Monday Morning Montaigne: Of physiognomy

It takes Montaigne 22 pages to bring physiognomy into Of physiognomy (pp. 964-992), but Socrates’ ugly mug looms over the entire essay.

M. uses the essay to stress his desire for natural virtue, for living within one’s nature, for allowing death in its time. Law and religion should “perfect and authorize” this virtue, but we should focus on that which “sustains itself without help.” To that end, he praises both Socrates’ plain-spoken style — “His mouth is full of nothing but carters, joiners, cobblers and masons” — and the lives of the peasants.

Peasants, M. tells us, don’t spend their days worrying about their end. They work, and they get old, and they die. It’s not so easy for us. Learning is a vice, bringing us anticipation and anxiety toward death. M. contrasts

I never saw one of my peasant neighbors cogitating over the countenance and assurance with which he would pass this last hour. Nature teaches him not to think about death except when he is dying. And then he has better grace about it than Aristotle, whom death oppresses doubly, both by itself and by such a long foreknowledge.


What if knowledge, trying to arm us with new defenses against natural mishaps, has imprinted in our fancy their magnitude and weight, more than the reasons and subtleties to protect us from them?

It’s a messed-up way of looking at things, to my modern eyes, because it portrays the peasants as animals, not people. But then, some of us do the same thing when we characterize poor people and goof on “Wal-Mart America,” so hey. He proposes a school of stupidity, so that we can learn how to stop worrying about death.

(Last week, when I was walking to my car at lunchtime, I passed a Hispanic guy who was working on the landscaping crew outside our office. We made way for each other on the sidewalk, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge each other as people. In my car, I thought about M.’s sentimental/animal take on peasants and the lead character’s remark in Synecdoche, New York: “There are billions of people in the world, and none of those people is an extra.” I wondered what his life was like, what he does with it, and what he saw and thought when we walked past each other.)

Death, M. writes, so close to the end of his book and his life, “is indeed the end, but not therefore the goal, of life; it is its finish, its extremity, but not therefore its object. Life should be an end unto itself, a purpose unto itself; its rightful study is to regulate, conduct and suffer itself. Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die.”

In the middle of the essay, M. digresses from the subject of learning and readiness-to-death to discuss the civil war and plague that has racked his region. It seemed out of place to me, but shortly after, M. quotes a page-long passage from Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates addresses his judges in Athens. His unwillingness to argue with the judges, tacitly accepting their death sentence, contrasts with the civil war of M.’s time: the philosopher of the ages will let his city put him to death because his defense argument would overthrow the authority of the city itself. Better to trust the gods to put things straight.

It was difficult to keep the pieces of this essay in front of me. It fragments wildly. As I mentioned, M. doesn’t get to the subject of physiognomy until page 22 of this 28-page essay. When he does, I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make. On the one hand, he tells us, “There is nothing more likely than the conformity and relation of the body to the spirit.” On the other, the two most beautiful spirits he cites — Socrates and La Boetie — were ugly men. “The face,” he writes, “is a weak guarantee.”

However, he concludes Of physiognomy with a pair of anecdotes in which his life was threatened, but his kindly demeanor and honest words saved him. “If my face did not answer for me, if people did not read in my eyes and my voice the innocence of my intentions, I would not have lasted so long without quarrel and without harm.”

(Good news! You only have on more of these insane, rambling posts to go!)

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