55 Scent of a Philosopher: On Smells

Montaigne’s contradictory nature returns in today’s essay, where he starts off saying that the ideal smell is no smell at all:

The best characteristic we can hope for is to smell of nothing. The sweetness of the purest breath consists in nothing more excellent than to be without any offensive smell, as the breath of healthy children.

But then in the course of the writing, he changes his mind and finds the power of pleasant smells intoxicating:

Whatever the smell, it is wonderful how it clings to me and how my skin is simply made to drink it in. The person who complained that Nature left Man with no means of bringing smells to his nose was in error: smells do it by themselves.

To everyone who asks whether Montaigne was the first op-ed writer, first blogger or first modern practical philosopher, I have another suggestion … Montaigne was the first aroma therapist:

It seems to me that doctors could make better use of smells than they do, for I have frequently noticed that, depending on which they are, they variously affect me and work upon my animal spirits; which convinces me of the truth of what is said about the invention of odours and incense in our Churches (a practice so ancient and so widespread among all nations and religions): that it was aimed at making us rejoice, exciting us and purifying us so as to render us more capable of contemplation.

The fathers of modern aroma therapy are Frenchmen, in fact – Rene-Maurice Gattefosse and Jean Valnet. The latter seemed to have some success during World War II using aromatherapy to treat gangrene. As is the case with many homeopathic treatments, it seems like clinical evidence is lacking to demonstrate the effectiveness of aroma therapy … but don’t take my word for that, it’s just an impression and as Montaigne liked to say “what do I know?”

Another point Montaigne makes in the essay is that he has a very strong sense of smell and that this characteristic was likely heightened by his thick mustache. But how can that be? Doesn’t the mustache just hold the scent of the hair until it is washed? Wouldn’t that tend to deflect or hide most of the smells that people come into contact with each day?

Getting back to the point, Nietzsche (yes, him again) once mused that it’s a terrible failing of philosophy that no one has explored the sense of scent. Nietzsche’s own opinions on the matter aren’t terribly illuminating – like Montaigne, he seems a bit prissy and elitist, decrying the “foul odors” of the crowd. There is a social factor to scent – children don’t naturally believe that the odors adults find foul are offensive, they just find them different. But I think he was onto something – if whole schools of philosophy can be constructed around what we see and what we hear, why not what we smell?

Perhaps some phenomenologist in the tradition of Maurice Merleau-Ponty should explore a philosophy of scent. As someone with chronic sinus issues, I’m not the ideal explorer for that realm.

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