08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

Continue reading

08/12/14

Montaigne and Machiavelli


Michel de Montaigne mentioned Machiavelli only twice in his Essays, both in Book Two. This tells us he was aware of the latter, but not whether he was intimately familiar with his works. Nor does it tell us which of Machiavelli’s writings he is referring to (by this date, all of Machiavelli’s major works were in print). Machiavelli himself had died in 1527, some 50 or more years before Montaigne penned this part of his essays (first published in 1580).

The first mention is in Chapter XXXIV: OBSERVATION ON THE MEANS TO CARRY ON A WAR ACCORDING TO JULIUS CAESAR (emphasis added):

‘Tis related of many great leaders that they have had certain books in particular esteem, as Alexander the Great, Homer; Scipio Africanus, Xenophon; Marcus Brutus, Polybius; Charles V., Philip’de Comines; and ’tis said that, in our times, Machiavelli is elsewhere still in repute; but the late Marshal Strozzi, who had taken Caesar for his man, doubtless made the best choice, seeing that it indeed ought to be the breviary of every soldier, as being the true and sovereign pattern of the military art. And, moreover, God knows with that grace and beauty he has embellished that rich matter, with so pure, delicate, and perfect expression, that, in my opinion, there are no writings in the world comparable to his, as to that business.

It is unclear to me where Montaigne is referring to that Machiavelli is “still in repute.” It depends on the book in question: the reputation of The Prince was vastly different from that of The Art of War.

The second mention comes in Chapter XVII: OF PRESUMPTION (emphasis added):

Machiavelli’s writings, for example, were solid enough for the subject, yet were they easy enough to be controverted; and they who have done so, have left as great a facility of controverting theirs; there was never wanting in that kind of argument replies and replies upon replies, and as infinite a contexture of debates as our wrangling lawyers have extended in favour of long suits:
“Caedimur et totidem plagis consumimus hostem;”

["We are slain, and with as many blows kill the enemy" (or),
"It is a fight wherein we exhaust each other by mutual wounds."
—Horace, Epist., ii. 2, 97.]

The work here may well be The Prince – the main object of controversy in Machiavelli’s writings and the subject of several counterpoint books within its first century. Montaigne rather sardonically comments that in reputing Machiavelli. those authors open themselves up to the same sort of argumentative treatment; and those subsequent attacks in turn to other challenges – ad nauseum.

A little later in that chapter, Montaigne wrote what strikes me as a comment that parallel’s Machiavelli’s own political words (emphasis added):

Our manners are infinitely corrupt, and wonderfully incline to the worse; of our laws and customs there are many that are barbarous and monstrous nevertheless, by reason of the difficulty of reformation, and the danger of stirring things, if I could put something under to stop the wheel, and keep it where it is, I would do it with all my heart:
“Numquam adeo foedis, adeoque pudendis
Utimur exemplis, ut non pejora supersint.”

["The examples we use are not so shameful and foul
but that worse remain behind."—Juvenal, viii. 183.]
The worst thing I find in our state is instability, and that our laws, no more than our clothes, cannot settle in any certain form. It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it; but to establish a better regimen in the stead of that which a man has overthrown, many who have attempted it have foundered. I very little consult my prudence in my conduct; I am willing to let it be guided by the public rule. Happy the people who do what they are commanded, better than they who command, without tormenting themselves as to the causes; who suffer themselves gently to roll after the celestial revolution! Obedience is never pure nor calm in him who reasons and disputes.

I’ll need to do some more reading about the similarities between the two in the near future.

08/10/14

Montaigne’s words on anger


“There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger,” Montaigne wrote in Book II of his Essays (Chapter 31). “It is a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.”

That strikes me a very Buddhist statement, a comment lifted from the Dhammapada, although Montaigne was a solid Catholic. It certainly has a similar wisdom.

I have seen that anger cloud the judgment of people in political debate, on many stages from national to local. It blinds people to the reality of the issues, and carries them on a wave of self-induced pleasure, as Montaigne saw.

When fuelled by anger, discussion degenerates into shouting matches where no one can win. They make of their anger a holy cause unto itself, closing themselves to any argument or fact that might challenge their self-righteousness. They no longer listen to compromise, or weigh alternatives. Anger outweighs all. Anger becomes ego becomes anger, a vicious feedback loop.

Montaigne also criticized those who bluster and bellow their self-righteous anger for the world’s attention:

“They go after their own shadow, and carry this tempest into a place where no one is punished or affected by it, except someone who has to put up with the racket of their own voice.”

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s line about “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

Anger displaces rational thought and ends any possibility of civil or civilized debate. It spews forth in puerile vituperation and accusation. We see it on social media every day.

Calm, rational thought, he wrote in that same essay, is the only way to engage one another.

“I observe in the writings of the ancients,” wrote Montaigne, “…that the man who thinks strikes home much more forcefully than the man who pretends.”

But it is difficult to crack that wall of angry self-justification.

08/10/14

Montaigne’s library


I read yesterday that Montaigne had a library of 1,000 books, of which he was very proud. It was his retreat – the room he went to where he wanted to get away from things and write.

Machiavelli, too, had a study with a small collection of books he treasured, albeit a much smaller selection. Both, however, treasured the classic Greek and Roman authors, the wisdom of the ages.

One thousand books is a remarkable collection, given that printing was barely a century old, and books were still quite expensive. He would have treasured every volume and known each title by heart. His library was in a round tower, so he had the bookshelves specially built to fit against the curve of the walls.

On the ceiling beams, Montaigne had sayings carved into the wood; Latin and Greek quotes from the classical authors to inspire him. One of these is from Pliny the Elder:

Solum certum nihil esse certi, Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius.

Which in English reads: Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain, And nothing is more retched or arrogant than man.

I can imagine myself in that room, with its works by Seneca and Cicero and Catullus and Aristotle looking down on the writing desk where Montaigne sat. It’s peaceful to even imagine it.

I don’t know how many books are currently in my own personal library; perhaps five or six times that number, maybe more, and I have had many, many more books pass through it in my lifetime. Many of them are mass market paperbacks, but more are hardcovers. Some are treasures 75-100 years old. Some have been with me for many decades (and in my collection are some of my father’s boyhood books, like the Boy’s Own Annuals I used to read when I was a child).

While our libraries are vastly different in subject matter and content, I think I share Montaigne’s pride in having a good, well-rounded personal library.

Whenever I go to anyone’s house, I always check their bookshelves. It may be judgmental of me, but I measure people by their libraries. Not so much by subject, but rather by seeing that they like to read, and read a lot. And books are perfect conversation starters; no one is lost for a mutual topic when you can discuss a book or an author.

Many years ago, when I was doing freelance work for a Toronto computer company, the owner told me he hadn’t read a book in years. That affected me so deeply that I have never forgotten it. I don’t think I have ever been able to say I haven’t read a book in days, let alone years. What a sad, empty existence he must have had.

08/9/14

Finding my muse in Montaigne


Montaigne

Muse: a source of inspiration; especially a guiding genius; the imaginary force thought to provide inspiration to poets, writers, artists, etc.

A muse, for modern writers, is that indefinable force that drives us to write. It’s part imagination, part inspiration. I suspect there’s a heady brew of psychology and biology at work, too.

Why write instead of, say, paint? Or sculpt? Or compose? I don’t know. It just is, for me, the thing my muse – however you define that – compels me to pursue. It compels others, though in different ways, and many in much more creative and innovative ways than I have in me. But nonetheless, writing fulfills a basic need in me. Scripturient, after all.

The inspiration part is easier to explain, I suppose, at least from my perspective. It’s a long list of people whose work, whose writing, whose ideas, whose politics, art, music, lives and contributions move me. My problem has always been my eclectic tastes and interests, and my grasshopper-like habit of jumping from topic to topic (albeit passionately).

What do Darwin, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Cliff Edwards, Ana Valenzuela, Han Shan, Gandhi, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Napleon, the Three Stooges, Shakespeare, Monty Python, Emanuel Lasker, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, my father, Henry Hudson, the Beatles, Frank Herbert, Don Marquis, Eric Clapton and Omar Khayyam have in common?

Not much – except that they are inspirational to me. For very different reasons, of course, in different ways and touching very different parts of my life and my activities. They are, of course, a mere handful of the total; the list is far too long to present here. Inspiration is composed of many fine details; a multitude of threads that weave our lives, not just big swatches.

Continue reading