Monday, July 11, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on the day of one's death)

From I:19. That we should not be deemed happy till after our death.
Scilicet ultima semper
Expectanda dies homini est, dicique beatus
Ante obitum nemo, supremaque funera debet
[You must always await a man's last day: before his death and last funeral rites, no one should be called happy.]

Fortune sometimes seems precisely to lie in ambush for the last day of a man's life in order to display her power to topple in a moment what she had built up over the length of years, and to make us follow Laberius and exclaim: 'Nimirum hac die una plus vixi, mihi quam vivendum fuit.' [I have lived this day one day longer than I ought to have lived.]

The good counsel of Solon could be taken that way. But he was a philosopher: for such, the favours and ill graces of Fortune do not rank as happiness or unhappiness and for them great honours and powers are nonessential properties, counted virtually as things indifferent. So it seems likely to me that he was looking beyond that, intending to tell us that happiness in life (depending as it does on the tranquillity and contentment of a spirit well-born and on the resolution and assurance of an ordered soul) may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest. In all the rest he can wear an actor's mask: those fine philosophical arguments may be only a pose, or whatever else befalls us may not assay us to the quick, allowing us to keep our countenance serene. But in that last scene played between death and ourself there is no more feigning; we must speak straightforward French; we must show whatever is good and clean in the bottom of the pot:
Nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
Ejiciuntur, et reipitur persona, manet res
[Only then are true words uttered from deep in our breast. The mask is ripped off: reality remains.]

That is why all the other actions in our life must be tried on the touchstone of this final deed. It is the Master-day, the day which judges all the other; it is (says one of the Ancients) the day which must judge all my years now past. The assay of the fruits of my studies is postponed unto death. Then we shall see if my arguments come from my lips or my heart.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on experts)

From I:17. The doings of certain ambassadors

On my travels, in order to be ever learning something from my meetings with other people (which is one of the best of all schools), I observe the following practice: always to bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know best.
Basti al nocchiero ragionar de' venti,
Al bifolco dei tori, e le sue piaghe
Conti'l guerrier, conti'l pastor gli armenti.
[Let the sailor talk but of the winds, the farmer of oxen, the soldier of his own wounds and the herdsman of his cattle.]

For the reverse usually happens, everyone choosing to orate about another's job rather than his own, reckoning to increase his reputation by so doing; witness the reproof Archimadamus gave to Periander: that he was abandoning an excellent reputation as a good doctor to acquire the reputation of a bad poet. Just observe how Caesar spreads himself when he tells us about his ingenuity in building bridges and siege-machines: in comparison he is quite cramped when he talks of his professional soldiering, his valour or the way he conducts his wars. His exploits are sufficient proof that he was an outstanding general: he wants to be known as something rather different: a good engineer.

The other day a professional jurist was taken to see a library furnished with every sort of book including many kinds of legal ones. He had nothing to say about them. Yet he stopped to make blunt comments, like an expert, on a defence-work fixed to the head of a spiral staircase in that library; yet hundreds of officers and soldiers came across it every day without comment or displeasure.

The elder Dionysius, as befitted his fortune, was a great leader in battle but he strove to become mainly famed for his poetry - about which he knew nothing.
Optat ephippia bos piger, optat arare caballus.
[The lumbering ox years for the saddle: the nag yearns for the plough.]

Follow that way and nobody achieves anything worthwhile.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dreams of idleness

Samuel Johnson remarked, "If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation." Commenting on this C.S. Lewis said that he would "be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read [Italian epics] eight hours of each happy day."

Jerome K. Jerome contemplated something similar. As a young man he became ill and was prescribed rest:
I pictured to myself a glorious time--a four weeks' dolce far niente with a dash of illness in it. Not too much illness, but just illness enough--just sufficient to give it the flavor of suffering and make it poetical. I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds and the low rustling of the trees. Or, on becoming too weak to go out of doors, I should sit propped up with pillows at the open window of the ground-floor front, and look wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as they passed by.
Much as I love reading I can't say I'd submit to illness - even small illness - in exchange for leisure time. At this point I'd be happy if I could work in the same town in which I live. (I'm working on it.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (channeling the Stoics)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

Neither good nor ill is done to us by Fortune: she merely offers us the matter and the seeds: our soul, more powerful than she is, can mould it or sow them as she pleases, being the only cause and mistress of our happy state or our unhappiness. Whatever comes to us from outside takes its savour and its coulour from our internal attributes, just as our garments warm us not with their heat but ours, which they serve to preserve and sustain. Shelter a cold body under them and it will draw similar services from them for its coldness: that is how we conserve snow and ice. Study to the lazy, like abstinence from wine to the drunkard, is torture; frugal living to the seeker after pleasure, like exercise to the languid idle man, is torment: so too for everything else. Things are not all that painful nor harsh in themselves: it is our weakness, our slackness, which makes them so. To judge great and lofty things we need a mind which is like them: otherwise we attribute to them the viciousness which belongs to ourselves. A straight oar seems bent in water. It is not only seeing which counts: how we see counts too.

Come on then. There are so many arguments persuading men in a variety of ways to despise death and to endure pain: why do we never find a single one which applies to ourselves? Thoughts of so many different kinds have persuaded others: why cannot we each find the one that suits our own disposition? If a man cannot stomach a strong purgative and root out his malady, why cannot he at least take lenitive and relieve it? 'Opinio est quaedam effeminata ac levis, nec in dolore magis, quam eadem in voluptate: qua, cum liquescimus fluimusque mollitia, apis aculeum sine clamore ferre non possumus. Totum in eo est, ut tibi imperes.' [As much in pain as in pleasure, our opinions are trivial and womanish: we have been melted and dissolved by wantonness; we cannot even endure the sting of a bee without making a fuss. Above all we must gain mastery over ourselves.] We cannot evade Philosophy by immoderately pleading our human frailty and the sharpness of pain: Philosophy is merely constrained to have recourse to her unanswerable counterplea: 'Living in necessity is bad: but at least there is no necessity that you should go on doing so.' No one suffers long, save by his own fault. If a man has no heart fro either living or dying; if he has not will either to resist or to run away: what are we to do with him?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on money)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

I make my income and my expenditure run along in tandem: sometimes one pulls ahead, sometimes the other, but only drawing slightly apart. I live from day to day, pleased to be able to satisfy my present, ordinary needs: extraordinary ones could never be met by all the provision in the world.

And it is madness to expect that Fortune will ever supply us with enough weapons to use against herself. We have to fight with our own weapons: fortuitous ones will let us down at the crucial moment. If I do save up now, it is only because I hope to use the money soon - not to purchase lands that I have no use for but to purchase pleasure. 'Non esse cupidum pecunia est, non esse emacem vectigal est.' [Not to want means money: not to spend means income.] I have no fear, really, that I shall lack anything: nor have I any wish for more. 'Divitiarum fructus est in copia, copiam declarat satietas.' [The fruit of riches consists in abundance: abundance is shown by having enough.] I particularly congratulate myself that this amendment of life should have come to me at an age which is naturally inclined to avarice, so ridding me of a vice - the most ridiculous of all human madness - which is so common among the old.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Agnosticism versus fallibilism

Eric Reitan has a helpful post distinguishing between agnosticism and fallibilism. First, definitions:
In roughest terms, to be an agnostic is to withhold belief on a matter, whereas to be a fallibilist is to have a belief but recognize that you could be mistaken, that those who disagree with you could have some or all of the truth, and that it is important to comport yourself accordingly.
Then he sets up two epistemic circumstances to illustrate the difference:
Epistemic Circumstance 1 (EC1): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that "reasonable people" (however that is to be understood) generally accept, but you recognize that there are different ways of fitting that evidence into a coherent whole—different "stories" we can tell that fit just as well with the given evidence. In other words, we have certain mutually exclusive holistic ways of seeing the evidence, each of which maps onto the evidence just as well. For simplicity, let us assume there are only two such ways of seeing that fit as well onto the evidence, which we will call Worldviews A and B.

Epistemic Circumstance 2 (EC2): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that reasonable people generally accept, as well as certain further "apparent truths," that is, things you experience as clearly true/self-evident/obvious/hard to deny/intuitively correct. But some of the people you regard as rational don’t find these apparent truths nearly as apparent as you do, and may instead find other things evident which are hardly evident to you. So, within the total body of "evidence" with which you are confronted, some of it is "shared evidence" whereas some of it is "personal evidence." Now suppose that, as before, Worldviews A and B both map onto the shared evidence (and are the only worldviews you have so far encountered that do this). But now let us suppose, furthermore, that Worldview A maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and your personal evidence, while B doesn’t (accepting B would force you to abandon things that seem clearly right to you). At the same time, Worldview B maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and what is apparently the personal evidence of reasonable people other than you.
While there is no reason, on the evidence, to prefer A or B in EC1, there may be personal reasons. "You might find A more hopeful. Or you might like who you are better when you live as if A is true. Or perhaps you’ve grown up with a community that embraces A, and you continue to have a sense of solidarity with that community. Or perhaps you’ve tried to see the world through the lens of B and it just doesn’t sit right with you because of what you identify as mere quirks of personality. Or perhaps it is a combination of these factor." You make your choice while recognizing that your reasons are idiosyncratic and not required based on the evidence.

In EC2, on the other hand, you do have certain personal evidence that moves you to accept worldview A rather than B. But note that this decision is based on your personal evidence - evidence which is not accepted by other "reasonable" people. This leads you to hold your personal evidence with less confidence, though it certainly does not mean your personal evidence is wrong.
In EC1, your reasons for favoring A over B are ones that do not appear to you as evidence for the truth of A, and in this sense are seen by you as nothing but pragmatic reasons to operate as if A is true. But in EC2, your reasons for favoring A over B have the "look and feel" of evidence, that is, they seem to be truths that speak in favor of the truth of A. And this makes your epistemic situation clearly different. It means, among other things, that when you endorse A, it is because A seems right to you in a way that B does not. You favor A over B on the basis of considerations that present themselves to you as evidence for the truth of A and against the truth of B.
In EC1 you are agnostic on the theoretical level because you have no reason based on the evidence to hold one over the other, though you may have pragmatic or personal reasons. In EC2 you are not agnostic on the theoretical level because you do have evidence - albeit personal and not universally held - for holding A over B. These features require you to hold an attitude of fallibilism in EC2:
While A just seems right to you in a way that B does not, you also know that you are fallible, and you know that some of the evidence you are using in arriving at A is not regarded as veridical by other people who otherwise seem eminently reasonable. This fact alone does not make the evidence seem less veridical to you, but it does motivate an attitude of due caution, a willingness to investigate, to hear opposing arguments and be open to be moved by them if they do amount to "defeaters" of your presumptive evidence. And it also makes you resistent to condemning those who endorse B.
I'll leave the application of these distinctions as an exercise for the readers. I only wanted to note them here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on discovering himself accidentally)

From I:10. On a ready or hesitant delivery

I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself. And that is why the spoken word is worth more than the written - if a choice can be made between things of no value.

This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement. Suppose something subtle springs up as I write - I mean, of course, something which would be blunt in others but is acute in me. (Enough of these courtesies! When we say such things we all mean them to be taken in proportion to our abilities.) Later, I miss the point so completely that I do not know what I meant to say (some outsider has often rediscovered the meaning before I do). If every time that happened I were to start scraping out words with my eraser I would efface the whole of my Essays. Yet, subsequently, chance may make what I wrote clearer than the noon-day sun: it will be my former hesitations which then astonish me.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.