This is a milestone essay for Montaigne – the final piece of volume two. And it’s a milestone day for me as well, my final day of employment as a speechwriter at the American Dental Association. Starting Monday, I’ll be back to the freelance life (at least for the short term.) So if anyone wants to commission me to write a grand philosophical treatise on the subject of my choice, feel free to contact me in the comments section.
There’s another important milestone coming up for my son Quinn on Sunday, his Baptism. A friend from Virginia is supposed to be flying in this weekend to serve as godfather, but he’s just developed some very painful kidney stones and may not be able to make it. Ironically enough, Montaigne suffered from persistent kidney stones as well – and the chronic pain they brought him heavily influenced this essay. The pain of the kidney stones was so bad that it made Montaigne lose all remaining fear of death:
Even real pain is not so shrill, harsh and stabbing that a man of settled temperament must go mad with despair. I draw at least one advantage from my colic paroxysms: whatever I had failed to do to make myself familiar with death and reconciled to it that illness will do for me: for the more closely it presses upon me and importunes me the less reason I shall have to be afraid to die.
The title comes from a rather astute Montaigne observation that many of our traits are inherited – here he gives a rather prescient description of our contemporary understanding of genetics:
Where can that drop of fluid lodge such an infinite number of Forms? How does it come to transmit these resemblances in so casual and random a manner that the great-grandson is like his great-grandfather, the nephew like his uncle?
The fluid Montaigne refers to is semen … and even mentioning it was rather scandalous in Montaigne’s time. Having shown his wonder at the miracle of inheritance, he then theorizes that his disdain for the medical profession – the real subject of this essay – is also inherited:
My antipathy to their Art is hereditary; my father lived to seventy-four, my grandfather to sixty-nine, my great-grandfather to nearly eighty, none having swallowed any kind of drug. ‘Medicine’ for them meant anything they did not use regularly.
What this indicates to me, actually, is a strong genetic predisposition to good health, not antipathy to medicine. And Montaigne is clear that he doesn’t take good health lightly:
Health is precious. It is the only thing to the pursuit of which it is truly worth devoting not only our time but our sweat, toil, goods and life itself. Without health all pleasure, scholarship and virtue lose their lustre and fade away. The most firmly supported arguments against this that Philosophy seeks to impress on us can be answered by this hypothesis: imagine Plato struck down by epilepsy or apoplexy; then challenge him to get any help from all those noble and splendid faculties of his soul.
This is Montaigne, after all, so he can’t fully commit to dogmatism. His closing thought, in fact, argue for a more open minded approach to medicine if he’s presented with good, new evidence:
Those who like our medicine may also have their own good, great, powerful arguments: I do not loathe ideas which go against my own. I am so far from shying away when others’ judgments clash with mine, so far from making myself unsympathetic to the companionship of men because they hold to other notions or parties, that, on the contrary, just as the most general style followed by Nature is variety – even more in minds than in bodies, since minds are of a more malleable substance capable of accepting more forms –I find it much rarer to see our humors and purposes coincide. In the whole world there has never been two identical opinions, any more than two identical hairs or seeds. Their most universal characteristic is diversity.
Still, his antipathy to medicine is powerful. Here he describes how you should interpret a future capitulation of doctors … using language very similar to that of Christopher Hitchens explaining that any future tilt towards a belief in God is disease talking, not him:
I do not mean that I may not one day be swept away by the ridiculous idea of entrusting my life to the mercy of the doctors and my health to their ordinances; I might well fall into such raving madness (I cannot vouch for my future constancy); but if I do, like, like Pericles I shall say to anyone who asks how I am, ‘You can tell from all this,’ showing him my palm burdened with six drams of opiate. That will be a manifest symptom of violent illness. My judgment will have miraculously flown off the handle. If fear and intolerance of pain ever make me do that, you may diagnose a very harsh fever in my soul.
I think Montaigne understands the true cause of his medical disdain better than he articulates it … here he explains that he’s not very fond of other professions either, such as law. Montaigne’s real problem might be submitting to authority:
What I am suspicious of are the things discovered by our own minds, our sciences and by that Art of theirs in favor of which we have abandoned Nature and her rules and on to which we do not know how to impose the limits of moderation …. What we call justice is a farrago of any old laws which fall into our hands, dispensed and applied often quite ineptly and iniquitously; those who mock at this and complain of it are not reviling that noble virtue itself but only condemning the abuse and the profanation of that venerable name of justice. So too with medicine: I honor its glorious name, its aim and its promises, so useful to the human race; but what that name actually designates among us I neither honor nor esteem.
My dad had that problem, especially later in life. He saw doctors as just more people who want to boss him. As the guy who just quit his job, I might want to borrow Montaigne’s title and agree to a certain family resemblance on that score. But while I think Montaigne makes good points in the essay, he also grants aid and comfort to the “nature-ists” who argue today that we can safely avoid vaccines and not fluoridate our water simply because human existed for millennia without good public health practices:
Every nation existed without medicine for centuries (that was the first age of Man, the best and the happiest centuries); even now less than a tenth of the world makes use of it. Nations without number have no knowledge of medicine and live longer and more healthily than we do here.
I don’t accept that argument, but I’m also willing to give Montaigne some slack because he was writing in the 16th century and medical practices were still rather barbaric. His critiques cannot be easily transported to the 21st century … although he seemed to predict the side-effects disclosure madness of contemporary prescription drug advertisements:
Moreover their authors maintain that there is no medicine without harmful side-effects: if those which do us some good do us some harm as well, what must the other ones do when applied to us quite abusively?
Towards the end of the essay, Montaigne digresses to make some strong statements against those who write for a living:
How I would hate the reputation of being clever at writing but stupid and useless at everything else! I would rather be stupid at both than to choose to employ my good qualities as badly as that. Far from expecting to acquire some new honor by this silly nonsense, I shall have achieved a lot if it does not make me lose the little I have. Leaving aside the fact that this dumb nature morte will be an impoverished portrait of my natural being, it is not even drawn from my state at its best but only after it has declined from its original joy and vigor, now seeming withered and rancid. I have reached the bottom of the barrel which readily stinks of lees and sediment.
For better or worse, Montaigne’s immortality is due to his writing. And as someone who admires both the way he thinks and they way he expresses those thoughts, I’m glad that his actions are more profound than his random ideas.