Saturday, January 07, 2006

Socrates was an Ugly Dude with a Beautiful Soul

Like most of Montaigne's essays, "On Physiognomy" ranges far and wide. Montaigne is a man who thinks on paper. He begins with a kernel of an idea, and as he writes it brings up another idea and off he goes following a new thread until he brings it back around to the original kernel for a bit and then off he goes again, chasing down another thought. The kernel in this particular essay is Socrates. He was an ugly man. By the standards of the art of physiognomy, he should have been a cruel and horrible person. Socrates even commented that his soul would indeed be ugly if he had not corrected it by education. Montaigne notes the irony of an ugly man so in love with all that is beautiful. While Socrates had ugly packaging, there has never been a man whose thinking is more sublime, yet simple, according to Montaigne. Socrates drew his inductions from the ordinary and common, he "keeps his feet on the ground, dealing with the most useful subjects at a quiet and everyday pace, advancing at the rate of human life towards both death and the harshest of ordeals that can ever occur." His ideas are commonplace and unadorned, whereas Montaigne sees his contemporary society (and it could be said of ours too) "has been prepared to appreciate nothing but ostentation: nowadays you can fill men up with nothing but wind and then bounce them about like balloons." The beauty of Socrates is that he teaches us we "are richer than we think" and that it all lies within. Not only that, he shows us how to find the riches and make use of them. For all of Montaigne's philosophizing throughout his essays, here he comes to believe that philosophy is useless unless it teaches a person how to live. But except for Socrates, Montaigne finds that "philosophy...commands us to have death ever before our eyes, to anticipate it and to consider it beforehand, and then she gives us rules and caveats in order to forestall our being hurt by our reflections and our foresight!" Montaigne has come to realize that dying is easy, "if you do not know how to die, never mind. Nature will tell you how to do it on the spot, plainly and adequately. She will do this job for you most punctiliously: do not worry about it." Philosophy makes a mistake in being concerned with teaching how to die. Montaigne concludes it is not right to teach people how to die when they don't know how to live. "Death is indeed the ending of life," he writes, "but it is not its objective. Life must be its own objective, its own purpose." There you have the kernel of the essay. Montaigne's thoughts on the purpose of philosophy and on death have taken a 180° turn from where they were previously. Way back in "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die" I didn't like him so much. But here he proves to be an okay guy. Places that his thoughts zoom off to in this essay: peasants teach us simplicity; the Wars of Religion and war in general; desire for and dangers of knowledge; the plague and its effects on him personally; his essays and the quotations he borrows; his own good looks and how they have twice helped him out of a dangerous situations. Montaigne has a tendency to romanticize the peasants, but he offers up interesting thoughts on all of the topics he touches on. I will not go into them here, but read the essay sometime if you get the chance. Next week is the last Montaigne essay: "On Experience"