The human mind is naturally poetic. We look for analogies constantly to explain the natures of large, complex systems. The mind itself is perhaps our greatest metaphor, seen in different ages as analogous to God, steam machines and, currently, to computers.
It’s a helpful trait for the most part, but it also leads us to make questionable leaps of judgment when the basis of our analogy is fallacious. Montaigne gives a good example of this when he takes what was known of nature at his time and tries to extend it to the body politic:
Throughout the whole system governing the works of Nature there can be found an amazing analogy and correspondence which shows that it is neither fortuitous nor controlled by a variety of Masters. The maladies and the characteristics of our bodies can also be found in States and polities; like us, kingdoms and republics are born, flourish and fade into decrepitude. We are subject to a surfeit of humours which serves no purpose and is harmful.
So, following the barbaric medical ideas of his time, Montaigne believes that the political equivalent of forced bleeding might be helpful from time to time:
Ailing political systems may often show a similar surfeit, and various sorts of purges are normally used for it. Sometimes, to take the load off the country, a great multitude of families are given leave to seek better conditions elsewhere, to some other nation’s detriment.
Despite the dated nature of these analogies, I believe that such attempts to use poetry to describe scientific understanding are valuable and should be encouraged. Literary critic Angus Fletcher wrote a wonderful book a few years ago entitled “Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare.” In it, he draws parallels from Galileo’s discoveries and the changing literary metaphors that soon followed. Fletcher wrote:
The prime question for this history must surely be the way civilizations change, as they encounter new cultural pressures to think of human life and its context in terms, precisely, of its instability. A willingness to accept the encounter runs largely alien to our human penchant for keeping things just the way they have always been …. Poetry and science need at the very least to respect each other’s powers and concerns, so that we may come to understand their deeper purposes, not to say their shared implication that the idea of meaning itself must always change, as they move to occupy different spaces in our mental world.
I think it’s also useful to turn these metaphors around to analyze old ideas that may no longer suit us – but that’s a more involved project than I’m willing to commence at this moment. The remainder of Montaigne’s essay concerns a more familiar literary topic – using ends to justify the means. I do have to point out one strange section, where Montaigne seems to extol the virtue of gladiators to build public character:
If we really must indulge in depravity, we are more to be excused if we do so for the good of the soul than for the good of the body: as did the Romans who trained their citizens in valour and in contempt for death and danger by those frenzied spectacles of gladiators and swordsmen who fought to the death, hacking at each other and killing each other while they looked on.
And if you think Montaigne misunderstood the nature of these spectacles, not true, he describes them in gruesome detail:
It was indeed a wonderful and very fruitful example for training the people that they should have every day before their eyes a hundred, two hundred or even a thousand pairs of men bearing arms, hacking each other to pieces with such extreme strength of courage that never was heard a single word of weakness or of pity, never a back was turned, never was an opponent’s blow cowardly dodged even but rather were necks offered to swords and presented to blows. Several of them who were mortally covered with many a wound, before lying down to die in the arena sent messages to the spectators to inquire whether they were pleased with their service. It was not enough that they should fight and die with constancy: they had to do it cheerfully: with the result that if they were seen to be reluctant to die there was booing and cursing.
The gladiators were a metaphor for a permanent-war culture, one where the populace was conditioned for blood. We can’t claim too much moral superiority today in the age of violent Hollywood spectacles and the National Football League, but it still seems odd for a sage like Montaigne to find moral purpose in this low entertainment.