It is snowing outside my window and Joan Jett is on the stereo. Philosophy seems very far away. Did Kant come up with the categorical imperative sitting in his mother’s basement? What color was Descartes’ dressing gown in the firelight? What sign was Ptolemy?
Philosophical tradition likes to categorize. Plato and Aristotle are “the ancients”; Aquinas a neo-Aristotleian, Augustine a neo-Platonist; Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, and Marx are “political philosophers”; Nietzsche is variously classed as a nihilist or a Nazi. Montaigne is usually called a “skeptic,” due to his famous motto “What do I know?” in “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” This is, however, a simplistic classification—as indeed are all such classifications.Montaigne sets himself apart in philosophical tradition precisely by not being a philosopher, not trying to categorize himself or others. He is an essayist in the original sense of the word—an attempter, an experimenter, a maker of lists. And, like all other philosophers, he is a man, the difference being that he is both aware of and accepting of this state.
With most philosophers, it is hard to get away with saying you like or don’t like them. Their work intends itself to be considered as without author, floating in the realm of truth; it is to be believed or not believed, not enjoyed or hated. This intention does not prevent from forming opinions in this fashion—most of the philosophers from freshman and sophomore years, certainly, have boiled down over time to brief, somewhat visceral impressions (Maimonides: “weird,” Plotinus: “jerkface,” Lucretius: “:) smiley face”). They are, however, hard to defend in formal, seminar-type discourse.
Montaigne, on the other hand, is easy to deal with in this way, because he readily admits that his works are not truth, or intended to be taken as such:
Whoever is in search of knowledge, let him fish for it where it dwells; there is nothing I profess less. These are my fancies, by which I try to give knowledge not of things, but of myself. (“Of books,” 296)What we find in the Essays, instead of assertions, are various stories, thoughts, quotes, and interpretations, which often contradict each other. As “reasonable creatures,” this initially bothers us: contradictions shouldn’t exist. People should argue for things in nice mathematical steps, not illustrate them by example. Montaigne just isn’t logical.
But this irrationality is precisely what we should embrace in him, if only because we find it in ourselves. Who among us has ever lived a day—or an hour—moved only by rational thought, without a tummy rumble, an old commerical jingle jumping into our heads, or a sudden craving for different socks (purple ones, often)? How often do we all contradict ourselves, and with what sincerity:
Whoever supposes, to see me look sometimes coldly, sometimes lovingly, on my wife, that either look is feigned, is a fool. (“How we cry and laugh for the same thing,” 173)Montaigne’s irrationality isn’t the disturbing madness of a Baudelaire or a Rimbaud, a deliberate abandonment of logic, but rather an acknowledgement that our state is mixed, that reason cannot predominate as Plato and all the others expect it to.
He treats similarly another time-honored philosophical separation, between body and soul. His essays “Of drunkenness” and “On some verses of Virgil” praise drinking and sex, respectively—our two most sensual pleasures, and hence the ones most demonized by those who would have us live in our heads alone. The former essay begins by asserting that drunkenness is a vice entirely devoid of mental participation; but he ends by lauding it, encouraging us to drink more often and less discriminatingly, even comparing intoxication to the divine madness of the poets—a way to lift us from our ordinary state to a higher one. Drunkenness reminds us, as well, that our hold on our mind is rather tenuous, and a thousand accidents may upset it; thus, we should not grow too attached to it. All in all, it seems, Montaigne is pro-drunkenness.
“How much wine should we drink?” asks Mr. Thomas.In the deliciously erotic (and feminist) “On some verses of Virgil,” he takes a similar path, at one time saying of sex, In everything else you can keep some decorum; all other operations come under the rules of decency. This one cannot even be imagined other than vicious or ridiculous (669). Later, however, he speaks of the conquests of his youth, and calls love a sprightly, lively, and gay agitation. . . . I consider it healthy, proper to enliven a healthy body and soul (680). In other words, though sex may separate us from our reason, this is no reason to avoid it.
“All of it,” answers Miss Godden.
Montaigne definitely has opinions, though they are sometimes hard to find; but he does not presume that they are correct, or that other intelligent people will not have different ones. Because of this, one cannot really disbelieve or believe Montaigne. Even if an opinion is wrong, it cannot be denied that an individual holds it—-that is his experience and not your own. A preference for Montaigne is thus based on personal inclination, not solid reasons. It is love or hate.
I, for one, love Montaigne. The question is, perhaps, not “Why do I love him?” but “How do I love him? What came about in my interaction with this four-hundred-years-dead Frenchman that makes me count him among my friends?”
One rather shameful reason for my affection is probably that he agrees with me on the above rational/irrational and body/soul debates, against many other philosophers. It is fairly common for us to like people with opinions like our own:
You told me all about you without ever saying a wordNot only our opinions, but many of our activities are similar. He inscribed inspirational quotes on the ceiling of his library; I plaster my mirror with Post-Its for the same purpose. As a writer, I recognize his delight in going back and rereading his work, recapturing the way it felt to be Montaigne at that particular point in time and space. We’re both Catholics by accident. And we like our meat rare.
Every time you opened your mouth, it was my voice that I heard
Blake Babies, “Lament”
It is not just the matter he expresses, however, that inspires my predilection, but the way in which he expresses it. Most of the Essays stray far from their titles before they are done (consider “On the resemblance of children to fathers,” which treats of this topic for about a page and spends eighteen others on the faults of the medical profession); most, as well, begin with digressions before the purported subject is even touched. They wander, halt, back up, leap about. They would drive any good English teacher mad. But the result of this technique is pleasing. Why?
It is, I think, because Montaigne approximates in literary form our common experience of getting to know someone. One does not generally meet a stranger and immediately roll out your life story and the development of your personality in chronological order; rather, two people become friends by learning haphazard things about one another: the foods they like, the stories they choose to tell, the ideas they hold dear. Our experience of reading Montaigne is like meeting a stranger and engaging him in conversation—though we may not come away from it with the ability to say “Montaigne is X,” one knows “Montaigne likes Y and admires Mr. Z.”
Consider, for instance, the falling-in-love montage. The best example of this movie technique is Roman Holiday; Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck bum around Rome, eat ice cream, ride a runaway moped. Audrey shares another classic of the genre with George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—the two spend the afternoon doing things one of them has never done before, like go to the library (she) or steal from a dime store (he). Meg Ryan’s and John Cusack’s entire careers are based on these montages. Often there is no dialogue, just a cheerful pop soundtrack; couples eat ice cream, rollerblade, or fall down in the snow. There are, of course, cynics who cannot stand these sentimental, predictable sequences; but most of us recognize in them a truth about falling in love: that it consists not of reasoned discussions or descriptions about oneself, but comes out of a series of disconnected experiences one has with a person. These insignificant, shared moments cement us together in a way that an articulate explanation of personality could never do:
I know you. You’re the Kenny Fisher who used to spend the night at my house in fourth grade. You’re the Kenny Fisher who gave me a card every Valentine’s Day and a box of those little hearts with words on them.Let us return to Montaigne’s famous motto. Montaigne’s asking the question, “Que sçay-je?” implies the answer “Nothing for certain.” But in French, there are two verbs translated in English as “to know”: savoir and connaître. The first is usually applied to knowledge of objects or skills; I sais the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, he sait how to ski. Connaître, on the other hand, can also be translated as “be familiar with,” and is applied to knowledge of people. How does this distinction affect Montaigne’s supposed skepticism? He asks, “What objects or skills do I know?”, and concludes that human knowledge of these things is fundamentally uncertain—yet he also admits that There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge (“Of experience,” 815). This contradiction puts us in a rather unfortunate position, if our most natural and pressing desire is for something utterly unattainable. Rephrasing Montaigne’s question as “Qui connais-je? (Whom do I know?)” may resolve this difficulty, by opening up a realm of knowledge more within our reach—knowledge of ourselves.
Can’t Hardly Wait
I study myself more than any other subject, writes Montaigne in “Of experience,” and In the experience I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar. Taking Montaigne’s example (and we probably should), how do we get to know ourselves? Since we spend our whole lives (with the possible exception of sleep) with ourselves, it should not be as difficult as learning about another person. Instead of disconnected experiences with another individual, we get to experience everything through and with ourselves—all we have to do to study ourselves is to live, and pay attention to that life. But “paying attention” is easier said than done. While every aspect of life contributes to our total being, far too often, we ignore certain aspects of ourselves in favor of others—-rational thought over irrational impulses, for example, or the soul over the body. Witness the philosophy majors who fill their bodies with poisons and eschew exercise in favor of reading some more—Great Books, No Gym. When we are sick, we try not to concentrate on our pain, and rely on the art of doctors to cure us. However, the more complete the awareness we have of how our own body works, the better we will be able to be our own doctors. I have learned over the years that my normal body temperature is lower than 98.6; when I am feverish, my hands ache in a peculiar way, but the thermometer usually registers a lower number than is accepted as a fever. Our awareness of ourselves brings benefits to others as well. I know that lack of sleep makes me very emotional, prone to cry at the slightest provocation; if someone says something to hurt me when I am exhausted, and I break down, I must reevaluate it later to make sure my reaction was warranted, or whether I owe them an apology for taking a joke too seriously or misinterpreting their words. My relationships with other people run more smoothly when I am more aware of my own circumstances.
Why, then, with all the benefits of self-knowledge, do we so often crave knowledge outside of ourselves, of Truth or Beauty or quantum physics? Part of this is man’s natural inclination to stick his nose in everything, whether or not it is his business; but there is also a dark side to introspection which causes many to avoid it. Drunkenness, for instance, can reveal many things about our desires, as wine frees the tongue and weakens social inhibitions—but often, what is revealed is violence, callousness, cruelty. We don’t necessarily want to know of what we are capable; studying the motion of electrons will never reveal unpleasant truths about our attitudes or wants:
This illusion is kinder
Than what you’ll find inside