Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Experience, Part One

Well, I have officially read all of Montaigne's essays. Aside from the overly revealing bits of personal bodily information I mentioned yesterday, "On Experience" is a fantastic essay. It is the culmination of all the thought that came before it. Montaigne saw this essay as the conclusion of his quest, the one he began with the first essay and here completes successfully, his search to study and know himself. "On Experience" is about experience versus knowledge, the soul versus the body. For most of philosophy and intellectual society, it had to be one or the other, but Montaigne argues here that the two are complimentary and privileging one over the other does a person a great disservice. Both body and mind are required to be in harmony in order to find true wisdom and understanding:

Is it not an error to reckon some functions to be less worthy because they are necessities? They will never beat it out of my head anyway that the marriage of Pleasure to Necessity (with whom, according to an ancient, the gods ever conspire) is a most suitable match. What are we trying to achieve by taking limbs wrought together into so interlocked and kindly a compact and tearing them asunder in divorce? On the contrary let us tie them together by mutual duties. Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast.
Montaigne works up to this final argument by first discussing the to major "Arts" of his day, the art of Law and the art of Medicine. The Law for Montaigne represents the mind, it is an intellectual pursuit of knowledge that becomes more and more abstracted as it progresses. The main problem is words. They are ultimately inadequate. A law may be written in the narrowest, most precise language possible but in reality, it will not match any single person's experience. And so we have judges who interpret the law and then we have lawyers who interpret the interpretations and pretty soon "all we do is gloss each other" and "learning to understand the learned" becomes "the chief and most celebrated thing that we learn." Laws are made by fools, by "vain authorities who can resolve nothing." In Montaigne's opinion, "no person commits crimes more grossly, widely or regularly than do our laws." Montaigne believes that laws are made in order to make examples out of the people who break them. This then is supposed to keep other people from committing the same crime. The problem with this as Montaigne sees it is that the law is trying to make examples of other people's experience for people who cannot even learn from their own personal experience. That is why, Montaigne declares, that he studies himself "more than any other subject." Montaigne obeys the laws of men because he has to, but what we should really be following are the laws of Nature. This takes us back to Montaigne's belief that Nature is a book that can be read and understood with the help of God (he argues this fully in his essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond"). If we learn to read the Book of Nature and study ourselves, our experience will tell us all we need to know in order to be wise, we just have to listen to it. "This application which I have long devoted to studying myself also trains me to judge passably well of others," writes Montaigne. To see one's own life reflected in the lives of others allows one to acquire a broader understanding of the world. This does not give you leave to judge freely of other people, however, unless you are prepared to hear yourself "frankly judged." Next Montaigne turns to Medicine whose realm lies entirely within experience and the body. But this is already going long, so I'm going to take a break and be back with part two either later or tomorrow.