Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Book 1, Chapter 3: That Our Affections Carry Themselves Beyond Us

In this essay Montaigne ponders our tendency to think about the future instead of the present

Some say, stop thinking about the future and live in the moment. They say we cannot predict the future, that we have no grasp upon what is to come, ‘even less than that which we have upon what is past’

This is a mistaken view, but it is a view that Nature herself encourages, in order to continue her work. Nature is ‘more jealous of our action than afraid of our knowledge’

The poet Rousseau says: ‘We are never present, but always beyond ourselves’. He explains that fear, desire, and hope make us always think about the future, and prevent us from enjoying the present moment.

The philosopher Plato says: ‘Do thine own work, and know thyself.’
I like this quote. I think the two are related. He who does his own work well will automatically come to know himself. And he who knows himself well ‘will never mistake another man’s work for his own’. This person, then, will love and improve himself, through his work. He will reject all other work, which is not his. Thus (and this is important)

‘Wisdom, acquiescing in the present, is never dissatisfied with itself’

The philosopher Epicurus told his followers: don’t think ahead, don’t worry about the future.

Let me be specific now, and talk about death

Solon said that noone can be happy till they are dead. Aristotle replied with the question that: If one has lived and died according to his heart’s desire, but died leaving behind a bad reputation, can he be said to be happy? We are preoccupied with our own whims in our life, but when we are no more, we cannot communicate with those left behind. I agree with Solon then, man is never happy till he is no more. Because we cannot ever wholly detach ourselves from the idea of life, even in dying. We imagine, always, that there is something in us that survives.

I’ll recount some stories now to illustrate something quite strange – the fact that we ‘extend the concern of ourselves beyond this life’:

- Edward the First had won many battles. He insisted to his son that his body, upon death, be boiled till the flesh parted from the bones. And the flesh should then be buried but the bones carried with him in the army ‘as if destiny had inevitably attached victory, even to his remains’
- The king of Bohemia, similarly, asked for his skin to be made into a drum to carry in war against his enemies. He thought this would ensure continuation of the successes that he had enjoyed in war.
- Certain Indians in battle with Spaniards carried the bones of their captains, in consideration of their former victories.
- Other men of the New World carry relics of brave men who have died in battle ‘to incite their courage and advance their fortune … they attribute to them a certain present and active power’.
- Captain Bayars found himself wounded to death. He commanded to be set down at the foot of a tree so that he may die with his face towards his enemies.

A personal example:

- A relative of mine, as he lay dying, spent his last hours giving meticulous instructions on how his funeral should be carried out. He made everyone promise they would be there, and presented several examples and reasons why he was due this respect. Then, he died content. ‘I have seldom heard of so persistent a vanity’. At the last moment, to contrive a ceremony in honour of yourself

- A contrary example is of someone called Lepidus, who forbade his heirs from even the most simple ceremony. It makes sense, after all, to be temperate and frugal, ‘to avoid expense and pleasure of which the use and knowledge are imperceptible to us’, for we are gone.

- The philosopher Lycon told his friends to dispose of his body as they saw fit, and to have a ceremony that was neither extravagant nor sparse.

My own funeral? I leave it up to those upon whom it will fall. The care of death are ‘consolations to the living’ rather than any support to the dead.

Socrates, when asked how he should be buried said ‘How you will.’ He elaborated that if he were to concern himself ‘beyond the present about this affair’ he would be tempted to ask for glorious ceremony and honours beforehand, like those who have statues erected etc. in order to behold ‘their own dead countenance in marble’.

Maybe it’s a fear of what happens when you die. Let me offer two observations on this matter.

Firstly, a quote be Seneca:

 ‘Dost ask where thou shalt lie after death?
Where things not born lie, that never being had.’

And I leave you with this gem:

‘As nature demonstrates to us that several dead things retain yet an occult relation to life; wine changes its flavour and complexion in cellars … and the flesh of venison alters its condition in the powdering tub, and its taste according to the laws of the living flesh of its kind.’

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Book 1, Chapter 2: Of Sorrow

Montaigne discusses the nature of sorrow, sadness, and grief. Also those of love, and joy, and of emotions so strong that they cannot be expressed. 

I never feel sorrow. Sorrow is overrated. I hate it when the world respects sadness, seeing 'wisdom, virtue, and conscience' to lie within. 'Foolish and sordid guise!' I say. Italians call this word 'la tristezza', which translated as 'evil'. I think this is apt. Sadness is hurtful, idle, cowardly, and mean.

But of course, there's much more to say on sadness. I have some stories:

- The King of Egypt was taken prisoner by Persia. He saw his daughter pass before him; she was a prisoner too. She carried a bucket, and she looked terrible. His friends around him wept. The King remained unmoved. Immediately after, he witnessed his son being led to execution. Still, he didn't react. Finally, he saw a fried being dragged away among the captives. He began to wail and cry and tear his hair.

And a similar one:

- Our own prince was told his elder brother had died. Soon after, he learned his younger brother had also died. He 'withstood these two assaults with exemplary resolution'. Then, one of his servants died. He was overcome with sorrow and mourning. As if he had been 'brimful of grief' and this last addition had tipped him over. But also, there's another explanation. This is important:

'only this last affliction was to be manifested be tears, the two first far exceeding all manner of expression'.

Yes. The strongest emotions cannot be expressed in tears, I say. Two legends of my time to illustrate:

 An ancient painter wanted to represent the death of a woman and its effect on those around her. He drew each of her acquaintances with grief-stricken, sad faces, but over the face of her father, he drew a veil. Meaning it was impossible to express the deep sorrow that he felt. Similarly, the poets represent the mother Noebe, who lost seven sons and seven daughters, as being transformed into a rock.

The rock represents the stupefaction, the numbing of our faculties, when we are faced with more sadness than we can bear. Excessive grief astonishes the soul, renders us incapable of ordinary functioning. When we're faced with truly terrible news, we are 'surprised, stupefied, and in a manner deprived of all power of motion'. When we cry, it seems we are able to vent, and release tension, and allow ourselves to work out the problem within.

I will tell you a very sad story now

- A soldier, who had been admired for his exceptional bravery, had fought a particularly valiant battle. When the armour was removed off the body of the person he had killed, he found that it was his own son. Without saying a word, he turned away his eyes, stood fixedly contemplating the body, until the sorrow overcame his vital spirits and he fell to the ground 'stone-dead'.

So you see, true, pure grief is unspeakable. It cannot be articulated.

Let's talk about love now; I have beautiful things to say about the unspeakable qualities of love:

'He who can say how he burns with love, has little fire'

In the throes of love, we are unable to express it. The soul at that time is 'over-burdened, and labouring with profound thoughts; and the body dejected and languishing with desire'

'all passions that suffer themselves to be relished and digested are but moderate.'

So think again, when you hear, 'I love you'. Seneca said, 'Light griefs can speak: deep sorrows are dumb.'

Unexpected joy, by the way, produces the same effects. A Roman lady died for joy to see her son return from war. I have several other examples of people, overcome with joy at hearing some wonderful news, die.

one last - 'a testimony to the imbecility of human nature':

A scholar called Diodorus was being debated with, in his own school, in front of a great authority. Unable to win the argument, he died on the spot, from shame.

This is how I end the essay - read into it what you like:

'I, for my part, am very little subject to these violent passions; I am naturally of a stubborn apprehension, which also, by reasoning, I every day harden and fortify.'

Monday, 27 February 2012

Book 1, Chapter 1: That Men By Various Means Arrive At The Same End

In this essay, Montaigne talks about two different ways in which people react when someone whom they have angered in the past now has the upper hand. 

When we have angered someone, and then we find them 'in possession of the power of revenge', we usually act all nice and meek so that the indignant person feels sorry for us.

This is an option.

There is also another - one of 'bravery, constancy, resolution' . It is sort of the opposite of the first, but sometimes has the same effect. Lets compare, and discuss the pros and cons of each one

Quickly, some stories that may interest you:
- Prince Edward was mad at some people (called the Limousins). He decided to attack. He wasn't moved at all by the crying women and children, or the people begging for mercy. but he was so impressed by three french guys that were willing to stand up to his whole army that he changed his mind and didn't attack. Another prince also did something similar.
- Emperor Conrad attacked Bavaria, and proclaimed that the women could leave without any 'violation to their honour' and they could take with them as much as they could carry, on foot. The women came out of their houses with their husbands and children on their shoulders. The emperor was well impressed.

Now, back to the matter at hand.
Personally, 'I would sooner surrender my anger to compassion than to esteem'. I'm a softy, and so if it's me you're worried about - best be submissive.
Some consider pity a weakness. They consider it 'effiminate' to be all tender and compassionate. They want to act with 'obstinate and masculine courage'.
Bravery could also fail. The risks are obvious. If you're arrogant and cocky, you could well be punished.

It's hard to say. Man 'is a marvellous vain, fickle, and unstable subject, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgement'

Allow me to illustrate this fickle nature of man with another example
- Pompey pardoned the whole city of Mamertines because of one man, Zeno, who took everyone's blame, and offered to be punished for all. Yet, another man in the town of Latium offered the same to Sylla, but obtained nothing.

Now one last story to finish:

Alexander, who is very brave, entered Gaza. He was faced with the commander there, Betis, who was badly wounded, but remained proud, fierce, disdainful. Alexander was enraged that the man showed no humility. He killed him. Now, maybe this was because Alexander himself was so brave, that he found bravery to be natural and was unable to admire it in others. Or maybe he couldn't bear anyone but him being brave. Or maybe he was just really angry. I cannot say for sure, but the violent massacre that occurred that day was certainly pitiless.