I want to compare these two because it is interesting to note that Machiavelli was writing at least a generation prior to Montaigne, which to me indicates that Montaigne was not really the originator of the modern essay. Anybody who has read The Prince will understand that little book seems to take the form of what we would consider, in the modern day, an essay. It has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, as well as being meticulously researched. However, the other thing I wish to mention, the one thing that I like about both authors, is that while they use a lot of classical references in their arguments, they also refer to contemporaneous events.
Both authors also provide us with a window on their contemporary world and of events that we probably would not otherwise know. Okay, both of them are probably writing after these events occurred, sometimes a couple of centuries, but when considering the distance in time to these event, we see that these two writers provide us not only with an outline of the event, but also use them to prove a point. Granted, every writer of history is bringing their own opinion to bare onto their writings (I know I do), but sometimes it is really helpful to see these events in the context of some argument. Granted, they are probably not the only authors who write about these events, but by putting them into context of some argument, it goes a long way to add flesh to what would normally be a skeletal account.
This is one of the examples of how Montainge would take almost anything and write a little thesis on it: this particular one is on how close laughter and sorrow really are. I guess many of us (I hope) have been in the situation where we have found something so funny that we literally burst into tears (I know I have). On the other hand, there are times when things just simply get so bad that we literally end up laughing. They say that laughter is the best medicine, and while in some cases it is true, I would not recommend laughing at somebody’s funeral (though I must admit it does happen, and quite often, not that I have been to many funerals – in a way, a funeral without laughter makes us wonder whether this person’s life really had an impact upon us). Montaigne cites a number of examples of where kings have cried at victory, but this is not the same thing. Ceaser cried when he was handed Pompey’s head because of the ignoble nature of his death. Pompey was slain by a treacherous crewmember who did not understand the long and deep relationship that Ceaser had with him. The crewman thought he was doing Ceaser a favour, but in reality he was wrong. Pompey was Ceaser’s friend, and while they did go to war, Ceaser was not looking for Pompey’s blood, or his head for that matter.
Pretty much this essay is about relativity, more specifically relativity when it comes of moral behaviour. Many churches argue that this is a new thing, but it is not. Socrates discussed the idea of whether morality was relative or absolute, and here Montaigne seems to believe that in some cases morality is relative. In fact, even the Bible seems to divide morality into the relative and the absolute. There are the morals which are absolute, such as murder and worshipping other gods, and then there are the relative ones, such as eating meat (which was a huge issue in the church back then). I will also suggest that there are some such as sexual conduct which is also relative (and drinking alcohol). To some it is okay, to others it is not. However, one should not be insisting that the other accept their relative views.
Montaigne does not seem to explore the topic all that much but rather throw a lot of examples at us to show how morality is relative. One instance involves the king of Spain kicking all of the Jews out of his kingdom, who then fled to Portugal where they were going to be shipped off to Africa. However this never happened because the king kept on changing the laws. At one point all of the Jewish children were abducted to be raised in Christian homes, at which point the Jews then began to murder all of their children. This is a way that turns an idea of murder into a relative concept. The law says though shalt not murder, and then proceeds to give us a bucket load of exceptions (such as having sex with a goat). The idea was that it was believed that it was better to murder a child than to force a child to grow up as a heathen.
I also agree that it is not death, but rather the pain that makes us fear death. In a book I recently read there is this belief that because we do not fear death we believe that we can face death. That may be true, but can we handle the pain that leads to this death? The book suggested that many cannot. However, Montaigne goes further and suggests that even the pain that leads to death does not necessarily mean that somebody will do evil simply to avoid that pain. In some cases people would rather suffer the physical pain than to life a life of guilt because of the evil that they had done (for instance, recanting one’s faith). This is even more so when this evil that one person refuses to commit is what could be considered a relative evil as opposed to an objective evil (for instance living a life of singleness because one believes that it is evil to marry a person who does not share your faith).
It seems that in this essay though Montaigne does not have a consistent flow of thought because he then goes on to talk about wealth and poverty, and suggests that greed (which is an objective evil in my eyes) is not created by poverty but by wealth. He suggests that greed is scorned by those that have plenty and simply want more, as opposed to those that have nothing and simply want their daily bread. I am sure everybody dreams of being wealthy, but I suspect most of the people that dream those dreams live in the developed world, were we are already considerably more wealthier than the majority world. This would have been moreso in Montaigne’s day were the wealthy were few and far between.
It is interesting though, because I did hear of a story of a successful businessman who had a beautiful wife. He had everything, and could probably have more, but there was one problem, he was seeing a psychologist. So, if this person is wealthy materially why was he seeing a psychologist? I never found out the answer.
Essay 1:44 On Sleeping
It seems that Montaigne would be happy to write an essay on almost anything. I don’t think it is because he couldn’t think of anything else to write about, but rather because he felt that any topic was worthy of an essay. I must admit that, like everybody, I like my sleep. It refreshes me and re-energises me (in the same way that food does), however sometimes I feel that sleep can be counter-productive. I have heard of people that get away with four hours of sleep a night, however I also suspect that these people also end up burning themselves out bigtime. They say that 8 hours is a good amount of time to sleep, though we can get away with less, but should also give ourselves time to have a lot more.
Some of Montaignes examplies seem to be a bit over the top, such as the guy who slept for 57 years. Okay, the body does slow down when you sleep meaning that you do not need to have as much food as otherwise, but I am sure that if you slept for 57 years you probably won’t be waking up again. I believe that people who are in comas still have to be fed intravenously. There is also the story of the tribe that sleeps for half a year and wakes for half a year. This also sounds a bit far fetched, but that is probably more possible considering that there are animals (such as bears) that do hibernate for extended periods.
Essay 1:46 On Names
This essay is somewhat amusing, and somewhat serious, and I guess it raises the question of what is a name. Is a name simply just a collection of pen marks (or sounds) or is it something a lot deeper. Montaigne points out that there are a lot of people with the same name but have different personalities. This is noticeable back in the Ancient World where people did not necessarily have multiple names (as we do now, though the Romans sometimes had up to six). He indicates that he notes that there were at least three Socrates, numerous Platos and Xenephons, and I can even point out at least two Jesus’ (in the Bible that is). While they may have the same name, they are not the same person (though a person’s tribe in Athens would also form part of their name). He also indicates that just because somebody has a certain name does not mean that they will automatically act in a certain way, for instance a stable boy with the name Pompey the Great (I hardly expect a stable boy would go around calling himself ‘the Great’) is highly unlikely to go out at start a civil war (though we never know) and then go and have his head cut off in Egypt (but then again anything is possible).
He also talks about surnames, which we must remember is a relatively knew development, particularly for commoners. He suggests that a surname is like a coat of arms which can be incorporated and also sold (though I have never heard of anybody selling their surname). Some people even play with names, such as the example of the King who sat everybody at a table in alphabetical order according to their names, and then served them a meal according to their names (so that Peter was served Pork, though I wonder what Zak would have had to eat).
Names, in the end, are identifications (though they can y have a meaning, as indicated previously just because you have a certain name does not mean you will behave in a certain way – I am sure that there are a lot of David’s out there that do not feel all that beloved). Apparently Socrates said that it is the duty of the father to give the child a fine sounding name, though sometimes we wonder if that is the case these days. Modern society seems to treat names as some sort of game (such as the pop stars naming their children silly names like ‘Heavenly Moon’ though once again we have always done things like that, it is just that the names we have now are borrowed from ancient languages, such as Phillip meaning ‘Lover of Horses’, Stephen meaning ‘crown’, and Peter meaning ‘Rock’). Also we can change our name at will, but to me I find that to change one’s name as such is to dishonour one’s parents.
Another thing about names is that we generally do not give them to ourselves. With the exception of the Asians who come to Australia to study and give themselves English sounding names (because we Anglo’s find Asian languages really hard to pronounce properly) we do not give ourselves our names, we earn them. Our first names are given to us by our parents, our surnames we inherit, and our nick names are given to us by our friends. Some of us will refuse to respond to certain names (such to knobhead), but once again it makes me think that the idea of us changing our names for our own reason is only because we want to take control over our lives (which, in the end, is impossible).
This is not necessarily an essay about horses but rather about horses that are used as mounts. To be honest, the horse is not the only animal that is used as a mount, however for speed it is one of the best. Elephants have also been used as mounts, but that is usually because they are big and can stomp the enemy pretty hard.
It is interesting that Montaigne notes that the Turks had forbidden the Jews and Christians from owning horses, though this is not surprising because horses can be used as weapons of war. It would be the same in some countries where certain members of the population are forbidden from owning cars simply because cars can give the owner a freedom that they may otherwise not have. Horses are the same because horses give you a much wider range for roaming than walking does.
Montaigne also mentions that he believes that the Arabian Steed is the best horse in the world, but that is probably a matter of opinion, and not being a horseman myself I cannot comment. What I can comment on is how he claims that the French are the best horsemen. This is clearly little more than nationalistic pride because everybody knows that the world’s best horsemen were the Mongols (apparently they lived on horseback).
Essay 1:56 On Prayers and Orisons
This is a decidedly Christian essay, which differs from a lot of the other essays that Montaigne wrote because they generally stay out of the spiritual realm and generally do not have anything to do with Christianity. I guess that is because Montaigne is what we consider a humanist. Not a modern humanist (who claims that humanity is god) but a Renaissance humanist who realised that knowledge could be obtained from places outside of the Church (Luther was also a Humanist in that sense).
While this is an essay about praying to the Christian God, he still refers back to classical authors; in particular Plato. We note that Plato lists three fallacies about prayer (something that we as modern Christians should also take to heart because we also find ourselves falling into that danger). The fallacies are 1) there is no God, 2) God does not answer prayers, and 3) God answers all prayers. I would suggest that these fallacies are not so much that people can fall into them all at one time, but can still drift through each of them throughout their life.
Notice that Montaigne also accepts that God is love. Despite being a humanist he believes in a God and he believes in a loving God. I say this because there are many out their that despise humanism, but do not really understand what humanism is. Montaigne, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli, were all humanists, but they also all believed in God.
There is also the theme running through here about the prayer of the wicked man, and that this prayer is ignored by God. Is this true? I cannot answer simply because I am not God. Also, does God only answer the prayers of the faithful, and if that is the case, who are the faithful? Remember that the Pharasies in the Bible believed wholeheartedly that they were faithful, but the also received the harshest rebukes from Jesus (that is beyond his disciplines, but then again they were being groomed to lead the church after he ascended to Heaven).
Motaigne praises the law as being beautiful and perfect, reflecting the language of the Psalms, but once again he does not quote the Psalms, or any of the other parts of the Bible. Another interesting thing is that he argues why the Vulgate is the correct translation, and points to the Hebrew and Islamic texts. The problem is that the Bible was not written in Latin, but in Greek (or at least the New Testament was) and while the New Testament was written in Greek, we need to remember that all of those speaking in the Gospels originally spoke in Aramaic. It is unclear whether Jesus actaully spoke any languages beyond Aramaic, and the fact that the Bible indicates that he emptied himself of all of this power, I suspect that he was bound by language in much the same way as the rest of us are.
Essay 1:57 On Old Age
This was a popular topic back in the ancient times, and it is a shame that these days the older generation are not shown the same respect that they used to be. In fact while I accept that we must encourage and develop our youth because they do bring fresh ideas, we must remember that the elderly have a wisdom that many of us don’t have. These days the whole idea of the being the youngest to attain a position is getting beyond a joke. A recent Federal election had a 19 year old elected to parliament. Okay, granted, it is illegal to discriminate on age, but while age does not necessarily mean experience, being young generally means that you can lack it.
I have noticed that a lot of partners in law firms that I have worked with look very young and it makes me wonder once they get to the top, whether they can go any further. The truth is that they can, depending on the area of law that they practice. A lot of partners will move from practicing law to running companies, or even running a country. Julia Gillard was once a partner at a law firm, as was John Howard.
One other thing that I have noticed is that Montaigne indicates the existence of dementia back in his days when he speaks about how some people seem to lose their mind before they lose their sight. Some suggest that a way to combat dementia is to keep ones mind active, however a part of me thinks that that is not the grand solution to this problem (and since Terry Pratchett died of dementia, I guess that theory isn’t all that true).
This is one of those discussions not so much on drunkenness but on virtue and vice. Okay, Montaigne does seem to like drunkenness, but seems to get it mixed up with the idea of making merry. That is interesting because I wonder to what extent is he referring to being drunk. These day we tend to think of drunkenness as being the extreme, though we do have a lot of different words to describe the stages of being drunk, from tipsy to plastered. The Bible does not necessarily condemn being tipsy as the psalms say that God created wine to gladden the hearts of man, however it does warn us against the extremes; for instance it describes being drunk as like being on a ship, the addictive nature of alcohol, and the inevitable hangover.
However, as a vice, drunkedness tends to stand out in that it is not subtle and the effects are not subtle. Okay, some might say that sex is not subtle, but I am inclined to disagree in that the adverse effects do not become apparent until sometime down the track and other vices, such as greed, tend to have destructive results upon others as opposed to oneself. One of my favourite biblical passages on virtue and vice is Galatians 5:19 ‘Now the works of the flesh are evident: prostitution (the translators usually use the words sexual immorality, but I believe that that is an incorrect translation), impurity, sensuality, idolatory, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, division, envy, drunkedness, orgies, and things like these.’ Looking at this list, we note that many of these vices involve living a decadent life (sensuality is not sexual, but rather much broader in scope), and indicates a life in which we fight and bicker with people and hold our own pleasure above those of others.
Essay 2:8 Of the Affections of Fathers to their Children. To the Lady of Estissae.
I was initially trying to keep these to a minimum since if I wrote a comment on all of Montaigne’s essays we will be here for ages (though his book might still be longer than my comments). Anyway, as I read through this one (and it is quite long) a few things did pop up on which I wanted to comment.
This particular essay, as you can tell from the title, is about raising children. In those days, especially among the aristocracy, the father and the child would hardly see each other, an in many cases they would not see the mother either. The idea of children being seen but not heard did not even exist then. In fact, it was usually nannys and tutors that would spend most of their time with the children. Also, due to large age differences between the mother and the father, fathers tended to be old enough, in our terms, to be grandparents, which gave rise to the idea of God being an old and distant man, as is reflected of the aristocratic father.
Another thing he mentions is child mortality, which was quite high in those days and as is clear from Montaigne’s essay, it was also the case among the aristocratic families. Montaigne indicates that most of his children died young, and his daughter only managed to live until the age of six. This is much different in our days with a much higher life expectancy among children, however this is only evident in the western world. Many times we hide the fact that in the majority world child mortality is actually still very high.
As a final note on this rather long topic, I notice that in book two there is a lot more mention of the Christian God, and in fact Montaigne seems to even differentiate the Christian God from say, Socrates’ God. His earlier work seemed to focus more on the classical period, but since the second and third book of essays were released much later in life, I guess this shows a lot more maturity and understanding on his part. In a way he does not seem to be going down the modern humanist path of completely rejecting the spiritual world, however he seems to be noting a difference between the pagan and the Christian world.
Montaigne seems to talk about the destruction of ancient texts by some overzealous emperors in the later Roman Empire (such as Theodosius, who banned the Olympic Games due to their pagan origins, and no doubt would have gone on a witch hunt and a book burning exercise as well) in this essay, though I suspect that it has more to do with maintaining a clear conscience. Mind you, most of the destruction of ancient literature was actually the result of Julius Ceaser accidentally burning down the Great Library, and then later the second Great Library being destroyed by the Muslim invaders in the late 7th century. However, a glance at Wikipedia also suggests that Theodosius also had a hand in destroying the library.
What I suspect the reason for this is that Montaigne does not necessarily believe that just because something is written by an unbeliever does not necessarily mean that it is bad. It is not a question of whether they are Christian or not but whether the writings assist us in maintaining a clear conscience. It was Plato that indicated that living a virtuous life is the better life, and Plato was, well, a Platonist.
Essay 2:23 How a Man Should Not Counterfeit to be Sick
Montaigne tells a story of a Roman who had a dream that he was blind and when he woke up he discovered that he was, in fact, blind. Now, I suspect there are other reasons behind why that happened as opposed to pure willpower in itself, but Montaigne is right to warn us against feigning sickness. The reason for that is that our mind is so powerful that we can will ourselves to being sick and the desire to be sick can actually make us even sicker.
Another aspect, especially in this day and age, is when somebody can get money out of being sick. In Australia, where we have a pension, there are many people who will feign sickness to get onto the pension because it is more than the dole. However, in litigious circles, such counterfeit sickness becomes even more obvious because the sicker you are the more money you can get. In fact, people will go out of their way (and are supported by lawyers and doctors) to appear to be so disabled that they theoretically should be dead. Mind you, this is also self defeating because by constantly believing you are in pain you will always be in pain, though as the saying goes, the best medicine is a compensation cheque.
Essay 2:30 On the Monsterous Child
This is an interesting one because Montaigne describes a child that is clearly a Siamese Twin. Obviously such deformities existed in those days as well as ours, however in those days people would parade them around the country in freak shows making money off of their suffering. However, even further back, such things were seen as bad omens. The question that is also raised by Montaigne is whether such people are loved by God despite their monstrous appearance: the answer to that will always be yes.
One thought on “Montaigne’s Essays – A French Aristocrat shares his personal opinions”
One thing I have actually noticed is that often there are plenty of common myths regarding the banking companies intentions when talking about property foreclosures. One fantasy in particular is the fact that the bank wishes to have your house. The lending company wants your cash, not the house. They want the funds they lent you with interest. Averting the bank will undoubtedly draw a new foreclosed summary. Thanks for your post.
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