Saturday, May 01, 2004

Montaigne the Nudist?

Well, no, not actually. In "On the Custom of Wearing Clothing" Montaigne argues that the wearing of clothing for humans is only a custom.

I therefore hold that just as plants, trees, animals and all living things are naturally equipped with adequate protection from the rigour of the weather--so too are we; but like those who drown the light of day with artificial light, we have drowned our natural means with borrowed ones.
He goes on to point out there are people in far off countries who wear no clothes at all and in his own country there are those who find that a shirt and pants suffice. Of course the ones who have only one shirt and one pair of pants are tramps and peasants and they have to make do because they have no choice. Montaigne does not see it as a matter of class and wealth, but a matter of "Man" being closer to his hardier natural state. He uses examples of great leaders like Caesar who never wore a hat rain or shine, and was healthier for it. But in spite of his assertion that if clothing was natural we would have been born wearing "undergarments and trousers," Montaigne isn't about to join his local nudist colony. He declares that he wears only simple black and white just like his father did. Such a statement leads me to believe that he has nothing against clothes per se, but against extravagant clothing. But meditating on nakedness must have made Montaigne cold because the short essay suddenly turns from clothes to talking about suffering and surviving frigid temperatures. He tells of military expeditions surviving snowstorms, of battles in freezing temperatures, and frozen wine rations. I'm not sure what the point of it is, but according to his earlier thesis, all of the people should have been able to survive the cold nude. Obviously Montaigne never visited Minnesota in January and doesn't really know what cold is. I'd like to see how long he'd survive in only a shirt and pants while standing barefoot in three feet of snow in ten below temperatures with a windchill of minus 30. There are some instances in life when wearing clothes is not a custom but a matter of survival. I wonder, is there are any instances when nudity means survival? I have to agree with Montaigne to a point. Clothing, particularly style, can be customary. But where you live and under what conditions determines both how much clothing you need to wear (survival--you don't see Eskimos seal hunting in the buff, nor do you see Zulus hunting in mukluks), and how much clothing you get to wear (wealth--the tramp with only one shirt and pair of pants, the queen who never wears the same dress twice). I think Montaigne was too busy looking at his precious Greek and Roman ancients on this one and should have been paying more attention to what was going on outside his window. Next week's essay: "On Giving the Lie"