Monday Morning Montaigne: Of presumption

Of presumption runs 30 pages (pp. 581-610 in my edition) in my Complete Works of Montaigne and, like other great essays in the book, its title gives no indication of what’s ahead. The essay begins with a description of a “kind of vainglory”: esteeming oneself too much and not esteeming others enough. It ends with a justification of the entire project of the Essays. I think.

Much of the essay consists of M.’s litany of his own faults and shortcomings; while some of them are quite funny (he knows less than zero about his own estate and “if you give me all the equipment of a kitchen, I shall starve”), his attacks on his own writing lead him into a trap he set in the second paragraph of this essay: trying so hard to avoid vainglory that one demonstrates low self-esteem: “If he is Caesar, let him boldly judge himself the greatest captain in the world.”

But setting aside his self-deprecation, I think this essay may provide some illumination into what the Essays are actually about. That is, they cover a wide range of topics, and M. has been pretty explicit that their true subject matter is really M. himself. In this one, he writes:

The world always looks straight ahead; as for me, I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others always go elsewhere, if they stop to think about it; they always go forward; “No man tried to descend into himself;” [Persius] as for me, I roll about in myself.

But the question of why he wrote and who he’s trying to reach is what interests me.

I tend to look for importance in seemingly tangential remarks, which is probably why I tend to speak in full paragraphs and try to keep silent rather than blurting out a response when I’m under pressure. Of presumption appears to be littered with signals amidst the “noise” of describing presumption. Enmeshed in M.’s condemnations of his flightiness, shortness, hairiness, poor Latin and “corrupted” French, poor memory, dull storytelling, lack of physicality, “harsh and disdainful” language, ignorance of the quotidian, lack of deliberation, etc., are brief passages that tell us, “I know I roll about in myself, but it’s all worth it.”

The first clue comes quite early in the essay (p. 582). M. mentions that great figures — placed in that position by Fortune and not some innate greatness, of course — demonstrate their character through public actions. But what about everyone else?

But those whom [Fortune] has employed only in a mass, and of whom no one will speak unless they do themselves, may be excused if they have the temerity to speak of themselves to those who have an interest in knowing them, after the example of Lucilius: “He would confide, as unto trusted friends, / His secrets to his notebooks; turn there still, / Not elsewhere, whether faring well or ill. / So that the old man’s whole life lay revealed / As on a votive tablet.” [Horace] That man committed to his paper his actions and thoughts, and portrayed himself there as he felt he was.

Twenty pages later, he notes:

One day at Bar-le-Duc I saw King Francis II presented, in remembrance of Rene, king of Sicily, with a portrait that this king had made of himself. Why is it not permissible in the same way for each man to portray himself with the pen, as he portrayed himself with a pencil?

I don’t want to paint M. as the ur-blogger, but don’t remarks like those seem to presage the “mainstream media vs. citizen bloggers” split? Okay, that’s probably a stretch, but at least he’s right on with his complaints about critics!

And then, for whom do you write? The learned men to whom it falls to pass judgment on books know no other value than that of learning, and admit no other procedure for our minds than that of erudition and art. If you have mistaken one of the Scipios for the other, what is there left for you to say that can be worth while? Anyone who does not know Aristotle, according to them, by the same token does not know himself. Common, ordinary minds do not see the grace and the weight of a lofty and subtle speech. Now, these two types fill the world. The third class into whose hands you come, that of minds regulated and strong in themselves, is so rare that for this very reason it has neither name nor rank among us; it is time half wasted to aspire and strive to please this group.

I think it’s that third class that give us our clue into M.’s project. Near the end of this essay, he rails against education, right after complaining about the mediocrity of contemporary men, their only glory coming through valor on the battlefield. (Shakespeare was only 16 when this essay was completed.)

I gladly return to the subject of the ineptitude of our education. Its goal has been to make us not good or wise, but learned; it has attained this goal. It has not taught us to follow and embrace virtue and wisdom, but has imprinted in us their derivation and etymology. We know how to decline virtue, if we cannot love it. If we do not know what wisdom is by practice and experience, we know it by jargon and by rote. . . [Education] has chosen for instruction not those books that have the soundest and truest opinions, but those that speak the best Greek and Latin; and amid its beautiful words, it has poured into our minds the most inane humors of antiquity.

So is that the goal of the Essays? To demonstrate virtue and wisdom? To reach that elusive third class of people? M.’s self-fascination and self-deprecation would seem to undermine that goal, but as I mentioned last week, the point remains that M. went through the process of writing, and revising his essays, of making them public.

It pus me in mind of the close of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Of presumption has a billion more strands I need to take up, but this is all you get for the moment. You’ve been warned: this is an essay I can see myself coming back to repeatedly.

5 Replies to “Monday Morning Montaigne: Of presumption”

  1. “I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself.” Boy does that sound like Whitman. Well, actually, boy does Whitman sound like him.


  2. Learning to follow and embrace virtue and wisdom is different, of course, form demonstrating virtue and wisdom. And maybe not incompatible with M.’s self-fascination and self-deprecation would seem to undermine that goal. Maybe it’s not incompatible with either set of goals. Over the gate or arch or whatever at Delphi, the visitor was greeted by Know Thyself! I think. and somewhere in the Bible (I think) it says To thyself be true. You can’t do that without knowing yourself. And Gnosticism was caught up in knowing who you are and where you came from–self-knowlege. And aren’t at least half the blunders we make in the world because we do not know who we are or what we want … we marry Y only to discover, much too late for Y, we really wanted X. You once warned me I had to learn to be happy alone–without someone to “make” me happy; you were right. It took me a long time after that to realize I cannot make anyone else happy until I first make myself happy, alone. I suppose I digress.

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