Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 3

I made it through the longest portion of the Apology, dear readers! And while it was as depressing and sermonistically strident as the preceding 60 pages, some light popped up at the end of the tunnel!

This segment of the Apology — go back to previous installments of this series (1 and 2) for the background on this part of Montaigne’s essays — is titled by our translator as Man has no knowledge (pages 449-508 in this edition) and examines the failures and inconsistencies of philosophy to explain, um, anything. M. focuses on the Greeks, which makes given the state of philosophy at the time he was writing. He breaks out three schools of “wise men,” since his project is to show that the learning of man is worthless. Or, as he puts it:

To really learned men has happened what happens to ears of wheat: they rise high and lofty, heads erect and proud, as long as they are empty; but when they are full and swollen with grain in their ripeness, they begin to grow humble and lower their horns. Similarly, men who have tried everything and sounded everything, having found in that pile of knowledge and store of so many various things nothing solid and firm, and nothing but vanity, have renounced their presumption and recognized their natural condition.

Back to the three schools. We have:

  1. “Peripatetics, Epicureans and Stoics . . . [who] established the sciences we have, and treated them as certain knowledge,
  2. “the Academics . . . [who] despaired of their quest and judged that truth could not be conceived by our powers,
  3. “[Pyrrhonians and] Skeptics . . . [who] say that they are still in search of the truth . . . [and] judge that those who think they have found it are infinitely mistaken.”

M. starts out by denying skeptics their skepticism, concluding that their radical doubt is too aware of itself to truly be doubt. He also contends that their doubt is purely for argument: “They use their reason to inquire and debate, but not to conclude and choose.” To M., the doubts of the skeptics are about the branches, and not the root.

Throughout the section, the core of his argument remains that the nature of the infinite is so far beyond our senses that our reason can’t hope to grasp it. It’s only our faith that brings us close, while reason’s presumption separates us from that higher self: “All that we undertake without his assistance, all that we see without the lamp of his grace, is only vanity and folly.”

M. contends that, if forced to bestow a material body on the divine, he would have worshiped the sun, since “[besides] its grandeur and beauty, it is the part of this machine that we find farthest from us, and therefore so little known that [its ancient worshipers] were to be pardoned for regarding it with wonder and reverence.” He later remarks that it’s such folly to personify the diving that he’d prefer to worship a god patterned after a serpent, dog, or ox.

This point follows an entertaining segment where M. lists no fewer than 25 philosophers and each one’s view on God and the divine (some of which have multiple views on such). The point, of course, is that these were the greatest minds of their time, and they couldn’t settle on an idea of the divine.

From there, he lambastes them for coming no closer to an understanding of man. If anything, he opines, shouldn’t we have knowledge of ourselves?

It’s a long and exhausting chapter, especially when M. turns his attention to Aristotle. I was inclined to think he wrote that section in a particularly boring style to mimic Aristotle’s notes, but that may’ve just been my own wandering attention. By the time I reached its conclusion, I wondered why he needed to go on at such length, to dismiss so many targets, unless his commission was paying by the word.

* * *

I found myself greatly relieved at the conclusion, not only because It’s Finally Over, but also because it leads into a two-page passage that the translator titles Warning to the Princess (the Apology being written for Princess Margaret of Valois). In this brief segment, it’s as if the mask falls from M. He admits that the Apology is “so long a work contrary to my custom” and proceeds to distill his message:

People are right to give the tightest possible barriers to the human mind. In study, as in everything else, its steps must be counted and regulated for it; the limits of the chase must be artificially determined for it. They bridle and bind it with religions, laws, customs, science, precepts, mortal and immortal punishments and rewards; and still we see that by its whirling and its incohesiveness it escapes all these bonds. It is an empty body, with nothing by which it can be seized and directed; a varying and formless body, which can be neither tied nor grasped.

Indeed there are few souls so orderly, so strong and wellborn, that they can be trusted with their own guidance, and that can sail with moderation and without temerity, in the freedom of their judgments, beyond the common opinions. It is more expedient to place them in tutelage.

The mind is a dangerous blade, even to its possessor, for anyone who does not know how to wield it with order and discretion.

It’s not a sentiment I necessarily agree with, but I’m happy that M. is able to cut it down to a few paragraphs this way. Still, there are another 46 pages ahead comprising five more sections, so I’m afraid it’ll be another week before I can build up some enthusiasm for this project.

Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 2

Wow. This Apology for Raymond Sebond continues to flummox me. Last week, I wrote about the nature of the Apology and “covered” pages 387-435 of the Everyman’s translation of the essays. This week, I only managed to read another 50 pages, since I was busy with work and a much more entertaining book called When Genius Failed.

So this week’s Monday Morning Montaigne stays in the Apology, and covers the sections that translator Donald Frame calls Man’s knowledge cannot make him happy (435-446) and Man’s knowledge cannot make him good (446-449). I have about 20 pages left in Man has no knowledge (449-508), but it’s a rough slog. The bulk of that section consists of refutations of various schools of philosophy, particularly pre-christian ones, as a way of showing the futility of man’s pursuit of knowledge. With a tease like that, you’re sure to come back for more next Monday!

Man’s knowledge cannot make him happy:

[W]e have as our share inconstancy, irresolution, uncertainty, grief, superstition, worry over things to come, even after our life, ambition, avarice, jealousy, envy, unruly, frantic, and untamable appetites, war, falsehood, disloyalty, detraction, and curiosity. Indeed we have strangely overpaid for this fine reason that we glory in, and this capacity to judge and know, if we have bought it at the price of this infinite number of passions to which we are incessantly a prey.

See, instead of reason, M. contends that humility and obedience to God should be our highest values: “From obeying and yielding spring all other virtues, as from presumption all sin. . . . Do you want a man to be healthy, do you want him disciplined and firmly and securely poised? Wrap him in darkness, indleness, and dullness. We must become like animals in order to become wise, and be blinded in order to be guided.”

M. cavils a bit by letting us know that there’s a place for knowledge and some feeling — “he who would eradicate the knowledge of evil would at the same time extirpate the knowledge of pleasure, and in fine would annihilate man” — but he still contends that philosophy, reason, memory and the like are delusions. The good life, he says, seems to derive from ignorance-become-innocence. I’m just lost.

Man’s knowledge cannot make him good:

Christians have a particular knowledge of the extent to which curiosity is a natural and original evil in man. The urge to increase in wisdom and knowledge was the first downfall of the human race; it was the way by which man hurled himself into eternal damnation. Pride is his ruin and his corruption; it is pride that casts man aside from the common ways, that makes him embrace novelties and perfer to be the leader of an erring troop that has strayed into the path of perdition, perfer to be a teacher and tutor of error and falsehood, rather than to be a disciple in the school of truth, led and guided by another’s hand, on the straight and beaten path.

Got that? Curiosity is an evil. I’m finding it awfully difficult to reconcile these passages with the writer who so deftly explored his own character and aspects of man’s nature throughout the preceding essays. Further, wisdom — by which M. means the choice between good and evil — has no relation to God: “What has he to do with reason and intelligence, which we use to arrive at apparent things from things obscure, seeing that there is nothing obscure to God?” And since evil cannot touch God, then wisdom comes only from man, while faith is “a pure present of another’s liberality.”

More bothersome to me than M.’s message is his sheer stridency, an “Onward Christian soldiers” mode of writing. Perhaps he was writing in this style because of the nature of the piece and its publication — a long apologia, as opposed to his typical essays — but I find it utterly off-putting. I’ll struggle through the rest of the Apology, but I’m hoping he manages to regain some of his charm as he moves away from his all-encompassing topic.

What It Is: 8/25/08

What I’m reading: I finished When Genius Failed on Sunday, and am slowly continuing Montaigne’s Essays. Oh, and I picked up the third installment of Richard Sala’s comic, Delphine. Guess I better reread the first two parts.

What I’m listening to: The Cosmic Game, by the Thievery Corporation

What I’m watching: Finished up the fourth season of The Wire, and caught The Life & Times of Hank Greenberg. I think this may be my favorite season of The Wire so far, inasmuch as the storytelling really seemed to surpass its police/crime roots. Throughout the show, Baltimore has been the central character, but this was the first season where it really felt to me like the police characters just weren’t sufficient for the writers to explore the themes they were going after. That was true in the second season, to some extent, but the amount of character development that went into the four schoolkids was an even greater accomplishment than the way season two made us (me and Amy) actually care about and feel sympathy for a union boss. How this show never got nominated for an Emmy is beyond reckoning.

What I’m drinking: Plymouth gin. Man, does that have a sweet botanical edge to it.

What Rufus is up to: Meeting neighbors, trying to lead me into their garages. Also, we took him up to Rusty’s Place, our local pet store, on Sunday, so he could pick out a new toy and meet more dog-lovers.

Where I’m going: I have a coworker’s wedding to attend on Saturday, down in Cranford, NJ. More importantly, I’m seeing my accountant today! Since that’ll put me in Hackensack, I may just make a side trip to White Manna for lunch.

What I’m happy about: My niece Liat (age 8) went to her first Springsteen show! And she and my brother made it up near the stage, to the videographers’ pit, where — well, here’s my brother’s description:

Bruce jumped down into the pit, held Liat’s hand and started singing ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’ to her. Her face was on the video screen the entire time. Minutes earlier, Clarence gave her a maraca as a gift (she couldn’t take her eyes off him the entire show when he waved to her after the first song). Needless to say, that kid now has a better childhood than either of us. I can die in peace.

What I’m sad about: Summer’s just about over, so my typically hectic September looms (big issue of the mag, plus our annual conference on 9/25-26). Also, only 10 episodes of The Wire left.

What I’m pondering: How lucky I was to be out of the country for both parties’ national conventions in 2004, and how unlucky I am to be stuck here for both of them this time around.

Monday Morning Montaigne: An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Take 1

It’s time for the long-unawaited return of Monday Morning Montaigne!

You ask, “What is MMM?” It’s me, working my way through the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works (only the essays, which comprise 1,045 pages; I’m on page 450 right now). Every Monday, I’ll post about some aspect of one of the essays that I read in the previous week.

You ask, “Why Montaigne?” Because I’m a sucker for the personal essay and M. is the inventor of the form. Also, I never got around to reading him when I was a grad student at St. John’s College, and I feel bad about that.

You ask, “Why do I have to suffer?” If I had a readership of appreciable size, this would feel like the “Andy Kaufman reads F. Scott Fitzgerald” segment. Fortunately, no one reads this site, and you can always skip to the next post.

* * *

This week’s post begins my rambles about Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond. In 1484, Sebond published Natural Theology. M. translated the book for his father, and wrote the Apology around 1575-1580 (his father died in 1568). I haven’t read Sebond, but Donald M. Frame, the translator of my edition of M., wrote that he “argued that man could learn all about God and religion by reading in the book of God’s work, the world.” M. disagreed with this idea, so rather than an apology/defense of Sebond’s views, he spends his time exploring the limits and faults of human reason. In particular he criticizes the primacy of knowledge.

As with the rest of his essays, M. does this with great erudition, as well as with citations from myriad sources throughout history. Employing a massive library of poetry doesn’t exactly undercut his argument against the limits of reason, but I think it creates a tension when his explanation that man is no better than an animal relies on passages from Plato, Lucretius, Tasso, Juvenal, Virgil, Dante, Homer, Tibullus, Martial, Horace and, of course, Ovid.

Just because it’s contradictory doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. M. takes on innumerable differences between man and beast and turns them on their heads, leaving man the poorer. “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” he asks, and we’re off and running. Honeybees, swallows, spiders, elephants, crabs, crocodiles, lions: over 30+ pages they all get to demonstrate aspects of human character that M.’s philosophical opponents would reserve for men alone. Even my greyhound gets in on the action:

That hare that a greyhound imagines in a dream, after which we seem him pant in his sleep, stretch out his tail, wriggle his legs, and reproduce perfectly the motions of running, is a hare without fur or bones.

M. even turns the idea of human beauty upside-down, contending that our need for clothes, makeup and the like show that humans are naturally uglier than animals. Ultimately, he shows that the wisdom that is supposed to separate us from animals is transient, that the great philosophers in history would gladly have traded it for health.

It all reminds me of a session on Aristotle’s Politics I attended during grad school. One of the students asked why we should take Aristotle seriously, since he was “anthrocentric.” The tutor (read: prof.) was puzzled by the student’s term. The student explained that A. was only exploring HUMAN relationships and society, but his view was incomplete because he wasn’t taking into account the societies of other animals. He added that we couldn’t learn too much from A. because he didn’t also write about dolphins and other primates. “What makes us so different from them?” he asked.

I held up my copy of the book and said, “Uh, THIS? Those animals may be pretty advanced, but as far as I know, they haven’t figured out how to write stuff down and pass it on to future generations. When they do, let me know; I’d love to read it.”

I have to admit that M.’s scorched-earth approach to man vs. beast — “[I]t is not by a true judgment, but by foolish pride and stubbornness, that we set ourselves before the other animals and sequester ourselves from their condition and society” — turned me off.

M. does seem to recognize that there’s a difference between man and animals, but it’s not our brains, our social structures, our dreams, or our use of clothes or artifice. Rather, it’s our belief — not faith, which is more involved and likely to lead us astray, from what I can make out of his argument — that sets us off, and I’m (presently) finding that a difficult pill to swallow.

Still, there are another 120 pages in the Apology, so let’s see where it leads. (The next segment is titled Man’s Knowledge Cannot Make Him Happy, so I don’t exactly have high hopes.)

Monday Morning Montaigne: The Reloadening!

I gave up on my Monday Morning Montaigne project a year ago for two reasons. The first one was that I reached Apology for Raymond Sebond, the central essay of the second book. This essay — the introduction to (and kindasorta defense of) Sebond’s Natural Theology, which Montaigne’s dad asked him to translate — runs almost 180 pages and, though translator Donald Frame breaks it up into several sections, I couldn’t see how I’d make it through that essay and manage to convey anything of interest to the readers of this blog.

The second reason I gave up was that I convinced myself that nothing I’d written in my Monday Morning Montaigne posts was of any interest to the readers of this blog. I don’t think I expected a rousing conversation among commenters, few of whom likely have read more than a smattering of Montaigne, and none of whom were exactly going to read along or look back into the essays to counter my points. Still, there was so little response to it, I figured no one would notice it was missing.

As it turns out, my posts were more like timed charges. In the last year, I’ve been getting hits from different colleges and universities’ IP addresses, presumably by students who are looking to cheat on their Montaigne assignments. I mean, “who are researching various critical opinions of Montaigne’s essays online (in order to cheat on their papers).”

It struck me that I put myself in a position of responsibility with this project. Without Monday Morning Montaigne, these students would have no choice but to read one of the other two million google hits for “montaigne essay opinion,” and who knows what sort of perspective they’d cobble together? Who knows when they’d get around to finding my posts, but better they rely on my flawed, rambling viewpoints than those of someone who’s actually done some research into Montaigne! With half-assed misreading comes half-assed responsibility! Excelsior!

So I decided to dive headlong into the aforementioned Apology this weekend. You can expect the first installment on Monday!

What It Is: 8/11/08

What I’m reading: Finished The Good Rat, by Jimmy Breslin, continuing Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, by Blake Bell, and getting back to reading Montaigne’s essays.

What I’m listening to: my iPod, endlessly shuffling among 13,000 or so songs.

What I’m watching: Fourth season of The Wire, and The Dark Knight, over at the Imax at the Palisades Center.

What I’m drinking: a rosé that my wife picked up on Saturday, and Stella Artois. Not at the same time.

What Rufus is up to: Around 6 hours on his own upstairs when I’m out! I’m still hesitant to leave him out of his crate for my full 9-hour workday, and I keep him upstairs so he doesn’t meander around down in the library, where he’s less familiar. But he seems to have figured out that he shouldn’t drink a lot of water when he’s alone in the house.

Where I’m going: Nowhere special

What I’m happy about: I’m not sure, but I’m generally elated at present. I feel a little bad that I’ve neglected friends I need to write to, but maybe I’ll have time and motivation to fix that this week.

What I’m sad about: The deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes.

What I’m pondering: The irony that the Yankees’ healthiest and most productive pitchers this season are 38 and 36 years old.

What It Is: 4/21/08

What I’m reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, as suggested by David Gates (not the guy from Bread).

What I’m watching: NBA Playoffs, except for most of the Nuggets-Lakers game.

What I’m listening to: not much. I haven’t played a lot of music lately, partly because I can’t (work-)write when there’s music on, and partly because my mom is visiting for a week and it’d be rude to play my music as loud as I like to. But I did just fall in love with Academia, off the new album by Sia.

What I’m drinking: G&Ts with G’Vine, a fancy French gin that my associate editor bought me for the holidays.

What I’m happy about: That Rufus was impossibly well-behaved (well, sleepy) during our Seder on Saturday night, despite the presence of 5 people he’d never seen before.

What I’m sad about: All the games we could’ve played. (oh, and these, too)

What I’m pondering: Going back to Montaigne and writing more of those Monday Morning Montaigne pieces that you hated.