Wednesday 16 January 2013

Rub and polish your brain

"When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me? - Montaigne and being in touch with life" by Saul Frampton. I first mentioned this book two years ago because it is written by my cousin Saul (and it's always good to have a little reflected intellectual glory) and I came back and requested it from the library before Christmas after reading the Alain de Botton book that talked about Montaigne and re-piqued my interest. This is a really intellectual book, but I was pleased to find that it was very readable and, although liberally sprinkled with words I had to look up, accessible to a non-academic audience.

During the late middle ages life for most people was (to quote someone) nasty, brutish and short. The people of Europe were plagued by Plague and beset by religious strife, and into this arena stepped the person of Michel de Montaigne. After the death of his father he inherits his title, land, house and vineyards and proceeds to retire to his library, and spends the next twenty years writing his reflections on life in a series of essays. The essays, published and extensively revised during his lifetime, were widely read at the time, are considered a major contribution to philosophy of the Renaissance and continue to be influential today. The book is much more than a mere biography; it delves into the philosophical  influences that would have been part of Montaigne's education and follows his own reasoning through the essays as he moves away from certain popular viewpoints. There is an interesting mixture of social and political history too, that gives you the background of the world that he lives in. While there are some quotes from the essays the aim of the book is to give you an overview of his ideas, translating them somewhat for the modern reader and also placing them in their historic context.

Montaigne is quoted and referenced extensively through western thought and literature; I discovered towards the end of the book that Shakespeare was a big fan and a speech from The Tempest is almost a direct quote from one of his essays. What is impressive is that he has something to say on every aspect of human life, and what is so engaging about him is that his thoughts and opinions are based on his own life experiences and observations, rather than on abstract reasoning. On warfare, he observes the increased use of gunpowder as a weapon, altering the whole nature of battle, and the unpredictability of civil war:
"Moreover, the natural bonds between people are severed by civil war - the 'divisions and subdivisions' which threaten to tear his country apart - rendering them incapable and indeed scornful of sympathy and fellow feeling. Human behaviour, like that of gunpowder, is now unpredictable: we wander a battlefield in darkness and despair." (p.63)

His fondness for cats (see the title) is extended into musings about the relationship/bond between humans and animals:
"We have cat-fights and bear-hugs, we feel bird-brained and sheepish. And if all goes to the dogs, we can resort to calling people pigs, chickens, or cows - or reach for that symbol of our over-eating, over-heated age: the beached whale. This may be just horsing around, but the more we look at history, the more our debts to animals emerge: where they stand as the silvering to the mirror of ourselves, a differential equation through which our humanness is constantly worked out." (p.100)

On communication (specifically here body language):
"And this opens the way to a cautious optimism: that despite the rifts and divisions opened up by civil war, people retain the ability to communicate with each other. Our bodies are engaged in a form of commerce that ties us together, despite the differences in our thoughts ... Despite our political and religious differences, men have an inbuilt disposition towards communication, and the recognition of this will allow truth - or rather trust - to find a way through. (p.119)

He was well travelled and interested in other cultures and traditions. Though never going to the Americas himself he heard many first hand experiences and developed a quite novel notion of civilisation:
"Montaigne asks: if we are all in fact descended from the same land mass and are in fact all related (as palaeobiology now shows that we are), who is to say, therefore, who is civilised and who is not? Or who will be civilised and uncivilised in ages to come?" (p.145)
And challenged the received opinion that inhabitants of the New World are 'barbaric': 
"It is therefore ourselves who are really barbaric, in corrupting and smothering Nature's beauty with clothing and decoration. ... Montaigne thus turns the tables, and inaugurates a tradition that culminates in Rousseau's idea of the noble savage - a prelapsarian state of nature more to be esteemed that artificial poise." (p.146)
On meeting some Tupinamba Indians and striving to understand, as was his wont, what they might think of his culture,  he notes how they observe and cannot understand the extremes of wealth and poverty alongside each other:
"Montaigne then finishes with an ironic flourish: 'This is all very well, but hang on, they don't even wear trousers' - meaning that we will forever judge others by our own habitual prejudices. But this sense of honour as manifested in an openness to the other person, in a gesture of welcoming them and meeting them half-way, is something that seems to strike a certain chord with Montaigne." (p153)

What is also interesting is that he writes about things that often do not concern other philosophers. The nature of human friendship and it's importance is a strong theme; his close friendship with a poet called Etienne de La Bo├ętie that was cut short by his early death was an ongoing source of grief to Montaigne. 

"In this sense the special nature of friendship is not to do with the fact that it comes with no obligations, but because friendship necessarily activates and invigorates our proxemic senses: it arises when two bodies that had once been unknown to each other meet; as Montaigne says: they 'embraced' each other 'by our names', seeking each other out amidst the throng of a civic feast. Montaigne's writing about friendship thus shows a man profoundly impressed by the stoical composure of his dead friend,
yet also drawn to friendship as constituted by physical proximity, an unspoken, invisible but nourishing force." (p.209-10)

He mourns also the way the civil war estranged people from each other in quite extreme ways; pity and sympathy seen as weaknesses, people divided from one another economically, people hoarding wealth because of fear for the future, neighbour being set against neighbour. He writes an essay 'Of Coaches' describing how they physically divide the haves from the have-nots, making it easier for one side to hate the other.

As he goes along the essays become a means of questioning everything he encounters, challenging commonly held beliefs, a process of self-discovery. I get the impression that if he were alive today Montaigne would be a blogger with a lot to say about the state of the world is in now. I love Saul's concluding reflection on Montaigne's life:
"But in closing the slim manual of Stoicism, Montaigne opens the large volume of life. He states in his later essays that it is 'living happily, not ... dying happily that is the source of human contentment'. And whilst there are no 'skyhooks' on which to hang this morality, neither is there an abyss below: 'When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.' Montaigne is perhaps the first writer in human history to lay his hand on human consciousness, though not, like Descartes, in an attempt to achieve certainty, but in an attempt to justify life on its own terms. Thinking may allow is to part company with ourselves - 'my thoughts are sometimes elsewhere' - but it is the task of philosophy to 'bring them back' to the human, to slow our walk through the orchard of life, and hold in our mouths, for as long as we can, the 'sweetness' and 'beauty' of living." (p.249-50)

I loved also Saul's description of going to visit Montaigne's house, where you can wander around and stand in the library where he wrote; I can imagine that having lived and breathed such a person in the researching of this book you could not help but develop such an affinity with him and want to step into his life. What a wonderful book, and what a fascinating man. I was left feeling that I got to know and like him, but I also learned something of the period that was unknown to me. A copy of his essays is definitely on it's way here.

(p.s. the post title comes from his essay on education, the idea that travel provides a most important lesson, to "rub and polish our brains with others.")

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