Saturday morning quotes 2.7: More Montaigne
We revisit the work of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), a writer whose tireless work seems to have distilled so much cumulative knowledge of the ages into a wisdom that speaks calmly and clearly even today. Montaigne’s Essays can be readily found in modern English translation, or analyzed comprehensively in French with references to facsimiles of the original prints complete with hand-written annotations.
In Montaigne’s work, which we have previously mined, one can revel in the pages-long sentence packed with points that pertain to any and nearly every aspect of the human condition. His essays also spoke to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Montaigne as:
“…Some stark and sufficient man, who is not salt or sugar, but sufficiently related to the world to do justice to Paris or London, and, at the same time, a vigorous and original thinker, whom cities can not overawe, but who uses them,- is the fit person to occupy this ground of speculation. These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.”
“Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness; but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.”
Writing eloquently on so many topics, Montaigne himself touched on a favorite of ours:
A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it, according to the opinion of Plato, who says, that constancy, faith, and sincerity, are the true philosophy, and the other sciences, that are directed to other ends; mere adulterate paint.
I could wish that Paluel or Pompey, those two noted dancers of my time, could have taught us to cut capers, by only seeing them do it, without stirring from our places, as these men pretend to inform the understanding without ever setting it to work, or that we could learn to ride, handle a pike, touch a lute, or sing without the trouble of practice, as these attempt to make us judge and speak well, without exercising us in judging or speaking.
Today, with so much information at our fingertips, it is far too easy to be an armchair professor without actually lifting one’s backside from the seat and experiencing an authentic life. This means getting dirty in the garden instead of merely reading about shrubberies. Or building things with one’s own hands.
We think this point applies to musicians who interpret old music, especially after just having listened to an interpretation of a Dowland devotional song by yet another tenor with a nice voice; singing the word “Grief” as though it meant his seat cushion was a bit unyielding, accompanied by a lutenist apparently furrowing his brow in a distant room and playing shapeless phrases as though he were in mortal fear of playing a wrong note. Please.
The senses are our first and proper judges, which perceive not things but by external accidents; and ’tis no wonder, if in all the parts of the service of our society, there is so perpetual and universal a mixture of ceremonies and superficial appearances; insomuch that the best and most effectual part of our polities therein consist.
As in a concert of instruments, we do not hear a lute, a harpsichord, or a flute alone, but one entire harmony, the result of all together. If travel and offices have improved them, ’tis a product of their understanding to make it appear.
‘Tis not enough to reckon experiences, they must weigh, sort and distil them, to extract the reasons and conclusions they carry along with them.
There were never so many historians: it is, indeed, good and of use to read them, for they furnish us everywhere with excellent and laudable instructions from the magazine of their memory, which, doubtless, is of great concern to the help of life; but ’tis not that we seek for now: we examine whether these relaters and collectors of things are commendable themselves.
Do things, experience feelings, sing like you mean it.