Tuesday, October 19, 2021

'To Where No Arms Defend Our Ignorance'

The premise is rich and promising: a reader is interrupted and reflects on the nature of the interruption in light of the book he is reading. In Dick Davis’ “Near Coltishall” (The Covenant, 1984), it’s evening and the speaker is reading Montaigne when he hears the sound of “thunderous aircraft.” Coatishall is a village in East Anglia, home to a Royal Air Force base from 1938 to 2006. During the Cold War, when Davis’ poem is set, the base housed British bombers carrying nuclear weapons. Here is the second of the poem’s six stanzas: 

“Distracted from my page

I watch each passing plane –

The virtue of Montaigne

Is innocent to gauge

The wrath that they contain.”


Montaigne witnessed the French Wars of Religion that raged in the second half of the sixteenth century. Catholics and Huguenots slaughtered each other. Between two and four million were killed. As the civil wars dragged on – they usually are dated from 1562 to the Edict of Nantes in 1598, when the killing continued at a slower pace -- Montaigne wrote the first of his Essais, in 1570. But the speaker of the poem says even Montaigne could not comprehend the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons: “Who shall escape defeat / From what we dream of war?” Davis is too smart and subtle a thinker and poet to turn his poem into a simple-minded anti-nuke screed. In the final two stanzas he turns to Montaigne and asks:


“Which would you choose, my lord—

The cant of government,

The smug cant of dissent?

Or would you turn toward

Your book's long argument


“That wisdom is to know

How blindly we descend

To where no arms defend

Our ignorance from no

Imaginable end?”


Davis cites no specific essay but among Montaigne’s consistent themes is the inadequacy of his knowledge, and by implication all knowledge. And yet few writers have known so much and deferred so often to those who preceded him -- the wise ones such as Seneca and Plutarch. His admission of ignorance implies humility, not an exhibitionistic declaration of false humility. Out of such self-knowledge flows the possibility of all further knowledge. Montaigne writes in “Of Books” (trans. Donald Frame):


“I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by the masters of the craft, and more truthfully. This is purely the essay of my natural faculties, and not at all of the acquired ones; and whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me, for I should hardly be answerable for my ideas to others, I who am not answerable for them to myself, or satisfied with them. Whoever is in search of knowledge, let him fish for it where it dwells; there is nothing I profess less. These are my fancies, by which I try to give knowledge not of things, but of myself. The things will perhaps be known to me some day, or have been once, according as fortune may have brought me to the places where they were made clear. But I no longer remember them. And if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness.”

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