Saturday, November 20, 2004

Evil is Good

The philosophy Montaigne espouses in his essay "That the Taste of Good and Evil Things Depends in Large Part on the Opinion We Have of Them" is that which only a comfortably situated gentleman could hold. Montaigne asserts that our main enemies are death, poverty and pain--all things that we consider evil. But with a little change of perspective we can turn them into good because "what we call evil or torment are only evil or torment insofar as our mental apprehension endows them with those qualities." Montaigne begins with death. He tells several stories of gallows humor, cites tales of whole households that willingly burn themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead king, and entire cities that commit suicide at the loss of a battle rather than become slaves. It is a matter of reason over emotion Montaigne asserts and when you come down to it, death is sometimes the best choice you can make. But where fear of death is all in the mind, pain, Montaigne acknowledges, is not: "Are we to make our flesh believe that lashes from leather thongs merely tickle it?" Every living creature experiences pain, it is a natural and universal experience. However, whatever pain we might feel can also be turned to the good. Even though we cannot destroy pain we can lessen it "by patient suffering" and still keep our reason. Montaigne exhorts us to remember that if we did not have pain we would not have such great things as "manly courage, valour, fortitude, greatness of soul and determination." Do you feel better yet? No? Then you must "Remember that the greatest pains are ended by death, the smaller ones allow us periods of repose; and we are master of the moderate ones, so that if they are bearable we shall be able to bear them; if they are not, when life fails to please us, we may make our exit as from the theatre." What a comfort! I feel better now, don't you? But that's not all. Montaigne declares that the real reason why we are "impatient of suffering" is because we don't pay enough attention to our souls. Our soul is where we should find our principal happiness, not in our bodies. Our souls can make profit from anything. And pain? Well, "pain only occupies as much space as we make for her." You got that? So quit your bellyaching. There will be no kissing of boo-boos to make them better. Suck it up or kill yourself. Montaigne just oozes with compassion, doesn't he? He isn't very charitable when it comes to poverty either. You think being rich will make everything okay? Just remember Epicurus said "that being rich does not alleviate our worries: it changes them." Somehow I think I'd rather be a millionaire with worries than a homeless person with worries. But just in case you think poverty is bad, Montaigne works to set you straight. How? He knows all about poverty. When he was young and before he came into his inheritance he didn't have much in the way of money. His income was sporadic but yet he lived a rather free and happy-go-lucky sort of life always borrowing from friends and rushing to pay them back when he had money to do so. Oh the days when there was nothing to tie him down. But then his fate changed. He inherited his father's estate, got married, had children. He began to worry that he didn't have enough money should an emergency arise and squirreled it away, depriving himself of pleasure and others of his generosity. But eventually he realized "that a rich man who is worried, busy and under necessary obligations is more wretched than a man who is simply poor." So Montaigne gave Bob Cratchet a raise and Tiny Tim was saved from his patient suffering and--sorry, no, that's not quite right. Montaigne learned to enjoy his riches and take pleasure in spending his money. He ceased to worry if he had enough and instead began to "live from day to day, pleased to be able to satisfy my present, ordinary needs." So Mrs. Cratchet, tired of her family's patient suffering and her own, went on a spending spree, bought the big goose from the butcher and a supersize bottle of arsenic from the apothecary and all the Cratchets ended up dead after eating the best meal of their lives. And so evil is all about perspective. It is all a matter of "gaining mastery over ourselves" you see. "We cannot evade Philosophy by immoderately pleading our human frailty and the sharpness of pain: Philosophy is merely constrained to have recourse to her unanswerable counterplea: 'Living in necessity is bad: but at least there is no necessity that you should go on doing so.' No one suffers long, save by his own fault." That's right, blame the victim. After all, it's easier than actually doing something to help alleviate someone's pain and suffering and/or poverty. Next week's uplifting Montaigne essay: "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die"