Saturday, September 04, 2004

All Work and No Play...

Montaigne's essay, "'Work Can Wait Till Tomorrow,'" is part book review and part scolding. First, the book review, one that any author would love to see:

It seems to me that I am justified in awarding the palm, above all our writers in French, to Jaques Amyot, not merely for the simplicity and purity of his language in which he excels all others, not for his constancy during such a long piece of work, not for the profundity of his knowledge in being able to disentangle an author so complex and thorny (for you can say what you like: I cannot understand the Greek, but everywhere in his translation I see a meaning so beautiful, so coherent and so consistent with itself that either he has definitely understood the true meaning of his author or else, from long frequentation with him, he has planted in his own soul a vigorous generic Idea of Plutarch's, and has at least foisted upon him nothing which belies him or contradicts him); but above all I am grateful to him for having chosen and selected so worthy and so appropriate a book to present to his country. Ignorant people like us would have been lost if that book had book had not brought us up out of the mire...
Montaigne had just read Jaques Amyot's translation of Plutarch's Lives (link to modern English translation). If I were an author I would be happy with a review filled with a quarter of Montaigne's praise. The rest of this short essay is, as I mentioned, a sort of scolding. One of the stories Plutarch relates is that of Rusticus who, while standing in the crowd listening to one of Plutarch's fascinating and edifying speeches, received a bundle of letters from no less an important person as the Emperor. But Rusticus put the letters in his pocket and did not read them until Plutarch's speech was finished. Now Plutarch and the crowd thought this was a great thing for Rusticus to do and praised his dignity. Montaigne, on the other hand, thinks Rusticus' actions were not very wise. For if you receive unexpected letters from the Emperor, you should read them immediately, no matter where you are or what you are doing. For not reading them until later may have "grave consequences." Plutarch relates another story about
how Archias, the Theban Tyrant, on the evening before Pelopidas executed his plan to kill him and so restore freedom to his country, was written to by another Archias, an Athenian, to inform him point by point of what was being prepared against him. This missive was delivered to him during dinner; he put off opening it, saying words which later became a Greek proverb: "Work can wait till tomorrow."
Not a very wise thing to do. Montaigne scolds, "In my opinion a wise man can...put off reading any news brought to him; but particularly if he holds some public office, to do so for his own interest or unpardonable." So the lessons are: a) Montaigne is a party-pooper and workaholic; b) if you are going into battle, if someone is out to get you, or you are a public servant, open your mail immediately; c) the rest of us can wait until tomorrow. Next week's Montaigne essay, a back to school special: "On Educating Children"