Reading Montaigne 1.03: Our feelings reach out beyond us

“…we have no grip on what is to come (indeed a good deal less than we have on what is past)…”

Perhaps because I know so little about any religion, my first thought reading Montaigne’s third essay, “Our feelings reach out beyond us,” is how much of his philosophy, informed by Stoicism, feels very similar to a Buddhist philosophy. In the first paragraph Montaigne notes the importance of, essentially, non-attachment:

“We are never at home, we are always beyond. Fear, desire, hope, project us toward the future and steal from us the feeling and consideration of what is, to busy us with what will be, even when we shall no longer be.”

Montaigne approvingly cites Plato, “Do thy job and know thyself,” noting that each part of this precept is our “whole duty” and that each “includes its fellow.” How different is this, really, from one of my favorite Zen koans:

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?

The monk replied, “I have eaten.”

Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

But the “feelings that reach beyond us” of Montaigne’s title aren’t limited to aspiration, but man’s common grasping for–if not some kind of immortality–a meaning and relevance that extends beyond death. As usual, Montaigne is full of illustrative examples of his point from history and myth, including a military leader who had his skin made into war drums, an emperor who extended his living shyness into death through a request that he be buried with “underdrawers”, and the immense vanity of a “connection” of his who arranged every minute of his slow death with audiences, orders to his household staff, meticulous plans for every aspect of his funeral and services, and finally a meeting with a prince from whom he extracted a promise to bring his family to court, before finally dying.

But it’s not the foolishness of our rituals surrounding death that matter… it’s what they represent for both the one who dies and those who yet live. The one who dies ends a life in which much of the value of living has probably been lost through living for tomorrow instead of in the current day; those who are left must choose whether to treat the dead honestly or hypocritically. This is particularly important when considering the lives and deaths of rulers (I think equating the death of the ruler with the end of their reign was often a literal truth of time, but figuratively true still). Here Montaigne gives advice that is as insightful and useful now as it was then whether we are talking monarchies or democracies. Montaigne notes:

“We owe subjection and obedience equally to all kings, for that concerns their office; but we do not owe esteem, any more than affections, except to their virtue. Let us make this concession to the political order: to suffer them patiently if they are unworthy, to conceal their vices, to abet them by commending their indifferent actions if their authority needs our support. But, our dealings over, it is not right to deny to justice and to our liberty the expression of our true feelings…”

I don’t take this to mean total silence even in disagreement, but to ultimately pursue our disagreement in a context of respect for the office, and working within the political bounds that accept that respect. But when the rule is ended, the office vacated, the throne departed from, then we have a duty to investigate the actions not cover them up and perform, literally or not, hypocritical ceremonies of praise that have the effect of “…attributing to rank the praise that belonged to merit, and the praise that belonged to the highest merit to the latest and lowest rank.”

Again, just as we shouldn’t accord death a prominent place in determining our lives, death shouldn’t prevent us from determining the truth of one’s actions in life:

“Among the laws that concern the dead, this one seems to me as solid as any, which obliges the actions of princes to be examined after their death. They are equals with, if not masters of, the laws; what justice could not do to their persons, it should rightfully be able to do to their reputations…”

Sounds advice on all counts, I think, but not advice I’ve (so far) found easy to take.

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