Thursday, 1 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 4: That The Soul Expends Its Passions Upon False Objects, Where The True Are Wanting

In this essay, Montaigne muses on why we always look for someone or something to blame when things go wrong, and why we like little dogs and monkeys. 

Have you ever tried to hit something, and then missed your target? The arm hits nothing then but wind, and this is painful. Lucan tells us the wind itself loses its force if it is diffused in air; it needs to hit against a tree.

Similarly the soul, when disturbed or agitated, needs an object on which to aim and act. Otherwise, it will turn against itself. Plutarch tells us that the reason we like little dogs and monkeys is that there is an ‘amorous part’ is us – one which wants to love – and if it doesn’t have something to love, it will create one, ‘false and frivolous’ as it may be. The soul would rather ‘deceive itself, be creating a false and fantastical subject … than not have something.’

Some animals, when attacked, allow their fury to fall upon the attacking weapon, In furious rage they break and twist the spears that attack them.

And what about us? How do we react when we suffer misfortunes that are out of our control. Who or what can we blame? It is common practice, in such cases, to tear at your hair or beat your breast. Cicero, seeing someone tearing his hair in sorrow, commented, ‘Does this man think that baldness is a remedy for grief?’

And then there are those who rail against God.
- A neighbouring king who had gone through some sort of misfortune, blamed God and decided to revenge Him. He ordered that for 10 years noone could pray to God, or even mention Him. Such an action can be seen as not only foolish, but vain: two vices that always go together. There is more arrogance in such an action than there is wit.
- Augustus Ceaser was caught in a stormy sea, and decided in revenge to remove the statue of Neptune (the God of the sea) from amongst his other deities.
These are instances of people ‘invading God himself, or at least Fortune, as if she had ears that were subject to our batteries’. I’ll end with a quote from Plutarch

‘We must not trouble the gods with our affairs; they take no heed of our angers and disputes’

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