Reading Montaigne 1.14: The Taste of Good and Evil

Montaigne begins one of the most substantial and important of his essays (and one I will not be able to do justice to here) with an unattributed maxim that I’m guessing is from Epictetus. As Montaigne puts it: “Men are tormented by opinions they have of things, not by the things themselves.” In The Discourses, Epictetus writes “…in a word, neither death nor exile nor pain nor anything of the kind is the cause of our doing anything or not doing; but our own opinions and our wills.”

The idea that in our ideal state of existence we are only affected by our own thoughts and perspective is at the heart of Stoic philosophy… and Montaigne’s investigation. The question Montaigne is ultimately addressing is the very existence of evil, whether “that what we call evil is not evil in itself–or at least, whatever it is, that it depends on us to give it a different savor and a different complexion; for all this comes to the same thing.”

Montaigne interrogates this idea by considering three things that (arguably) cause the most misery for men: death, pain, and poverty. If he can show that this triad of ills truly torment us only because of our opinion of them, Montaigne’s experiment goes, then he will have effectively shown that evil is really only a matter of opinion.

Taking the first, death, Montaigne recounts a series of anecdotes about how common people–“leaving aside those men of proud courage”–have faced imminent death with grace and even humor, “yielding nothing to Socrates.” The dark humor that threads its way through Montaigne makes me think he would have been a fun person to hang out with. Here he tells stories like the man being led to the gallows who asks not to go down a particular street because there was a merchant there whom he owed money, and another who on the gallows itself told the hangman not to touch his throat because he was so ticklish. The best is the story of Picardy who, on the scaffold, was offered a deal: marry a woman who had been selected and he would be spared… but noticing that the woman was lame declared “Tie up, Tie up! She limps!”

But it’s not only gallows humor that Montaigne presents as evidence that it is the fear of death while living that is a torment, not the moment of death itself. He also relates the stories of men dying of old age and disease who nevertheless maintain–or even gain–a clear gracefulness. He tells of entire armies, even entire peoples, who rush to embrace death when the alternative is humiliation or religious persecution or dishonor. Despite our outsized perception of those examples where death, when is really upon one, is feared, Montaigne maintains this is not generally the case:

“If I were to string together here a long list of those of all sexes and conditions and sects in happier times who have either awaited death resolutely or sought it voluntarily, and sought it not only to flee the ills of this life, but some simply to flee satiety with living and other for the hope of a better condition elsewhere, I should never have done. Their number is so infinite that in truth I should make a better bargain to count up those who have feared death.”

It is really the fear of death when we should be fully living that we should abhor, not death itself Indeed, as Montaigne shows in one favorite anecdotes:

Pyrrho the philosopher, being one day in a boat in a great tempest, shows the most frightened among his companions a pig that was there, not at all concerned at this storm, and encouraged them by its example. Shall we then dare to say that this advantage, reason, that we make such a fuss about, and on account of which we think ourselves masters and emperors of the rest of creation, has been put in us for our torment? What good is the knowledge of things if by it we lose the repose and tranquillity we should enjoy without it, and if it puts us into a worse condition than Pyrrho’s pig?

From this, Montaigne extrapolates that it is our fear of death that makes us unable to stand pain, not the pain itself. We fear pain, he says, because it threatens us with death. If we don’t fear death, then we have the capability within ourselves to “if not annihilate it, at least lessen it.” We can do this, according to Montaigne, by learning to find contentment in our soul:

The body has, except for differences of degree, only one gait and one posture. The soul may be shaped into all varieties of forms, and molds to itself and to its every condition the feelings of the body and all other accidents.

At this point Montaigne makes a profound observation in favor of a rather pure Stoicism (that, not coincidentally, lands a body blow against those who would water down the Stoic philosophy with, ahem, shades of Platonic philosophy):

Plato fears our hard bondage to pain and pleasure, since it obligates and attaches the soul too much to the body; I, on the contrary, because it detaches and unbinds it.

Ours are not lives to be endured and the pain within it withstood because we are imperfect copies of ideal forms destined to return to that pure perfection, but we fully live life and lessen, even erase, the pain through taking control and fully inhabiting our own souls.

Montaigne supports his points with stories (which, he notes, are “really the quarry for weak-backed people like myself) of those who have been able to ignore great pain thanks to their particular perspective, whether to avoid embarrassment, maintain their honor, or in the name of their beliefs. I have seen this capacity demonstrated by the seriously ill, who–once they come to terms with the possibility of their death–often find within themselves a strength even they didn’t realize they had. But what of the people who wish for death so they can escape the pain… do they necessarily fear death?

From this Montaigne generalizes that “our opinion gives value to things,” a precept illustrated by the fluctuating value of money and belongings (regardless of their literal worth) and how our perception both shapes our understanding of our material circumstances and is often consistent despite them. As Montaigne explains, he has lived in three different material circumstances, each of which has taught him something about material attachment.

When he was young he had no fixed income and lived at the whims of the income he could find and the help of friends and family. His spending at the time was “done more joyously and carelessly for being all at the hazard of fortune,” and he notes that he “has never been better off” despite the fact that he was living hand-to-mouth and routinely borrowing on bad terms. Although “manager” types find that kind of life “horrifying,” Montaigne notes that this overlooks the fact that this is, in fact, how most people live, and the certainty the managers count on is really no more certain than his own life was at the time.’

When he got older, Montaigne found himself in the supposedly enviable position of “having money.” But in having money he found himself beset by worries of how he could lose it, feeling as if he never had enough and worried about those who were supposed to be helping him take care of his money and material possessions. “All things considered,” Montaigne writes, “there is more trouble in keeping money than in getting it.”

Finally, having spent most of the money he had accumulated, Montaigne “fell into a third kind of life” that he finds altogether more pleasant. As he puts it:

I make my expense run abreast with my receipts; now one is ahead, now the other, but they are never far apart. I live from day to day, and content myself with having enough to meet my present and ordinary needs; for the extraordinary, all the provision in the world could not suffice.

And this is altogether better because “it is madness to expect fortune itself to ever arm us adequately against itself. If Montaigne accumulates money now, he does so only when he has something he must buy soon because money is an “accidental weapon” that will betray us when we need it most. And, he quotes from Cicero, “not to be covetous is money, not to be avid to buy is revenue.

Montaigne has come back around to his original point: that ultimately the three things that most torment man: death, pain, and poverty, ultimately have only the power we give them by means of our weakness and cowardice. At which point he makes an observation about perception that is both visceral and true:

To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.

Montaigne has presented many arguments from which to choose in dealing with each one, and expresses exasperation with those men who will not make these important choices, asking of “he who has not the courage to suffer either death or life, who will neither resist nor flee, what can we do with him?

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