Saturday, July 28, 2018

'Our Disease Lies in the Mind'

“Montaigne was a man whose hatred of anything that destroyed life was so great that the chopping down of a living tree unnerved him, let alone the burning of a witch.”

Most of Montaigne’s life (1533-92) coincided with the French Wars of Religion (1562-98), in which Roman Catholics and Huguenots engaged in mutual slaughter. Between two and four million died in less than forty years. I’m unable to find a reference in Montaigne’s Essays to "unnerving" distress at what Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti calls “arboricide.” As mayor of Bordeaux, he refused to order the torture and killing of witches and more conventional criminals. He disdained hunting. In “Of Cruelty” (trans. Donald Frame) he writes: “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.”

“He was also a man who had to speak his mind, who could endure neither subterfuge nor silence: that is, he was loudmouthed and plain-spoken.”

Montaigne was a public servant and social animal who required privacy and seclusion. He was not a hermit (neither was Thoreau, who often writes like an immature Montaigne). Thus, his tower. Thus, his Essays. He is often plain-spoken, yes, but never loudmouthed. That would imply a hot-headed, self-centered, indiscreet vulgarian. He writes in “Of Books”: “I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction. And so the opinion I give of them is to declare the measure of my sight, not the measure of things.” He’s laying out his literary apologia, moving “I” center-stage.

“Further, he was a man who cherished a peaceful mind, a happy conscience, and an untroubled life. Finally, he was a man deeply interested in understanding himself, in knowing what he could do and what he could not do, what he was and what he was not.”

Montaigne sought to rid himself of distractions (every writer’s dream). Solitude alone, he knew, could not insure peace of mind. The most insidious distraction is internal. He writes in “On Solitude”: “Our disease lies in the mind, which cannot escape from itself; and therefore is to be called home and confined within itself: that is the true solitude, and that may be enjoyed even in populous cities and the courts of kings.”

The italicized passages are taken from Page 17 of Philip P. Hallie’s “Montaigne, and Philosophy as Self-Portraiture,” a pamphlet published by Wesleyan University Press in 1965.

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