I Want Out
I am not quite done reading the essays of Montaigne. I call him “Montaigne” instead of using his full name because it’s confusing, deciding what to write. “Michel Montaigne”? “Michel de Montaigne”? “Michel Seigneur de Montaigne”? I can’t deal with decisions like that. Anyway, I am working on the last part of the Montaigne assignments in Columbia University’s Lit. Hum. syllabus.
As you might have predicted after reading my other commentaries on this course, I am not terribly impressed by Montaigne. He seems like a fairly typical worldly liberal. He enjoys trolling people who believe in God, decency, and the obvious superiority of western civilization. I don’t need to open a moldy old book to hear that. I can turn on MSNBC.
One of the passages I was required to read is titled “On Cannibals.” In this essay, Montaigne writes about a Brazilian native he met. Predictably, Montaigne thinks savages like the Brazilian are not backward at all. Indeed, he suggests, we are the backward and uncivilized ones. Because, you know, we wear shoes and use soap and read.
Notice I didn’t put “savage” in quotation marks (not the first time I typed it). It’s a perfectly valid term. It’s not something to sniff at. Savages are savages. Their cultures are inferior. They don’t learn anything. They don’t accumulate knowledge or pass it on. A savage’s great-great-great-grandchildren can be expected to have lives just as hard and pointless as his own. When you’re a savage, you don’t solve problems and pass the solutions on. You pass the problems on. Your gift to your descendants is that they have to reinvent the wheel every time life gives them a challenge, and often, they will fail.
I don’t think Montaigne knew much about American Indians, because he died in 1592, a hundred years after Columbus landed in the Americas. Nonetheless, he felt qualified to say a lot about them.
Modern apologists for backward people like to pretend that only civilized people make war. That’s idiotic. Open an old National Geographic and look at the spears and shields. Primitive people are more warlike than the rest of us, because they have nothing better to do, because they are too stupid to write down history and be reminded how bad war is, and because they have less to lose. We worry about having our magnificent cities destroyed and our wealth consumed. That’s not a big concern when rebuilding your largest town takes three hours.
Read up on the Indians, and you will learn that they were heavily into war, slavery, and torture. People love to say the Indians could not be enslaved. All I can say is, “Read a book.” They were all about slavery.
Montaigne doesn’t fall into the trap of claiming Indians are sweet, gentle souls who spend their days dancing with unicorns. He admits they’re violent. He celebrates it.
Montaigne claims Indians ate their defeated enemies. He says they would take prisoners, feed and care for them, and then torture them as much as possible before eating their bodies. I don’t know if that’s true. He says the victims would sneer at their captors and taunt them, saying that when they were eaten, the victors would only be tasting their own ancestors, whom the defeated had eaten in years past.
He admires this behavior. I am not kidding.
It goes without saying that a life without elective war, torture, and cannibalism is superior. I don’t know how to prove it. It’s like proving good is better than bad. Some things are just obvious. I can tell Montaigne secretly felt the same way, because he made no effort to move to South America and get himself captured. He just liked posturing and trolling.
If he lived in America, right now he would be backpedaling on his promise to move to Canada.
Throughout history, swarms of human beings have done their best to escape crude societies and move to sophisticated ones. This was already true in the Sixteenth Century. That ought to tell Montaigne something.
You may say Montaigne was highly original in his views concerning savages. I doubt that. I’m willing to bet that two thousand years before he existed, there were educated Greeks spouting the same nonsense. The grass is always greener, and because that’s a fact based on immutable human nature, the grass has always BEEN greener. I don’t think originality is a good defense.
One of the things I’ve learned from reading the classics is that ideas we think were conceived recently are almost invariably ancient. You will see this in Montaigne’s own work. He cites the Greeks and Romans over and over.
Here’s something revealing. When westerners talk about their own history, they don’t hesitate to label their forebears as losers. We love putting them down. We say life used to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Here is the exact quote, from Thomas Hobbes:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
If our ancestors, who were a lot like Montaigne’s Indians, can be criticized as underdeveloped, why are primitive non-western people who live in our time exempt? If anything, they deserve more criticism, because they have been around as long as we have, and we have moved forward, and they haven’t.
I don’t buy into the “noble savage” myth. Give me peace, air conditioning, modern medicine, and the internal combustion engine, any time. Montaigne’s romantic notion was just as silly and untenable in his time as it is now.
People love to defend savages, saying they live in balance with nature and don’t harm the earth. I have a couple of responses to that.
1. The reason they don’t harm the earth is that their infant mortality rate is gargantuan. They don’t multiply fast enough to harm the earth.
2. Not harming the earth is not a legitimate measure of a person’s virtue. Who said it was?
Primitive people don’t harm the earth because it defeats them. Their babies die and fertilize it. The rest of us increase our numbers and make the earth fruitful, and a certain amount of pollution is an inevitable side effect. I like pollution more than I would like living in a society where a typical woman has five kids and raises one.
Today I’ve been reading “On Experience.” It’s a fun read, but it serves to discredit Montaigne to some extent. Much of the essay concerns Montaigne’s views on health and longevity. He advises people to give in to disease, in order to let it take its course and be over quickly. He says we would should yield to evil.
Montaigne had kidney stones all his life, and he died at the age of 59, from complications from tonsillitis. When someone gives you advice about health, you have to consider their track record. He didn’t do too well.
A long time ago, my mother used to read books by a lady named Adelle Davis. This woman held herself out as a health expert. She told people to eat certain foods in order to protect themselves. She said a person should eat three almonds every day, to ward off cancer.
Cancer is what killed Adelle Davis. I don’t read her books.
Montaigne wrote an essay about the Western custom of wearing clothes. I haven’t read it, but I feel like I can write an outline just by guessing. My bet: he’s against it. Why? Because he’s a troll, and because no one would bother taking the time to write an essay in favor of wearing clothes. People are already in favor of it.
Yes, I just took a look. He thinks wearing clothing is a nutty custom imposed on us by people who lack faith in our bodies’ natural ability to protect us from the elements.
How predictable can you be?
I have to wonder if modern educators like Montaigne simply because he agrees with a lot of their quaint, discredited notions. No. That could never happen.
People say Montaigne was humble, but I would say the opposite. I think he was conceited, because he had no regard for the wisdom of people who preceded him. Well, I suppose he would have had wisdom for the brilliant savages way upstream in his ancestral line. The naked ones who tortured unarmed captives to death and ate them, I mean. But he didn’t have much respect for the ones who built the western world.
Montaigne made himself out to be humble, but so did Socrates, and he had an ego the size of a planet. It’s sort of like Obama saying he’s not a socialist; obviously, he’s a socialist. He believes in forced redistribution of wealth. What you say you are doesn’t determine to what you are. It’s not great evidence.
The book isn’t too boring, and it provides an interesting look at sixteenth-century life. It shows you how educated people of Montaigne’s time thought, and it shows how familiar they were with the works of earlier thinkers. It’s worth reading (bits of it), but I wouldn’t go out and start a Montaigne cult after reading it. He’s not particularly wise.
After this comes Cervantes. Thankfully, the syllabus doesn’t require me to read the whole book. I think Cervantes was overrated, and I suspect he was included simply because Spanish literature isn’t as good as literature from other countries. I think he was a diversity pick. I don’t look forward to plodding through hundreds of pages of work by a man who may have been chosen not because of merit, but through affirmative action.
Could be worse. I could be going to an oncologist who got affirmative action. Or riding a space shuttle built by affirmative-action engineers.
Not what I would ever ride a space shuttle. To get me on your airline, you have to get your death risk down below 1%. That’s a rule I have.
I suppose I should have done all the reading for Lit. Hum. back when I was 19, but I see that I spared myself a lot of suffering, and I didn’t cheat myself out of a ton of useful learning. I don’t feel motivated to read a lot more of this stuff. I might read a few things, but not a whole lot.
I’m not a savage. That’s sufficient.Stumble it! Save This Page