2 (Second Take) Knight, Death and the Devil: On Sadness

I argued in my first series of essays that Montaigne‘s project tested the boundaries of Stoicism and that, ultimately, he rejected it for his idiosyncratic brand of skepticism. But that simple interpretation leaves out some important facts.

Book One begins with Montaigne in great pain over the death of his great friend Etienne de la Boetie. The essays were a replacement of sorts for Montaigne, a place where he could continue the wide-ranging discussions he had with his friend, on whatever subjects suited the moment.

Stoicism, therefore, was a useful companion to Montaigne in these days of anguish. As the years passed, the pain subsided, new friendships formed and his fame spread throughout France — and he needed to lean on the Stoic crutch less and less. But it served him well and formed the intellectual spine of his early writing. And so he begins this chapter explaining not only that he refuses to mourn for loss in life (he’d lost several children at a young age, in addition to his dear friend), he considered sadness to be a base emotion:

I am among those who are most free from this emotion; I neither like it nor think well of it, even though the world, by common consent, has decided to honor it with special favor. Wisdom is decked out in it; so are Virtue and Conscience – a daft and monstrous adornment. More reasonably it is not sadness but wickedness that the Italians have baptised tristezza, for it is a quality which is ever harmful, ever mad. The Stoics forbid this emotion to their sages as being base and cowardly.

From here, the essay takes a very interesting turn, examining whether a cold, expressionless reaction to great suffering is the most humane and honest given the inadequacies of human expression. There are obvious echoes of Nietzsche (“in all talk there’s a grain of contempt”) and Wittgenstein (“must be passed over in silence”) in this argument, but having written extensively about Montaigne in contemporary philosophical terms already, I’m going to refrain here. Instead I want to point out the ancient sources he draws upon to make this point.

Montaigne quotes Ovid, Seneca, Petrarch and Virgil to demonstrate how human beings in their most painful moments can be struck dumb, that words fail to convey our most acute feelings.

Then Montaigne does something unexpected — he distances himself from those struck dumb, declaring himself somehow beyond the power of these emotions altogether:

Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by reason.

The deeper you go into Montaigne’s essays, the more this statement seems like macho posturing. He does, in fact, mourn deeply and sincerely. I think this statement needs to be viewed as more of an aspiration than a description. He never reached this state of perfect reason and impenetrable skin, but there’s little doubt that at the start of his project, it was his ultimate aim.

UPDATE: I nearly forgot what might be the most important issue of this essay: the intellectual temperament. In Montaigne’s day, many intellectuals thought that morose contemplation went hand in hand with deep thought. Shakespeare took on this issue directly in Hamlet and we’ve been interpreting that play ever since. But Shakespeare did not challenge the idea as directly as Montaigne does here.

In demonstrating how deep sadness often strikes people dumb, Montaigne is showing that sadness does not, in fact, lead to brilliant thoughts and eloquent phrases. In fighting back from sadness — applying reason to mind instead of letting it be clouded by gloom — we make ourselves capable of expression and thought even in the most trying times.

Montaigne argues for a form of grace under pressure that denies the value of sadness. He is not claiming that what we call now depression is weakness or something that can be snapped out of easily, rather he’s declaring it an illness and something that should not be glamorized.

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