I’m not sure why this chapter is entitled “On Physiognomy” — other than a fairly brief discussion of beauty and how Montaigne finds it hard to believe that Socrates was so ugly, the essay never really addresses the concept of judging the character of someone from facial characteristics. But since Montaigne digresses over at least 10 major topics in this essay, I can forgive the difficulty in naming it (did Montaigne give titles to his essays? I have no idea.) And I also feel entitled to make my own digression.
Recently, my sister sent me a collection of photographs of me with her oldest kids, taken in the summer of 1993. I was 27 years old at the time and remember those days fondly — I had an interesting job (speechwriter for Governor Wilder), I was in great physical shape and I particularly remember their trip to Richmond pleasantly.
But you wouldn’t guess any of that from the pictures. There’s not a single smile or even hint of a smile on my face in any of the photos. I looked tired and dour. Before seeing those pictures, I might be tempted to think back to those days and consider it one of the happiest times of my life … but my memories tell one story, my face quite another.
There’s quite a bit of revisionism and summing up in this next-to-last Montaigne essay. He makes some of his most powerful anti-war statements here, which stands as a marked contrast from his earliest writing that glorified war frequently. He also tells some memorable anecdotes, including one about allowing an entire platoon to take over his estate briefly just because he didn’t feel it right to turn down anyone once he’d allowed the first soldier to enter. Another anecdote details how he basically talked himself of our kidnapping by arguing strenuously with his captors.
Montaigne’s irony is often carefully disguising, but this paragraph is one of his most effective ironic statements about achieving glory through the ongoing civil war. It stands as a fascinating counterweight to his previous exempla about war heroism:
During the disorders in which we have lived these last thirty years, every man in France sees himself, both individually and collectively and hour by hour, on the point of having his entire fate reversed: all the more reason, then, to keep one’s mind supplied with stronger and more manly provender. Let us be grateful to our fate for having made us live in an age which is neither soft and idle nor lazy: nowadays a man who would never otherwise have become famous may do so because of his misfortunes.
And here, Montaigne makes one of his strongest statements about the brutality and destruction of the religious wars in France:
I doubt whether I can properly admit how little it has cost me in terms of my life’s repose and tranquillity to have passed more than a half of my days during the collapse of my country. Faced with misfortunes which do not concern me directly, I buy my resignation a little too cheaply; as for lamenting on my own behalf, I have regard not so much for what has been taken from me but for what still remains to me, both within and without. There is some consolation in dodging, one after another, the successive evils which have us in their sights, only to strike elsewhere around us.
This serves as Montaigne’s final statement on war and disorder in his native country. Most of the essay, however, deals with two issues he has examined in depth throughout his project — the limits of the intellect and the value of philosophy. In this essay, Montaigne bravely examines everything he’s put on the table — even the essays themselves — and makes his final statement in favor of living a simple life, more like peasants than noblemen.
Montaigne uses Socrates as his entry point for this idea, writing that the power of Socrates was the simplicity of his ideas and language:
Socrates makes his soul move with the natural motion of the common people: thus speaks a peasant; thus speaks a woman. He has nothing on his lips but draymen, joiners, cobblers and masons. His inductions and comparisons are drawn from the most ordinary and best-known of men’s activities; anyone can understand him. Under so common a form we today would never have discerned the nobility and splendor of his astonishing concepts; we who judge any which are not swollen up by erudition to be base and commonplace and who are never aware of riches except when pompously paraded.
What Montaigne is building up to with this argument is an attack on excessive erudition. The Oracle did not advise Socrates to know everything, after all, it advised him to know himself:
Socrates, did not deal with vain notions: his aim was to provide us with matter and precepts which genuinely and intimately serve our lives: to keep the mean; to hold fast to the limit; and to follow nature…. It is not possible to be less pretentious or more lowly. He did a great favor to human nature by showing how much she can do by herself. We are richer than we think, each one of us. Yet we are schooled for borrowing and begging! We are trained to make more use of other men’s goods than of our own.
Then Montaigne makes an interesting psychological assertion — that our desire for excessive knowledge is akin to drives like greed and gluttony. This fits perfectly with Nietzsche’s will to power … our intellect also wills dominance over us and requires an ever expanding library to attain that power:
In nothing does Man know how to halt at the point of his need; be it pleasure, wealth or power, he clasps at more than he can hold: his greed is not susceptible to moderation. It is the same, I find, with his curiosity for knowledge: he hacks out for himself much greater tasks than he needs or can achieve, making the extent of knowledge and the usefulness of knowledge co-equal: In learning as in everything else, we suffer from lack of temperance.
This will to intellect becomes an enemy of self knowledge. We start to imitate the writings of Aristotle or even model our lives on someone like Caesar. Bear in mind that this is a major self-criticism for Montaigne, he peppered his essays with numerous exempla, now he’s making the argument that these exempla are masks that hide what’s most important within us:
It is far easier to talk like Aristotle and to live like Caesar than both to talk like Socrates and live like Socrates. In him is lodged the highest degree of perfection and of difficulty. Art cannot reach it. Moreover our own faculties are not trained that way. We neither assay them nor understand them: we clothe ourselves in those of others and allow our own to lie unused – and some may say that about me, asserting that I have merely gathered here a big bunch of other men’s flowers, having furnished nothing of my own but the string to hold them together.
Looking back, Montaigne sees his project in a different light. What he had previously criticized as vanity, he now sees as the vital truth in his project, while the thoughts of ancient sages are mere filler. If this is true, of course, then my project is even more worthless than Montaigne’s, but I’ll get to that shortly:
I want to display nothing but my own – what is mine by nature. If I had had confidence to do what I really wanted, I would have spoken utterly alone, come what may. Yet despite my projected design and my original concept (but following the whim of the age and the exhortation of others) I burden myself with more and more of them every day. That may not become me well: I think it does not, but never mind: it might be useful to somebody else.
Montaigne lets himself off the hook somewhat by pointing out that he’s merely writing in the style of his age:
A presiding judge boasted in my presence that he had amassed two hundred or so borrowed commonplaces and worked them into one of his presidential rescripts. By declaring that fact to all and sundry he seemed to me to be nullifying the glory he was being given for it. A petty and ridiculous vanity for my taste in such a subject and in such a person …. At least the ink and paper are his. In all conscience that is not writing a book but purchasing one, borrowing one. It shows men – something of which they might have remained in doubt – that you are unable to write one.
All of this is rather esoteric, so Montaigne decides to relate it to an issue that he’d covered in a previous essay — explaining now that his close reading of the ancients gave him the false impression that philosophy was useful in sanctifying death:
Contemplate yourself. You will find within you Nature’s arguments concerning death – true arguments, most fit to serve you in your need: they it is which make a farm-labourer, as well as entire nations, die with as much constancy as a philosopher…. If you do not know how to die, never mind. Nature will tell you how to do it on the spot, plainly and adequately. She will do this job for you most punctiliously: do not worry about it: In vain, O mortals, do you strive to know the uncertain hour of your death and by which road it will come.
Montaigne, who for essay after essay tried to come to peace with Stoic philosophy, now makes his strongest, perhaps ultimate, break from that worldview. He never walks away from Stoicism nor names its failings, but the criticism of philosophy in this quote strikes firmly at the Stoics, both Greek and Roman:
We confuse life with worries about death, and death with worries about life. One torments us: the other terrifies us. We are not preparing ourselves to die: that is too momentary a matter. A quarter of an hour of pain, without after-effects, without annoyance, has no need of precepts of its own. To speak truly, we prepare ourselves against our preparations for death! Philosophy first commands us to have death ever before our eyes, to anticipate it and to consider it beforehand, and then she gives us rules and caveats in order to forestall our being hurt by our reflections and our foresight! Thus do doctors tip us into illnesses in order that they may have the means of employing their drugs and their Art.
So Montaigne reaches a valuable insight about philosophy that Nietzsche later embraces via Zarathustra — that the aim of philosophy has to be life, not death:
If we have not known how to live, it is not right to teach us how to die, making the form of the end incongruous with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and calmly we shall know how to die the same way. They may bluster as much as they like, saying that the entire life of philosophers is a preparation for death; but my opinion is that death is indeed the ending of life, but not therefore its End: it puts an end to it; it is its ultimate point; but it is not its objective. Life must be its own objective, its own purpose.
While on the subject of death, I was thinking yesterday about Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall,” and the fact that while nobody dies in the movie, talk about death envelops it. There are jokes about Alvy Singer’s obsession with death and the books he buys for Annie on the subject. There’s also Alvy’s comment about how a relationship is like a shark, that it needs to keep moving or it will die. He then calls their relationship a dead shark.
There’s no death in “Annie Hall,” but the end of Alvy and Annie’s relationship is a kind of mortality. The story of their love affair is a life in itself, one with its own mythology and inevitable demise. The life affirming message at the end of the film is that, bad ending and all, Alvy was better off for having loved Annie.
In this way, I believe we are constantly dealing with death within our lives. Short aspects of our lives flicker and flame out, and in the same way, so too do our mortal selves. My personal view is that philosophy isn’t about how to prepare to die … and it’s not really about how to live either. It’s about being aware and open to reconsideration. It’s about taking an open-minded look at your old photos.