Mondays with Montaigne, #1: "By diverse means we arrive at the same end"

February 02, 2015

You know that giant doorstop full of Michel de Montaigne essays that I got for the holidays? Well, I want to read it. This isn't exactly a two- or three-sitting read kind of book, and I don't think it should be. I want to savor the collection week by week, which leads me to my newest feature:

Mondays with Montaigne is a (hopefully) weekly feature about the essays of Michel de Montaigne, French humanist and skeptic of the Renaissance and father of the modern essay. Each Monday, I'll mull over a piece from The Complete Works. I might do this in chronological the order the essays appear in; I might not.

All right, let's get to it! This week's essay is "By diverse means we arrive at the same end." (Note: Quotations will differ somewhat based on translation.)

In his first piece of Book One of his Complete Works, Montaigne reflects on the inconsistent nature of humankind. In fact, the three-and-a-half page essay can best be summarized by one quotation:
"Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him." - pg. 5
He relates several tales of war, in which royalty of Wales, Bavaria and Thebes, among others, react to common-folk who defy their attempts at conquest; they are either so impressed by the dauntless men and women who dare stand up to them or so astonished by their audacity that they each gave up their pursuits. However, he offers another example in Alexander the Great, who remained unmoved by acts of valor—faced with the brave and silent Betis, he tortures him to death, vowing to "conquer his muteness yet." Montaigne muses as to why courage vexed Alexander so:
"Could it be that hardihood was so common to Alexander that, not marveling at it, he respected it the less? Or did he consider it so peculiarly his own that he could not bear to see it at this height in another without passionately envious spite?" - pg. 5-6
It is a fascinating question, particularly for those interested in human psychology: why do we as humans have such varying responses to one another? And why, sometimes, do these vary within a single person? Beyond the psyche, these questions also bring up broader ideas about how context and environment come into play, as well as very broad questions of free will vs. fate. Do we really have as much control as we think?

What say you, reader? Why do we differ so much in our reactions, even from day to day, and how much control do we really have over them?

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