MONTAIGNE'S "EXPERIENCE" (12)
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.