Monday, January 16, 2006

On Experience, Part Two

In the first half of Montaigne's essay "On Experience" he takes on the study of Law as it represents the mind. In the second half of the essay, Montaigne takes on Medicine using himself as a case study. Montaigne suffered from "the stone." In his time there was no treatment for gallstones or kidney stones. You just had to suffer. And suffer Montaigne did with what is called "colic paroxysms." Montaigne's father died from the stone and it was such a painful and dreaded disease that early on in his essays before he had it, Montaigne writes about justifications for suicide should his health or mind ever reach a state he found intolerable. Montaigne is a devout Catholic too which means he could put his immortal soul in peril if he committed suicide. But as time wore on and he began to suffer from the stone he found that it was not as bad as his imagination had made him believe. He could bear the pain. He also discovered that he liked living more than he liked the idea of dying. While Law represented the mind and the soul, Medicine represents experience and the body. Montaigne is a smart and observant man who knows that the Art of Medicine is an inexact art and often times cause more harm than good:

There are several gentlemen for whom I feel pity: through the stupidity of their doctors they shut themselves up indoors while still young and healthy; it would be better to put up with a chill rather than forever to forgo joining in common everyday life outdoors. What a grievous skill medicine is, disparaging for us the more delightful hours of the day. Let us extend our hold on things by every means we possess.
In Montaigne's view, medicine is out to take away and limit the life of a man and the pleasures of the body with its prescriptions of dos and don'ts. Those who are sick and need treatment are told to change their habits, to not go out, to not eat certain foods to eat things that taste bad, such sudden and shocking changes Montaigne believes, does the sick a worse turn producing "bewilderment and trauma" that could not be endured by a healthy man. Montaigne takes most umbrage with diets that doctors prescribe the ill: "On this side we have the illness hurting us, on the other the diet. Since we must risk being wrong, let us risk what gives us pleasure, rather. The world does the reverse, thinking that nothing does you good unless it hurts: pleasantness is suspect." And besides, the art of medicine has not reached a point where there is any kind of certainty. Montaigne insists that if one doctor tells you that you should not drink wine or eat a particular food, he will find you another doctor who disagrees with the first. Sickness is part of life and as such Montaigne believes
We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.
Now I don't think Montaigne is saying that if there is something to help us through an illness to forget it and be miserable. I think the point he is trying to make is that illness comes to us all at different times and in one form or another, it is something we cannot avoid and so must learn how to accept it. I like the metaphor of the musician he uses--you cannot sing unless you have all the notes at your disposal. A few pages later he also reminds us, "you are not dying because you are ill: you are dying because you are alive; Death can kill you well enough without illness to help her." "Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid," writes Montaigne. Illness and blessing each has their course and we should take our pleasures as we can whenever we can even the very simple ones: "I cannot recall ever having scabies, but scratching is one of the most delightful of Nature's bounties: and it is always ready to hand! But its neighbour, inconveniently close, is regret for having done it. I mainly practise it on my ears, which from time to time itch inside." We must find our pleasures and stick to them. Montaigne loved to eat and admits to a tendency to over eat. So instead of dieting he goes to meals late. This allows him to eat but keeps him from eating too much since dinner is half over by the time he sits down. If doctors had their way, they would impose stricter and stricter diets, there would be no end of it and Montaigne's chief pleasure would be denied him. But while Montaigne encourages the pursuit of pleasure he admits "I who boast that I so sedulously and so individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rushing and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability or density." It is here that Montaigne suddenly turns the essay into an argument on the proper way to live. Living is "not only the most basic of your employments, it is the most glorious...If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all." Montaigne believes that "our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book: not to win provinces in battles but order and tranquility for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly." To do that we must bring mind and body, the divine and the earthy together. Separate they are each inadequate:
Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one's place and to draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding. Nothing is so beautiful, so right, as acting as a man should: nor is any learning so arduous as knowing how to live this life naturally and well. And the most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.
Montaigne goes on to say that a person's "soul should assist and applaud the body, not refuse to participate in its natural pleasures but delight in it as if it were its husband, contributing, if it is wise enough, moderation, lest those pleasures become confounded with pain through want of discernment." The mind and the body are necessary to be a whole person. Without the mind we are nothing but stupid beasts, without the body we are nothing at all. Montaigne encourages everyone to "love life and cultivate it," to "accept wholeheartedly and thankfully what Nature has done" and to "delight in that fact" and "be proud of it." Our time is limited and it is madness to desire to escape from your humanity, argues Montaigne. He quotes an inscription with which the Athenians honored Pompey when he visited their city: "Thou art a god in so far as thou recognizes that thou art a man." For Montaigne, the most God-like thing a person can do is "to know how to enjoy our being as we ought." Montaigne notes that "we seek other attributes because we do not understand the use of our own; and having no knowledge of what is within, we sally forth outside ourselves." He goes on to remind us that even if we get up on stilts, we still walk with our legs and even if we find ourselves sitting upon the highest throne, we are still sitting on our arses. And here I find myself at the end of Montaigne's essays. I'm rather sad about it since I have spent so much time and grown so fond of the man. That is one of the great things about books and reading, how we can become so attached to someone fictional or real, alive or dead, how these characters can become like friends. I am not going to leave Montaigne just yet though, I'll be reading The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne to find out what other people think of him. And besides, one of the other great things about books is that I can open Montaigne's essays any time and meet him there upon the pages. I'll end now with one final quote from "On Experience" which has been filled with so many quotable passages:
I have a lexicon all to myself: I 'pass' the time when tide and time are sticky and unpleasant: when good, I do not want to 'pass' time, I savour it and hold on to it. We must run the gauntlet through the bad and recline on the good. 'Pastimes' and 'to pass the time' are everyday expressions which correspond to the practice of those clever folk who think that they can use their life most profitably by letting it leak and slip away, by-passing it or avoiding it and (as far as they can manage to do so) ignoring it and fleeing from it as painful and contemptible. But I know life to be something different: I find it to be both of great account and delightful--even as I grasp it now in its final waning; Nature has given it into our hands garnished with such attributes, such agreeable ones, that if it weighs on us, if it slips uselessly from us, we have but ourselves to blame.