
‘What if he commanded you to set fire to our temples?’
‘He would never ask me that," replied Blosius, ‘but if he did, I would obey him"
Those who think this answer is seditious do not understand the mystery, nor see that Blosius had Tiberius’s will in his sleeve, both by the power of friendship, and by the perfect knowledge he had of the man. They were more friends to one another than either enemies or friends to their country, or than friends to ambition and innovation. Having absolutely given up themselves to one another, each held completely the reins of the other's inclination.
Blosius’s answer was just as it should have been. If someone asked me, ‘If your will commanded you to kill your daughter, would you do it?’ What can I say except that I would? This expresses no consent to such an act, for I don’t have any suspicions of my own will. And just as little for Etienne. All the eloquence in the world cannot sway the certainty I have of the intentions and resolutions of my friend. Not one action of his, no matter what it is, could be presented to me, of which I could not immediately determine the moving cause. Our souls had drawn so unanimously together, they had considered each other with so ardent an affection, that I knew his as well as my own; and would have trusted my own interest much more willingly with him, than with myself.
Let no one compare a common friendship to mine with Etienne. I have experienced common friendships, even the most perfect ones, and no one should confuse the rules of the one and the other, for they would find themselves much deceived. In ordinary friendships, you have to be careful and thoughtful, because there is a possibility of the knot slipping. Chilo said, "Love him so as if you were one day to hate him; and hate him so as you were one day to love him." This precept, though abominable in the sovereign and perfect friendship I speak of, is nevertheless very sound as to the practice of the ordinary and customary ones. Aristotle often said, "O my friends, there is no friend".
In the friendship I speak of, presents and benefits by which other friendships are supported and maintained are not even mentioned. This is because our wills are one; the kindnesses that I give to myself, for example, do not affect my relationship with myself. I don’t feel obliged to myself for any service that I give myself. So it was with Etienne, with such truly perfect friends there is no idea of duties, no words of division and distinction, benefits, obligation, acknowledgment, entreaty, thanks, and the like. All things, wills, thoughts, opinions, goods, wives, children, honours, and lives, are in common. That absolute concurrence of affections is no other than one soul in two bodies (according to that very proper definition of Aristotle), they can neither lend nor give anything to one another. This is the reason why the lawgivers, to honour marriage with some resemblance of this divine alliance, forbid all gifts between man and wife, inferring that all should belong to each of them, and that they have nothing to divide or to give to each other.
If, in this kind of friendship, one gives to the other, the receiver of the benefit would be obliging his friend; because each wants, above all things, to be useful to the other. The receiver is thus giving his friend the satisfaction of doing that which he most desires. When the philosopher Diogenes wanted money, he used to say that he redemanded it of his friends, not that he demanded it. And to let you see the practical working of this, I will here produce an ancient and singular example. Eudamidas, a Corinthian, had two friends, Charixenus, a Sicyonian, and Areteus, a Corinthian. He was poor, and his two friends rich. When he was coming to die, he said in his will, "I bequeath to Areteus the maintenance of my mother, to support and provide for her in her old age; and to Charixenus I bequeath the care of marrying my daughter, and to give her as good a portion as he is able; and in case one of these chance to die, I hereby substitute the survivor in his place." They who first saw this will were amused at the contents: but the two friends accepted it with very great contentment, and when one of them, Charixenus, died within five days, Areteus nurtured the old woman with great care and tenderness, and he divided his estate in exactly half, giving one portion to his own daughter and the other to the daughter of Eudamidas. On one and the same day, he also solemnised both their nuptials.
This example is very full, but my only objection is that it speaks of more than one friend. In the perfect friendship I speak, each one gives himself so entirely to his friend, that he has nothing left to distribute to others. On the contrary, he is sorry that he is not double, treble, or quadruple, and that he has not many souls and many wills, to confer them all upon this one object. Common friendships will admit of division; one may love the beauty of this person, the good-humour of that, the liberality of a third, the paternal affection of a fourth, the fraternal love of a fifth, and so on, but this friendship that possesses the whole soul cannot possibly admit of a rival. If two at the same time should call to you for help, to which of them would you run? Should they require of you favours that are contrary, how could you serve them both? Should one urge you to keep something secret that you knew was of importance to the other to know, how would you disengage yourself? A unique and particular friendship dissolves all other obligations whatsoever. The secret I have sworn not to reveal to anyone else, I may without perjury communicate to him who is not another, but myself. It is enough of a miracle for a man to double himself, and those that talk of tripling don’t know what they’re saying.
These are effects that can’t be understood by those who have no experience of them. Though one may almost everywhere meet with men sufficiently qualified for a superficial acquaintance, yet in this, where a man is to deal from the very bottom of his heart, without any manner of reservation, it will be requisite that all the wards and springs be truly wrought and perfectly sure.
In relationships that hold a single purpose, we only have to worry about the imperfections that concern that purpose. It is of no importance to me what religion my doctor or lawyer is – that has nothing to do with the duties of friendship that they owe me. Similarly, I never inquire, when I am to take a footman, if he is chaste, I only ask whether he is diligent. I don’t care if my muleteer is a gambler, as long as if he is strong and able; or if my cook is a swearer, as long as he is a good cook. I don’t meddle in how other men raise their families, but only give an account of my method in my own. For table-talk, I prefer the pleasant and witty before the learned and serious; in bed, beauty before goodness; in common discourse the ablest speaker, whether or not he is sincere. 
Plutarch tells of a man who was found playing with his children on a rocking horse, who entreated the person who had surprised him in that posture to say nothing of it till he himself came to be a father, supposing that the fondness that would then possess his own soul, would render him a fairer judge of such an action. Like him, I also could wish to speak to those who have had experience of what I say: though, knowing how rarely it is to be found, I despair of meeting with any such judge. For even these discourses left us by antiquity upon this subject seem to me flat and poor, in comparison with the sense I have of it.
The ancient Menander declared him to be happy that had had the good fortune to meet with even the shadow of a friend. Doubtless, he had good reason to say so, especially if he spoke by experience, for in all honesty, if I compare all the rest of my life, as wonderful as it has been, with the four years I had the happiness to enjoy the sweet society of this excellent man, it is nothing but smoke, an obscure and tedious night. From the day that I lost him
I have only led a languishing life; and the very pleasures that present themselves to me, instead of acting as consolation, double my affliction for his loss. We were halves throughout, and to that degree, that I think, by outliving him, I defraud him of his part.
I was so used to being his double in all places and in all things, that I feel no more than half of myself. There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him; as I know that he would have missed me: for as he surpassed me by infinite degrees in virtue and all other accomplishments, so he also did in the duties of friendship.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 27: Of Friendship (2 of 3)

In this part of the essay Montaigne talks about the dangers of marriage. Then, he goes into intimate detail about his relationship with Etienne, including the heart-warming account of the first time they met.


'in the friendship I speak of, the souls mixed so universally that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined'


We can’t compare the love we bear to women to other friendships, even though that too, unlike family relationships, is an act of our own choice. Nonetheless, its fire is more active, more eager, and more sharp. But also, more fickle and inconstant; it is a fever subject to intermissions and fits, and it seizes just one part of us. Friendship’s fire, on the other hand, is general and universal, temperate and equal, a constant established heat. In love, it is frantic desire that flies from us. Aristo writes of the hunter that  pursues the hare, in cold and heat, to the mountain, to the shore, but no longer cares for it once it is taken. He only delights in chasing that which flees from him. 

Fruition destroys love, which has only fleshly motives, and is therefore capable of being satiated. Friendship, on the contrary, is enjoyed proportionately as it is desired; and is only nourished and improved by enjoyment, because it is in itself spiritual, and so, like the soul, it grows more refined by practice. Under this perfect friendship, the other fleeting affections have in my younger years found some place in me, to say nothing of him, who himself so confesses but too much in his verses; so that I had both these passions. But I could always differentiate between them. The two cannot be compared - one maintains its flight in so high and so brave a place, that it can only look down with disdain at the other, flying at a far humbler pitch below. 

Marriage is a covenant to which only the entrance is free. The continuance is forced and compulsory, depending on other things than our own free will, and normally contracted for other motives. In marriage, there are a thousand intricacies to unravel, enough to break the thread and to divert the current of a lively affection. Friendship, however, has no interest but itself. And to be honest, the ordinary talent of women is not such sufficient to maintain the communication required to support this sacred tie. Also, they do not have the constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot. If there could be free and voluntary familiarity contracted without marriage, where not only the souls might have this entire fruition, but the bodies also might share in the alliance, the friendship would certainly be more full and perfect. But women have not yet arrived at such perfection. 

That other Grecian license (Montaigne appears to be referring to gay sex) is justly abhorred by our manners. And that too, because it is practiced between lovers who are so different in age and in office, cannot provide any more perfect a union and harmony than the other.

I don’t think anyone will contradict me when I point out that the love that the son of Venus felt upon sight of the springing and blossoming youth was simply founded upon external beauty, the false image of a young body. This immoderate ardour could not have ground this love upon the soul, the sight of which as yet lay concealed. It sprang straight way, it did not blossom in maturity. Cicero said, "Love is a desire of contracting friendship arising from the beauty of the object."

Let me return to my own more just and true description. For the rest, what we commonly call friends are only acquaintance and familiarities, either contracted by chance or for some purpose. There is little communication between our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, the souls mixed so universally that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If someone asked me why I loved him, I could only answer: because it was he, because it was I. That’s all I can say; I don’t know what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met. The things we’d heard about each other wrought our affections more than mere reports would normally do. I think it was by some secret appointment of heaven. Our first meeting, at a great city entertainment, was by chance, and we found ourselves so mutually taken with one another, so acquainted, and so endeared, that from then on nothing was so near to us as one another. He wrote an excellent Latin satire, since published, on the subject. When we first met we were both full-grown men, and he some years older, so we were destined to have only a short time together. Our intelligences had very recently and very late come to perfection and there was no time to lose. Also, we felt no need to conform to the example of those slow and regular friendships that require so many long preliminary conversation. This has no other idea than that of itself, and can only refer to itself: this is no one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand. End of the day I can’t say why my whole will plunged and lost itself in his, and that having seized his whole will, brought it back with equal concurrence and appetite to plunge and lose itself in mine. I may truly say lose, reserving nothing to ourselves that was either his or mine.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 27: Of Friendship (1 of 3)


In the first part of this touching tribute to his best friend Etienne, Montaigne discusses friendship, and relationships between parent and child

There are some countries where it was custom for children to kill their fathers, and others where the fathers killed their children, to avoid their being an impediment to each other’s lives. Naturally, the expectations of the one depend upon the ruin of the other

I have noted the technique of a painter in my employ, and would not mind imitating it. This painter chooses a beautiful spot – the middle of some wall or panel – and draws his picture there with utmost art and care. Then, he covers the blank spaces around the picture with grotesque art, odd fantastic figures with no grace. In truth, what are the things I scribble here but grotesque and monstrous bodies, made of various parts but without any clear figure and containing, except by accident, no order, coherence, or proportion.

So in the second part I am like the painter, but in the first and better part, I fall very short of him. I don’t have the powers to produce a rich and finely polished piece. I have therefore thought it fit to borrow from Etienne de la Boetie, a piece that will honour and adorn the rest of my work. It is a discourse called ‘Voluntary Servitude’. Etienne wrote it before he was even eighteen years old, and it has since run through the hands of men of great learning, all of whom praise it, because it is finely written and as full as anything can be. And yet, one can confidently say it is far short of what he was able to do. In the more mature age when I knew him, Etienne had decided to commit his thought to writing, the way that I am doing now. We would have had a great many rare things that would have rivaled the best writings of antiquity if he had done so, for I know no man comparable to him. But he left nothing behind except this discourse, which he bequeathed to me along with his library and other papers, in his last will.

I came to know of Etienne because of this discourse, and only became acquainted with him long after he had written it. This discourse, in fact, proved to be the first cause and foundation of our friendship, which we afterwards improved and maintained for as long as God allowed us to be together. Our friendship was so perfect, inviolate, and entire that none like it could be found in any story, and amongst men of our time there is no sign or trace of such a thing. So much concurrence is required for such a friendship that it is much if fortune allows it to pass even once in three ages.

There is nothing to which nature seems to make us as inclined as to society. Aristotle said that good legislators respected friendship more than justice. The most supreme point of its perfection is that those who derive pleasure, profit, public or private interest, or any nourishment from a friendship, other than friendship itself, cannot enjoy one as beautiful and generous as those that don’t. Also, the four ancient kindnesses: natural, social, hospitable, and sexual – either separately or jointly – cannot help in making a true and perfect friendship.

The relationship of children and their parents is based on respect. Friendship is nourished by a communication that is impossible between parent and child, due to great differences. This communication would offend the duties of nature, for neither are all the secret thoughts of fathers fit to be communicated to their children (this would lead to an indecent familiarity), nor can advice and reproofs (one of the principal offices of friendship) be performed by the son towards the father. There are some countries where it was custom for children to kill their fathers, and others where the fathers killed their children, to avoid their being an impediment to each other’s lives. Naturally, the expectations of the one depend upon the ruin of the other.

Many great philosophers have made nothing of parent-child relationships. When Aristippus was pressed about the affection he owed to his children, he spat forcefully and said that that too had come out of him, and that we also breed worms and lice. Plutarch refused to reconcile with his brother, saying he would not give him extra importance just for ‘coming out of the same hole’.

The word itself is fine and delectable, and for that reason Etienne and I called each other brother. But the complication of interests, the division of estates, and the fact that the wealth of the one is also the property of the other weakens and relaxes the fraternal bond. Brothers who pursue their fortunes by advancing along the same path often jostle and hinder one another. Besides, why do the correspondences of manners, parts, and inclinations that beget true and perfect friendships have to meet in blood relations? Father and son may have completely different temperaments; my son, or my brother, may be passionate, ill-natured, or a fool. These are friendships more imposed on us by the law and natural obligation and less by choice.

Personally, however, I have not experienced anything to corroborate, as I have the best and most indulgent father, even now when I am so old, that ever was. And he himself is descended from a family for many generations famous and exemplary for brotherly concord.

In part 2 of this essay, Montaigne discusses, amongst other things, the difference between friendship and the love one feels for a woman. Soon to come … 

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 20: Of The Force Of Imagination (3 of 3)

In the final part of this essay, Montaigne muses a bit more about the human body. Then, he shares some surprising examples of the power of the human mind. He ends with a discussion on his own writing

'the bird at last fell dead into the cat’s claws, either dazzled by the force of its own imagination or drawn by some power of the cat'

St. Augustine said he had seen a man who could command his rear to discharge as often as he pleased. Vives provided another example, of a man who could break wind in tune. But these cases don’t provide proof of control over one’s body, for is anything more disordered or indiscreet than these acts? Let me add an example of my own – I know a man so rude and ungoverned that for forty years has been expelling one continuous, never-ending wind, and he’ll probably continue to do so until he dies. I also know men who have fallen very ill because their stomachs have not allowed them to break wind.

We have liberty to break wind whenever we want, but so often this happens irregularly and disobediently. We are unable to will our bodies to do what we want them to do, or to forbid them from doing something.

As for our (male) member, nature has endowed it with particular privilege; it is the author of the sole immortal work of mortals, a divine work, according to Socrates.

But more about the imagination – I know a man who was cured of stones with injections that he thought contained strong medicine but in fact did not. Also, a woman, thinking she had swallowed a pin, cried about an intolerable pain in her throat. A gentleman had her vomit and secretly threw a bent pin into the basin. As soon as the woman saw the pin she was eased of her pain. I also know a man who jokingly bragged to his dinner-guests that he had fed them a baked cat. A young woman was so horrified at this that she fell into violent vomiting and fever.

Animals are also subject to the force of imagination: think of the dogs who die in grief at the loss of their masters, and bark and tremble and cry in their sleep. Horses also kick and whinny in their sleep.

This could all be attributed to the close relationship between the soul and the body, but sometimes, the imagination works not only on one’s own body but even on others. Just as an infected body can transfer its disease onto those nearby, the imagination, becoming vehemently agitated, darts out infection capable of affecting foreign objects. The ancients reported that certain women of Scythia could kill a man just with their looks. Tortoises and ostriches hatch their eggs only by looking at them, as if their eyes have some ejaculative virtue. And the eyes of witches are said to be harmful.

Some time ago there was, in my house, a cat watching a bird on the top of a tree. For some time, they had their eyes fixed on each other. Then, the bird at last fell dead into the cat’s claws, either dazzled by the force of its own imagination or drawn by some power of the cat.

Someone told me of a falconer who brought down a kite from the air just by fixing his eyes upon it. However, I must say here, for the stories that I borrow I rely on the consciences of those from whom I have them. But you know, in the subjects that I speak of – our manners and motions, testimonies and experiences – some stories, as fabulous as they are, provided that they are possible, it does not matter whether they are true or not. Whether they happened in Rome or Paris, to John or Peter, as long as they are within the verge of human capacity, they serve their purpose. I see and make advantage of them as well as I can, and amongst the various readings in old books, I cull out the more rare and memorable to fit my purposes. There are some authors whose only purpose is to give an account of things that have happened. My purpose is to talk about what may happen. There is a freedom allowed in schools to make up examples when you have none at hand. I do not make use of this privilege, and in fact avoid things like superstitious religion. In the examples I bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I forbid myself from altering even the smallest detail. That my ignorance may do so anyway, I cannot say.

This is why I sometimes wonder how priests and philosophers are fit to write history, for how much can they stake their reputations on a popular faith? How can they be responsible for the opinions of men that they don’t even know? And with what assurance do they deliver their ideas? For my part, I think it is safer to write of the past than the present. That way, the writer only gives account of things everyone knows he must borrow upon trust.

Friends sometimes tell me to write of the present, because they feel I look upon our times with an eye less blinded than others, and that I have a clearer access to the minds of others. They don’t consider that I wouldn't put myself through the trouble, sworn enemy that I am to obligation, difficult work, or attentiveness. There is nothing as contrary to my style as an uninterrupted narrative. I often interrupt myself and am no good at composition or explanation. I am more ignorant than a child of the proper words and phrases to express the most common things, and that is why I only undertake to say what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my strength. 

Book 1, Chapter 21: That The Profit Of One Man Is The Damage Of Another


 In this short essay, Montaigne shows us that there can be no profit without a loss, just as for something to live, something else must die

For whatever from its own confines passes changed, this is at once the death of what it was before 

A man selling the necessities for funerals was condemned by Demades the Athenian, for demanding unreasonable profits, and for making these profits by benefiting from the deaths of other people.

This is an ill-grounded judgment, for no profit can be made except at the expense of another. A farmer thrives because of the dearness of grain, an architect by the ruin of buildings, lawyers and judges by the fights and arguments of men, and even priests derive their high standing from our death and vices. A doctor takes no pleasure in the health even of their friends, jokes the ancient Greek writer Seneca, nor the soldier from times of peace, and so on.

And, what is worse, if we dive into our own hearts we will find that every private wish and secret hope depends upon the expense of another.

Nature does not behave unusually in making this so; doctors have found that the birth, nourishment, and increase of one thing is the dissolution and corruption of another. Lucretius said,

‘For whatever from its own confines passes changed, this is at once the death of what it was before.’ 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 20: Of The Force Of Imagination (2 of 3)


In this essay, Montaigne discusses sexual problems, and how their roots may lie in the imagination. He tells of how he cured his friend's impotence on his wedding night.  


'Once the mind has played this trick on a man, and confounded him with the shame of it, he becomes so embarrassed and feverish about the accident that it is apt to continue upon following occasions'

There is an odd superstition of which I am not convinced. At a wedding, if someone ties knots on a strip of leather, cotton or silk and then passes it through a wedding-ring, this will have the magical effect of preventing the consummation of the wedding. The situation can only be reversed if the knots are untied. This same superstition is also recorded in English tradition. The results are actually due to a voluntary impression of apprehension and fear. Let me offer an example:

A friend of mine was told by his companion of an unusual frigidity that struck him at the most inconvenient time. Soon after, my friend was engaged in the same activity. The horror of the story possessed his imagination so strangely that he encountered the same fate as his companion had. From that time onwards, every time he remembered the distaster, he was subject to relapse into the same misfortune. He found some remedy, finally, for this fancy in another fancy: he frankly confessed and declared beforehand to the person who he was to do the act with this subjection of his. Through this, the agitation of his soul was appeased. It was as if his faculties, knowing that some misbehaviour was expected of them, grew less restrained. Afterwards, he had no apprehensions when having sex, his thoughts being disengaged and free and his body in its true and natural state. By sharing the issue with his partner, he was freed from this vexatious weakness. After a man has once done a woman right, he is never again in danger of not performing with that person, unless on account of some excusable weakness.

In situations where the soul is overextended with desire or respect, and especially when the opportunity is of an unforeseen and pressing nature, a man may find he is unable to defend himself from a sexual mistake. I know some who secure themselves from this mischance by coming half sated elsewhere, in order to abate the ardour of their fury. Others who have grown old find themselves less impotent by being less able; and one was reassured by a friend of his who told him he had a counter-charm of enchantments that would secure him from this disgrace.

A Count of a great family whom I know very well was married to a fair lady, who had been courted before by someone who was at the wedding. All his friends were in great fear, especially an old lady kinswoman of his in whose house the wedding was being held, that the rival would offer foul play by means of some magic spell. She communicated her fear to me and I told her, rely on me. I had, by chance, a flat piece of gold on me on which some celestial figures were engraved. This was presented to me by a silly cousin, and was supposed to be useful for sunstroke or for headaches. I wanted to make use of this little knack, and I told the Count, that if he were to run into the problem that bridegrooms sometimes find themselves in, especially when there was someone in the house who would be glad if this happened, then I would offer him a miracle, provided that he came to me if it occurred and that he kept it to himself. I told him that when we came to see him at mid-night, as is the custom in France, he should give me a sign if he was having any problems. Now, he had had his ears so battered with superstitious talk, and his mind so possessed with the tattle of this business, that when it came to it, he did indeed find himself tied with the trouble of his imagination, and so at the appointed time, he gave me a sign. Then I whispered in his ear that he should rise, pretending to kick us out of the room, and in jest he should pull my nightgown from my shoulders and throw it over his own. Then, he should leave the room, take a piss, repeat such and such words three times, and do some actions, also three times. Finally, he should tie a ribbon, upon which I had attached the gold medal, around his reins and confidently return to his business. And he should not forget to spread my gown upon the bed so that it might cover them both. All these ‘ape’s tricks’ were mainly for effect, because our fancy is so easily seduced into believing  that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some obscure science. Their very inanity gives them weight and reverence. And it certainly worked. My ‘magic’ proved to be potent and active.

 It was a sudden whimsy combined with a little curiosity that led me to do such a thing, so contrary to my nature, because normally I am an enemy to all kinds of subtly and counterfeit actions, and hate all manner of trickery, even if it be for sport and to an advantage, because though the action may not be vicious in itself, its mode is vicious.

Amasis, the king of Egypt, married a beautiful Greek virgin, Laodice. Although he was noted for his abilities elsewhere, Amasis found himself unable to perform in bed. He was so enraged at this that he threatened to kill her, suspecting her to be a witch. As is normal in things of the mind, she told him to pray to Venus, and he found himself divinely restored the very first night after his prayers and sacrifices.

Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, said, ‘The woman who goes to bed with a man must put off her modesty with her petticoat, and put it on again with the same.’ If a man is very alarmed, he may lose the power to perform. The mind plays this trick especially upon the first acquaintance, because men are more ardent and eager, and also more scared of miscarrying. Once the mind has played this trick on a man, and confounded him with the shame of it, he becomes so embarrassed and feverish about the accident that it is apt to continue upon following occasions.

Married people, who have much time before them, should never force or even offer ‘the feat’ if they do not find themselves quite ready. If a man finds that he is nervous and agitated, it is better to wait for another opportunity at more private and composed leisure, than to make himself perpetually miserable for having been baffled at the first assault. Until possession be taken, a man that knows he can be subject to this infirmity should slowly and by degrees make several little trials and light offers, without stubbornly trying to do it in one go and forcing a conquest over his own rebellious and confused faculties. Those who know their members to be naturally obedient don’t have to worry about anything but counterplotting their fantasies.

The undisciplined freedom of the member is remarkable. It is so persistently unruly in its swelling and its impatience when we don’t need it to be, and when we do require it, it can be so disobedient. It is so imperiously contesting in authority with the will, and so proud and stubborn, denying all solicitations, both of hand and mind. And yet, though his rebellion is so universally complained of, and that proof is used to condemn him, if he had, nevertheless, asked me to defend him, I would bring all his fellow-members into suspicion of plotting against him, out of pure envy at the importance and pleasure that only he provides, and I could accuse them of having malevolently charged him alone with their common offence.  Because, let us think for a moment, if there is any part of our body that doesn’t often refuse to perform its function according to our will, and that does not often insist on exercising its own function in defiance of our command. Each one of them have passions of their own, that rouse and awaken, stupefy and benumb them, without our permission. How often do the involuntary movements of our faces reveal our inner thoughts, and betray our secrets to bystanders? The same reason that animates our member, does also, without our knowledge, animate our lungs, pulse, and heart. The sight of a pleasing object, for instance, can diffuse a flame through all our parts. Is there nothing but these veins and muscles that swell and flag without our consent, not only of the will, but even of our knowledge? We don’t command our hairs to stand on end, nor our skin to shiver either with fear or desire. The hands often convey themselves to parts without our direction, the voice can become congealed. When we have nothing to eat, and don’t want to eat, the appetite does not agree to avoid stirring up the parts that are subject to it, no more nor less than any other appetite that we are speaking of, and in the same manner, it can leave us when it thinks fit, even at inconvenient times. The vessels that discharge the belly have their own dilations and compressions, without and beyond our agreement.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 19: That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die (Part 3 of 3)


In this final part of his long essay, Montaigne talks with incredible logic and beauty of why it is stupid to fear our last day. 

Seneca reported that an old weather-beaten guard approached Ceaser asking for permission to kill himself. Ceaser looked at his withered and decrepit body and said, ‘You think then, that you are alive?’ If a man should fall into such a condition suddenly, he would not be able to bear it, but nature leads us step by step into this miserable state, so that we are not even conscious of the moment when our youth dies in us, even though this may be a harder death than the final end of the languishing body – the death of old age; the fall is not as great from an uneasy being to none at all as it is from an energetic and flourishing being to one that is troublesome and painful. The body, bent and bowed, has less force to support a burden, and this is also true for the soul. That’s why we have to raise her (the soul) up firmly against the enemy. No anxiety, fear or disturbance should have any place in her. She should be master to all her lusts and passions, mistress of necessity, shame, poverty and any other injuries of fortune.

Our religion very religion has no surer foundation than the contempt of death. It is very logical really: why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? Also, since there are so many ways in which we could die, isn’t it worse to fear them all than just undergo one of them? And what does it matter, when it is inevitable? When Socrates was (wrongly) told, ‘The thirty tyrants have sentenced you to death’, he responded, ‘And nature them.’ It is ridiculous to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to end all our troubles! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And to lament that we will not be alive a hundrer years from now is as foolish as feeling sorry that we were not alive a hundred years ago. Death is the beginning of another life. Nothing can be a grievance that is but once. Is it reasonable to fear a thing for so long that will come so soon?

Long lives and short are made one by death. There is no long, nor short, to things that are no more. Aristotle tells us of little animals on the banks of the river Hypanis that never live more than a day; those that die at eight in the morning die in their youth and those that die at five in the evening die in their old age. Which of us would not laugh to see this time of death affect our grief or relief? The most and the least, of ours, in comparison with eternity, or yet with the duration of mountains, rivers, stars, trees, and even some animals, is no less ridiculous.

Nature compels us to leave this world as we entered it. The same pass we made from death to life, without passion or fear, should be repeated from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe. Death is a part of you, and while you try to evade it, you evade yourself. This very being of yours that you nor enjoy is equally divided between birth and death. The day of your birth is one day’s advance towards the grave. Seneca said, ‘The first hour that gave us life took away also an hour’, and Manilius said, ‘As we are born we die, and the end commences with the beginning’.

The whole time you live, you take from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is only to lay the foundation of death. You are in death while you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no longer alive. Or, if you want to put it another way, you are dead after life, but you are dying while you are living, and death handles the dying much more rudely than it handles the dead. If you have profited from life, go away satisfied. Lucretius said, ‘Why not depart from life as a satisfied guest from a feast?’

And if you have not profited from life, why are you worried about losing it? For what purpose do you desire to keep it? To this, Lucretius said, ‘Why seem to add longer life, merely to renew ill-spent time, and be again tormented?’

Life is neither good nor evil, it is only the scene for good or evil, and if you have lives a day, you have seen it all. One day is equal and alike all other days. There is no other light, no other shade, no other sun or moon or stars. The order and character of things is the same as that that your ancestors enjoyed, and that your posterity will be entertained with. And come the worst day that can come, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy are performed in a year. If you have observed the revolution of the four seasons, then you know the infancy, the youth, the strength, and the old age of the world. The year has played its part, and knows no other art but to begin again; it will always be the same thing.

Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Who can complain when all have the same destiny? Live as long as you can – you  shall by that nothing shorten the space you are to be dead; it is to no purpose, you shall be in the condition that you fear so much for just as long as if you had died at birth. Death will still remain eternal.

And yet you will be in such a condition that you will have no reason to be displeased, because when you are dead, there will be no other living self to lament over your grave. It should not concern you whether you are living or dead because in living, you are still in being, and in death, you are no more.

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. Make use of your time while you can. It depend upon your will, not the number of days that you have. Is it possible that you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey without an end.

Lucretius said, ‘No night has followed day, no day has followed night, in which there has not been heard sobs and sorrowing cries, the companions of deaths and funerals.’

Anyway, imagine how much more unbearable an immortal life would be to man than the one he has now. If you didn’t have death, you would be cursing Fate for depriving you of it. There is some bitterness mixed in death only so that, seeing how convenient it is, you do not greedily and indiscreetly seek and embrace it, and so that you may live in a balance between being neither too sick of life nor excited about death. You will die once, and death lies somewhere between pleasure and pain. Why fear your last day? It contributes no more to your end than any of your other days.

Everyday travels towards death, the last only arrives at it.




Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 19: That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die (Part 2 of 3)

In this part of the essay, Montaigne offers some ways of dealing with death. He shares his own (one may find, extreme) strategies of preparing himself for the end


'Let us disarm death of all novelty and strangeness. Let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts'

 Man laughs and plays and gallops and dances without thinking at all of death. Nonetheless, when it comes to them by surprise, or to their wives, children, or friends, what torment and outcries, what madness and despair! Have you ever seen anyone so changed, confused, and subdued? Therefore, man must prepare in advance for it. If it were an enemy that could be avoided then I would advise to borrow arms, even from cowardice if need be, but it is not, and it will catch you whether you are hiding away or fleeing like a coward, or whether you face it bravely. No kind of weapon can secure us against it.

Nonetheless there is a strategy.

Let us learn bravely to stand our ground and fight him. To deprive him of the greatest advantage that he has over us, we have to take a route that is not common. Let us disarm him of all novelty and strangeness. Let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.

We should imagine him constantly, in all kinds of shapes. At the stumbling of a horse, the falling of a tile, the prick of a pin, we should stop and ask ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ This way, we can encourage and fortify ourselves. Even when we are happy and feasting, we should remember how frail our condition is, and never get carried away with our delights. We should stop and reflect how our happiness tends to death, and think of all the dangers that death threatens us with. The Egyptians followed this advice seriously: in the middle of their feasting and joy, they had a dried human skeleton brought to the room, for the guests to be reminded.

Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has learned to un-serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who understands that the end of life has no evil. To learn how to die releases us from all subjection and constraint.

In everything in life, art and industry cannot perform anything useful without the help of nature. In my own nature, I am not melancholic, but I am meditative, and there is nothing I have entertained myself with more continually than imaginations of death, even when I have been happiest and healthiest, when, as Catullus said, ‘my florid age rejoiced in pleasant spring.’

Recently I was in the company of ladies and at games, and people must have thought I was possessed with jealousy or some kind of uncertain hope. In truth I was thinking of some one who, a few days before, had died with a burning fever. He had been returning from a party like this one, with his head full of idle fantasies of love and jollity, as mine was then, and for all I knew, the same destiny awaited me.

Every minute I think I am escaping, and what may be done tomorrow must be done today.

A friend of mine was going through my notes the other day, and he found a memo where I had written of something I would have done had I not died. I told him, as was true, that the thought came to me when I was not far from my house, and I was happy and healthy. Yet, I wrote it down there, because I was not certain that I would live to come home. I am eternally brooding over my own thoughts, and confine them to my own particular concerns. At all hours, I am well-prepared for death, so that whenever he comes, he can bring nothing along with him that I did not expect long before. We should always, as near as we can be, be booted and spurred, and ready to go.

And we should have no business with us but our own, because we shall find enough work to do without any need of addition. One man complains that death will prevent him a glorious victory, another that he must die before his daughter has married, or his children finished school, a third seems only troubled to be losing his wife’s company, a fourth the conversation of his son. For my part, I am at this instant in such a condition that I am ready to dislodge, whenever it shall please God, without regret for anything whatsoever. I disengage myself from all worldly relations and take leave from all but myself. Never did anyone prepare to say goodbye to the world more absolutely and unreservedly, and shake hands with all manners of interest in it, than I expect to do. The deadest deaths are the best.

As the Egyptians, after their feasts where they presented their guests with the image of death, said, ‘Drink and be merry, for such shalt thou be when thou art dead’, so it is my custom to have death not only in my imagination but continually in my mouth. There is nothing I am more curious about and delighted to hear of than the manner of men’s deaths: their words, looks, behaviour etc. There are also no places in history I am more interested in than those associated with the subject. If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register with a comment on the various deaths of men. He who should teach men how to die would at the same time teach them how to live. Dicarchus made one, to which he gave that title, but it was designed for another and less profitable goal.

Some may object that the actual pain and terror of dying so infinitely exceeds what we can imagine, that to guard against it this way is useless. Let them say what they will; to premeditate it is doubtlessly a great advantage. Nature herself encourages and assists us: if our death is sudden and violent, we have no time to fear; if otherwise, then as my disease worsens, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find it is more strenuous to digest this idea of death when I am healthy than when I am languishing in fever. In fever, I have less to do with the commodities of life, and I lose the use and pleasure of them, and I begin to look upon death with less terror. This makes me hope that the more I remove myself from the first and the nearer I approach the latter, the more easy it will be to exchange the one for the other. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 19: That To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die (Part 1 of 3)


Montaigne talks firstly about how study can be a kind of death. Then he shares his feelings about sex. He ends with with a contemplation on man's fear of death


 'it is a pleasure more favourable, soft, and natural, than the other forms of pleasure that we prefer to call pleasure'


Cicero says that studying philosophy serves no purpose other than to prepare one’s self for death. The reason for this is that study and contemplation, in some sense, withdraw us from our souls, and employ the soul separately from the body. This is a kind of ‘apprenticeship’ and a resemblance of death in this process. Another reason is that the point of all wisdom and reasoning is to teach us not to fear death.

Now, either our reason mocks us, or it has no aim other than contentment. ‘All the opinions of the world’ agree that pleasure is our aim, even if we all have different ways of attaining it. Any other route would be rejected straightaway, for who would go down a path that led to misery and affliction? All disputes on this point are trivial, and merely verbal. They arise out of a stubbornness and opposition that should not be present in great thinkers.

No matter what they say, even in virtue, our ultimate aim in life is bliss (Montaigne here uses the word ‘volupté’, referring to an intense pleasure that is both sensual and spiritual). I’d like to punch the ears of those who find this word sickening. If the word signifies a supreme pleasure or excessive contentment, then this is due to the assistance of virtue and nothing else. This bliss, if it is joyous, strong and virile, becomes all the more seriously blissful. And so we should allow this bliss to be called pleasure; it is a pleasure more favourable, soft, and natural, than the other forms of pleasure that we prefer to call pleasure. Those other pleasures are lower forms of bliss. If they even deserve to be called pleasure, this should be a matter of agreement and not privilege. 

A few words on this bliss
- I find it to be less free from inconvenience and pitfall than virtue.  
- The enjoyment is more momentary, fluid, and frail than some other pleasures. Nonetheless, it has its periods of vigils and fasting, also periods of hard work, sweat and blood.
- It comes with so many different kinds of sharp and wounding passions, and the satiety that attends it can be so dull and heavy that it sometimes equates to a punishment.
- If one imagines that these hurdles actually spur us to pursue it, that they are no more than a seasoning to its sweetness,  they are mistaken.
- When circumstances render it inaccessible (such as a coming to virtue, or some kind of difficulty), the pleasure of this joyous bliss is sharpened and heightened once it comes. 
- He who measures its cost against its fruit renders himself unworthy of it, for he does not understand its graces nor uses.
- What do they mean, those who preach that the quest for it is difficult, complicated, and painful and the resultant orgasmic joyousness (in French, jouissance) pleasant? Is it ever unpleasant? What would human beings not do to arrive at this pleasure? The most perfect have been happy to just aspire to this pleasure, to approach it without ever possessing it. Those that warn of the quest are therefore wrong, because even the pursuit of this bliss is pleasurable, because the attempt contains the essence of what it pursues.

Now, one of the greatest benefits that virtue confers upon us is a contempt of death. This contempt allows us a soft and easy tranquility in life, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct. All the rules centre around and agree with this contempt. And although they also teach us to despise pain, poverty, and other accidents to which human life is subject, we do not do so with the same level of concern. These accidents are, after all, not necessarily going to strike us. Many pass through life without knowing what poverty is, and the musician Xenophilius lived to a hundred and six without falling ill. But death is inevitable. And it can strike at any time, cutting short and putting an end to all other inconveniences.

Hor., in the Odyssey, said; ‘We are all bound one voyage; the lot of all, sooner or later, is to come out of the urn. All must to eternal exile sail away.’

So if death were to frighten us, it would be a perpetual torment, for which there would be no consolation. Sometimes people on their way to execution are granted special favours just before their death. But, at this time, ‘Sicilian dainties will not tickle their palates, nor the melody of birds and harps bring back sleep.’ (Hor. Od.) They cannot relish these types of entertainment when they know they are at the fatal end of their journey. The end of our race is death, it is the necessary object of our aim. It this frightened us, how would it be possible to advance one step without a fit of panic?

The remedy that the vulgar use is not to think about it, but from what brutish stupidity can they derive such a blatant blindness? They probably ride their donkeys backwards. They scare people with the very mention of death, and many cross themselves when they hear the word, as if it were the name of the devil. And they refuse to write up their wills, because that would be a reference to dying. They will not pick up a pen until the physician has told them in no uncertain terms that they are in their last moments, and even then, they will do so in a state of terror. God knows how, in this state, they are fit enough in understanding to do so.

The Romans, feeling that the word death sounded too ominous to their ears, found a way to soften and spin it, and instead of saying someone is dead, they will say, ‘he has lives’ or ‘he has ceased to live’ (Plutarch, Life of Cicero). The mention of life in the phrase, eventhough it has passed, offers a kind of consolation. It is from them that we have borrowed the phrase, ‘The last Mr. such-and-such’.

I was born between eleven and twelve in the afternoon on the last day of February 1533. The year, that used to commence at Easter, had been changed by order of Charles IX to commence from  then on on January 1st. I turned thirty-nine fifteen days ago. I hope to live at least as many more years. In the meantime, to trouble myself with something that will happen after so long seems foolish. But so what? Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than as if he had just entered it. No man is so old and decrepit that he does not imagine he has twenty good years left in him. Fool that thou art! Who has assured upon thee the term of life? You depend on your physicians but instead, consult effects and experiences. According to the average life-span, you have lives by extraordinary favour. Think of people you know, how many more have died before they arrived at your age than have survived? And as for those who have made themselves famous in their lifetimes, I bet you will find more that have before before than after thirty-five years of age. Jesus Christ himself died at thirty-three and the greatest man that was no more than a man, Alexander, died at around the same age. Death can surprise us in many ways. Who would have guessed that the duke of Brittany, for instance, would be crushed to death in a crowd of people? King Henry II was killed in a sword tournament and his ancestor Philip died whilst fighting with a hog. Aeschylus, who was very circumspect in avoiding danger, was hit on the head by a tortoise that fell out of the talons of an eagle flying overhead. Another choked on a grape-stone. An emperor was killed with the scratch of a comb while he was combing his hair, and Aemilius Lepidus stumpled on the steps of his own front door. Another died between the thighs of a woman, and another – my brother Captain St. Martin – was playing tennis when he received a little blow with the ball just above his right ear. He took no notice of it at the time, but six or seven hours later, he had died.

With such frequent and common examples passing before us everyday, how is it possible to disengage ourselves from thoughts of death and not live in constant fear of it? You may say that it doesn’t matter how it comes about, provided we do not terrify ourselves with expectation. I, for one, would crawl under the skin of a calf if by that means I could avoid death. I am not ashamed of this. All I aim for is to pass my time at my ease, doing what will most contribute to that ease. I must quote this glorious little exemplary:

‘I had rather seem mad and a sluggard, so that my defects are agreeable to myself, or that I am not painfully conscious of them, than be wise and chaptious’ (Hor. Ep.).