Saturday, April 23, 2005

Don't Be Cruel

Montaigne's essay "On Cruelty" could also be called "On Virtue and Cruelty." The essay begins with Montaigne trying to ascertain the nature of virtue, "It seems to me that virtue is something other, something nobler, than those tendencies towards Good which are born in us." He decides that virtue cannot be something that happens by accident of character or situation, but instead "presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without struggle." Montaigne admits that he himself has "not made much of a struggle to bridle any of my pressing desires." Rather, any virtue that one may attribute to him he arrived at by Fortune not be reason. He finds himself "horrified" by most vices but indulges in a few himself though he does not admit to what they are. He insists, however, that he is extremely careful in not allowing his few vices to spawn even more vices, he "prunes" them and keeps them "as isolated and as uncomplicated as possible." I like Montaigne for owning up to his failings. He spends time detailing the perfect virtuousness of Socrates and Cato the Younger. Socrates especially he sets up to near god-like status. But even as he praises their virtuousness and virtue in general, he does not himself try to emulate his heroes. It is obvious that Montaigne finds virtue admirable and something to strive for, but I imagine him sitting back and muttering, "But let's not be hasty, all things in moderation." It takes a special someone to be Socrates and Montaigne knows himself well enough to understand that he is not a special someone in the department of virtue. There is one vice that Montaigne cannot abide by and that is cruelty which he classifies as the "ultimate vice if them all." Montaigne suggests that there are two moments in particular that can put a person at risk of being cruel. The first is sexual climax, that moment when a person (for Montaigne, a Man) is "entirely transfixed and enraptured by the pleasure." This is a dangerous moment because it is a time when a person is irrational and without reason. The other danger is the ecstasy and rapture that can be brought on while hunting. Still, neither of those compare to the "farthest point that cruelty can reach: That man should kill man not in anger or in fear but merely for the spectacle." Montaigne condemns all forms of torture and any form of capital punishment that is not quick and simple (hanging, beheading). Interestingly, Montaigne also writes about cruelty to animals. He makes a connection between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans: "Natures given to bloodshed where beasts are concerned bear witness to an inborn propensity to cruelty. In Rome, once they had broken themselves in by murdering animals they went on to men and to gladiators. I fear that Nature herself has attached to Man something which goads him on towards inhumanity." But if anyone should dare to laugh at Montaigne for being concerned about animals, he says theology is on his side. Man has a duty to respect not only the beasts but trees and plants as well. To all creatures we "owe gentleness and kindness." I think if Montaigne were alive today he'd be a vegetarian, maybe even vegan,, and would make regular donations to Amnesty International. Next week's Montaigne essay: "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"