Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne III


I had my AOL class do posters on other readings in Montaigne, and among the ones they chose were "On the Force of the Imagination," "On Cannibals," and "To Philosophize is to Learn to Die," all very much relevant to "On Experience," Montaigne's final word in his Essays. For experience is real in a way that imagination is not, or at least in a way that unexamined imagination is not, and we learn from the cannibals that there are ways of life that make us question whether there is any commonality to the human condition or at least whether that commonality is easy to discern, and we learn from philosophy that death, that forerunning shadow, is somehow a natural part of life, even if "terribly awe-filling" (Greek deinos) and beyond its limits.

The one thing binding them all together is Montaigne, the man, body and soul who resists all of our efforts to erase him. And he speaks for us all, insofar as he speaks for himself, an individual, caught willy-nilly in the currents of his body and his culture, caught between the zealous factions of his neighbors, over-burdened by the weight of religious, political and even philosophical authorities, struggling out from under all of those powers to assert--le moi, the "I am" that all of us want to be, the free thinker, the free spirit, the free person, who might join with other free persons in all the modes of interaction due to us...

Michel Montaigne! I find myself continually coming back to the man. Look at this "assay," this experiment, this trial in words. In the first part, (i) a discourse which seems to go back and forth between the law and books, culminating in his praise of self-knowledge. In the second, (ii) a discourse on medicine, the body and his struggles with "the stone," culminating in his acceptance of death and his avowal of a life of self-government in which he will live as a whole man, body and soul.

"And how else would you have me live? Am I a brute, impelled through a life of mere imagination? No. Am I an angel or Stoic sage, guided by revelation or reason alone, indifferent to my body and its pains and pleasures? Again those are/that is a lie. For I have learned by experience to acknowledge who and what I am: a man, nothing else. A man who lives in--nay, who is his body, no less than mind or 'soul'. A man who in aging agrees to let go. A man who has learned to ride the natural motion of life, that ends if well played in a difficult but not all-terrifying good bye. I am--I will be--I was Michel de Montaigne. And so you, my friend."

He is an annoyingly egoistic fellow at times--you want to jerk him up out of his seemingly self-satisfied egoism, point out the world: how dare you be so genial in the midst of such injustice? why are you not transported beyond yourself in love? But then he pricks at you like Socrates, in his own private political way. What is he saying about the "knowledge" in books, and what book(s) does he have in mind? How should we hold ourselves in relation to the "law" we are taught to practice and believe? What is the role for self-knowledge in the free life, and for freedom in the practices of self-knowledge?

And how he liberates us, too, from and for our bodies! Are you horny? Been there, done that. Just find someone to satisfy yourself with once in while, and don't get too moralistic about it. And if you can make it work in a marriage, all the better for you! Are you sick? Ride it out. Don't complain too much, or expect too much from the doctors, and for God's sake don't start thinking they will save you! Make sensible decisions, and realize that you are not made to last forever. Accomodate yourself to death, and you will allow it to play a small but healthy role in your life--ever-present, but never-dominant, until the end. This is the human life, the life of "experience." This is the human wisdom, the wisdom of the "accidental philosopher."

We are our bodies, and we are our souls, and neither are whole. We are incapable of self-certainty or self-rule, but we can acquire a little self-knowledge, and work at sensible self-government, and what is wisdom but that? We are made not to be anyone's servants, not even Nature's, but we have to be prudent about how we assert our freedom, if we want to keep it. For we live, decisively, in vaguery and contingency. We have to learn prudence--to enjoy life. And enjoying life, we become--who we are.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne II


I have been re-reading Shakes-peare’s Henry IV, marveling at the bumptious beauty of his Fal-staff. This led me back to Bloom’s great Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, and to Bradley’s gloss on Falstaff as a symbol and spokesman of freedom, bursting the balloon of every serious intent: “He will make truth absurd, by solemn statements he expects no one to believe; and honor, by demonstrating that it cannot set a leg; and law, by evading all the attacks of its highest representative, almost forcing him to laugh at his own defeat; and patriotism, by filling his pockets with bribes offered by soldiers who want to escape service; and duty, by showing how he labors in his vocation—of thieving; and courage, by gravely claiming to have killed Hotspur; and war, by offering the Prince his bottle of sack when he was asked for a sword; and religion, by amusing himself with remorse when he has none; and fear of death, by remaining untouched even while he feels the fear of it, dissolving it in persiflage while sitting at ease in his inn.”

Bloom regards Falstaff as an “outrageous version” of Socrates, and notes the link between him and Montaigne’s Socrates, in their “shared contrast of outer deformity and inner genius,” the theme especially of “On Physiognomy,” Montaigne’s most focused reflection on Socrates, whose real double-sidedness is not his face and soul so much as his unique ability to combine a seemingly unlimited skepticism and power of questioning—which uproots, at least initially, all foundations—while affirming the sovereignty of virtue in his values—which reasserts them. Sir John is no less double-sided in his ability to uproot all gravitas, all seriousness of purpose and morality in his playful assertion of freedom, but at the same time—as we read into the true tragedy of Henry IV—reveals his unlimited love for Hal, unlimited wish to free him of that “scutcheon” Honor and its cold, cold heart: “peremptorily I speak it, there is virtue in that Falstaff; him keep with, the rest banish.” It is a Christian death he dies, all mocking, just as it was a comic Resurrection he re-lived on the fields of Shrewsbury.

What Bloom does not pursue is the comic nature of Montaigne’s own Socratic self-image, the manner in which he too “rises” above the unities of dogma and faction, cruelty and virtue, willfulness and reason he sees anchoring human potential all around him. Even the reality of self—his ownmost nature—becomes for Montaigne the ironist something to be transcended by his art, so that, like Socrates, he now lives for us in his Essays, unburied in the cold, cold earth. Montaigne the 'assayist', Montaigne the tolerant, Montaigne the magnanimous man unburdened by pride, Montaigne the catholic unburdened by sin, Montaigne the skeptical collector of fantastic tales. Montaigne is engaged in a life of reason but mocking it, too, for its pretensions, bringing us, with him, back down to earth, to the body, to laughter and sunlight and love. I will a man to be not unlike Michel, a free spirit in the life of the mind, a free voice in the contentious world of rights and wrongs, a public private man who values both speech and touch and does not scold.

And yet the courteous Jesuitical counselor Gracian is not to me mistaken when advises us to give office a try (104). For we who are more solitary and perhaps extreme by nature, we who would remain of our own will at home, never to venture out into persons unknown, ambitious of mind yet un-adventurous of experience, may gain more from office than we surrender, without denying the value of our time. There is a way of living that is too enclosed upon itself, too vulnerable to loss and defeat because too un-battle hardened, too unwary and reticent at once, too self-protective to enlarge our loves, too unwilling to give oneself up to the sheer performance itself, however we may be received. Three times of life Baltazar calls for: (i) a life of learning from the dead in books; (ii) a life of the living in the world of action, facing the men of the time and meeting the women of the time; (iii) a life in a mind that has become one’s own, unburdened of persona. Three stages in a journey, which with grace we share with others, the last even more than the former.

Montaigne accepts the boundary of self-love, enfolding friend and foe creatively within it, a "gay and sociable wisdom." His Socrates learned in old age to dance, sometimes even at home alone. He knows well how to stand, to retreat, to play the card of truth. He knows how to find a man’s thumbscrew, to checkmate his will for his freedom. For there is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge, and in this game like any other one must learn how to discard.

In Rome, the art of playing the man combined two humors, oft opposed. Without gravitas, there could be no government, of men or soul. Without humanitas, no release, from iron duty and harsh command. The task of true rhetoric was to find a path between decadence and force, a path of human persuasion, a path to our very selves. Montaigne is no Plato, no maker of imagined cities; nor is he old Jack Falstaff, for our chains of ambition are not like Hal's of steel, any more than are the fetters of our thought; perhaps we should see him, though, as a more gentle Machiavel, who would free us from our sin of willful reason, that the Prince in each of us might learn to make a better government in which to live, for ourselves and our kinsmen, out from under the thumb of others.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on Machiavelli, Part II


Machiavelli is infamous for teaching new orders, or seeming to. Certainly he teaches that order must first be established by government over criminal men before it can concern itself with justice and good laws, and just as certainly he teaches that in principalities there are always those against whom the prince must either take preemptive violence or enlist them as soldiers in preemptive violence against outsiders. So he teaches that between states there is no justice insofar as there is not common law, nor would there be among all individuals in a state of nature or civil disorder, and certainly none between those who are armed and those who were not (#6). So the prince must first establish order out of disorder, and wage just war against those who would establish a regime of terror, including those serving him, if they go too far in their violence (#7).

But he also advises that princes respect and protect the private lives and property of the people, and not appear too distant but be close to and as it were live among the people (#3,9,17). And he advises that princes be loyal to the friends who are loyal to them and enemies to those who will not respect him, acknowledging that some who are loyal to the prince on his rise to power will turn against him out of their desire for more than the prince can give as he moves to the political center, and although this is natural it cannot be tolerated and if extreme must be made public example of if the prince is to unite and rule on behalf of the people as a whole (#3). And he advises the prince to embrace his role as commander in chief, and praise and support the nation's soldiers and their service to the freedom from fear and security of all (#12,14,17), to recognize and value the businessmen and artists and scientists who promote the general welfare (#21), and to choose advisors who tell him the truth and not merely what he may wish to hear (#22-23). And he urges princes to they revere and give thanks to God and the orders that instill moderation of ambition and religion among the great, who otherise would entirely oppress the people (#9,19)

He even praises some orders that represent the people and the great that might check princely ambitions (#19). For principalities in which all owe their being to the prince alone may be less easily conquered, but are more easily maintained, making them more tempting as a prize, since the cost is immediate but the gain is lasting (#4). And where there is some balance of power between the great and people, the prince can acknowledge the contributions of each and enlist each in the nation's cause, and these very contributions will enlist their service to the nation, for men feel loyalty to those they serve, as much or more than those who serve them (#10). And in all this he advises a system of government in which good arms are in the service of good laws, so that the people can pursue their private good and have no need to take action on their own behalf, but can trust in their leaders, and the prince is recognized as a leader and defender of the people, while not evoking so great a fear among the great that they conspire violently against him (#19).

Machiavelli also acknowledges that princes must practice morality, guarding themselves against themselves as much as against others, e.g. against the very natural wish to display their greatness before the people at great expense, though that would cause hatred among those whose property was seized unreasonably (economic irresponsibility, #16), and against their natural longing to be loved as gods by allowing their militant supporters licencious freedom (false loyalty and political injustice, #17), and against their natural aversion to moderating their plan of action for the sake of what emerges in the political landscape as the best course for all (willfulness and irresponsible pride, #18). For while princes must behave as honorably and faithfully and virtuously as possible, their first obligation is to be faithful to their country, even if that entails going back on previous commitments, or deceiving devious men of their own country or other countries for the sake of the common good (#19).

And the prince must be realistic about what can be attained, and not let the ideal stand in the way of the good and less evil, for the goal of the statesman is the art of the possible, and true goodness cannot be attained in this life, except in religious orders which cannot be practiced by all (#11,15,19). For the prince is the leader of the state, not the church, and the state serves the welfare of the people in relation to this life, while the church serves the welfare of the people in relation to the world to come (#11). And a prince has every right to encourage hope in the people that their work and properties and loved ones will be protected from oppressive burdens in this life, but the prince who would claim to bring eternal salvation and a reign of peace and love cannot but deny the order of heaven and fail to achieve freedom from fear and oppression and a reign of civic moderation and law here on earth (#25).

But in the affairs of this world, Machiavelli teaches it is cowardly for leaders to accept fate and not be proactive to shape it, and the prudent leader will act boldly to define the framework in which decisions are contested, rather than leave the definition to others (#25). So in every crisis there is opportunity to re-define the conditions of decision, and the ultimate callling of the prince is to lead the people in a just war of liberation against those who do or threaten to oppress them, foreign or domestic. And for this reason leaders are to be glorified in the public memory, and treated with the utmost respect and honor, and for this the leaders must enlist the people in the cause of the state and justice and the common good, and this is the ultimate aim of political life (Dedicatory letter, #9,26).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thoughts on Machiavelli, Part I


I take my title from what is to many an infamous book about an infamous book. It was a little over fifty years ago that Leo Strauss attacked the prevailing liberal scholarly opinion that Machiavelli should not be evaluated morally, as a "teacher of evil," but rather as the first political scientist and analyst of modern political reality. Strauss held, to the contrary, that we should evaluate Machiavelli morally--and even ask if he might not be right.

For better or for worse, I've confined my study of Machiavelli to the Prince and his 'naughty' comic drama Mandragola, never taking the time to read his Discourses (which I assumed required reading Livy first; the Prince is perhaps in the truer sense his more 'popular' work). I've taken Machiavelli at his word when he says each of his major works contains all of his wisdom, though they are marked by differences, e.g. someone who is called a prince in the one is designated a tyrant in the other. Is the distinction meaningful only from the perspective of the people, while the prince sees things as they are? Or do we need to see things from both perspectives, i.e. differently, to see how they are nonetheless the same? Perhaps I will never understand Machiavelli.

I have begun, in any case, to develop a sense of the movement of the work, in what I see as its four parts (i) States/principalities: 1-11 (ii) Art of War 12-14; (iii) Princely Virtue, including the Princely Counselor 15-23; (iv) Virtue and Fortune 24-26, and peaks e.g. 6, 19, 25; as well as its cast of characters, ancient and modern, founders (e.g. Moses) and failures (King Louis), lions (Cesare Borgia and Severus) and foxes (Alexander VI and Julius II).

I'm also cognizant of the world of difference between the Prince and its most relevant forerunner, Aquinas book On Kingship, which has as its ancestors the works of Plato and Aristotle, i.e. the "imaginary republics" of the ancients, as well as its other great influence, the "imaginary republic" of God. One of the revolutionary or mind-blowing exercises the reader can enter into is the task of developing Machiavelli's theology. What kind of a prince is the Christian God? What kind of a prince is Jesus? What is the power of this Prince over men, and in what sense do men rely on him for arms? What does it mean, to liberate Italy--and is this really Machiavelli's intention?

The great idea Machiavelli works with is the idea of "founding new orders," i.e. of conquering the world in such a way that it embraces you as its liberator. This is the path to double glory, even if it calls for violent crimes, verbal or not, at the beginning--they should be spectacular and memorable, and leave us amazed and stupified. I can't deny that is how Machiavelli leaves me feeling some times, e.g. his story of Cesare and Romagna, his praise of Ferdinand's piety, the re-conceiving of man as lion and fox. (In the comic version, the art of seduction replaces the art of love, and everyone ends up happy!)

We are left with the challenge by Machiavelli that the arts of living we have inherited from our philosophical and religious ancestors are dogmatic chains, while he tempts us with the ability to forge our own arms, acquire virtu (virtuousity), achieve a life of real, not imaginary success. It is a bold, radical, utterly free conception of the art of living, unfettered by God or reason or nature. Is Machiavelli a prophet of new orders, armed with weapons unlike any seen before--or is he a "teacher of evil"?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne I


I find myself, like Montaigne, inscribing myself in these words, and thus making of my words a self: a strange occupation, and I wonder to what end? I do not wish to leave a monument behind, to awe or compel the emulation of my children; they have their own lives to live, and I do not want them to overdwell on my example. Still, the art of writing has its charms.

I find Montaigne's own art on fine display in Essays III.12, "On Physiognomy," that clever mask he dangles out before us of his "simple nature," as if the naive outer appearance were in no way different from the prudent inner man. But I am not as innocent as some of his readers, who consent to being deceived by his amiable ways. I am a bit like Socrates, that irritating old 'assayist' who might take away your faith, and like him too I have had to redirect my nature, though my physical looks are pleasant enough.

Who are the characters of this work? Somewhat in sequence: (i)Montaigne, compared to (ii) Socrates (no Cato), compared to (iii) the learned (ancient and modern) and the simple, compared to (iv) most of his friends and enemies in the civil war, zealous religionists and rebels together, compared to (v) himself and then again to (vi) the learned and the simple, and then again to (vii) Socrates as Montaigne presents him in his own words, and then to (viii) writers he uses, and then to (ix) Socrates as a model again and to himself. In the beginning we are moved by the lessons of the simple, but by the end it is the Socratic models that engage us.

So the essay moves from reflection on the art of writing and living in Montaigne's 'embellished' time, to life under the conditions of civil war, back to the themes of self- and other-knowledge, reason and nature, which at first seems to be no different from its first appearance or origin, but later we learn may lend itself to perfection through art, as can men.

It is natural to trust, but there is risk in it, especially if the times have distorted the easier path of things. It is natural to believe, to live in peace, to worship the gods of one's ancestors, to be a good citizen, to speak frankly on all things. But nature is oft changed herself by art, art or custom being a kind of second nature, as we are naturally inclined to both the care of ourself and the favoring view of others. And is not nature also rent--toward forceful law and undisciplined freedom?

We are not all like Montaigne, either so good by nature that we would not harm even our enemies nor so self-contained that we remain unmoved by their suffering, even if self-inflicted. We are not all like Socrates, needing to repair our nature by the art of forceful reason. But we may be more like each of them, if our ascent to what is lofty is completed with a descent to what is and is not our own. As for me, I am a modern, like Michel. I am what I am, without deceit. I love my freedom and respect yours as well.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Art of Living II


I have been struck by a feature of aging that seems to me one of its great challenges: learning to cope with loss. Once you enter on the ‘downslide’ of your lifetime, assuming – as you now realize is presumptuous – that it will stretch out fourscore or more (or whatever may conform to the average of your ancestors), the confrontation with death and loss becomes a daily feature of the art of living. On the upside of life, the future looms open before you, all passed opportunities can be reclaimed, all injuries healed, all powers realized, and you are chiefly occupied with meeting the complex set of challenges you have invested yourself in, above all work (career) and love (family, friends).

But on the downside, things change. You begin to come to grips with the fact that every choice entails options not taken, every wound leaves scars that may not ever fully heal, and any loss, however seemingly transient, can be forever. Grief hits you as loved ones begin to fade into the darkness of minds locked now in old habits, and then are gone; children destroy or waste opportunities and narrow life’s options, yet still struggle on; vagueness and distraction troubles powers you once had to see and act; relationships lose their magic, to say nothing of their constancy; time itself is corroded by an element of desperation; hope seems a dubious gift.

The most common reaction to all this is anger. A deep, choking anger that spills out occasionally toward enemies and friends, a frustration at not being able to do as you pride yourself in doing, a bitterness that spews venom, as if harshness of thought and word and deed were enough to re-establish your strength, your ‘amounting to something’ in a world you feel slipping between your fingers.

But this, too, changes, if the old chestnut of wisdom through suffering begins to grow inside and shape a new form. A clearer sense of the division of what is in and out of your control, of the value of moral effort and attention to the possibilities of the moment, of the vagaries and mistakes you have made in estimating future costs and harms, of the joy that can be lived if you respect the present and what it offers, as opposed to what it might lack or a future that will hardly be as good or bad as you hoped or feared. I do not doubt that ambition must to some extent be realized, to let go of other ambitions that were never more than dreams, nor that desire never ceases to prick the mind and heart with fancies that may not and perhaps should not be made real.

If the turn of mind we have been considering means anything at all, it engages our reason with the task of learning its own limits, enables us to see hope as related to, rather than excluded by, the deep contingency of our being, and from that to gratitude for what and who we have and know, in our relations and our days. The flights of freedom Hadot speaks of need not be to “the view from above,” the presumption of universal reason; they can also be to “the view from down here,” in all its particularity and transience. To “seize the day” we must embrace the fact that it is just this day we can seize, not any other.

The ancient philosophers inspire our minds with ideals of reason and grace, which I believe we may use, with some reserve, to form a more reasonable, more self-sufficient and more compassionate attitude toward others and toward ourselves. The “spiritual exercises” Hadot would have us note and practice point to a life of reason, but I now see that life including accepting and loving myself with a less perfect, but also less coercive reason than I employed before, when I was driven by the “transcendental humors” Montaigne advises us to shed.

This transformation gave way to the release, the laughter I discovered, as I realized things were not as bad as I feared, that the moment contained much of value, and that I could embrace it now more fully, because unburdened by false dreams or fears. Even if I cannot play the game as strongly as I might have in the past, I play it more joyfully, more for the game itself and not a proof of virtue and self-worth, more with the other as a player, too, not in a higher or lower role. My mask of tragedy, anger, grief and loss has been covered by one of comedy, laughter, hope and joy, and I have regained the world as it is, as it gives itself to me in the kairos (opportunity) of my time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Art of Living I


My first thoughts regarding the ancient epistrophe eis heauton were skeptical. Wasn't this 'technology of self' mere ethical egoism, making your own self-reform the chief object of concern, rather than concern for the world? Wasn't it a sophisticated kind of ethical narcissism?

I studied more, experimented; gained respect. My second thoughts were also skeptical, but in a different mode: was it not too much to aim at, this transformation from within?

To distinguish what is in our control (the will) from everything else (the world) and relinquish entirely the latter as "indifferent" seemed to go too hard against my nature, which had its roots in the world that drew me to it -- a world of persons to touch and kiss, of roles and powers to enlarge my being, a 'self' I thought to make in it through acts with lasting outcomes, a world of knowledge, proofs, science, literature, creations of my own for good or evil, a world redone without the wounds of poverty or racism or war.

Was it possible to let all that go and recognize instead the boundary of myself as all that I could 'control'? To put in my focus the process/art with which I did as I did, to give myself entirely to the momentary act, with occasional humbling flights to the "view from above"? To accept, deeply, the limits and contingency of my wanting/being, to realize the limits and particularly of my feeling/understanding? So that even in my interactions, I would know the other as my Heraclitean opposite, clasped together in the fleeting time, the uncertain exchange of our inter-course with one another?

Were then the moments of courage, self-restraint, the just fit to the person and context, dialectical insight the daimones of our being-together in a world-game where the rules themselves could change? I had first regarded the conversion as an ascent to autonomous reason, the means whereby to separate the real world (mundus intelligibilis) from the fake; I was later drawn into a different kind of division, as if I had discovered the point of sailing was in just that and not in getting to the port (for we all would perish at sea).

My epistrophe eis heauton made me liberal and conservative, rationalist and existential, self-sufficient and accepting my dependencies, skeptical still, yet moved by simple faith. I gave up my nakedness for a patchwork shirt, made fit to each occasion. I am returned onto myself, in-dwelling, home. I cherish my cups and walls and indeed, I am a cup myself, for I have been broken and reglued, only to discover I was made of pieces all along. I am one, though ever-dissolving.