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.

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.