Monday Morning Montaigne: Women and Men

I finished reading Book Two of the essays last weekend, but didn’t have time to write. I’m going to hold off on the final essay for now, because I’m still thinking about the beginning of it (the last 20 pages are a sorta by-the-book rant about doctors, but the first few pages are troubling me).

Anyway, Of three good women (pp. 683-690) starts out by telling us how most wives only show feelings for their husbands after the men’s deaths. “Life,” writes Montaigne, “is full of fireworks; death, of love and courtesy.” He contends that the measure of a marriage isn’t how much the wife laments and wails after her husband’s death, but how they got along while both were living.

To that end, he offers us three examples of good women.

One: inspected her husband’s genital ulcers, decided they were incurable and agonizing to him and . . . proposed double suicide!

Two: followed her P.O.W. husband back to Rome, tried bashing her head against a wall to demonstrate her grief, then stabbed herself fatally in front of her husband so he would find the courage . . . for double suicide!

Three: After Nero sentenced Seneca to death, the teacher’s young wife volunteered to . . . join him in suicide!

In that last case, she was prevented from dying because Nero was aghast that someone so beautiful and well-connected would give up her life. So she lived out her days virtuous and pale (she’d tried slitting her wrists, see?).

M. thinks stories like these could be strung together like Ovid’s Metamorphoses to create some sorta tapestry of, um, women who propose double suicide.

This essay redeemed itself by giving us Seneca’s perspective in its closing paragraphs. See, Seneca was a stoic and thus spent his life preparing for death. The thing is, he wrote in a letter to Lucilius that the love of his young wife inspired him to keep himself alive when he was sick and could’ve let himself die. It’s a touching passage, because S. tells his friend that, despite all his years and his training, holding onto life is important because of what we mean to other people:

Since I cannot bring her to love me more courageously, she is bringing me to love myself more solicitously; for we must allow something to honorable affections. And sometimes, even though occasions urge us to the contrary, we must call back life, even with torment; we must stop the soul from leaving between our teeth, since the law of living, for good men, is not as long as they please but as long as they ought.

To me, that story beats the Great Chain of Double Suicides that M. proposes.

* * *

M. follows women with men. In Of the most outstanding men (pp. 690-696), he ranks his top three men in history. The first two were obvious picks, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of the third one.

Homer comes up first. M. praises him for being first, best, and, well, Homer.

Being blind and poor, living before the sciences were reduced to rules and certain observations, he knew them so well that all those who since have taken it upon themselves to establish governments, to conduct wars, and to write about either religion or philosophy, of whatever sect they might be, or about the arts, have used him as a master very perfect in the knowledge of all things, and his books as a nursery of every kind of ability.

M. marvels over both Homer’s art qua art and at the contents of his tales, which have lasted millennia. He writes that it was “against the order of nature” that such poetry was written at the beginning of the form, because things start out imperfect and need to develop. It put me in mind of how titans like Winsor McCay and George Herriman were the early practitioners of the comic strip, yielding a golden age without true precursors.

This idea of precursors comes up a few times in this essay. Originality, is important to M. He admits that Virgil may be unsurpassable as a poet, but the Aeneid is “one single detail” of the Iliad. While this put me in mind first and foremost of the episode where Achilles get his new armor that reflects the entirety of his world, it also reminded me of a more important debate: Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant.

It’s long been my contention that Kobe’s never going to step out from MJ’s shadow precisely because his career was modeled after Jordan’s, right down to needing Phil Jackson to get him over the hump for a championship. Jordan, meanwhile, had no model upon which to base his career. (Some would argue that Dr. J was his strong precursor, but I don’t think it holds up, esp. with Erving spending time in the ABA.)

So Homer is both Winsor McCay and Michael Jordan.

The second man on M.’s list is Alexander, for being even more super-awesome than Caesar, and not living long enough to run his empire into the ground. Dying at 33 helped, even if some of his successes required more luck than Caesar needed.

The third guy was Epaminondas, whom I’d never heard of. He does seem to have a pretty good pedigree as a soldier and as a man, getting named “first among the Greeks,” even if little of his record passed down to us (and Wikipedia). Sez M.:

Antiquity judged that if one examines minutely all the other great captains, there is found in each some special quality that makes him illustrious. In this man alone can be found a virtue and ability full and equal throughout, which, in all the functions of human life, leaves nothing to be desired, whether in public or private occupation, in peace or war, whether in living or in dying greatly and graciously. I know no form or fortune of man that I regard with so much honor and love.

These were kinda neat essays to include back to back, but I’m a little sad that the men are judged by their martial and artistic accomplishments, while the women were praised for their willingness to commit suicide.

2 Replies to “Monday Morning Montaigne: Women and Men”

  1. The figure of Epaminondas is written about most vividly in Plutarch’s Lives of Pelopidas and Agesilaus, as well as Book XV of Diodorus Siculus’s Library of History (Vol. 7 in the Loeb edition of the complete Diodorus Siculus), both of which books Montaigne had certainly read, and in the case of Plutarch, practically memorized. It has been 6 or 7 years since I read these books, and I had forgotten entirely who Pelopidas and Agesilaus were (even though Agesilaus was the Greek “pair” for Pompey the Great, who was another of the more vivid characters from the book), but the depiction of Epaminondas as one of the truly great men of all Ancient Greece, and thus pretty much of all human history, left such an impression as does not fade so easily.

  2. Thanks! I should’ve elaborated (and not written out of my ass); I was alluding to Plutarch’s actual bio of Epaminondas, which is lost. I also should’ve gone into the “lost” aspect of how his achievements didn’t survive him, which M. seems to take as a positive, insofar as it shows how much his character influenced his actions (so that without him, they couldn’t have a lasting impact).

    I only read a few of the lives back in grad school — Lycurgus & Solon — so I may have yet another bloggity project ahead of me after I finish reading M.’s essays!

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