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Human Nature by Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne or simply Montaigne was an influential writer and essayist of the Renaissance in France. His works “Les Essais” are famous because he was the first one to invent the genre of “essay. ” Montaigne’s major subject in his writings was the characterization of human nature. Montaigne said: “The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity. ” (Of Experience) The scope of this paper is to define the “common human pattern” or human nature.

The methods he used to investigate this topic will also be discussed. Montaigne was a lover of simplicity, freedom, and the natural order of the world as referred to in the quote above. His mastery of Latin led him to use the Latin works of philosophy to write his remarks about the essence of human nature. Montaigne decided to use himself as a tool for the investigation of human nature. Based in his readings of classic Latin works, he started judging his own opinions against the wisdom dispensed in such works. Additional features that Montaigne examined were the human condition as well as the limits of human nature.

When reading all his essays, one gets the sense that in his quest to understand human nature by using his own judgment and opinions in the light of philosophy, Montaigne evolved from a Stoic to a Sceptic, and finally an Epicurean. Notably, he was able to subscribe to all three at the same time, without any difficulty. Some philosophers appealed to Montaigne at different times in his life, corresponding to the change of his outlook on life and human nature: Cicero, Seneca, and Socrates, his most favorite philosopher of all.

As a consequence, Montaigne was led by his readings to conduct a self-examination to comprehend human nature, “the common human pattern”, which obviously would change and mature over time. The reason why Montaigne wanted to use himself was because ancient philosophers like Aristotle inspired him. Aristotle taught Montaigne that men and women belong to the same genus and species, therefore, all individual human beings are characterized by the entire human race.

Consequently, if you study one man, you have studied them all; this thought is implied in the introduction to his Essays: “Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self I am painting here. ” (Montaigne, 1580) In Book I, the essay “of Sadness” offers a short heartfelt comment on the emotions we feel when losing a loved one in death: “The force of extreme sadness inevitably stuns the whole soul, impeding her freedom of action [the soul] (…) the soul lets herself go with tears and lamentations (…) she seems to have struggled loose, disentangled herself.

” Montaigne’s observations on how we humans deal with death are very sharp. Anyone can relate to what he says if you have lost someone in death. The process of identification of the readers with Montaigne who relates himself to everyone else is quite useful as well as powerful. In effect, human nature does not deal well with death because it is the opposite of life. The deep emotional pain is so intense that Montaigne expresses first in Latin: “Et via vix tandem voci laxata dolore est. ” meaning “And then, at length, his grief can just force open a channel of his voice.

” (Montaigne, Of Sadness) Sadness and mourning seen with ancient philosophers: “Regulus has lost his son, the one misfortune he did not deserve… Now that his son is dead he mourns with wild extravagance. ” (Pliny the Younger, Epistula – 4,2. 1-3) Most people in a similar situation would yield to “the insatiable appetite for wailing, which excites us until we are beside ourselves in noisy lamentation. ” (Plutarch, 609B) In another essay, Montaigne deals with the roots of fruitless anger.

He says quoting Lucan: “Ventus ut amittit vires,nisi robore densae occurant silvae spatio diffuses inani” or “As winds, unless they come up against dense wood, lose their force and are distended into empty space. ” Using the idea of wind losing energy as a metaphor for anger that someone vents, Montaigne shows that the fruitless anger of a man manifests itself as a rage to be taken on an object to relieve our rage, just like the wind losing its power. We all can relate to these remarks as we may have felt this type of anger ourselves. In fact, Montaigne seems to indicate it is one of the unpleasant sides of our nature.

Interestingly, to drive the point home, he uses an argument dealing with contrasting emotions, love and affection, he writes: “Plutarch says of those who dote over pet monkeys or little dogs that the faculty for loving which is in all of us, rather than remaining useless forges a false and frivolous object for want of a legitimate one. ” Montaigne’s analysis here is worthy of modern psychology. Specifically, this is like transference, first described by Sigmund Freud. Nonetheless, it seems that Montaigne already had the sense of describing this kind of phenomenon, a long time before psychoanalysis.

In effect, he perceives that in anger as in love, we always need an object, a person, or an animal to focus our emotions onto. In essence, we may not be able to be angry with someone so we take it on something else or someone else! The same with love, we may not be able to show love to other human beings, but we still need to love so we focus our love on an animal. If we look into our own lives, we may have experienced this phenomenon ourselves or observed someone else. (Montaigne, How the Soul Discharges Its Emotions Against False Objects)

Another area of Montaigne’s discourse is about relationships between people in the society of his time. Why should we consider such a topic set in the time of the Renaissance? We may feel that it is not relevant to our modern experience. However, that is not so. Montaigne writes: “To know how to be elegantly at ease with people is a useful accomplishment: like grace and beauty, it encourages the hesitant beginning of fellowship and intimacy; as a result it opens the way to our learning from the examples of others and to ourselves providing and showing an example, if it is worth noting and passing on.

” (Montaigne, Ceremonial at the Meeting of Kings) In this passage, Montaigne recognizes the general difficulty some people may have to initiate relationships with new acquaintances; he calls it “a useful accomplishment. ” In addition, social interactions are beneficial to form new friendships in order to share our experiences with others and them with us. This was true in his time, but it is also true in ours. (Schneewind, 2003) Another interesting aspect of human nature is the role of habits in our lives. Montaigne addresses this topic as well, by writing:

“Habit is a violent and treacherous schoolteacher. Gradually and stealthily, she slides her authoritative foot into us; then, by having this gentle and humble beginning planted firmly within us, helped by time she later discloses an angry tyrannous countenance, against which we are no longer allowed even to lift up our eyes. ” (Montaigne, On Habit) In this essay, Montaigne makes a distinction between habit or custom (“coutume” in French) having to do more with a cultural context, and habit, as a repeated action that we just do without having any realization of it or power over it.

In this particular passage, Montaigne describes the “unconscious addiction” we fall under when we are habituated to do a certain thing. Of course, Montaigne did not have any concept of conditioning as it would be demonstrated later on by Pavlov with his dogs and B. F. Skinner who studied reinforcement and conditioning in mice to be applied to humans. Essentially, habits can be defined as a form of self-conditioning. One can overcome a habit like a dog can overcome his conditioning of salivating when he hears a bell, but it is a very difficult task in some cases, depending on the cognitive depth we have on the habit.

Montaigne calls this difficulty “an angry tyrannous countenance. ” Again, based on our experience, we know that it is true and we understand that Montaigne had experienced it himself. Interestingly, he uses the pronoun “she” to refer to a habit. This is an interesting point to consider because one may conclude that Montaigne personifies a habit into the image of a woman, a mistress, in this case. In English, one would use the pronoun it to refer to the habit. In French, however, habit is a feminine noun (“une habitude”).

The English translator correctly deduced from the context that Montaigne in fact was transforming the idea of habit into the image of a woman thereby keeping the pronoun she to emphasize that idea. The metaphor used here of a mistress embodying a habit is not new, and certainly would have been used by one or more of the ancient philosophers Montaigne loved so much to imitate or refer to. In conclusion, Montaigne was a sharp observer of human nature, primarily using his own experience, but also his beloved ancient philosophers as well as his keen observation sense.

His style reflects an impressive astute analysis of human nature from the most flattering aspects of it to the most negative details. Ideally, Montaigne showed that an honest analysis of motives, habits, and behavior starts with oneself, and eventually expands to others, not the other way around, which would be what most people would do. In essence, Montaigne’s work emphasizes the fact that humans are very similar even if at that time, he still had difficulties with the concept of indigenous cultures (“Noble Sauvage”) and relating them to his own humanity.

(Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592/1991) (Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, 1910)

References Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Ernest Renan. (1910). Literary and Philosophical Essays (1st ed. ) [Litterature et Essais Philosophiques]. New York: Collier. Michel de Montaigne, Michael Andrew Screech. (1991). The Complete Essays [ Essais]. New York: Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1533-1592) Pliny the Younger, Epistula – 4,2. 1-3 Plutarch 609B (letter to his wife concerning the death of their infant daughter) Schneewind, J. B. (2003). Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant (Vol. 1 & 2). Cambridge, U. S: Cambridge Press.

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