Saturday, August 07, 2004

You Are Getting Sleepy

I'm not quite sure what Montaigne is getting at in his short essay "On Sleep." He says he has "noted as something quite rare the sight of great persons who remain so utterly unmoved when engaged in high enterprises and in affairs of some moment that they do not even cut short their sleep." He then goes on to provide numerous examples of great leaders and commanders sleeping quite soundly on the eve of important battles and events. Since Montaigne is a stoic, I suppose it is no surprise that he admires those who are unmoved by the tension of a pivotal happening. But I am baffled. In the 21st century we expect someone who is under stress to perform well to lose sleep, that's why we say "don't lose any sleep over it" about something we want to dismiss as unimportant. Apparently not so in Montaigne's time. I'm not sure if I would feel comforted the night before a battle if I heard the general sawing logs in his tent. I can see how such a thing could be read as the general being confident that all was ready and things would go well. But at the same time, I'd want the general up and about, making sure all was well, rallying the troops as it were. But to Montaigne's thinking, the general's sleep proceeds "from a soul high above such events, which he did not deign to take to heart more than any ordinary occurrence." I don't know about you, but that doesn't inspire confidence in me. Montaigne concludes his essay thus:

While on this topic it is for the doctors to decide whether sleep is such a necessity that our very life depends on it: for we are certainly told that King Perseus of Macedonia, when a prisoner of Rome, was done to death by being prevented from sleeping. Herodotus mentions nations where men sleep and wake a half-year at a time. And the biographer of Epimenides the Wise says that he slept for fifty-seven years in a row.
These days we know for a fact that sleep is necessary and especially coveted by the sleep-deprived among us. And I'm sure Herodotus' nation that slept half the year is a folk myth or cultural misunderstanding. As for Epimenides the Wise, Rip to his friends, he must have had a comfy bed and an empty bladder. My guess is that Montaigne is taking that particular story a bit too literally and should consider the possibility of sleep as spiritual metaphor. All this is making me sleepy. Next week's rouser is "On Habit: And on Never Easily Changing a Traditional Law"