MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE
We generally think that
philosophers should be proud of their big brains
and be fans of thinking self-reflection
and rational analysis.
But there’s one philosopher,
born in France in 1533,
who had a refreshingly different take.
Michel de Montaigne was an intellectual who spent his writing life
knocking the arrogance of intellectuals.
In his great masterpiece, the’Essays’,
he comes across as relentlessly wise and intelligent
— but also as constantly modest and keen to debunk the pretensions of learning.
Not least, he’s extremely funny,
reminding his readers
to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing
we must learn a more ample and important lesson
that we are but blockheads…
(or, as he put it)
On the highest throne in the world,
we are seated, still, upon our arses.’
Montaigne was a child of the Renaissance
and the ancient philosophers popular in Montaigne’s day
believed that our powers of reason put afford us a happiness
and greatness denied to other creatures reason
Reason was a sophisticated, almost divine,
tool offering us mastery over the world and ourselves.
That was the line taken by philosophers like Cicero.
But this characterization of human reason enraged Montaigne.
After hanging out with academics and philosophers, he wrote,
“In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle, more equable and more constant lives than [Cicero].
His point wasn’t that human beings can’t reason at all,
simply that they tend to be far too arrogant
about the limits of their brains.
As he wrote,
“我们的生活 半是愚昧 半是明智
“Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom.
Whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule
leaves more than half of it behind perhaps.”
Perhaps the most obvious example of our madness
is the struggle of living within a human body
Our bodies smell, ache, sag, pulse, throb and age
(whatever the desires of our minds).
Montaigne was the world’s first and possibly only philosopher
to talk at length about impotence,
which seemed to him a prime example
of how crazy and fragile our minds are.
Montaigne had a friend who’d grown impotent with a woman he particularly liked.
Montaigne didn’t blame the penis.
The problem was the mind,
the oppressive notion that we had complete control over our bodies
and the horror of departing from this theoretical normality.
The solution, Montaigne said, was to redraw our sense of what’s normal.
By accepting a loss of command over the penis
as a harmless common possibility in lovemaking
one could preempt its occurrence —
as the stricken man eventually discovered.
In bed with a woman
he learned to admit beforehand that he was subject to this infirmity and spoke openly about it
so relieving the tensions within his soul.
By bearing the malady as something to be expected
his sense of constriction grew less and weighed less heavily upon him.
Montaigne’s frankness allows the tensions in the reader’s own soul to be relieved.
A man who failed with his girlfriend
could regain his forces
and soothe the anxieties of his beloved
by accepting that his impotence belonged to a broad realm of sexual mishaps
neither very rare nor very peculiar.
Montaigne was equally frank about limitations of his intellect (and of its usefulness).
正如当今时代 蒙田生活的时代 学界也威信十足
Academia was deeply prestigious in Montaigne’s day, as in our own. Yet,
although Montaigne was an excellent scholar, he hated pedantry in academia.
He only wanted to learn things that were useful
and relentlessly attacked academics for being out of touch.
“If man were wise
he would gauge the true worth of anything
by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life “he said
Only that which makes us feel better maybe worth understanding.
In this vein, Montaigne mocked books that were difficult to read.
He admitted to his readers that he found Plato more than a little boring
and that he just wanted to have fun with books:
“I’m not prepared to bash my brains out for anything
not even for learnings sake however precious it may be.
From books all I seek is to get myself some pleasure
by an honorable pastime…
If I come across some difficult passages in my reading
I don’t bite my nails over them
after making a charge or two I let them be
if one book tires me I just take up another he.”
He could be pretty caustic about incomprehensible philosophers.
“ Difficulty is a coin
which to learn it conjure with so is not to reveal the vanity of their studies
and which human stupidity is keen to accept in payment.”
Montaigne observed how an intimidating scholarly culture
has made all of us study other people’s books way
before we study our own minds.
And yet, as he put it:
“We are richer than we think, each one of us.”
Montaigne is refreshing because he describes a life
which is recognizably like our own
and yet inspiring still
— he is a very human ideal.
We may all arrived at wise ideas
if we cease to think of ourselves as unsuited to the task
just because we aren’t 2,000 years old
or aren’t interested in the topics of Plato’s dialogues
or have a so-called ordinary life.
Montaigne reassures us
“You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life
just as well as to one with richer stuff.”
In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of
the adequate, semi-rational human being,
it’s possible to speak no Greek
change one’s mind after a meal
get bored with a book
be impotent and know pretty much none of the ancient philosophers
A virtuous ordinary life,
striving for wisdom but never far from folly,
is achievement enough.
Montaigne remains the great readable intellectual
with whom we can laugh at intellectuals and pretensions of many kinds
He was a breath of fresh air
in the cloistered, unworldly, snobbish corridors of the academia
of the sixteenth century
because academia has, sadly, not changed very much,
he continues to be an inspiration and a solace to all of us
who feel routinely oppressed and patronized
by the pedantry and arrogance of so-called clever people.