Nearing the close of his second volume of essays, Montaigne is in a mood to wrap things up and crown a champion. After extolling the virtues of dozens of exemplary lives (taken largely from the pages of Plutarch), he’s now ready to crown his top three heroes in history. It has a certain Keith Olberman’s Countdown phoniness about it, but just wait for the surprise winner. And no, it’s not Donald Trump.
Montaigne’s second runner up and winner in the arts category is … Homer. It’s hard to argue with that one, especially since Montaigne writes before Shakespeare. Homer invented the epic poem – and if you believe Julian Jaynes, consciousness itself – so you’d have to go with God if you want to surpass him. And actually, Montaigne pretty much calls Homer a god in this essay:
And in truth I am often struck with wonder that he, who by his authority created so many gods and made them honored in this world, has not himself been deified.
Greek mythology predates Homer who didn’t create the gods of The Iliad. In fact, he winnowed down the number of gods celebrated in his day, dispensing with numerous sprites and demigods. Hubert Dreyfus theorizes that Homer did this to clarify the importance of each god:
Greeks were deeply aware of the ways in which our successes and our failures – indeed, our very actions themselves – are never completely under our control. They were constantly sensitive to, amazed by, and grateful for those actions that he cannot perform on one’s own simply by trying harder: going to sleep, waking up, fitting in, standing out, gathering crowds together, holding their attention with a speech, changing their mood, or indeed being filled with longing, desire, courage, wisdom, and so on. Homer sees each of these achievements as a particular god’s gift.
So, in essence, Homer created a religion … which still exists today in the form of Western Civilization, or more precisely, the humanities. He’s an obvious choice and a good one.
Montaigne’s first runner up, and winner in the bloodthirsty military strategist category, is Alexander the Great. Montaigne has been effusive in his praise of Alexander throughout the essays, so this choice doesn’t surprise me either. He chose Alexander simply because he couldn’t bring himself to pick Caesar, having already explained how the Roman’s ambition clouded his many virtuous acts. Alexander didn’t lack ambition himself – and considering that he destroyed Thebes, you’d think Montaigne would be even more critical of him, considering the person who he then judges to be history’s great hero.
And that person is … Epaminondas. Who? Best known for his brilliant strategy at the Battle of Leuctra, Epaminondas saved the city-state of Thebes by defeating a Spartan invasion through his innovative phalanx formations. He then rose to leadership in Thebes, where he was known as incorruptible (and apparently humorless – he often chided people for telling jokes that included untruthful information.) And … not much else is known about him. Plutarch wrote extensively about Epaminondas, but his story in Parallel Lives has been lost (and was not available for Montaigne either.)
So why does Montaigne worship Epaminondas so much. I would contend that it’s the lack of information that makes him most appealing. Here’s one of Montaigne’s explanations:
As for his knowledge and skill, an ancient verdict has come down to us, that never did man know more nor talk less.
This fits perfectly with Montaigne’s continuing support for deeds over words. If a great treasure trove of Epaminondas’s thoughts and ideas had been passed down in history, it would have spoiled his deed-centered existence. As it stands now, he saved Thebes and transformed Greece … making it vulnerable a generation later to its total destruction at the hands of the Macedonians, but apparently Montaigne doesn’t have a problem with that.
Montaigne’s position sounds somewhat anti-intellectual, but he’s not alone in believing that words can often distract us from deeper knowledge and understanding of what’s important in life. Consider the words of Nietzsche in “Twilight of the Idols:”
We no longer esteem ourselves sufficiently when we communicate ourselves. Our true experiences are not at all garrulous. They could not communicate themselves even if they tried. That is because they lack the right word. Whatever we have words for that we have already got beyond. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable. With language, the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself. Out of a morality for deaf-mutes and other philosophers.
Tie this back into the discussion of Homer – the words we need often feel like they are not our own, they come to us as if in a dream or a godly inspiration. And yet they are held back by our own limitations, our own experiences and vocabulary. The truly profound thoughts that come to us, Nietzsche suggests, are already dead in our heart by the time they are communicated.
So, perhaps, the best way for us to celebrate what is best in humanity is to deify … to tell the stories of human beings, stripped of the rhetoric, and place their heads on statues, or better yet on Mount Rushmore, where they can gaze at us in silent perfection. There’s a faith healer making his way around the world named Braco who travels from city to city, drawing crowds for a fee … a stage is set, new age music plays, Braco comes on stage … and he gazes at the crowd for about 10 minutes. Ridiculous, yeah sure … but it’s not quite as unusual as it all seems.
Just think of the way we live today and how much time is spent silently gazing at television, billboards and magazines. That look Braco gives his followers is similar to the gaze you’ll see on Brian Williams’ face reading the news or from nearly any actor on television. It’s empty and strangely asexual.
Instead of talking to us … feeding us grains of contempt … Braco is peacefully offering humanity his gaze. And if people feel that they are healed by this silent gaze … is that really so much different than the unsung deeds of Epaminondas, the heroic leader of a lost civilization?