Saturday, September 03, 2005


Montaigne, being the man he was, living in the time he did, appears to current day concerns to be a bit preoccupied with virtue in terms of honor, and death as determined by God and Fate. "On Virtue" is an essay in which Montaigne combines the topics of virtue and Fate. He begins the essay by talking about virtue and how it is such a difficult thing to have with any kind of constancy. There are heroes who appear have miraculous flashes and appear to exceed "our natural powers." While it may happen more to heroes, "It happens even to us who are mere abortions of men." But instead of something miraculous, it is more a passion that ravishes the soul and once over we find ourselves back to being quite ordinary. But in spite of our ordinariness and obvious defects, we can still be virtuous; we don't have to be perfect. To be judged virtuous, a life must be viewed as a whole but in particular, a person's everyday routine activities. Part of these everyday activities can also include planning for death. That's all fine and good, and we can plan on dying at such and such an age in such and such a manner, virtuous and brave, but Fate might have different plans for us and there's nothing we can do about it. When it's our time to die, it's our time to die and there is no way to avoid it. Similarly, if it isn't our time to die the slings and arrows miss their mark. It is how we conduct ourselves not knowing what Fate has in store that reveals just how virtuous we are--or aren't. While we don't couch it in the same terms these days, one could say that the ideas here still hold a kernel of relevancy and truth. We talk about people in terms of good and bad, moral and immoral. A "good" person is someone who is kind and caring, who gives of themselves, who "walks the talk." A person doesn't have to belong to a particular religion, or any religion, be of a particular race or background or sexual orientation to be considered a good person. A good person can be rich or poor or somewhere in between. A good person is by no means perfect, but when that life is viewed with perspective the good shines out brighter than the bad. It is obvious, in light of the tragedy in New Orleans and Mississippi this last week, that there are a lot of good people in the world. But the real test of goodness isn't when disaster strikes. The real test is everyday. The real test is living as a good person, knowing that Fate or Death or whatever you want to call it, can happen any moment. Tomorrow you might have nothing, in an hour you might be dead. A good person is a good person in spite of that knowledge and maybe even because of it. It is not an eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die kind of philosophy; it's not me, me, me but more of a we're all in this together. And it's not sometimes, it's all the time. While my heart is gladdened by the generosity of people offering money and homes and jobs to the victims of Katrina, I worry that when it's all over, or even before it's all over, when as Montaigne refers to it, that passion that ravishes the soul is gone, we'll forget about how good we are and return to our selfish what's in it for me lives until we are shaken from our moorings by the next disaster. Am I a good person? I like to think so. I try to be. And when I come to the end of my life I hope when I, or others, look back to judge it, that the verdict is yes, she was good. Next week, two short Montaigne essays: "There is a Season for Everything" and "On a Monster-Child"