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.