Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Prince and the Pauper

Montaigne's essay, "On the Inequality There is Between Us," is actually about how little difference there really is when you get right down to it. We praise a horse for its "vigour and dexterity" but we do not praise its harness. We admire a greyhound's speed, not its collar. So why is it, Montaigne wonders, "do we not similarly value a man for qualities which are really his? He may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence and a large income: all that may surround him but it is not in him." A person should be appraised without all the trappings: "Measure his height with his stilts off: let him lay aside his wealth and his decorations and show us himself in his shimmy." Only then should a person be judged. Unfortunately, as in our time so in Montaigne's. We are awed by celebrity and the sparkle of gold and jewels and the allure of power. Montaigne observes that we are so blinded by "our habitual ways that we take little or no account of such things; when we come to consider a peasant or a monarch, a nobleman or a commoner, a statesman or a private citizen, a rich man or a poor man, we find therefore an immense disparity between men who, it could be said, differ only by their breeches." Few things "cloy and impede like abundance." We are lost to the dazzle and do not see the real person within. Likewise we are repulsed by the dirt and rags of the poor, neglecting to see beyond to the person within. Montaigne does not seem so concerned with building up the poor and common as taking down the powerful and wealthy. They are no more deserving of praise and worship than anyone else. He quotes Seneca's play, Thyestes, "The honour we receive from those who fear us is not honour at all: their respect is due to my royal state not to myself." Montaigne does not insist in this essay that everyone is equal, far from it. There are "many degrees of intelligence" as well as "inner qualities" that create distance between people. It is the intelligence and inner qualities as well as a person's actions which should be looked at and used to judge a person, rich or poor, king or peasant. Just as we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, we should not judge a person by outward appearances. Because (George W. Bush take note), "After all," says Montaigne, "what we have is a man; and if he himself is born awry then ruling the world will not put him right." Next week's Montaigne essay: "Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us"