Monday Morning Montaigne: Of Democritus and Heraclitus

Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about Democritus or Heraclitus to enjoy this brief essay. (Yeah, “enjoy”. I know most of you dear readers don’t care for this project, but I’m sticking with it, because I’m finding all sorts of grist for my mill in it. Nyeh!) It begins with Montaigne explaining what he’s actually doing with these essays. See, he admits that he doesn’t know a ton about a lot of subjects, but insists on testing (essaying) them, as much to learn about himself as to learn about them:

I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me. And I never plan to develop them completely. For I do not see the whole of anything; nor do those who promise to show it to us.

M. looks to be setting us up for that Socratic paralysis (aporia) that leads to some sorta wisdom, but he veers off course when he writes about the individuality of minds:

Death is frightful to Cicero, desirable to Cato, a matter of indifference to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their opposites — all are stripped on entry and receive from the soul new clothing, and the coloring that she chooses [. . .] and which each individual soul chooses [. . .] Let us no longer make the external qualities of things our excuse; it is up to us to reckon them as we will.

What I’m getting out of this is that the pursuit of Truth is fine, but it’s a different project than understanding the vagaries of the human soul. And when it comes to that soul, we need to be aware of the lows as well as the highs:

Every movement reveals us. That same mind of Caesar’s which shows itself in ordering and directing the battle of Pharsalia, shows itself also in arranging idle and amorous affairs. We judge a horse not only by seeing him handled on a racecourse, but also by seeing him walk, and even by seeing him resting in the stable. [. . .] Each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays him and reveals him just as well as any other.

“Every movement reveals us.” Most religions feature an afterlife in which judgment gets passed on the dead, all of their deeds and thoughts recorded on a ledger, held to account. For M., we go in the other direction, extrapolating the soul from a single fragment. For those of us who consider our lives to be tangles of contradictions, this is a strange notion, but maybe M.’s telling us that we don’t have the perspective to understand what seems inexplicable to us about ourselves.

In his essays, M. quotes liberally from Cicero, Plutarch, Virgil and others. From me, you get the Coen brothers:

It’s like pulling away from the maze. While you’re in the maze, you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into the dead ends, one thing after another.

But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain. But seeing it whole gives you some peace.

–“The Man Who Wasn’t There”

When M. finally gets to the Democritus/Heraclitus comparison, it’s merely to ask what’s better: to laugh at the “vain and ridiculous condition of man” or to lament and pity it. He sides with the former, figuring that laughter shows more disdain for mankind, while pity gives it some esteem: “We are not so full of evil as of inanity; we are not as wretched as we are worthless.”

I’ll let you know when I figure out what his concept of redemption is. If you’ve read this far, why don’t you leave a comment about what yours is?

2 Replies to “Monday Morning Montaigne: Of Democritus and Heraclitus”

  1. Thank you so much for your post! I had to read it from one of my English books and I couldn’t understand it for the life of me! Keep doing what you’re doing.

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