Up to this point, Montaigne’s essays focused on practical issues people face every day. But with his 14th essay, he ventured deeply into one of the most controversial and thorny issues in philosophy – whether we can call anything universally good or evil.
This question cuts right to the bone – is there a defined human nature? Are there universal human rights and ethics? Do human drives and desires create meaning or drive us away from it? Or, perhaps, is the entire question of meaning a great human distraction and abstraction?
This is a key essay in the Montaigne corpus and it needs to be put in the proper context of the times. The 16th century was still deeply theocratic – to challenge religious orthodoxy in France at that time was controversial enough, but to touch on philosophical themes that hint at a lack of a deity would be akin to suicide. Rene Descartes, born four years after Montaigne’s death, went to great pains in his Meditations to reassure clergy that his philosophical inquiries were rooted in an attempt to reaffirm faith. It’s remarkable, in this essay, that Montaigne makes no such claim.
What passed for philosophy in Montaigne’s time was little more than a tug of war between neo-Platonists, who built on St. Augustine’s reimagination of Plato for Christianity, and Thomists, who followed Thomas Aquinas’ application of Aristotle to Roman Catholicism. Much of what Montaigne was trying to accomplish from a philosophical perspective was reintroducing Stoic philosophy into the conversation.
And this essay starts out doing just that. The jumping off point is a paraphrased saying from Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher who spent much of his youth as a slave, then later emigrated to Rome and studied under Senator Musonius Rufus. It’s one of the cornerstone sayings of Stoic philosophy: men are tormented not by things themselves but by what they think about them.
To spell that out a bit, here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Epictetus’s view of human volition:
The appearance and comfort of one’s body, one’s possessions, one’s relationships with other people, the success or failure of one’s projects, and one’s power and reputation in the world are all merely contingent facts about a person, features of our experience rather than characteristics of the self. These things are all “externals”; that is, things external to the sphere of volition.
So Montaigne ventures to make a philosophical proof of this Epictetus claim and devises a clever form of exam. If it’s true that opinions, not reality, drive human torment, then the greatest evils facing humanity – death, pain and poverty – should also be governed by opinion as well. He writes:
If what we call evil or torment are only evil or torment insofar as our mental apprehension endows them with those qualities then it lies within our power to change those qualities. And if we did have such a choice and were free from constraint we would be curiously mad to pull in the direction which hurts us most, endowing sickness, poverty or insolence with a bad and bitter taste when we could give them a pleasant one, Fortune simply furnishing us with the matter and leaving it to us to supply the form.
Montaigne first tackles death with a set piece that reads like a stand-up comedy routine of gallows humor. That proves that humans are quite capable of overcoming the fear of death. In fact, he argues that this case is all too easy to make:
If I were to thread together a long list of people of all sorts, of both sexes and of all schools of thought, who even in happier times have awaited death with constancy or have willingly sought it – not merely to fly from the ills of this life but in some cases simply to fly from a sense of being glutted with life and in others from hope of a better mode of being elsewhere – I would never complete it: they are so infinite in number that, in truth, I would find it easier to list those who did fear death.
Once you’ve proven that a fear of death can be overcome, it’s pretty easy to argue that pain can be overcome. A couple centuries before Marquis de Sade, Montaigne doesn’t make the kinds of pleasure/pain arguments we might expect today … rather he points out that courage is nothing more than an ability, or even eagerness, to confront pain rather than avoid it. In another clever twist, Montaigne points out that the greatest, most acute pain is associated with death, so in overcoming a fear of death, even torture can be transcended.
Finally, Montaigne moves on to poverty – and strangely enough, he seems to have the most trouble here. Today, we can just quote P. Diddy (“mo money, mo problems”), but it takes some tortured arguments for Montaigne to reach the conclusion that happiness can often be more easily achieved with less money. In a contemporary frame, the better argument is that a more fulfilling life may be derived by pursuing wealth less aggressively and focusing on other wants or needs.
The case that Montaigne builds for supporting Epictetus builds, little more than halfway through the essay, to this easy-to-miss line:
Plato is afraid of our bitter enslavement to pain and to pleasure, since they too firmly bind and shackle our souls to our bodies; I, on the contrary, because they release them and strike them free.
It’s a puzzling quote and one that might be dismissed easily. But I believe that this is one of the most profound statements Montaigne ever made and it deserves to be examined in depth – if for no other reason than the attempt Montaigne makes here from driving out the Platonic influence on Stoic philosophy.
The first half of the quote deals directly with Plato, and it is simple and clear. Plato believed that we exist in the world of shadows, that our understanding of reality is incomplete, even cartoonish. Given this, Plato believed that pain and pleasure create distance from reality, enslaving us further to the world of shadows.
Montaigne, on the contrary, believes that pleasure and pain release us from the myths and distortions of everyday life. How? As he had just spelled out in his philosophical proof, Montaigne believes that our beliefs about poverty, pain, even death, are free to our interpretations and values. We are free to not fear death … or to show courage when facing pain … or choose a less prosperous life path.
With this freedom to redefine evil, we also gain the freedom to define good. We can choose to enjoy gourmet food instead of fast food — or art over entertainment. All of this is in line with Epictetus, so it’s not original. But what makes this quote so vital and paradoxical is that Montaigne comes to this realization with trepidation — he in fact equates Plato’s fear of soulless hedonism with his own understanding of freedom.
This is a highly sophisticated position, one that anticipates every major philosopher since Schopenhauer. But why exactly should we fear this freedom? Montaigne offers no clues in this essay, but I’m going to offer a contemporary perspective. What he fears is nihilism.
The idea was first expressed by Schopenhauer, then expanded upon by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre, who condensed it into the most pithy phrase: that man is condemned to be free. Absent universal understandings and beliefs about the most important issues of humanity — our mortality, what makes life worthwhile, how we should live — we’re adrift in a world without meaning. We cannot decry bad luck, because there is no bad luck, only our will to act and our interpretations of the unique opportunities before us.
Nietzsche found this idea liberating, but most philosophers follow Montaigne in finding it terrifying because, carried to its logical extreme, this line of thought completely upsets the tenets of Western Civilization. If, for example, we are free to interpret death as we choose, it becomes impossible to create a universal value of life. How then can a society choose to universally condemn murder when the murdered could judge it as a positive act? Assaulting a person could have a positive impact – so too could theft.
It’s easy to argue away the impact of these beliefs because the social and religious customs of our society still hold sway and lead us to believe that these are universal evils. But what such a thought process inevitably leads to is a direct confrontation between belief and non-belief. Absent a supernatural rationale for universal values, none can be found. Despite Epictetus’s belief in an ordered, God-centered universe, his belief in rationality does not end in a proof of values, it does the opposite.
Montaigne never chooses to venture that far, but the fact that he even hints at the future of philosophy makes this one of the most remarkable and sly essays ever written.