Friday, 9 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 12: Of Constancy

How one reacts to surprise, particularly to negative surprise, is important. Montaigne urges a state of constancy, where one does not get overly moved by every misfortune that happens to befall

It is natural to ‘tremble at the terrible noise of thunder ... and be affrightened even to paleness and convulsion’ but one’s judgment should stay sound, and one’s reason should not be shaken, and one should not consent to his fright or discomposure

The idea of constancy and resolution implies that we should not hesitate to use all ‘decent and honest’ means to secure ourselves from harm, and any harmful incidents that do occur, and that we are unable to avoid, we should face with bravery. It does not mean that we should be so ‘brave’ as to not secure ourselves from inconvenience, or that we should show no fear of misfortune occurring. We should not condemn any action that we use to defend ourselves, no matter how irregular or ungraceful it may be.

Several countries use the strategy of retreat in war, to good effect, and their backs have proven to be more dangerous to their enemies than their faces. Socrates, when told by Laches that bravery means standing firm in the face of an enemy, laughed and responded, would it be considered cowardly, if one were to win by giving ground to their enemy? Homer also encourages ‘the science of flight’.

- The Lacedoemonians (an area in ancient Greece) were a nation usually stubborn in maintaining their ground. In the battle of Plataea however, they found themselves unable to break up the strong Persian army, and decided to disperse and retire. The Persians, imagining that they fled, dispersed in turn and the Lacedoemonians’s were able to gain victory through this strategy.

When an army is in the line of fire – something that happens quite often in war – it is considered bad for the soldier to leave his post. But considering the violence and fast-paced nature of that moment in the trenches, in the middle of enemy attack, abandoning one’s post, or ducking, or stepping aside, or any similar act of fear, is considered inevitable, and many have been laughed at by their fellow soldiers for doing just this.

And yet, many have saved their lives from a simple ducking or moving aside. The Marquis was almost hit by a shotgun once, and he slipped aside, and if he had not, he would have certainly died. Similarly the Duke of Urbino saw a gunman shoot a canon that was pointed directly at him, and he ducked. Otherwise, the shot would have hit him in the chest. Honestly speaking, I do not think these evasions are pre-meditated. How can one make a judgment when something so sudden occurs? In fact, it is easier to believe that fortune would favour these men’s apprehension. In other words, just to perceive and sense the danger would take them so long, that it would be too late to actually act. Personally, I cannot endure the sound of sudden gunshots, and I have observed braver men than I feel the same way.  

The Stoics did not pretend that philosophers need to be immune to surprise.

 (The Stoics are members of the ancient Greek school of philosophy that believed virtue was based on knowledge, and that we should live in harmony with nature, and bear its hardships with endurance and strength)

 It is natural to ‘tremble at the terrible noise of thunder, or the sudden clatter of some falling ruin, and be affrightened even to paleness and convulsion’. BUT one’s judgment should stay sound, and one’s reason should not be shaken, and one should not consent to his fright or discomposure. The first reaction is the same, whether one is a philosopher or not, but the second reaction is quite different. For the non-philosopher, the surprise will penetrate his ‘seat of reason, infecting and corrupting it, so that he judges according to his fear’ and changes his behaviour accordingly. The wise Stoic, on the other hand, will follow this advice of Virgil, from the Aeneid:

 ‘Though tears flow, the mind remains unmoved’

The Aristotelian philosopher Virgil does not dismiss the worries of the mind, but he moderates them.   

No comments:

Post a Comment