82 Illness: On Pretending to be Ill

This essay concerns the same phenomenon of every mom’s exhortation not to make an ugly face because it might stay that way. Montaigne uses several historical examples of those who faked illnesses, only to end up catching that same illness:

Mothers are right to scold their children when they play at being one-eyed, limping or squinting or having other such deformities; for, leaving aside the fact that their tender bodies may indeed acquire some bad habit from this, it seems to me that Fortune (though I do not know how) delights in taking us at our word: I have heard of many examples of people falling ill after pretending to be so.

In the final paragraphs, Montaigne takes a more serious turn, focusing on a story from Seneca. A woman named Harpaste, who he describes as “my wife’s female idiot” is staying with Seneca and suddenly is stricken with blindness. But according to Seneca, she is not aware of this fact and “keeps begging her keeper to take her away; she thinks that my house is too dark.” Seneca wants to draw larger lessons from this tale:

No one realizes he is miserly … no one realizes he is covetous. At least the blind do ask for a guide: we wander off alone.

What Montaigne takes from this bit of exempla is that the true illness for all humans isn’t manifest in our physical wellbeing, it’s endemic:

Let us not go looking elsewhere for our evils: they are at home in us, rooted in our inward parts. We make the cure harder precisely because we do not realize we are ill. If we do not soon start to dress our wounds, when shall we ever cure them and their evils? Yet Philosophy provides the sweetest of cures: other cures are enjoyed only after they have worked: this one cures and gives joy all at once.’ That is what Seneca says; he carried me off my subject, but there is profit in the change.

It’s good to see Montaigne, at least in the final paragraphs, start to return to philosophical themes. As amusing a diversion as these little essays are, they lack much philosophic grist for the mill.

Tomorrow we get one last little piece about thumbs, then Montaigne gets serious again. I appreciate the break, but look forward to diving into the deep waters again.

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