While the train of my thought has veered lately down the dualism track, I also seem to have created my own personal dichotomy between Montaigne and Nietzsche. I didn’t intend to create this battle of wills, but now it seems natural and appealing. Montaigne’s optimism and conservatism need the reverberations of Nietzsche’s hammer from time to time. Likewise, Nietzsche’s know-it-all approach to life needs Montaigne’s “what do I know?” attitude to remain tolerable.
Another reason why Nietzsche has joined this conversation is Montaigne’s focus on religious issues in the recent essays. Religion invariably leaves me in the fog. I need Nietzsche’s anti-theism to find my way through it.
In this essay, Montaigne builds on his recent discussion of miracles with an examination of luck. Vatican censors were not pleased with this subject, and Montaigne will have more to write about that in subsequent essays. While Montaigne and many Montaigne scholars are in agreement that Rome had nothing to worry about, I’m not so sure. When taken in conjunctions with Montaigne’s recent essay about finding a divine plan in human outcomes, it’s easy to read between the lines and conclude that Montaigne sees no difference between a miracle and an act of dumb luck.
Before diving into the substance, I need to say a few words about form. Unusual for Montaigne, this essay follows a formal structure. Each section, six in all, starts with a short declarative statement, followed by an illustrating anecdote. Consequently, it’s not a quotable essay, unless you consider the section markers themselves as worthy of renown:
Sometimes it seems that Fortune is literally playing with us.
Was not the following fate apparently playing the artist?
Sometimes it pleases Fortune to rival our Christian miracles.
Sometimes Fortune dabbles in medicine.
Did Fortune not surpass Protogenes the painter in mastery of his art?
Does she not sometimes direct our counsels and correct them?
Contemporary examples can be used to illustrate all of Montaigne’s angles. When writing “Hey Jude,” Paul McCartney included the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder,” which he fully intended to replace later, only to be dissuaded by John Lennon who called it the best line in the song. Fortune dabbled in medicine, famously, by leading to the accidental discovery of penicillin.
Which brings me back to Nietzsche; he believed that no idea is our own. Ideas introduce themselves to us and we recognize them only in retrospect:
A thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.”
And later, in a disconnected thought that seems to fit better here, Nietzsche adds:
What happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth; namely, the governing class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth.
And I believe that thought sums up Montaigne’s essay perfectly. Whether an act becomes an “according to Hoyle miracle” depends on whether it suits and comforts the governing class. If it doesn’t, it’s chalked up to dumb, random luck.
Whether there’s anything in the universe other than dumb, random luck is a topic for another essay.