Saturday, August 21, 2004

All Things in Moderation

Montaigne's essay "On Moderation" is, well, moderate. Montaigne asserts that moderation is the best course of action for all things, that immoderate virtue is just as bad as immoderate vice: "the archer who shoots beyond his target misses it just as much as the one who falls short." Well said, I think. Religious zealots are just as bad as heathens, asserts Montaigne. Moderation in love, marriage and sex is also advised. Men, too much sex with your wife is disrespectful because you have turned her into a prostitute. Wives, it's best that you cut you husband off if he is being over amorous in order to avoid shame. Best to send him to a prostitute who he is "not bound to respect." This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to begin. Instead of a rant, however, I will ask instead, how much cultural and historical leeway must a modern reader give to someone such as Montaigne? Or any author for that matter being read 10, 20, 50, 100 years or more after his or her time? When does a reader say, "Oh that's just how things were then"? And when does a reader say, "This is unacceptable"? I don't think a reader can make a blanket statement and say "All sexism before 1970 is forgivable." So I guess that means one has to make judgments on a case by case basis. But then the question becomes, on what criteria does one base one's judgment? For instance, I can manage to forgive Montaigne for his sexism in his moderation essay, but last week I got worked up over his views on law and tradition. I for some reason don't expect him to be enlightened about women but expect him to have a higher understanding of law and tradition and social change. I have no conscious criteria for my expectations and can't even articulate why they are what they are. All I know is that if I were reading someone like John Stuart Mill I would have an entirely different set of expectations. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I'd be very interested in what you, kind reader, have to say on this matter. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Practice"