Saturday, October 15, 2005

In Praise of Great Men

In "On the Most Excellent of Men" Montaigne writes about three men who "excel all others." Montaigne begins with Homer a man with whom he is "struck by wonder that he, who by his authority created so many gods and made them honoured in this world, has not himself been deified." Homer is the master of all schools and his books "a seed-bed for every kind of knowledge." Aristotle says of him that "his words alone have properties of movement and of action: they are the only words which are endowed with substance." And Plutarch declares that Home is the "only author in the world who has never sated his readers nor grown insipid to them, since he ever seems different to them, ever blossoming into new graces." It is fortunate then that Homer only wrote two books and didn't live to make it a trilogy. Some authors just can't seem to stop. But Montaigne is right, Homer is very much a foundation. And even though it is rare that people actually read the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stories permeate western culture and are continually reworked and re-examined in fiction, poetry and movies. Montainge's second great man is Alexander the Great. Even as Montaigne praises his virtues--justice, temperance, liberality, self-discipline--he acknowledges his faults--boastful, impatient, a murderer--he feels Alexander's life as a whole is venerable. He was even greater than Caesar. Montaigne admits that he had to think long and hard about it, but in the end had to come down on the side of Alexander. The third great man, and the man Montaigne considers the greatest, is Epaminondas. I have no idea who this guy is, but the Greeks of his time unanimously named him the first man among them. He was a Pythagorean philosopher and Montaigne thinks him even better than Socrates. What Montaigne appreciates most is Epaminondas' integrity which was "constant, equable, incorruptible." The world could use more people like him. It is curious though that in spite of Montaigne thinking Epaminondas so fantastic, I don't recall Montaigne ever mentioning the guy prior to this essay. I'll just put this one in the "things to make you go hmmm" category and move on. Next week's Montaigne essay is the conclusion to Book 2 and promises to be a bit more interesting: "On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers"