Monday Morning Montaigne: Of glory

At my college graduation, a girl with whom I’d had a fling gave me a hug and then whispered to me, “You’re the most nauseating prick I’ve ever met.” I told her, “Hey! It’s a superlative! I’ll take it!”

Which brings us to Of glory (pp. 568-81). The opening of this one has a tone much different than that of the other essays:

There is the name and the thing. The name is a sound which designates and signifies the thing; the name is not part of the thing or of the substance, it is an extraneous piece attached to the thing, and outside of it.

God, who is himself all fullness and the acme of all perfection, cannot grow and increase within; but his name may grow and increase by the blessing and praise we give to his external works.

On the strength of that, I feared we were heading back into Sebond territory, filled with condemnations of man. While M. does lambaste man’s desire for glory, he doesn’t directly, repeatedly and explicitly contrast this with the nature of God, beyond that opening passage. “Theology treats this subject amply and more pertinently, but I am hardly versed in it,” he tells us.

So what does he make of glory? Well, it’s a mug’s game, but everyone falls for it. M. points out that even Epicurus, whose maxim was, “Conceal your life,” betrayed himself in his final letter by reveling in his learning and requesting all manner of posthumous celebrations.

In his arguments, M. intertwines glory and virtue, with the goal of undercutting glory. To do this, he needs to show how virtue is greater than glory, because it’s not public. Glory is, by its definition, public opinion, so it creates the perverse incentive of not performing a worthy act if it’s not going to be witnessed/talked about by the public. Virtue, on the other hand is “the testimony of our conscience,” and connects us to God, rather than to the people.

Further, glory depends on chance and opportunity. Just as RBI leaders need runners on base ahead of them, storied figures from history need the right circumstances to achieve their renown. That doesn’t stop sportswriters from overrating RBI leaders and voting them up as MVPs.

And sometimes, M. points out, even if the right circumstances arise, there’s no one to record the honor:

The fortunes of more than half the world, for lack of a record, do not stir from their place, and vanish without duration. If I had in my possession all the unknown events, I should think I could very easily supplant those that are known, in every kind of examples.

Why, even of the Romans and the Greeks, amid so many writers and witnesses of so many rare and noble exploits, how few have come down as far as our time!

Like I said, it’s a mug’s game. At the conclusion of the essay, he admits that there’s a certain utility to public glory: inspiring the people to virtue: “Since men, because of their inadequacy, cannot be sufficiently paid with good money, let false be employed, too.”

So what to make of the fact that M. is exploring the accidents and hollowness of glory, but I’m reading his words more than 400 years later? Surely that’s a form of glory, not merely his private virtue. Near the conclusion he writes:

It might perhaps be excusable for a painter or another artisan, or even for a rhetorician or a grammarian, to toil to acquire a name by his works; but the actions of virtue are too noble in themselves to seek any other reward than from their own worth, and especially to seek it in the vanity of human judgments.

I have no answer, but it put me in mind of another of this weekend’s readings: an interview with Carol Alt about glamour, fashion and celebrity.

I found this week’s essay fascinating, in part because M. admits that he’s treading over old terrain, but his view has deepened. In Of names, he writes about the temporariness of reputation and the ways in which we invest too much in the honor of our titles. Check out my writeup of that one, and you’ll see how the essays actually do show some progression of M.’s thought. Where the earlier essay barely discusses God or heaven, this one uses them at its very foundation.

But even with this evolution toward religion, M. manages to embed a paragraph in the middle of Of glory that could have come from his earlier, more freewheeling phase:

All the glory that I aspire to in my life is to have lived it tranquilly — tranquilly not according to Metrodorus or Arcesilaus or Aristippus, but according to me. Since philosophy has not been able to find a way to tranquility that is suitable to all, let everyone seek it individually.

And on that sentiment, I may as well call it a week.

* * *

Bonus writeups!

How our mind hinders itself (pp. 562-3): No two things are equal, even if we think they are. There’s always some difference, and that’s why we choose one thing (the bottle) instead of another (ham).

That our desire is increased by difficulty (pp. 563-8): Nothing groundbreaking; we want what we can’t have. Also, M. didn’t lock up his door for decades, but no one ever tried to break in, even during a civil war. One of my neighbors has a video-camera and an electric eye set up at the top of his driveway, so I wonder what he has to hide.

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