Saturday, January 15, 2005

To Laugh or to Cry

I will now attempt to wrap my fuzzy brain around Montaigne's "On Democritus and Heraclitus." Strangely, Montaigne spends a large part of this essay talking about why he is writing the essays in the first place. It isn't clear if Montaigne does this in order to justify them to his audience or to try and clarify the endeavor for himself. He declares that "Our power of judgment is a tool to be used on all subjects; it can be applied anywhere." As to how he chooses his subjects, he doesn't, he lets Fortune choose for him. And "scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me; I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance." So Montaigne chooses to apply his judgment to the subjects of his essays which Fortune supplies and in any manner he sees fit. In this way he hopes to find out about himself because "anything we do reveals us." In revealing himself he is taking responsibility for what "lies within." He seeks no excuses from "the external qualities of anything," because what we do, "our good or our bad depends on us alone." And then he turns to Democritus and Heraclitus. Both men were philosophers. Democritus, according to Montaigne, "finding our human circumstances so vain and ridiculous, never went out without a laughing and mocking look on his face." Heraclitus, on the other hand, "feeling pity and compassion for these same circumstances of ours, wore an expression which was always sad, his eyes full of tears." Montaigne prefers the philosophy of Democritus because laughing and mocking is "more disdainful and condemns us men more than the other--and it seems to me that, according to our deserts, we can never be despised enough." A rather dim view of humanity. As a reader I am left to wonder how the beginning and ending of this essay connect. Montaigne doesn't seem to ever be laughing or mocking himself in his essays, though by publishing them he "reveals" himself and thus makes an opening for others to laugh at him. I do often catch a sort of laughing undertone to Montaigne's essays, a people are silly chuckle. If the choice is between laughing or crying over the human condition, I think I have to side with Montaigne and Democritus. I don't hold with the laughing being more disdainful though. I just think that life requires that one have a good sense of humor. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Vain Cunning Devices"