50 Comedians Kill: On Democritus and Heraclitus

This essay for Montaigne has two purposes: to take stock of the project underway and to explain how he goes about writing each piece and to assay the difference between comedy and tragedy. It’s a beautifully written piece that, even if you don’t read the essays as a whole, I highly recommend you peruse this one day.

I’m going to have to quote from this piece at length, because the description of how Montaigne goes about writing each essay seems so similar to my own process that I have virtually nothing to add. Here, he talks about the varieties of style employed in each writing task:

Sometimes, when the subject is trivial and vain, I assay whether my judgement can find anything substantial in it, anything to shore it up and support it. Sometimes I employ it on some elevated, well-trodden subject where it can discover nothing new, since the path is so well beaten that our judgement can only follow in another’s tracks. In that case it plays its role by selecting what appears the best route: out of hundreds of paths it says this one or that one is the best to choose.

The topic pretty much decides the tone of each piece for me and I follow whichever path Montaigne has blazed … except when he writes about warhorses. Then I’m kind of lost. But speaking of subject, it’s interesting to me that Montaigne sees the selection of topic as somewhat random, since it’s literally predestined for me:

I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me; I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.

From here, Montaigne moves on to a discussion of ancient philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and crying philosophers. Montaigne throws his lot behind the laugher, not because Democritus is more fun, but because he’s more biting:

I prefer the former temperament, not because it is more agreeable to laugh than to weep but because it is more disdainful and condemns us men more than the other – and it seems to me that, according to our deserts, we can never be despised enough.

That sounds like pretty standard Christian “fallen man” talk, but Montaigne actually has something more subtle in mind:

Lamentation and compassion are mingled with some respect for the things we are lamenting: the things which we mock at are judged to be worthless. I do not think that there is so much wretchedness in us as vanity; we are not so much wicked as daft; we are not so much full of evil as of inanity; we are not so much pitiful as despicable.

The line “we are not so much full of evil as of inanity” is absolutely true and I need to keep this line in mind whenever I encounter, as I often do, behavior that can either be explained as being venal or just plain stupid. As Democritus and Montaigne believed, people are for the most part more stupid than evil.

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