Saturday, September 10, 2005

Two-For-One Montaigne

This week I read two short Montaigne essays, "There Is a Season For Everything" and "On A Monster-Child". The first essay finds Montaigne comparing Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as the Censor, to his son Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as the Younger. The Censor lived a long and accomplished life. In his elder years he set about learning Greek. According to the editor's note, during the Renaissance this was generally held up as an example to be followed. But of course, Montaigne thought differently. Montaigne believed there was a season for everything (there is no mention if there is any intentional echoing of Ecclesiastes here but I would bet there is) and when you are old it is not the time in which you should learn something knew. It is one thing to undertake a short, practical study, but something else entirely to become a student. "That is exactly what we mean by tumbling into a second childhood," writes Montaigne. He surely would have hated modern times when it has in some circles become a badge of honor to be able to say that you have never grown up. Montaigne views this as a flaw:

And the greatest flaw which they find in our nature is that our desires are for ever renewing their youth. We are constantly beginning our lives all over again. Our zeal and our desire should sometimes smell of old age. We already have one foot in the grave yet our tastes and our pursuits are always just being born.
Instead of running around like we were youths, we should be acting our age, and if that age is old, we should act old. Old age is the time to prepare for death, to think about bringing our affairs to a close and saying farewell to people and places. We should extricate ourselves from the "desires and worries which trouble our lives." There is no need to worry any longer about "the way the world is going" or about money, "honors, erudition, health" or yourself. Cato the Younger, in killing himself after his defeat by Julius Caesar at Pharsalia, makes him, in Montaigne's eyes, the better man. While the Censor, knowing the end of life was near, took to being a student, the Younger, knowing his career was over, first had a party, then spent the evening reading, and then killed himself. The Younger was by no means elderly but he was too old to start a new career. Instead of making a fool of himself like his father did, the Younger kept his honor by removing himself from the world. A bit drastic if you ask me. You can still see these ideas fighting for dominance in the culture. When we are young our parents and other adults ask us what we are going to be when we grow up, encourage the idea that we will "be" one thing--a teacher, a police officer, a doctor. Some people manage it. But it is much more common for people to have not only more than one job, but more than one job in vastly different fields. And when we reach retirement age, the lucky ones do indeed retire and begin a sort of second childhood, while the rest continue to work at least part-time jobs. The single career life is often seen as superior. Those of us who have had many different jobs just can't make up our minds and settle down. Personally, I think both are equally as valid. What matters most is that a person is happy and doing what s/he wants to do. So a big raspberry to Montaigne for being such a stick-in-the-mud on this one. He gets kudos though for "On a Monster-Child". After seeing a 14-month old Siamese twin being displayed by its parents for money, and after meeting a 30-year old shepherd who was born without genitalia, he insists that such people are not monsters:
What we call monsters are not so for God who sees the infinite number of forms which he has included in the immensity of his creation: it is to be believed that the figure which astonishes us relates to, and derives from, some other figure of the same genus unknown to Man. God is all-wise; nothing comes from him which is not good, general and regular: but we cannot see the disposition and the relationship.
I realize that in insisting they aren't monsters he says they are not exactly human either. But at least he argues that the defect is not with the "monsters," but in those who see them that way. And in that I can agree. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Anger"