Tag Archives: national association of scholars

On reading Montaigne

Thursday 11 September 2014

This piece originally appeared as part of the Revisiting the Classics series of the National Association of Scholars on Wednesday 10 September 2014.

Imagine an amber autumn afternoon a few miles north of the Dordogne in Aquitania. You are at the base of the south tower of an ancient château; through an old stone arch a parterre radiates outward. To the west and east, thick woods. You look southward onto vineyards heavy laden. Beyond the village, chalky hills slope to the river. You recall Grigson’s “Montaigne’s Tower”:

Was it really here, in this tiled room
In this tower that Montaigne wrote?
I hope that it was so. Never was there
A place better for recalling, I would say —
For being benign and wise, for loving
In words. I see him back a chair
Across these tiles, and stand and stretch, and then
Descend this newel stair, and going
Slowly as if arthritically outside.
He looks down, with feeling he sees again
How exceedingly sweet is this meadowed
Small valley below and how half-reddening
Vines in such a light cast straight
Black bars of shadow in row after row.

On a table there, a garnet Bergerac, a pitcher of water and fresh glasses, a plate of truffles, some foie gras; on a board, a tome d’Aquitaine beside a crunchy bâtard. Your host greets you and takes the other chair. It is easy to imagine him. He has already told you so much about himself—and seems to know you so well—that you fear there will be nothing to say. But he loves conversation more than all things. Four and a half centuries do not come between you as the smooth hours glide away.

This tower is not of ivory but of natural stone. Montaigne, who could have spent his life in turreted ease, served as Mayor of Bordeaux twice (once staying on the job during a plague) and was a courtier of kings and dukes, his advice valued highly for its dispassionate perspicacity. He knew the world very well. The death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, when Montaigne was thirty, caused him to dedicate the rest of his life to self-examination. His library and study in the upper floors of the tower (the ground floor was a family chapel for Mass) were his observation post. It was his own Delphic temple, emblazoned, in a way, with those two Apolline maxims: Know Yourself and No Excess. The beams and rafters of his study were decorated with apothegms and dicta memoranda in Latin and Greek. You can still read them there.

The most frequent adjective we would apply to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne as he appears in his Essais is “modern,” often accompanied by an adverb such as “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” These additives reveal our own self-regard, as if it were sheer miracle that a sixteenth-century man could mount so intellectually high as to attain our Olympic thoughts. No, self-congratulation is not among the reasons to read Montaigne. Disabusing ourselves of our conceit, our easy moral satisfaction, our intellectual laziness—that is why we go to his tower, so to speak. Montaigne gives us hundreds of pages of reasons to set self-assurance aside. All done with courtesy, wit, and style. Does he seem wonderfully “modern,” then? Perhaps it is because he himself, in his piercing vision of mankind, created a great part of our own modernity.

But modern how? We cannot answer that question unless we consider the world into which Montaigne was born. Western Europe generally was emerging from what we call the Middle Ages. A New World was being explored. The cultural movement called the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were provoking revolutionary thoughts and acts as well as harsh responses to them. Inquisitions were expected. The coldest part of the Little Ice Age coincided with Montaigne’s life, and while he wrote the Wars of Religion were roiling France: torture, hangings, and beheadings were frequent if not common. Islamic jihadists would feel quite at home in that world. We can easily see why Montaigne retired to his tower, there to commune with the Muses.

One particular instance of his modernity can be seen in his observations of the religious and political extremism of his age, many of which can easily be applied to twentieth and twenty-first century attempts to recreate society by discarding custom and usage and forcibly, violently, imposing a totalitarian plan upon whole peoples. Anticipating the French Revolution and Burke by two centuries, Montaigne observed that “It is very easy to generate in a people a contempt for their ancient observances: no man ever attempted it without succeeding. But many have come to grief in their attempt to establish a better state of things in place of what they have destroyed.” As George Homans once noted, “They who shake the foundations of a state are liable to be the first involved in its downfall” would be well understood by Robespierre and Trotsky, among others.

Montaigne’s skepticism about the limits of human knowledge appears in his criticism of our blind obedience to customs. And yet he warns that the obliteration of our customs to further one particular ideology or another always entails very great social and political hazards:

“They who have bent [religion] to the left hand, they who have bent it to the right, they who            call it black, they who call it white, employ it so alike for their violent and ambitious undertakings, progress so equally in riot and injustice, that they make us doubt and unable to believe in the diversity of opinions they profess, in a matter on which depends the rule and conduct of our life.”

“And to resist the encroachment of an innovation which forces its way by violence is a dangerous obligation and inequality for one who, everywhere and in all things, holds himself in check and bound by rules; it places him at a disadvantage when faced with one who assumes all freedom to act, who regards everything as lawful that will serve his own designs and whose only law is to follow up his own advantage.”

Montaigne corrects our unthinking habit of reducing the complexities of life to simple As versus Bs. We might find his thinking inefficient, meandering, maddeningly inconsistent. But that is precisely what we have to learn from him. You will find no isms here, no rational plan of life, but life as it is, faced fearlessly and described in detail, yet without navel-gazing. As Oakeshott said in his own essay on Hobbes, “It will be remembered that the brilliant and informal genius of Montaigne had perceived that our most certain knowledge is what we know about ourselves, and had made of this a philosophy of introspection.” For Montaigne, freedom and truth are the paramount concerns of our life; we must be ready to sacrifice any and all of our cherished opinions for their sake. And the whole purpose of education is to prepare us and give us the means to do just that:

“I, who make no other profession, find in myself such infinite depth and variety, that what I have learned bears no other fruit than to make me realize how much I still have to learn. To my weakness, so often perceived, I owe my inclination to coolness in my opinions and any hatred for that aggressiveness and quarrelsome arrogance that believes and trusts wholly in itself, a mortal enemy of discipline and truth.”

It well serves the purpose of this present series of essays by the NAS that Montaigne’s modernity is itself a product of antiquity. The ease and readiness with which he calls forth examples from ancient Greek and Latin authors in every genre is astonishing. The past provided him the means both to deal with the world of his own time and yet to see beyond it; his comprehensive view of human life and society approaches universality. The very notion of essays on old books that still and always matter is possible chiefly because of Montaigne’s Essais. To write an essay about them is almost too meta. To read his books is to learn how to examine your own life. Anyone just approaching Montaigne will benefit from Barzun’s masterful chapter in From Dawn to Decadence (pp. 133-140). Hilary Masters has a collection of essays, In Montaigne’s Tower. And Sarah Bakewell has recently put out her How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I haven’t read these last two—yet. But Montaigne himself I shall always read.

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Is Diversity a sorites paradox?

Never heard of a sorites paradox? I hadn’t either until I stumbled upon the subject the other day while looking up sorites polysyllogism, a logical cousin of the paradox, it seems. Found a fine article on sorites-related problems by Prof. Dominic Hyde of the University of Queensland. Prof. Hyde is the boss of all matters soritical. Anyway, one Eubulides of Miletus is credited with some famous logic puzzles including the “Heap” puzzle (soros means ‘heap’). It goes like this: Does a single grain of wheat make a heap? No. How about two grains? No? … Eventually we’re going to have what we can agree is a heap of wheat, but we cannot say at any one point exactly where “heapness” has been attained. Even if we could do so, were we to remove a single grain of wheat, would we then no longer have a heap? How about two grains?  Three … ?

A sorites paradox thus depends on two factors: a vague collective term in the predicate of a statement, and small individual increments that might make up that collective whole but do not permit a precise definitional limit. We might say “x grains of (a particular kind of) wheat make a gram” because of the standardized specificity of a gram weight. But we can’t do that with a “heap” because we can’t define a vague term in exact constituent units.

As it happened, I had also just been reading several articles about Diversity (the social movement, not the real thing) and affirmative action. The first piece is “Assessing Affirmative Action” by Peter H. Schuck in National Affairs, the second  is by W. Lee Hansen for the Pope Center, and the third is Terry Eastland’s “The Nitty Gritty of Diversity” in The Weekly Standard. These essays all concern the same question: how do we know when some imagined “critical mass” of individuals in an institution or organization has been gathered such that we can then — and only then — say that the institution or organization is now satisfactorily “diverse?”

As the good Prof. Hyde wrote to me, “we might not be able to know of any particular point in the growing diversity of a group that it is the point at which a non-diverse group becomes diverse (i. e. we cannot know that sharp boundary), but this does not rule out our knowing of some cases that they are clear cases of a diverse group.” A wheat heap’s very vagueness permits general agreement that it is indeed a heap of wheat. And we can, I think, just as generally agree that the people in a given organization present a great variety of human characteristics, real diversity, that is.

You can see where I’m going with this. Proponents of Diversity and affirmative action are attempting to define a desired heap of students by calculating student grains. They seek precision in something that by definition can only be vague. The very definiteness they desire (an exact ratio of persons of African descent) cannot construe any real diverseness, even at only one point in time. Hence the endless contradictions, inconsistencies, and absurdities. For example, assume that in some college Diversity has at last been achieved. If a single student drop out, is the college then no longer diverse until it replaces that dropout with an exactly similar student unit? Perhaps it is time to add illogicality to the list of things that are wrong with the Diversity movement and affirmative action.

Reader discretion is advised.

Friday 13 June 2014

Puzzled reader I. P. Freely has asked the Viliage Idiot to explain these so-called “trigger warnings” that seem to be showing up everywhere of late. Did something happen with Roy Rogers’ steed? he asks. Or is it some new concealed carry restriction? To the best of his limited abilities, the Idiot herein responds.

Well, Mr Freely, you have no doubt also observed a parallel phenomenon: the allergy alarums now ubiquitous everywhere that food is bought, sold, or served. The formula is “Please alert your waiter/a member of our staff if you or anyone in your party has a food allergy.” How so many among us have suddenly become mortally allergic to just about everything comestible is a mystery that must await its own solution. But I think you can easily guess that the purpose of such advertisements is to be legally prophylactic in the case of a lawsuit: “We warned you!”

And it seems we are becoming even more allergic to words (spoken or written) and to images (still or moving) that have unpleasant effects on our emotions. There is a quasi-medical basis to this, it appears. In psychology a “trigger” is any action or sensation that can awaken a painful memory of some trauma such as war, rape, or abuse. It seems part of the Post Traumatic Stress condition. Like the allergy notices, a trigger warning’s purpose is to prevent an undesirable reaction to something heard, read, or viewed. But since these triggers could be infinite in number and variety, due to the infinite variety of human experience, it is manifestly unfeasible to warn everyone of every possible instance. It is also absurd, since a warning itself could just as well trigger an unhappy memory as any material content.

Such practical considerations have not troubled the righteous gang of the hypersensitive, who follow a victimist path of reasoning to claim the status of “disability.” Of course, since Bush ’41 signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), that term has suffered definitional metastasis. Once the manifold unhappinesses of life are officially classified as disadvantages, there will be no end of rent-seeking demands for rights and privileges and beneficent state involvement in the lives of citizens. And, as with allergies, this will be a growth area for attorneys.

The trigger warnings you’ve been reading about of late, I. P., are monitory prefaces to syllabuses for college courses. Reading and discussing the Iliad, for example, could awaken painful memories of battle among students who are combat veterans. The Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitic language, and so on. Students of a more delicate nature are driving this innovation forward. They imagine themselves champions of the disabled, marginalized, oppressed and victimized. Indeed, there is a whole Tumblr “community” of such persons at the charmingly-named site “Fuck Yeah, Trigger Warnings.” Some professors, especially those of the feminist/queer camp, find this wholly appropriate, while others are anxious about possible limitations on course expectations and free speech.

A healthy (in the Idiot’s view) satire has also begun. My good friends at the National Association of Scholars, for example, have set up a contest for the most humorous trigger warnings to classic literature and film. But will this ridicule be enough to halt the movement’s progress? One certainly hopes so. But two forces are poised to take maximum advantage of the trend: the spokespersons of political correctness, and Islamofascists, both of whom have common tyrannical inclinations.

For it is a very short step from alerting students to upcoming scenes of the violence and cruelty of which humankind is so capable to proactively banning any topic that might offend the sensibilities of a tender few. We are talking here not of the truly offensive but of Things One Does Not Like. Indeed, in our culture of comfort, the belief is now widespread among high school and college students that one has a legal right not to be offended by others, even if the offending party has been dead for centuries. This puts quite a veto power in the hands of the emotionally anointed.

Islamofascists will be delighted by this opportunity to forbid any uncomplimentary references to the Religion of Peace and its Prophet, of course. Their modus operandi is well-known by now. Professors who make such a mistake as to assign The Satanic Verses, say, or teach the history of Islam or of Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to actual known facts, will soon find themselves accused of “hate speech” and named as tortfeasors and made the objects of vexatious litigation.

That’s as much as the Idiot has to say for the moment, Mr Freely, but who knows where this might go?  Thank you for writing, and, as always, I certainly hope I have caused no offense.