Montaigne: “we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot”

Of this there is general agreement among all the philosophers of all sects, that the sovereign good consists in tranquillity of soul and body. But where do we find it?

In short, ‘neath Jove alone the wise man dwells:
A king of kings, free, honored, handsome, wealthy;
Save when he has a cold, above all healthy. (Horace)

It seems in truth that nature, for the consolation of our miserable and puny condition, has given us as our share only presumption. This is what Epictetus says, that man has nothing properly his own but the use of his opinions. We have nothing but wind and smoke for our portion. The gods have health in reality, says philosophy, sickness in thought; man, on the contrary, possesses his goods in fancy, his ills in reality. We have been right to make much of the powers of our imagination, for all our goods exist only in dreams.

Hear this poor calamitous animal boast: “There is nothing,” says Cicero, “so sweet as the occupation of letters, of those letters, I mean, by means of which the infinity of things, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens in this very world, the lands and the seas, are revealed to us. It is they that have taught us religion, moderation, greatheartedness, and that have wrested our soul out of the shadows to make it see all things, high, low, first, last, and middling. It is they that furnish us with means to live well and happily, and guide us to pass our age without displeasure and without pain.” Does not this man seem to be talking about the condition of God, ever-living and almighty? And as for the facts, a thousand little women in their villages have lived a more equable, sweeter, and more consistent life than his.

A god it was, great Memmius, a god,
Who was the first that way of life to find
Which we call wisdom now; whose artful mind
Brought life from such great storms, such depths of night,
Safe into such a haven, such clear light. (Lucretius)

Those are very magnificent and beautiful words; but a very slight accident put this man’s understanding into a worse state than that of the lowest shepherd, notwithstanding that Teacher-God [Epicurus] of his and that divine wisdom.

Nothing is so common as to encounter cases of similar temerity. There is not one of us who is so offended to see himself compared to God as he is to see himself brought down to the rank of the other animals: so much more jealous are we of our own interest than of that of our creator.

But we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot, and sharply and boldly shake the ridiculous foundations on which these false opinions are built. As long as he thinks he has some resources and power by himself, never will man recognize what he owes to his master; he will always make chickens of his eggs, as they say. He must be stripped to his shirt.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, trans. Donald Frame.

Lest anyone be tempted to declare Montaigne a radical, let’s be clear: only pages before this he was advocating submission to the authority of the Church and her teachings. Which means he’s not even a modernist, let alone a postmodernist. What strikes me as most valuable here is his 1. rejection of that cult of the philosophers which forgets they also shat and copulated and had runny noses, and 2. recognition that “a thousand little women in their villages” have lived every bit as well as Cicero. I suspect that, for Socrates (and those with similar turns of mind), an unexamined life would not have been worth living. Yet there have been millions of people unnoticed by history who have lived noble lives free of philosophical introspection.

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