Saturday, December 18, 2004


Montaigne's essay, "On Cato the Younger," turns out to not really be about Cato at all. Rather, it is a defense of great souls against those who would try to bring them down to a lower level. According to the editor's note, this was often the case with Cato. Cato the Younger was viewed as a moral hero by Renaissance Christians. Montaigne takes umbrage at those who attack Cato's greatness and begins the essay with a snarky comment:

I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me: I can easily believe that others have qualities quite distinct from my own. Just because I feel that I am pledged to my individual form [soul], I do not bind all others to it as everyone else does: I can conceive and believe that there are thousands of different ways of living and, contrary to most men, I readily acknowledge our differences than our similarities.
Makes me want to say "well la-ti-da Mr. Goody Two-Shoes!" But then I have to bite my tongue because a few sentences later Montaigne complains about those who cannot praise anything unless they themselves can be equal to the praise. But Montaigne says that such behavior is wrong: "I crawl in earthy slime but I do not fail to note, way up in the clouds, the matchless height of certain souls." I like that "I crawl in earthy slime." It gives me the image of Montaigne as a philosophical worm or slug. He then goes on to lament that virtue has become nothing more than "scholastic jargon" and all people do is sling mud at those who are remembered precisely because of their great virtue. Finally, Montaigne gives us quotes about Cato the Younger from five poets in hopes to move the reader into thunderstruck ecstasy. The one that is supposed to do the reader in comes from Virgil, "and then--a law to them all--Cato." The best thing in this essay that made me laugh out loud comes when Montaigne is trying to get the reader all worked up and ready to be awed by the forthcoming poetic quotes. He makes a throw away side remark "Here is something of a marvel: we now have far more poets than judges and connoisseurs of poetry. It is far easier to write poetry than to appreciate it." On some things 1572 is not so different than 2004. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Reflections Upon Cicero"