Montaigne: Funerals and Me

Note: I’ve decided to queue a couple of these little guys, just as fun Friday extras. They’re not stunning, which is why Montaigne’s not getting a full thing, but they’re good enough to be published as free extras. Enjoy!

I’m having a little trouble with Montaigne. This is something that happens sometimes when I start a new author – I obviously have a pretty particular shtick here, in terms of how I structure my writing, and sometimes you just hit an author that doesn’t work with that style. It’s something that happened with Kierkegaard – although that was in an entirely different category. With Kierkegaard, you sort of have to read the whole book before you can say something about it. It’s harder to tear out chunks. Montaigne isn’t quite the same – if anything, he’s got the opposite issue – but there’s an identical end result of me not being sure how to approach writing about him. I’ll give it a whirl, and we’ll see how it goes, but he might not be here for long.

So the first thing you need to know is that you should go and read Montaigne. Just go and read his Essays. Just do it. Just go. They’re super readable, and I love them. However, there’s not always a lot for me to say about them. I’ll give you a quick example – I’ve got a Penguin edition, and the first essay is called ‘We reach the same end by discrepant means’. It basically says that when two people have a fight, the loser can soften the winner’s heart by being submissive, but also sometimes by being brave and steadfast. He then lists a few different historical examples: some where the loser has come out and humbled themselves, and the winner has been all like ‘well I respect you humbling yourself so let’s be chill,’ and then others where the loser has been like ‘get fucked I’mma still fight you’ and the winner has been like ‘man look at the nuts on this guy nah we’re chill lol’. And that’s it. One end, two approaches. I could probably wank on about human psychology and how we all value different things, but fundamentally I have nothing to add. It’s a nice observation. It’s four pages long. I got nothing else to say.

So I’m trying to figure out what to do with Montaigne at the moment. I’m going to read the Essays, because I really enjoy them. They’re neat. I don’t know that I’ll have much to say here, but we’ll just see how we go. I’ll probably experiment with a couple of different approaches and see if anything feels particularly compelling. Aside from that, just go read him. If I don’t get anything interesting out, I’ll probably pick up a second writer, because I don’t want to skip over the secular author entirely. Montaigne isn’t even secular, uh, he’s from like the sixteenth century. I more just mean that he’s not writing exclusively on religion or theology. He’s not Luther or whatever. Anyway after this we’re doing Calvin’s Institutes, and that’s potentially going to be another Aquinas-length project, so I want to do justice to something else before we get there.

Alright: I’ll give this one a bit of a crack. In one essay, titled ‘That our deeds are judged by the intention’, Montaigne reflects on the shit people put in their wills. “Death, they say, settles all obligations.” He offers an anecdote about Henry VII, who made a deal to get a treacherous Duke sent back to England. One of the conditions of the deal was that Henry wasn’t allowed to hurt the Duke in any way. Apparently in his will, however, he asked his son Henry VIII to murder the Duke as soon as he passed. What a sneaky fucker. In Montaigne’s opinion, “the King of England, by breaking his word intentionally, cannot be absolved just because he put off the act of treachery until after his death.” Our deeds are judged by the intention: Henry VII was trying to break his word, and being dead doesn’t change that. Montaigne goes on to say that it’s even worse when people save their spite for some provision in their will, “having concealed it during their lifetime.” If you hate someone, be proactive – hate them today. Don’t just secretly cut them out of the will and leave them to realise you hated them after you’re dead. Montaigne refers to such passive-aggressive people as “iniquitous judges, postponing judgement until they can no longer take cognizance of the case.” He vows that in his case, his death will say nothing not already said by his life.

And I mean what the fuck am I supposed to add to that? That’s perfect. Let’s try another one: in his essay ‘On a ready or hesitant delivery’, Montaigne talks about different types of thought process: “It seems that it is, rather, the property of Man’s wit to act readily and quickly, while the property of the judgement is to be slow and poised.” It’s basically the sixteenth-century version of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. What I found really interesting about it was a little throw-away bit at the end, where Montaigne says this:

“The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself… where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement.” 

I just found that really resonated. I don’t know if anyone else experiences this, but – actually yeah you fucking do. It’s the thing when someone asks you for an interesting fact, and your mind immediately goes blank. Or when they ask you to say something about yourself and you’re all like ‘uhh what even am I’. Everybody knows that shit. That’s what Montaigne is talking about: we discover ourselves more by accident, more by the occasion, than by sitting in a room and self-analysing. I like that idea, that our selves are only drawn out in response to something. The other implication is that we are in some sense foreign to ourselves. Montaigne talks about discovering himself, and I think we’ve all had a similar experience: something happens and a part of you responds that you didn’t know existed. The implication is that we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of our own selves – otherwise we wouldn’t get blindsided by these unexpected impulses, right. We are in some sense foreign to ourselves.

I’ve no idea how that phenomenon is understood on a psychological level, but it certainly raises questions about what it means to be an individual. If I get really angry about something, I’m responsible for my actions. But if I didn’t expect to get angry – if I never knew that a given stimuli would provoke such a strong reaction – then the phrasing gets a little bit weird. I got really angry and, say, threw my Xbox out the window, but I don’t normally behave like that. It’s ‘my’ action, but ‘I’ never knew I had that kind of thing ‘in me’. That pronoun is working on a whole bunch of different levels – there’s almost like the conscious self, the subject, but also this wider set of biological networks and reactions that’s attributed to me but that’s not necessarily identical with ‘me’ as subject, even though I’m ultimately responsible for it. I honestly don’t have the language to pursue this line of thought any further, but there’s interesting stuff in that direction. Montaigne raises those sorts of pretty cool questions. Don’t necessarily have a lot of intelligent things to say about them, but there you go.

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