Friday, August 22, 2014

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)--A Calming Voice for Our Tumultuous Times

“It is good to be born in very depraved times, for, compared with other people, you gain a reputation for virtue at a small cost.”—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Religion can only go so far, and so, after getting a “C” in Philosophy in college (in my defense, Prof. Shtippleholtz—not his real name—was a dud as a teacher. And I was a smartass: “Prof. Shtippleholtz,” I said, “I know that you are speaking English, because I can pick up a word here and there, but I honestly cannot understand what you are talking about.” Since that time, I have purchased a few books on Philosophy, most recently Tom Butler-Bowdon, 50 Philosophy Classics: Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2013.
My choice for tomorrow’s post-Shabbat-Services-Discussion-Group (if I can pry my post-service group away from Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, which I have been doing with a Chasidic Commentary (Tuvia Kaplan, Fathers & Sons: The Chassidic Masters on Pirkei Avos. Spring Valley, NY: Targum/Feldheim, 1992) will be Michel de Montaigne, who, it turns out, was Jewish (I have long suspected that), whom Butler-Bowdon (can’t I just call him Tom?) says was the son of a Sephardic Jewish woman.
My last acquaintance with Montaigne was in college, when I wrote a paper contrasting his breezy, effortless writing style with that of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a melancholy Catholic priest who invented a primitive mathematical calculator out of wooden blocks and leather straps, and who had a taste for flagellation. To him, we owe “Pascal’s Wager”—a proof of God’s existence—and, perhaps, little else, besides his gloomy View of the Universe.
Montaigne, in contrast, is honest and open about his failings. He schooled himself in the Latin writers, studied at the Universities of Bordeaux and Toulouse, and yet denigrated his own knowledge:
“I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of reading, I am one who retains nothing.”
Despite this frank self-assessment, Montaigne did not yearn to “know everything.” He wished, simply, to live pleasantly and not have to work too hard. The object of his reading was to know himself (that eternal philosopher’s touchstone), as well as how to Live and Die Well. Though he contradicts himself throughout his Essais (a writing form he invented), he did not regard this as a sign of weakness. Indeed, many scholars regard him as not being a philosopher at all, since he did not work out a concrete system for Understanding the Universe and Our Place in It.
This latter point might make him all the more attractive to us Post-Moderns, living as we do in a rapidly-changing world, due to our Plague of Over-Communication, and because we constantly question the scientific, political, and religious “certainties” of our day. Can we rely on anything, or anyone, at all? (I am not speaking of the Deity, here; my theological views may change, but I do set my sights on God, even when He appears to let humanity down—or we let Him down.)
Montaigne’s personal sense of security stemmed from the Stoic philosophers: he regarded humankind as part of a complete universe. This would make him oppose our Jewish notion of repentance; it would not make sense to him at all: “Your mind cannot, by wish or thought, alter the smallest part without upsetting the whole order of things, both past and future.” I question this: we are not robots, after all, but vital cogs in the Divine (not Infernal) Machine, and we do matter in the Workings of the Universe.
I enjoyed Montaigne’s contrasting two vital Greek Philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus. The former tends to mock humanity, taking a humorous view of our earthly lives, while the latter is known as the “Weeping Philosopher,” who has such a store of pity and compassion for human suffering, that he can never lose his handkerchief. Montaigne, not surprisingly, joins with Democritus; we are less pitiful creatures, he believes, than inane ones.
Finally, while we may question Montaigne’s tendency to measure the Universe against his own feelings, as opposed to a more objective system of philosophy, we must, in the end, recognize that he is, perhaps, the most honest philosopher of all. Can there be, truly, any sort of Objective Truth? Do we not tend to assess Life and its Events according to our own thoughts and feelings? Keeping this in mind, and never taking ourselves too seriously, we will find this witty Frenchman to be an apt guide for our Life’s Journeying.