Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Middle Mind

Montaigne would go nuts if he were alive today. In his essay "On Vain and Cunning Devices" he declares, "It is a wonderful testimony of the weakness of Man's judgment that things which are neither good nor useful it values on account of their rarity, novelty and, even more, their difficulty." One of his examples is a man who throws grains of millet so precisely that he can toss them through the eye of a needle every time. Today this guy would, no doubt, end up on Ripley's Believe it or Not or some such TV program for his fifteen minutes of fame. Montaigne scoffs at people who, through "those kinds of cunning devices, frivolous and vain" seek some sort of reputation. Montaigne would certainly be appalled at the Guinness Book of World Records. He then goes on to tell about a game they have been playing at his house in which they try and see who can name the most things that "meet at extremes." For example, "Women of the nobility are called Dames; middle-ranking women are called Damoiselles; and we use Dames again for the lowest women of all." Through this game Montaigne has come to realize that it is the people who fall in the middle that will always be most likely to upset the status quo. Men who are born of simple mind go on their way asking no questions. Men who are born with great minds are settled because they see things more clearly. But men born in the middle who "turn with contempt from the first state (illiterate ignorance) and who are incapable of reaching the other...are dangerous, absurd and troublesome: such men bring disturbances to the world." Much to Montaigne's chagrin, however, he realizes that of all the people who might read and judge his essays, it is with the ones in the middle that they will probably find a home. I'm not sure what the second part of the essay has to do with "vain and cunning devices." Perhaps Montaigne, half-jokingly, places his essays into the cunning device category? And then he pokes fun at himself by saying his essays are too much for the "common vulgar mind" but not "unique" enough for the "outstanding ones." Yes, I think this might be the way to view this piece, first decrying the state of the world and then easing back with a little self-deprecation. I like Montaigne for that. It shows me that maybe he doesn't take himself quite as seriously as I thought he did. Whaddaya know? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Prayer"