Sunday, January 02, 2005

Fortune's Judgment

In "On the Uncertainty of Our Judgment," Montaigne once again considers the role of Fortune. As in his essay "Fortune is Often Found in Reason's Train," Montaigne here questions the role of Fortune in human judgment. Here he uses examples from war to illustrate his point. For instance, do you taunt and insult your enemy before a battle in order, as reason suggests, to break their morale? But taunting can have the opposite result as Vitellius found out when confronting Otho from Rome. The insults and mocking so maddened Otho's army that they were driven by their rage and fought more fiercely and bravely than they would have otherwise and sent Vitellius on the run. So it goes in other instances. Do you charge or do you wait? Do you fight the battle on your own land or abroad? Do you richly arm and attire your soldiers or give them the barest essentials? Do you chase down your enemy when they are in retreat or let them get away? Montaigne provides examples where it went well and ill for both decisions. Thus he concludes, "events and their outcomes depend especially in war, mainly on Fortune, who will not submit to our reasoning nor be subject to our foresight." Then he quotes from Astronomic by Manilius:

Badly conceived projects are rewarded; foresight fails, for Fortune does not examine causes nor follow merit but meanders through everything without distinction. Clearly there is Something greater which drives and controls us and subjects the concerns of men to laws of its own.
And finally, Montaigne quotes Timaeus in Plato, "We argue rashly and unadvisedly because in our reasoning as in ourselves, a great part is played by chance." And so the point is made. We cannot trust the certainty of our judgments or our reasoning because Fortune is at play and we do not know what is truly in store for us. What a precarious situation this places us in, it is as if we are teetering on a tightrope above the abyss. What a happy thought. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On War-Horses"