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  • We generally think that philosophers should be proud of their big brains, and be fans of thinking

  • self-reflection and rational analysis. But there's one philosopher, born in France in 1533, who had a refreshingly different take.

  • Michel de Montaigne was an intellectual who spent his writing life

  • knocking the arrogance of intellectuals. In his great masterpiece, the 'Essays', he comes across as relentlessly wise and intelligent

  • but also as constantly modest and keen to debunk the pretensions of learning. Not least, he's extremely funny,

  • reminding his readers: 'to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more

  • ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads... (or, as he put it) On the highest throne in the world,

  • we are seated, still, upon our arses.'

  • Montaigne was a child of the Renaissance and the ancient philosophers popular in Montaigne's day

  • believed that our powers of reason could afford us a happiness and greatness denied to other creatures.

  • Reason was a sophisticated, almost divine, tool offering us mastery over the world and ourselves.

  • That was the line taken by philosophers like Cicero.

  • But this characterization of human reason enraged Montaigne. After hanging out with academics and philosophers, he wrote,

  • "In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle, more equable and more constant lives than [Cicero].

  • His point wasn't that human beings can't reason at all,

  • simply that they tend to be far too arrogant about the limits of their brains. As he wrote,

  • "Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom. Whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind."

  • Perhaps the most obvious example of our madness is the struggle of living within a human body.

  • Our bodies smell, ache, sag, pulse, throb and age (whatever the desires of our minds).

  • Montaigne was the world's first and possibly only philosopher

  • to talk at length about impotence, which seemed to him a prime example of how crazy and fragile our minds are.

  • Montaigne had a friend

  • who'd grown impotent with a woman he particularly liked.

  • Montaigne didn't blame the penis. The problem was the mind, the oppressive notion that we had complete control over our bodies, and the horror of

  • departing from this theoretical normality. The solution, Montaigne said, was to redraw our sense of what's normal.

  • By accepting a loss of command over the penis as a harmless common possibility in lovemaking

  • one could preempt its occurrenceas the stricken man eventually discovered. In bed with a woman, he learnt to,

  • "Admit beforehand that he was subject to this infirmity and spoke openly about it,

  • so relieving the tensions within his soul. By bearing the malady as something to be expected,

  • his sense of constriction grew less and weighed less heavily upon him."

  • Montaigne's frankness allows the tensions in the reader's own soul to be relieved.

  • A man who failed with his girlfriend could regain his forces

  • and soothe the anxieties of his beloved by accepting that his impotence belonged to a broad realm of sexual mishaps, neither very rare nor very peculiar.

  • Montaigne was equally frank about limitations of his intellect (and of its usefulness).

  • Academia was deeply prestigious in Montaigne's day, as in our own.

  • Yet, although Montaigne was an excellent scholar, he hated pedantry in academia.

  • He only wanted to learn things that were useful and relentlessly attacked academics for being out of touch.

  • "If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life," he said.

  • Only that which makes us feel better maybe worth understanding.

  • In this vein, Montaigne mocked books that were difficult to read.

  • He admitted to his readers that he found Plato more than a little boringand that he just wanted to have fun with books:

  • "I'm not prepared to bash my brains out for anything, not even for learning's sake however precious it may be.

  • From books all I seek is to get myself some pleasure by an honorable pastime...

  • If I come across some difficult passages in my reading

  • I don't bite my nails over them: after making a charge or two I let them be... If one book tires me

  • I just take up another." He could be pretty caustic about incomprehensible philosophers.

  • "Difficulty is a coin which the learned conjure with so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies

  • and which human stupidity is keen to accept in payment."

  • Montaigne observed how an intimidating scholarly culture

  • has made all of us study other people's books way before we study our own minds. And yet, as he put it:

  • "We are richer than we think, each one of us."

  • Montaigne is refreshing because he describes a life

  • which is recognizably like our own and yet inspiring stillhe is a very human ideal.

  • We may all arrived at wise ideas if we cease to think of ourselves

  • as unsuited to the task just because we aren't two thousand years old, or aren't interested in the topics of Plato's dialogues or have a so-called ordinary life.

  • Montaigne reassures us: "You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life

  • just as well as to one with richer stuff."

  • In Montaigne's redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it's possible to speak no Greek

  • change one's mind after a meal, get bored with a book, be impotent and know pretty much none of the Ancient philosophers.

  • A virtuous ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.

  • Montaigne remains the great, readable intellectual with whom we can laugh at intellectuals

  • and pretensions of many kinds. He was a breath of fresh air in the cloistered, unworldly,

  • snobbish corridors of the academia of the 16th centuryand because academia has, sadly,

  • not changed very much, he continues to be an inspiration and a solace to all of us who feel routinely

  • oppressed and patronized by the pedantry and arrogance of so-called clever people.

We generally think that philosophers should be proud of their big brains, and be fans of thinking

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PHILOSOPHY - Montaigne

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    杜姸儀 posted on 2021/08/27
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