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.).

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 18 That Men Are Not To Judge Of Our Happiness Till After Death

In this beautiful, touching essay, Montaigne warns against judging any life, even our own, until our final day. He also writes of the death of his close friend Etienne

'Sometimes Fortune waits to surprise the last hours of our lives, to show her power by, in a moment, overthrowing what has taken so many years to build'

Ovid, in Metamorphoses, says, ‘We should all look forward to our last days: no one can be called happy till he is dead and buried.’

Even children know the story of King Croseus, who was captured and condemned to death by Cyrus. As he was going to execution, he cried out, ‘O Solon, Solon!’ Cyrus asked what this meant, and Croseus replied that he had finally realized the truth in the teachings of Solon, which was:
‘That men, however fortune may smile upon them, could never be said to be happy till they had been seen to pass over the last day of their lives’.

This is due to the unpredictability and uncertainty of life - the fact that very light and trivial occasions can suddenly change into their own opposite. Many Dukes have died prisoners (for instance, in our fathers’ days, the tenth Duke of Milan), conquerors have become beggars (Pompey, for instance, who had to plead with the king of Egypt), and kings turned into clerks (Alexander’s successors in Macedon, for example). Queen Mary of Scots, the fairest of all queens, came to die at the hands of an executioner. There are a thousand more examples of the same kind, for it seems that as storms and tempests strike the tallest buildings, there are also spirits above that are envious of the greatnesses here below.

Sometimes Fortune waits to surprise the last hours of our lives, to show her power by, in a moment, overthrowing what has taken so many years to build. Macrobius said, ‘I have lived longer by this one day than I should have done.’

The wise advice of Solon should be heeded. But Solon is a philosopher, the sort of man to whom the favours and disgraces of Fortune mean nothing, and do not make one any happier or unhappier. I am inclined to think he had a further aim in making this statement, and that his meaning was that the happiness of life itself, which depends on tranquility and contentment of the spirit and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, should not be attributed to any man till he has had to play out the end of his life. He may have been living the rest of his life in pretence, only putting on fine philosophical discourses. When we are not made anxious or upset by anything, we can maintain a false bravado, but in our last scene of death, there is no more pretending. We speak clearly then, and ‘discover what there is of good and clean in the bottom of the pot’.

Our last day is the day on which our life can be measured. As Seneca says, the last day is the judge of all the rest.

The fruit of my studies can be measured, then, only upon my death. Only then will we see whether my discourses come only from my mouth or from my heart.

Plutarch, in Apoth., relates that Epaminondas, when asked which of three people (one being he himself) he held in greatest esteem, responded, ‘you must see us die first, before the question can be resolved’. Indeed, he would feel very wronged if anyone judged him without the honour and grandeur of his end.

God works in ways that best please him, and I have, in my time, seen three of the most hateful people I know – they lived disgustingly and were not liked – die very regular and composed deaths. I have also seen death cut short a life that could have gone so far, that was in the height and flower of its increase when it was ended. The end, however, was so glorious that perhaps his ambitious and generous plans had nothing in them so high and great as this interruption. Without completing his journey, he reached the place where his ambition aimed. He could not have hoped to do so with greater glory. When I judge this man’s life, I always think of how he carried himself at the time of his death, and my principal concern for my own life is that I may die well – that is, patiently and with peace.

(Montaigne, in this final paragraph, is discussing the death of his closest friend Etienne de la Boetie, at whose death in 1563 he was present)

Book 1, Chapter 17: Of Fear

Montaigne discusses the emotion called fear: what can it do to us and why, and how many different kinds of fear exist? 

'Sometimes fear adds wings to the heels. Sometimes it nails them to the ground'

‘I was amazed, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck in my throat’ Virgil, Aeneid.

I can’t say what it is that causes fear to have the impact on us that it does. It is a strange passion; the physicians say there is no other that makes our judgment falter so much. I myself have seen many become frantic from fear, and even in those that are very calm normally, it causes a terrible confusion and shock. I’m not talking just about the ‘vulgar sort’, to whom fear means their departed rising up from the grave, or werewolves, or nightmares or phantoms, but also of soldiers, over whom fear should have the least power. Fear can convert armed squadrons into flocks of sheep, make their spears and swords into reeds and blades of grass, their friends into their enemies, and the French flag into the Spanish!

When Rome was seized by Mr. Bourbon, a man guarding the city was seized with such fear that he ran directly into the enemy, thinking he was retreating into the city. Bourbon’s army thought he was advancing to attack, and drew their weapons. When the man at last realized his mistake, he retreated blindly, at full speed; and ended up in the middle of an open field. He was unharmed, but another guard who reacted in a similar way was not so lucky, and was killed. Another gentleman, in the same battle, was so seized by fear that he sank to the floor, stone-dead, without being wounded or hurt at all.

Sometimes fear adds wings to the heels. Sometimes it nails them to the ground. The Emperor Theophilius, upon losing a battle in Spain, was so astonished that he could not move, and one of his commanders had to go up to him and tell him, ‘Sir, if you do not follow me, I will kill you; for it is better you should lose your life than, by being taken, lose your empire’. But that’s what fear can do; it can deprive us of all sense of duty or honour.

The thing in this world that I am most afraid of is fear, that feeling along, more than any other accident. Fear can drive out all intelligence from the mind. Take the story of Pompey’s friends: they had witnessed his horrible murder on their ship, but when they saw enemy Egyptian ships coming towards them, they were possessed with such great alarm that they could think of nothing but fleeing. Only when they had reached safety did they grieve for their captain. The more potent passion had, till then, suspended their tears.

Those that have been injured in a skirmish, even if they are wounded and bloody, may be asked the next day to attack once more, but those who have become truly afraid of their enemy can never again be made to do so much as look him in the face.

Those that are in immediate fear of losing their property, of banishment, or of slavery, live in perpetual anguish and lose all appetite and all calm, whereas those that are actually poor, slaves, or exiles often live their lives as happily as the next man. And then those who, tired of being perpetually in fear, have hanged or drowned or shot themselves lead us to believe that fear can be more persistently intrusive, more unbearable, than death itself.

The Greeks acknowledged another kind of fear, different from those we have so far discussed: the fear that surprises us without any visible cause. Whole nations and armies can be struck from it, like an impulse from heaven.  Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian, calls this fear a ‘panic terror’ and relates the story of Carthage (ancient North-African city near present-day Tunis), where this type of fear took root. Nothing was heard in Carthage when this struck except for frightened voices and crying, and residents ran out of their houses in alarm, and attacked, wounded, and killed one another, as if they had been enemies that had come to attack the city. Everything was in disorder and fury until, with prayers and sacrifices, they appeased their gods.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 16: A Proceeding of Some Ambassadors

In this essay, Montaigne, through a meditation on different aspects of human nature, discusses what the duties of an ambassador should be

'Many(ambassadors) are expected to manage affairs of their own initiative. They do not just execute instructions, they use their discretion and wisdom to conduct their work in the best way'.

There is a saying of Propertius: ‘Let the sailor content himself with talking of the winds; the cowherd of his oxen; the soldier of his wounds; the shepherd of his flocks’

I’ve found that often the opposite is true; men prefer to talk about other men’s domains, thinking it will somehow enhance their reputation. Archimadus once mocked Pertander by saying that he had gone from being known as a glorious physician to gaining the reputation of a very bad poet. Also, observe how Ceaser loves to talk at length about building bridges and contriving war-engines, and how reserved he is when it comes to his war duties and military conduct. He knows his exploits prove him to be a great captain, but he also wants to be thought of as an excellent engineer. Similarly, the elder Dionysius was a great captain, but he took very great pains to get a reputation for poetry. Yet, he was never cut out to be a poet.

A lawyer that I know was recently brought to a study furnished with all kinds of books – legal and otherwise. The man ignored all the books and instead was fascinated with a barricade placed on the winding stair before the study door, a thing that a hundred captains and common soldiers would not have looked at twice.

Hor. said: ‘The lazy ox desires a saddle and bridle; the horse wants to plough’ 

With this kind of behaviour, of course, a man shall never improve himself, nor reach perfection at any skill. He must, therefore, make sure that every architect, painter, statesman, and mechanic, talk of their own capacities.

I follow this myself. For example, when reading stories, I consider what kind of men the authors are. If they are people that play only with words, I observe and learn style and language; if they are physicians, I pay attention to how they report of the temperature of the air, the health and complexions of princes, and the nature or disease. If they are lawyers, we should pay attention to their notions of right and wrong, the establishment of laws and governments and so on. If they are divines, the affairs of the Church, marriage etc. should be noted; if courtiers, manners and ceremonies; if soldiers, their actions and accounts of the encounters in which they were engaged; if ambassadors, we should observe their intrigues and intelligences, and their ways of getting across what they need to. And it is for this reason that I dwelt upon and pondered over a certain passage at length which I may have normally passed over.

It was in a book written by Monsieur de Langey, very well-versed in such things. He gave an account of a fine speech by Charles V in Rome, in the presence of our French Ambassadors, the Velly’s. The king mixed several insults into his speech, for instance, he said that if his own captains and soldiers were so disloyal and irresolute, and so badly trained in battle as those of the French king, he would have surrendered straight away (it seemed the Emperor really believed this, because he said the same thing at two of three other occasions). He also  challenged the French king to a fight. The Ambassador Velly sent a message to the King informing him of the affair, but concealing the worst of it, particularly the stories I have just mentioned. I can’t help but wonder at how an ambassador can dispense with anything that he should be telling his master, especially something so important, coming from the mouth of such a person, and spoken in the presence of so many people. I would imagine it to be the servant’s duty to faithfully tell the king everything that had been said, leaving it up to him what to do with that information. The right to conceal or disguise the truth thinking the receiver may take it in a way that he should not should belong to the giver of law, not the receiver; to him who is in command, and not to him who should see himself as inferior, not just in authority but also in wisdom and judgment. I, for my part, would not have been blinded in this way by my own small concerns.

We so willingly take control upon the smallest pretence, and are so ready to dominate when the opportunity arises; everyone naturally aspires to liberty and to power. No quality derived from the wisdom or bravery of am employee should be as cherished by a superior than strict and sincere obedience. To obey from one’s own judgment instead of from duty corrupts the office of command.

- P. Crassus sent a Greek engineer to bring two ship-masts for him, to be used in the engine of a battery that he wished to construct. The engineer decided to use his own scientific knowledge and brought back something more appropriate to the design Crassus envisioned. Crassus listened to his reasons with patience, but no matter how convincing they sounded, he had the engineer punished, valuing discipline more, at that moment, than the work at hand.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that such a strict and precise obedience is due to positive and limited commands. The job of ambassadors is not so confined. Many, in fact, are expected to manage affairs of their own initiative. They do not just execute instructions, they use their discretion and wisdom to conduct their work in the best way. I have known some who have actually been chided for obeying the words of the king too literally, and not considering the necessity of the situation they were in. The kings of Persia are criticized sometimes for giving their agents and lieutenants so little reign that if difficulties arise, they have to refer back for further commands. This delay can really hamper their success. Was Crassus, in the above example, by choosing a man whose profession it was to understand the things he employed him to find, and by telling this man of the uses he wanted to put the ship-masts to, not consulting his advice? And in a way, did he not actually invite him to interpose his better judgment? 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 15: Of The Punishment of Cowardice

Montaigne ponders over what the punishment should be for cowards

'it makes sense that we differentiate between faults that come only from weakness, and those that are malicious, because ... in the former we could justify ourselves by invoking the same nature that left us in a state of imperfection and lack of courage'

I once heard a prince talking to a great captain over dinner about the death-sentence of Monsieur de Vervins, a man who was condemned for having handed over Boulogne to the English (in 1544). The prince was insisting that a soldier could not be justly put to death for not being brave enough. And yes, it makes sense that we differentiate between faults that come only from weakness, and those that are clearly the result of treachery and malice, because in the latter, we act against the rules of reason that nature has imprinted in us, but in the former we could justify ourselves by invoking the same nature that left us in a state of imperfection and lack of courage. Many have thought, in fact, that we cannot be questioned for anything except what we commit against our conscience, and those who feel that there should be no punishment for heretics or misbelievers, nor for judges who fail in their duties due to mere ignorance, base their judgment partly on this rule.

But as for cowardice, it is clear that the most common way of punishing it is through shame and ignominy. In Greece, before the legislator Charondas changed the practice, those who fled from a battle were punished with death. But Charondas ordained that the coward should instead have to go out in public for three days, in women’s clothing. He did this hoping that they would continue to serve, their courage having been awakened by this open shame.

Tertullian echoed this sentiment, that it would be better to embarrass someone that do much worse:
‘Rather bring the blood into a man’s cheek than let it out of his body’

Apparently, in Ancient Rome those who fled were also punished with death. I read of an Emperor Julius put ten of his soldiers to death for fleeing from the Parthians. Yet, elsewhere, for similar offences, he only condemned fleers by lowering their rank.

The Roman soldiers who fled Cannes were harshly condemned but not killed. I think it should be taken into account that a shameful punishment may not just make the fleers harsh and cold, it may also make them enemies.

If an act occurs that is so cowardly and ignorant that is surpasses all that could be considered normal, then the act itself can be taken as evidence of malice and wickedness, and should be punished accordingly. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 14: That Men Are Justly Punished For Being Obstinate In The Defence Of A Fort That Is Not In Reason To Be Defended

This essay, competing in length with an astonishingly long title, is about the foolishness of defending a fort that will clearly fall

'a man might look contemptuously at two guns, but only a madman would ignore 30 cannons'

Bravery has its virtues, but it also has its limits, and when those limits are crossed, one steps into ‘the territories of vice’. Having too much bravery, unless the holder of the bravery maintains the ideal limits (when one is near the limits, they are hard to discern), may easily cause one to run into stubbornness, foolishness, and arrogance. For this reason we have the custom of punishing men (even with death) who are stubborn enough, during wartime, to defend a place that is clearly unable to be held on to. If  this custom did not exist, every chicken-coop would try to resist invading armies.

- The Constable de Montmorenci, after laying siege to Pavia (in Italy), was crossing the river Ticino to go back to his quarters when he was stopped by a tower at the end of the bridge, whose inhabitants, insistent on defending themselves, picked a fight. The constable hanged every man he found within. I have several other examples of similar occurrences.

As much as the strengths and the weaknesses of a fortress are measured by the size and power of the forces that attack it (a man might look contemptuously at two guns, but only a madman would ignore 30 cannons), the greatness of the invading prince and the respect accorded to him are also put into the balance. There is a danger, in fact, that too much emphasis will be laid upon this secondary factor, and a man may think himself so high and powerful that he cannot imagine any place shutting its gates to him. He attacks everyone who opposes him, while his luck lasts. We see this clearly in the fierce and haughty calls-to-war made by the Oriental princes and their successors. And in that part of the world where the Portuguese defeated the Indians, they found that some states had the inviolable and universal law that anyone defeated in the presence of the king or his lieutenant would not be saved, by either ransom (prisoner exchange etc) or mercy. Therefore it was important, above all, to avoid falling into the hands of an enemy who was also a judge, and who was victorious, and armed.  

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 13: The Ceremony Of The Interview Of Princes

In this essay, Montaigne discusses the self-proclaimed ‘frivolous’ topic of hospitality. He warns against being enslaved by set codes of conduct, but also says that politeness can be one of the keys to love at first sight

‘I love to follow them (rules of politesse), but not to be so servilely tied to their observation that my whole life should be enslaved to ceremonies ... I have seen some people rude, by being over-civil and troublesome in their courtesy.'

There is no subject so frivolous that it does not merit a place in my essays. According to our social customs, it would be rude (to an equal, and much more so to a superior) to fail being at home when someone has told you he will come to visit. Queen Margaret of Navarre adds further that it would even be rude for a gentleman to go over to someone’s house when he is supposed to be coming over, no matter what high position he may be in. It is more respectful to stay at home and receive him, if only because you could miss him on the way. Personally, I try to reduce the ritual observances of my house as much as I can, and I often commit either one or both of these offences. If someone takes offence ‘I can’t help it; it is much better to offend him once than myself every day, for it would be a perpetual slavery’. What is the point of avoiding the servile ceremonies of the court if we bring the same trouble into our own homes? Another common rule of all assemblies is that ‘those of less quality’ arrive earlier, in order to allow the ‘better sort’ to make the others wait, in expectation.

None of these rules are set in stone. For instance,

- When the Pope Clement came to visit King Francis in Marseilles (France, 1533), the King, after making preparations for the Pope’s entertainment and reception, left town, and he gave the Pope two or three days rest and refreshment time before he met him.

- The Emperor Charles V in 1532 had the Pope visit him first before he visited the Pope. This was an act of deference, following a custom common at princely meetings, where the greater person should be present first in the appointed place of meeting. This is especially important when the meeting is in the country of the other person  because it is more proper for the less to seem out the great than vice versa.

Not just every country, but every city and every society has its own customs. I was educated well in the formalities of our own nation; I could even give lessons in it. ‘I love to follow them, but not to be so servilely tied to their observation that my whole life should be enslaved to ceremonies’. Some are so troublesome that it would be better to avoid them, provided that this is done with good judgment and not just uncouthness. I have seen some people rude, by being over-civil and troublesome in their courtesy.

But besides these exceptions, the knowledge of politeness and good manners is a ‘very necessary study’.  Like grace and beauty, it gives rise to ‘liking and an inclination to love one another at the first sight, and in the very beginning of acquaintance.’ It opens the door to us learning from the example of others, and allows us to set examples ourselves, if we have any, that is, worth taking notice of and communicating.