Montaigne Gives Us a Lesson in Personal Power and Attitude

Montaigne’s essay “That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure Upon the Opinion We Have of Them” is a really a long, well-thought out version of that sign you often see hanging in classrooms, offices, and gyms about life being 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you react to it. I say this not to minimize the essay, but rather as an attempt to get quickly to the heart of the matter. “Men (says and ancient Greek sentence) are tormented with the opinions they have of things and not by the things themselves.”

Montaigne wades right into the biggest fears that most people face: death, pain, and poverty. He makes an attempt to show us that we can manage our fears of all of them and live better lives, though he is careful to point out that it is easier said than done.

“After all this, why, amongst so many discourses that by so many arguments persuade men to despise death and to endure pain, can we not find out one that helps us?”

Despite this complaint, Montaigne never wavers from the necessity of facing down our fears and not letting them dictate our lives.

“He who has neither the courage to die nor the heart to live, who will neither resist nor fly, what can we do with him?”

Let’s consider how Montaigne suggests we might overcome the fears mentioned in reverse order.

When it comes to poverty, Montaigne gives us several examples, including himself, of how people who chase after money and financial security end up unhappy. Ultimately, ending our fears of poverty come from realizing that it is too easy to end up in a trap of never having enough and realizing how much we truly need.

“I live from hand to mouth, and content myself in having sufficient for my present and ordinary expense; for as to extraordinary occasions, all of the laying up in the world would never suffice. And ‘tis the greatest folly imaginable to expect that fortune should ever sufficiently arm us against herself; ‘tis with our own arms that we are to fight her; accidental ones will betray us in the pinch of the business.”

There is both a fatalism in this that I dislike and a sense of self-reliance that inspires me. The idea that we need to deal with fortune with “our own arms” is a call to arms, a call to be prepared and courageous in the face of bad luck. I am inclined to go with Montaigne’s idea in this because he does not completely discount the idea of saving.

“If I lay up, ‘tis for some near and contemplated purpose; not to purchase lands of which I have no need, but to purchase pleasure.”

There is a story about Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut at a party some rich man was throwing and Vonnegut asked Heller how he felt that the guy made more money yesterday that Heller ever would form the sales of his novel Catch-22. Heller told Vonnegut he had something the guy would never had, and Vonnegut asked what that could be. “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” That story appeared in the New Yorker, but I also heard Vonnegut tell it in a talk in Pittsburgh one time. I think it is part of the idea that Montaigne is trying to get to, though I suspect I may be reading more into Montaigne than is really there.

Turning to pain, Montaigne describes how some people willingly endure pain. Many of the examples he gives are those who do it as part of perceived religious duties – people flogging themselves and wearing hair shirts. He also describes how women would endure great pain in the pursuit of beauty – eating ashes to ruin their stomachs in order to have pale complexions, wearing girdles for good figures, and having their skin flayed for clearer complexions. Indeed, this still happens today, though it tends to be more in the realm of cosmetic surgery, chemical peels, and high heels.

Still, what Montaigne is trying to teach us here is that there are some things that are worth enduring pain for, and that the choice of which things those are can vary widely among different individuals – from eternal salvation to ephemeral beauty. He does not judge so much as to what is better, but instead tries to show us the value of not being controlled by a fear of pain.

What is interesting is the modern analogue to this in the form of athletics. I write this on the day of the 2012 Boston Marathon, which was one of the hottest days that the marathon has been run. People are willing to endure much discomfort to train and run these marathons, and there is little reward for most of them beyond that which they give themselves. It is a truly internal reward for most.

This idea is highlighted in another book I am reading Athletics in the Ancient World, by E. Norman Gardiner.

“The love of play is universal in all young things….But play is not athletics, though the instinct of play is undoubtedly one of their motives, and recreation is an important element therein. The child plays till he is tired and then leaves off. The competitor in a race goes on after he is tired, goes on to the point of absolute exhaustion; he even trains himself painfully in order to be capable of greater and more prolonged effort and of exhausting himself more completely.”

It is a striving for excellence that leads us to endure and accept pain and discomfort. It makes one wonder how necessary they are. Nonetheless, whether it is salvation, beauty, or athletic ability, we need to pay for it somehow.

Finally, I want to turn to death, which is the biggest thing that we face in our lives. Yet, Montaigne says even this is something that we can take as a minor evil, or even a preferable choice depending upon circumstance.

He brings up examples that we have seen in earlier readings (and posts in this blog). He talks about Socrates accepting death, and Spartan children being whipped to death rather than crying out. He describes men on the gallows who refuse a reprieve that would require them to marry someone and wives and servants who are burned on the death of their husband or masters. He also describes the plight of Jews in Castile who the king tried to force into converting the Christianity. These people threw their children down wells rather than have them convert.

“We hold death, poverty, and pain for our principal enemies; now, this death, which some repute the most dreadful of all dreadful things, who does not know that others call it the only secure harbour from the storms and tempests of life, the sovereign good of nature: the sole support of liberty, and the common and prompt remedy of all evils?”

So, I am cautious about this whole approach to understanding death. It seems to me that life is greatest thing that there is. There are a lot of people that want to convince us that we should die for something – propagandists, cult leaders, presidents, generals, terrorist cell leaders. My problem here is that much of this is nonsense and I think it is the task of the humanities to prevent these ideas from taking hold. People should always call bullshit on those who want to give us something to die for while they stay far away from danger.

I also don’t think that it is terribly courageous to die for something. Bill Maher was wrong when he said the hijackers who crashed the planes on September 11, 2001 were not cowards. What was particularly brave about flying a plane into eternal paradise? That is assuming they really believed what they said they believe. And if they didn’t, then why do what they did?

I think Tom Robbins put it best in Another Roadside Attraction. (This quote was once sent to me on a postcard by the same person who gave me the reading list mentioned earlier in this blog.) This argument changed my thinking about a lot of things.

“You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”

This is a hard quote to live up to, but I think it is worth trying.

Montaigne also gives me something to try to live up to in his essay, and I think the key to a successful life lies in balancing the quote above with the following one.

“This one therefore shall serve for all: Pyrrho the philosopher being one day in a boat in a very great tempest, showed to those he saw the most affrightened about him, and encouraged them by the example of a hog that was there, nothing at all concerned about the storm. Shall we then dare to say that this advantage of reason, of which we so much boast and upon the account of which we think ourselves masters and emperors over the rest of all creation, was given us for a torment? To what end serves the knowledge of things if it renders us more unmanly?”


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