Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

Anhedonic treadmills

May 22, 2013

“I can stay on my feet a whole day, and I do not weary of walking… My walk is quick and firm.” Montaigne in Motion

I’ll bet Montaigne would have enjoyed Susan Orleans’ treadmill, on those days when weather (meteorological or internal-psychological) trapped him in his tower. Slight but perpetual motion is what we need. Bodies in motion are so much healthier than at rest.

But if you’d just as soon tread in place, at your elevated “work station,” as pad the actual ground and sniff the open air, then you’re not really a Walker. Don’t tread on me. Motion of limb is only one component of this activity. Geographic exploration, changing panoramic vistas, space to roam both physically and mentally, shifting proprietary territoriality, little epiphanies of insight, new discoveries in familiar places, chance encounters, etc. etc., are missing from this picture. And yet…

The skies were threatening here yesterday morning, so I ducked into the Vandy Rec Cernter, climbed onto the platform, set my speed for 4.2 mph, and enjoyed myself. A Platonic cave-wall of muted shadowy images provided the visual backdrop: ESPN on one channel, Montel (I think) on another, amateur cell-phone video of the Oklahoma tragedy on a loop on CNN on a third. It was diverting for awhile. For thirty minutes. And then the skies cleared.

So I climbed down, went home, and walked the dogs. So much more diverting, rewarding, real. I think the dogs would agree.

Montaigne, “back to the walk… to me”

May 20, 2013

Michel de Montaigne, the great (and first) essayist,  preceded his countryman Descartes and should have inoculated philosophy against the quest for certainty ever after.  He is unjustly omitted from too many histories of philosophy. Descartes merely pretended to philosophic humility and noble epistemic ignorance, Montaigne embraced them.

Que sais-je?What do I know? So much more profound than Cogito, ergo sum. Montaigne’s meditations, motile and circling and habitual, so much more incisive than Descartes’s stationary solipsistic ruminations.

What did he know? Well, he knew that ever-elusive self-knowledge must be tracked daily, and that it is not the sole or the exclusively-cerebral product of the ratiocinating res cogitans. He did not have to prove mind-body duality (as distinct from metaphysical dualism) to himself, he experienced it immediately and constantly. It was implicated in his every thought and act, no matter how mundane.

So he walked.

And the mind-body complex was implicated in every thought and act of his readers, then and now.

So he wrote.

 “My body is capable of steady but not of vehement or sudden exertion. These days I shun violent exercises which put me into a sweat; my limbs grow tired before they grow warm. I can stay on my feet a whole day, and I do not weary of walking… My walk is quick and firm.” Montaigne in Motion

Sarah Bakewell records Montaigne’s approach to walking as meditation:

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

The sweet simplicity of a good walk is ingredient to a good life. “When I dance I dance. When I sleep I sleep.” Zen masters spend a lifetime meditating their way to such  presence of mind, body, and spirit. Walkers too.

Printing press & martyrs part 2

November 2, 2011

There’s so much to say about the Inquisition & Giordano Bruno (some of which I began to say in Monday’s post), Montaigne, Shakespeare, the Libertines, and Matteo Ricci. But I’m only going to say a small bit of it, having declared before witnesses my promise to give our CoPhi discussion groups at least a full half hour to themselves every class.

I’m taking some risk there,  btw, in view of the report of a professor being canned in Utah for using Socratic method. Another martyr for philosophy? No, he’s a business & marketing guy. Still, the principle’s the same: you have to stand for virtue, not expediency. Care more for the state of your soul than your reputation, do the right thing, etc. Unrighteousness runs faster than death. So, Overseers, I wouldn’t advise interfering with this Socratic collaboration. We’re not caving.

(Actually, it would be kinda nice to have the Overseers pay any attention at all to what  goes on in a real classroom. But then again, let’s not borrow trouble.)

Nobody expects the Inquisition, which explains why people like Capuano, Menocchio, Vanini and Bruno were so forthright in saying what is simply sane, from a naturalistic point of view: “angels and demons do not exist… there are no true witches… it’s impossible that Mary gave birth to Jesus and remained a virgin…” etc.

Bruno’s story, as noted, is tragic and inspiring. But its real significance is that “many future doubters would find Democritus and Epicurus” through him.

Montaigne, again. The anti-Descartes. Renaissance skeptic, earthy explorer of all things human, original essayist, frank and happy skeptic. “If we lived someplace else, we would believe other things.” Most of us just instinctively follow the custom of the country, and our raisin’, until challenged. Or, until we discover philosophy.

But he also advised going along to get along. Why burn for  something nobody knows for sure, anyway? As Epicurus and others had advised, just “follow the religion of tradition” and keep your own counsel about your doubts. I’ll heed that advice when the next Inquisition comes. “In God we trust?” Hope we don’t get fooled again. “Isn’t it better, Montaigne asks, to free oneself from certainty and thereby glide above the fray?”

Montaigne was a collector of solid ancient advice, like that of Ecclesiastes: accept and enjoy, and remember that you don’t really know. Que scais-je?

But that’s no argument for fideism. Blind belief, like scholastic dogmatism, is stuck in the dark. But it might be an argument for laying low, when Inquisitors are lurking about. On the other hand, how do you nip an Inquisitor in the bud if you don’t confront him?

Montaigne’s honorary adopted daughter Marie de Gournay, one of the first successful women writers, summarized his philosophy with her own: “act respectfully & doubt everything.”

Clear light1st bloggerhumanists believemodern timesWhat do I know? …Descartes & Montaignecool mediumwisdom & cheerfulness… Bakewell’s How to Live

“There is something dryly secular and loosely skeptical about Shakespeare’s whole project.” Ahhh. Now I get why my old Mizzou mentor introduced Heidegger‘s concept of authenticity with “This above all, to thine own self be true.” We are such stuff as dreams are made on, our little life is rounded with a sleep, and there is always another side to things. Shakespeare was a doubter.

Pierre Charron repeats, in On Wisdom, and we can’t remind ourselves too often: “things are done differently everywhere, and if  you were born there, you’d do it that way too.” Can you picture the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, or George W. Bush in a robe and turban? I can.

Charron’s claim that “doubt can make you happy, can ease your pain, and can be a home” articulates the very core of humanist spiritualilty. It’s something you can actually believe.

Fidelity matters more than faith… There is no need to believe in God– one need believe only in one’s parents and mentors, one’s friends (provided they are well chosen) and one’s conscience… Believing or not believing in God changes nothing of great significance, except in the eyes of fundamentalists. Whether you have a religion or not, nothing can exempt you from having to respect the lives, freedom and dignity of other people. Andre Comte-Sponville

The libertines valued most their opportunity to speak “freely about everything, without scandalizing a soul.” Well, they probably didn’t resist being scandalous too vigorously. That’s the philosopher’s dream too. It was Mersenne‘s : “we are free simply to investigate the phenomena that our senses present to us, whether or not we trust our senses in some ultimate fashion.” The all-devouring Pyrrhonnian pirannha here ceases to cannibalize itself, as it escapes through a Skeptical wormhole.

Gassendi anticipated theistic evolutionists of the 19th and 20th centuries: “atomism explained how the world could have made itself” but “God made the atoms.” And, as Epicurus said, God (or the Gods) is no longer keeping a close watch on the atoms. We and they are free to swerve on our own, or condemned to it.

Matteo Ricci went to China long before Nixon, with far greater irony attaching to the journey. He and his Jesuit confreres brought the old European brand of rationalism to China and came home with news of a world of atheists. Plenty to keep all sides occupied.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ve regrouped, made our lists, and I’ll  be checking them daily. See you in class.

A clear light in August

August 10, 2011

Overslept but it’s still only a mild 70 degrees, on the heels of a wonderful day that never topped the mid 80s. That never happens here in August, especially in this summer of our heat-advisory discontent.

We made the most of it, Older Daughter and I. Let’s go to the park, she said, and let’s take bikes and balls and gloves and frisbees. So we did, and it was glorious.

The memory snapshot I most want to record, though, is the picture of her lolling on the old swing just west of the Parthenon to our immediate right, reading Light in August (did you know it was an Oprah book?) and proclaiming that although she doesn’t know what “perfect” means, the moment must be close.

And at that perfect moment I was reading the perfect commentary, Bakewell’s Montaigne.

If you fail to grasp life, it will elude you. If you do grasp it, it will elude you anyway. So you must follow it—and “you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.” The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience—but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything.

A consciousness astonished at itself, and fluid, motile, attentive, engaged: that is what philosophy should be, because it’s what life should be. Observing the play of inner states, vitally related to the outer world is the job of the writer, the philosopher, the live human.

Not sure exactly what page she was on when her near-perfect moment resolved itself to Older Daughter’s relaxed consciousness, but here’s one of the best things Faulkner said about writing:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no short cut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.

The light in August can be clarifying.


Montaigne, the first blogger

July 28, 2011

That Steely Dan song with the lament for “your everlasting summer fading fast” has been playing in my head, I’d best get on with my reading list…

The delightful opening of Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne is enticing but also a bit misleading. It immediately registers as a salvo against the narcissism and self-absorption of this digital information age of ours, but almost as immediately veers from critique to celebration.

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.

Self-exploration  has the potential to mirror the species, and to create unum amidst all our pluribus. Bakewell’s thesis is that Montaigne, more than any other intellectual in the western tradition, is responsible for seeding our consciousness with that insight.

In the spirit of Bakewell’s Montaigne, I’ll let you know.

Bakewell on Montaigne in the GuardianOther philosophers profiled in the Guardian, including William James

modern times

March 17, 2011

Happy St. Patty’s Day, & happy birthday Sis!

We’ve been putting Descartes before the horse, but today we’re ready for the man himself. The first “modern” philosopher, distinguished by his method of doubt, his quest for certainty, and his insistence that the road to truth runs through personal experience and subjectivity. Runs through, but doesn’t end with… that’s an important distinction that separates him from his slightly older countryman Montaigne. But first…

STUDENTS: Next week read thru O 97 & PW 88. And do me a favor: don’t ask about your essays, I’ll get ’em graded ASAP. (One more favor, from some of you– you know who you are: next time, buy or borrow a stapler. Seriously.)

And, if you’re wondering how things went on Capitol Hill Tuesday: I was encouraged to find bright and articulate Senators in our corner, eager to do right by higher education in our state. I was discouraged, though, to hear from them that they feel marginalized and impotent, until the numbers shift. Their advice: tell young people to get involved in politics, to enter public service, to support the things (like higher ed) that will make a genuine improvement in our society.

Meanwhile, back in the 17th century, Copernicus may have sponsored a revolution but it wouldn’t fully take, at least among the Church fathers, for centuries yet. Their recalcitrance was not enough, though, to block the new renaissance humanism. Observation and experiment, in search of the underlying causes of phenomena, were the next big thing.

Thomas Hobbes was big on causality too, with his version of mechanistic materialism. His “state of nature” would not be a nice place to visit, but neither would his preferred alternative. Like Machiavelli, he played political hardball.

A 17th century Frenchman may not sound very “modern” but Descartes’ subjective turn made him so. Unlike his countryman Montaigne, he was convinced that humans are capable of achieving objective knowledge and truth.

Montaigne, meanwhile, saw a silver lining in our failure to nail things down with certitude: the hope and expectation that we would grow less intransigent and belligerent as we became more humble and admittedly fallible, and would cultivate tolerance as our greatest virtue. You’d have to say, wouldn’t you, that the results on that front are at best mixed.

Descartes doubted in hopes of rebounding in certainty. A firm foundation was his preferred philosophical metaphor, with Cogito, ergo sum the first brick in the wall that was supposed to protect him from the threat that he might be dreaming or that an evil spirit might be deceiving him. The wall ends up looking pretty circular, though.

But to emphasize the positive: Descartes’ strategy, successful or not, reinforces the renaissance rejection of authority and locks in the genuinely modern push towards self-reliance.

Not so positive: the other great Cartesian legacy, mind-body dualism. Religion and science are not separate but equal and really never were. Doesn’t mean they can’t coexist, but we mustn’t pretend that religious claims are insulated from the scientific image of  the age.

“Que sais-je”: What do I know?

March 15, 2011

We’re back, knocking on Descartes’ and Montaigne’s doors.

But today I’m off to Capitol Hill to see if I can do any good talking with our elected representatives, in this very small-d democratic state, about the future of our institutions of higher learning.

So, STUDENTS, read to p.75 in the Osborne text. But don’t come to class. We’ll meet next on Thursday, when you should also have read to p.75 in PW. Everyone with midterm report presentations still pending should be present.

Descartes’ countryman Montaigne has been getting a lot of press lately. A new bio by Sarah Bakewell has won attention and awards. Unlike Descartes, he claimed to be certain of nothing at all.  ‘Que sais-je?’: what do I know? Good question. [Descartes & Montaigne]

Here’s one thing I do know: the final exam schedule

Wittgenstein, Russell

November 23, 2010

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I know you can’t wait to commence your Thanksgiving break, but you don’t want to miss class today. We’ll catch up on old quizzes, sign up for final presentations, discuss final essays, and begin trying to understand the dominant 20th century movement of “analytic philosophy.” And we’ll do course evaluations. Many of your midterm essays are ready to return, too.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. [Wittgenstein’s Poker]

And now we turn to Logicomix, an epic search for truth in the form of a graphic novel. [Skeptic review]

It begins in 1939, with Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in New York and comparing America’s prospective participation in WWII to being “your brother’s keeper.”

The story then leaps back to the previous century, when young Bertie was introduced to the forbidden fruit of books and learning by his famous grandfather Lord John.

Eventually Bertie declares his intent to seek reality through science, logic, and mathematics. The discovery that math is sometimes circular and always reliant on unproven axioms gave him his project, to articulate a transparently self-justifying logical language.

For that he drew inspiration from, of all possible predecessors, Leibniz. The wildly-speculative rationalist metaphysician did indeed possess an impressive mathematical/logical side, which he– unlike Russell– did not consider it necessary always to display.

“We shall not know” would not suffice for Bertie Russell.

Neither would it for the intense young Austrian he’ll soon be meeting.


P.S. It’s rare to flip on the radio in America and hear an excited conversation about a centuries-dead philosopher, but they were talking about Montaigne– the anti-certainty philosopher– on “On Point” yesterday. His new biographer Sarah Bakewell tells his story in 20 questions. For example:

How to live? A. Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Reflect on everything; regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer

For some of us, that’s a good answer to Wittgenstein and Russell too.

Heroes & villainsno man’s landvalue of philConquest of Happinessaction herobdayfresh seedOpinionator blog

cool medium

July 10, 2010

Another summer snapshot for the scrapbook, a scene to pull out (and repeat) when it’s cold and wintry: it’s 100 in the shade but we’re cool at home in our library, me with Wisdom, Younger Daughter (sprawled on the new blue “butterfly chair” she swapped her birthday Target card for the other day) with The View from Saturday,  Older Daughter (flopped across the recliner, still in jammies) with Harry Potter (yet again).

Fortunately, I can say in retrospect, the pool was still closed because of a faulty pump or spigot or whatever. On this day, this is the cooler place to be.

Only Mom is missing from the picture. Maybe tomorrow… if she doesn’t insist on taking us bowling (or something) just to get out of the house. Sometimes the house is home sweet home and where you want to be more than anywhere.

Sad, though, and ironic, that this has to be an exclusively-summer scene. There seems never to be time for slow and painless learning-for-pleasure during the school year.

Studies show, says David Brooks, that merely living in the presence of good old-fashioned bound printed matter feeds the soul and swells the test scores. We can confirm the first part of that right now. Safe and snug in the cool of home, surrounded by smart walls that come alive when you pluck those wonderfully portable and efficient information retrieval devices down from their shelves, we feel pretty smart too, in a humbling Socratic way. Close proximity to some of the best that’s been thought and written works like a wonder drug, by osmosis. As Montaigne scrawled on his own library ceiling, nothing’s certain but uncertainty and  nothing human is really foreign. That’s good to know.

I like my e-books, but they’re not really companionable in this way. You can’t display them on the wall, or  sit and commune with a gathering of them as at a reunion, or just admire them from across the room. You can’t mark them up and scrawl in the margins in the same undistracting way.

The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Joseph Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import.

And where better to encounter the literary world than in your own cool library on a hot day. Turn the page.


July 9, 2010

Whether we know it or not, wisdom– applied understanding, meaningful perspective, self-knowledge that is not self-absorption, the examined life– is what reflective humans really want most, for ourselves and for posterity. Some of us are geeky enough to dream of a long and prosperous future for our kind, and that won’t happen without a lot more wisdom than has been on public display lately.

If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves… If we become even slightly more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future. Pale Blue Dot

That was true when Dr. Carl wrote it a decade and a half ago. We’re on borrowed time here.

And so it was with quickened concern that I picked up Stephen Hall’s new book yesterday, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. It’s a thoughtful journalist’s survey of the history of wisdom as a concept and cultural ideal, re-framed in terms of what we are beginning to understand of its biological basis. The most pleasing passage I’ve yet come across cites Montaigne:

“The most manifest sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness.” If by that he meant optimism about the future, he is backed up by neuroscientists, who have begun to find support for that notion.

Great. “It don’t come easy” (as the septuagenerian  Starkey, wiser than reputed, sang) to be an optimist in this hot and oily summer of our discontent,  but I’m definitely up for trying. Just like Charles Schulz‘s crew, cheerfully “working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them.” Yet.