Friday, August 24, 2012

Andy's Brain Blog Book Club: Essays

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

I readily admit that, of all the current and popular books supposedly relevant to my field of psychology, I find most of them a bore. Take, for example, The Social Animal, by David Brooks. Advertised as an exploration of social and psychological phenomena through the life story of two rather bland individuals, Brooks tries to show us how much of their thoughts and actions are due to their nature, and how much is due to cultural and societal constraints. This has the potential to be interesting, but I found myself putting it down after about a quarter of the way through; I believe the last straw was when Brooks, in a laughable attempt to capture the dialogue of high-schoolers, had one of his characters shout "Yo! Douche-bag!" Give me a break.

As these books have left me unsatisfied, I have found myself driven into the arms of an older but more experienced mistress: Classical literature. In addition to their insights into the capabilities and limitations of human reason and emotion, these works have proved much more acute investigations into human psychology, and as such are more revealing about the human condition.

One of the most accessible works I have found is Montaigne's Essays. Derived from the French word Essai, which literally means "trial" or "attempt", Montaigne developed this genre in order to explore his own attitudes and prejudices on a variety of topics. A brief survey of the titles of his essays gives the reader a good sense of Montaigne's interests, and what to expect from him: On friendship; On drunkenness; On cannibals; On smells; On the habit of wearing clothes; On vehicles; On the art of conversation; All things have their season; On cruelty; On experience; That our actions should be judged by our intentions; On liars; On the education of children; On the uncertainty of our judgment; On the power of the imagination.

On the whole, ordinary yet compelling topics. However, do not let the titles fool you; Montaigne has a habit of digressing into several other related (and unrelated) topics within the same essay, and sometimes will not even address the title of his essay until the very last few paragraphs. As such, the structure and flow of his essays are often unsystematic. While this may irritate some readers at first, it gradually becomes more familiar, then charming, and then is realized as one of the main strengths of his writing. Montaigne's style is informal and relaxed, and during the course of his essays he tends to disclose several personal details about his own life and habits as they relate to the topic at hand; I for one was pleased to learn that the author had the same peculiar reading behaviors that I do, including marking on the first page of a book how long it took to read it from start to finish.

Furthermore, he discourses brilliantly on a range of subjects that, at first blush, may seem rather odd or inappropriate to talk about so bluntly; however, he somehow manages to bring both humor and dignity to the subjects of disease, indigestion, erectile dysfunction, and gallstones. Montaigne is also great for one-liners, and, if you have not gotten into the habit of underlining passages while reading, his essays will compel you to do so. Here are a few of my personal favorites, which will give you a foretaste of his writing (the corresponding essay from which the quote is taken is in parentheses):

"There are some who are tempted by the charm of an attractive phrase to write about something they had not intended." (On the education of children)
"...I do not know whether I would not much rather have produced a perfectly formed child by intercourse with the Muses than by intercourse with my wife." (On the affection of fathers for their children)
"The worth of a soul does not consist in soaring to a height, but in a steady movement." (On repentance)
"...nothing is so likely to throw us into danger as a frantic eagerness to avoid it." (On vehicles)
"If we have known how to live steadfastly and calmly, we shall know how to die in the same way." (On physiognomy
 "Do you ask me whence comes the custom of saying 'Bless you' when a man sneezes? We produce three sorts of wind; that which issues from below is too foul; that which comes from the mouth carries some reproach of over-eating; the third is sneezing, and because it comes from the head and is irreproachable, we give it this honorable greeting. Do not laugh at this subtle reasoning; it is said to be Aristotle's." (On vehicles)  
 "Ease of manner and the ability to unbend are the most honorable and fitting qualities in a strong and generous soul." (On experience)
"We are great fools. 'He has spent his life in idleness,' we say, and 'I have done nothing today.' What! have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most noble of your occupations. 'If I had been put in charge of some great affair, I might have shown what I could do.' Have you been able to reflect on your life and control it? Then you have performed the greatest work of all...Our duty is to compose our character, not to compose books, to win not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct." (On experience)
My volume of Montaigne's Essays is about four hundred pages; a comprehensive reading of all of his essays, if we include his lengthy Apology for Raymond Sebond, is likely several times that. No matter; they should be read as he wrote, at leisure and without any definite plan of where to start and where to end. Anyone may profit from picking up and reading any essay at random.

Lastly, those with a scholarly bent may find it of particular interest to read the Essays in conjunction with Pascal's Pensées (Thoughts), for they represent two opposite poles of the human temperament. Montaigne was at ease with uncertainty and doubt; Pascal hated uncertainty, and spent the latter part of his life collecting his Pensées as a sort of ultimate and unassailable apologetic for Christianity. Montaigne styled himself as both a devout Catholic and a skeptic (his famous motto was, "What do I know?"), and was seen as a moderator and as a voice of reason during the religious wars of his time; Pascal was a fanatic who detested compromise. Montaigne did not think highly of his own intellectual gifts (see how often he comments on his terrible memory), and during his lifetime was remembered more as a provincial statesman than as an author; Pascal was one of the greatest mathematical geniuses in history, whose meteoric career saw the development of several groundbreaking laws, theorems, and inventions, including the syringe and the omnibus.

Two very different characters, but both equally fascinating to read; and while Pascal undoubtedly possesses the greater brilliance of the two, Montaigne perhaps has the more attractive mind. In any case, I hope that you find the time to become familiar with both.

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