Monday Morning Montaigne: Of Cruelty

Montaigne’s discussion of cruelty begins with a discussion of virtue and ends with a request to treat animals right. He sets out to divide virtue from “being good” by explaining that virtue requires struggle: “[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and . . . it cannot be exercised without opposition.” He adds that God is considered many good things, but not virtuous, because “his operations are wholly natural and effortless.”

Similarly, Socrates has so subsumed human vices that he seems to be beyond virtue: “I know his reason to be so powerful and so much the master in him that it would never so much as let a vicious appetite be born. I can put nothing up against a virtue as lofty as his.” And his chosen death is “beautiful.”

But for the rest of us, virtue must strain against vice. Except when our ethnic stereotypes come into play:

An Italian lord once maintained this theme in presence, to the disadvantage of his nation: that the subtlety of the Italians and the liveliness of their imaginations were so great, that they foresaw the dangers and accidents that could happen to them from so far off, that it should not be thought strange if in war they were often seen providing for their security even before having recognized the peril; that we and the Spaniards, who were not so sharp, went further, and had to be made to see the danger with our own eyes and touch it with our hands before taking fright, and that then we too no longer had any control; but that the Germans and Swiss, coarser and heavier, had hardly the sense to reconsider even when they were overwhelmed by blows.

This put me in mind of one of my favorite Orwell passages, from England, Your England:

National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling. Obviously such things don’t matter in themselves. Nevertheless, nothing is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell something about the realities of English life.

He proceeds to decry cruelty in its many states. M. being M., he draws up a laundry list of historical cruelties of capital punishment, focusing as usual on the Romans. He argues that there is nothing so monstrous as murder for its own sake “without enmity, without profit” before turning his attention to the plight of animals. He can’t stand cruelty to animals, but admits that he enjoys a good hunt.

For his part, M. argues that his reason is much more perverse than any natural inclination he may have toward vice: “[M]y lust [is] less depraved than my reason.” He counters the Cynics’ lesson, “Unlearn evil,” by contending that “chance of birth” is responsible for whatever goodness he possesses.

That sentiment makes this essay curiously worthless. When M. admits that it’s in his nature not to be cruel and to shun most vices (while still embracing minor ones), he seems to discount the impact of learning and modifying one’s own behavior. Or, at least, he’s saying, “That works for some people, but I guess I’m just lucky.”

Of course, this is the same approach I have toward friends who have told me how important psychotherapy has been in their lives.

This is the last “regular-sized” essay before the 170-page Apology for Raymond Sebond. Not sure how I’ll write about that one, but since you guys don’t read these posts, that shouldn’t concern you too much.

2 Replies to “Monday Morning Montaigne: Of Cruelty”

  1. I’m not going to think profoundly about this essay, for I agree with the judgement assayed above:

    That sentiment makes this essay curiously worthless. When M. admits that it’s in his nature not to be cruel and to shun most vices (while still embracing minor ones), he seems to discount the impact of learning and modifying one’s own behavior. Or, at least, he’s saying, “That works for some people, but I guess I’m just lucky.”

    If, finally, the essayist would simply admit to a given stance, we might be able to have an intelligent discussion. But M’s famous “vagueness”/”. . . ce qui cerne l’objet mêsme” defeats us here. It took him 9 pp (édition Rat)—!!!— before he mentioned the word “cruauté”—odd, odd. . .

    I guess I do disagree that M. discounts “learning.” He everywhere allows for it.

    RAH

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