David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: montaigne

Montaigne: Apology for Raymond Sebond

For a reputedly humanistic and temperate philosophy, the Apology [sic] for Raymond Sebond comes off as one of the most intemperate of Montaigne’s essays. He works himself into a frenzy of attack against all claims and pretenses of human reason, proclaiming their impotence against the works of God and fate. He quotes the Roman astrologer Manilius in tandem with Lucretius to emphasize the hopeless fatalism that is driving him. His contempt from constructive philosophy from Plato to Aristotle to his time builds, until he is even attacking the Pyrrhonists for the hubris of their claim to not knowing anything:

Ignorance that knows itself, that judges itself and condemns itself, is not complete ignorance: to be that, it must be ignorant of itself. So the profession of the Pyrrhonians is to waver, doubt, and inquire, to be sure of nothing, to answer for nothing. Of the three functions of the soul, the imaginative, the appetitive, and the consenting, they accept the first two; the last they suspend and keep it ambiguous, without inclination or approbation, however slight, in one direction or the other.

The Pyrrhonians have kept themselves a wonderful advantage in combat, having rid themselves of the need to cover up. It does not matter to them that they are struck, provided they strike; and they do their work with everything. If they win, your proposition is lame; if you win, theirs is. If they lose, they confirm ignorance; if you lose, you confirm it. If they prove that nothing is known, well and good; if they do not know how to prove it, just as good. So that, since equal reasons are found on both sides of the same subject, it may be the easier to suspend judgment on each side [Cicero].

Pyrrho did not want to make himself a stump or a stone; he wanted to make himself a living, thinking, reasoning man, enjoying all natural pleasures and comforts, employing and using all his bodily and spiritual faculties in regular and upright fashion. The fantastic, imaginary, false privileges that man has arrogated to himself, of regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth, he honestly renounced and gave up.

(tr. Frame)

Perhaps Montaigne here is susceptible to Hans Blumenberg’s attack on stoics and Epicureans: of abandoning one’s ambitions and will in favor of what minimal pleasure may be grasped from the life at hand. But Montaigne is never consistent nor focused in his views, and the frustration that drives this essay appears as directed at the stoics as at anyone else. As much as it derides the Christian apologists for saying that God will take care of it all, the Pyrrhonists fall under attack for making their practice into a dogma as well. And so at the end, as Blumenberg might have predicted, Montaigne falls into something of an otherworldly Gnosticism, denying our knowledge of God and insisting that faith alone may allow us to escape this awful and uncontrollable world. Hence, again, why he finds so much use in Manilius’s fatalistic astrological texts: to conclusively say that we are not in control of our lives.

The fatalism is the more disappointing aspect of the essay, which elsewhere delves into enough cosmology to make it Montaigne’s Timaeus. I don’t see much orthodox skepticism in it, even if Montaigne was dwelling on the subject. There is too much reference to convenient beliefs, the need for happiness, pleasure, and suffering for Montaigne to attach himself to classical skepticism alone. Nor does he particularly play one belief off against another; each one comes in for attack individually using assaultive common-sense “evidence,” much as Schopenhauer would do centuries later in trying to convince people that the world was truly unbearable.

Instead, I find the constructive aspect of the essay to be the super-Pyrrhonic method that Montaigne employs, jumping around from topic to topic and never finding any satisfaction. Although this method draws Montaigne to assorted conclusions as to humanity’s powerlessness, uselessness, and unhappiness, these are all fallacies on his part, stemming from his self-professed lassitude as a thinker. It is the dissatisfaction that emerges as the constructive attitude, not the purported skepticism or fatalism. It is an emotional and personal method.

Montaigne: On Democritus and Heraclitus

Democritus et Heraclitus ont esté deux philosophes, desquels le premier trouvant vaine et ridicule l’humaine condition, ne sortoit en public, qu’avec un visage moqueur et riant : Heraclitus, ayant pitié et compassion de cette mesme condition nostre, en portoit le visage continuellement triste, et les yeux chargez de larmes.

Ridebat quoties à limine moverat unum
Protuleratque pedem, flebat contrarius alter.


J’ayme mieux la premiere humeur, non par ce qu’il est plus plaisant de rire que de pleurer : mais par ce qu’elle est plus desdaigneuse, et qu’elle nous condamne plus que l’autre : et il me semble, que nous ne pouvons jamais estre assez mesprisez selon nostre merite. La plainte et la commiseration sont meslées à quelque estimation de la chose qu’on plaint : les choses dequoy on se moque, on les estime sans prix. Je ne pense point qu’il y ait tant de malheur en nous, comme il y a de vanité, ny tant de malice comme de sotise : nous ne sommes pas si pleins de mal, comme d’inanité : nous ne sommes pas si miserables, comme nous sommes vils.

(Translation available here.)

Galen Strawson and Narrativity

I was planning to summarize Galen Strawson’s arguments against narrativity in the Oct 15 issue of the TLS, but I’m blessed, because Peter Leithart has already done a sterling job presenting Strawson’s argument. The key idea, in Strawson’s words, is the opposition between diachronic (or continuous, or narrative) and episodic (or discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience (D) is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative. If one is Episodic (E), by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms (the Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same as the Narrative/non-Narrative distinction, but there are marked correlations between them).

Strawson slides some of the terms around, but to keep things relatively simple, let’s consider that diachronics are inclined to build narratives around themselves and others over time, while episodics are disinclined to construct cognitive edifices that rely on the assumption of a constant body undergoing incremental change. The assumption is not intuitive for them. I have no problem instantly classifying myself as episodic, or in accepting the basic nature of the dichotomy. As Strawson says, it is not the default position in most literature, and one of the reasons reading Proust has been so revelatory has been his stance that a person at one moment is incapable of looking upon their memories, their past experiences, and their acquaintances with the same authentic eye that he or she possessed at any past point. This stance struck me as refreshingly honest and non-reductionistic, and went a ways towards justifying the book’s length. It occurs first with Swann and Odette:

Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead?

This represents to me a more realistic and complex view of human experience than anything in Balzac or Fitzgerald. From Strawson, I would take it that my intuitions are not shared by many, and certainly not by fiction writers. Strawson’s diachronic writers are canonical, his episodic writers are idiosyncratic. Beyond that, I was gratified to see that of Strawson’s list of episodic writers–

Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story-teller), A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan.

–I felt favorably (sometimes extremely favorably) towards most of them, while of his list of diachronic writers–

Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O’Brian.

–I find Conrad, Greene, Waugh, and O’Brian extremely boring, and wouldn’t identify myself with any of the others, who I appreciate more in the role of philosophers of narrativity than when they are employers of it. Yet it’s amazing how, despite the disputable nature of the choices (wouldn’t Hegel have been a lot less controversial than Heidegger?), so many of the episodic writers are of special significance to me.

(I know people who would claim that Conrad, particular the Conrad of The Secret Agent, has a much more complicated view of character and choice than Strawson dismissively gives him. But I’ve never seen it myself.)

So whatever the debatable points of his taxonomy (and this being analytic philosophy, there are plenty of taxonomic points to debate), I think Strawson is on to something. Here is my personal experience with that something:

My great frustration with so much short fiction was not the narrative itself, but the function of change. There are stories that present a character in terrible, pure stasis and illuminates that stasis through assorted means, but the vast majority of stories end up with their characters some distance from where they started by means of some turning point event. This change is meant to stand out and mark a posthole in a character’s existence. But this assumes a backdrop not just of consistency, but of stasis itself.

After reading Proust, I came to believe that my frustration arose from the writer’s expedient mechanism of fixing the frame of reference so as to call out a moment of particular meaning or catharsis. I so often found this moment artificial, since the story would then assume an ever-extending future from thereon out with the reverberation from the story’s climax ringing down into the line. I was puzzled to run into other writers that thought of this approach not simply as natural for their characters, but for their views of themselves and others as well.

The modern American short story writer who I did feel the most identification with was Stephen Dixon, and in his endless variations on metaphysical possibility, hypothetical settings past and present for what is really a limited set of characters, he embodies something of what Strawson describes as episodic as much as any more experimental writer who has just thrown out the notion of realistic characters altogether. (Shoe gives some idea of his approach, though he requires a lot more space for the constant revisionism and moment-by-moment-ness of his style to take hold.) I wouldn’t describe it as “episodic,” but it is certainly anti-narrative in a way that owes a little to Laurence Sterne. Again, I have only my tastes to rely on, but Strawson’s framework is valuable for my own outlook if nothing more.

One last point that I couldn’t work in above. Strawson doesn’t mention Wittgenstein, probably because he tends to have the effect, like Kafka, of throwing a monkey wrench into whatever schema he’s inserted into. Wittgenstein might allow for the idea of a public narrative enshrined in language, but it would necessarily be cut off from one’s own idea of one’s self: a narrative that is not narrated. It’s entirely fitting then that Wittgenstein had no patience for most fiction save detective stories, with their objective descriptions of facts, flat characters, and galloping, punctuated plots.

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