Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sixteenth Century Thought Experiments and Kittens

We're lucky today to count Death as an infrequent visitor, but in the 16th century, Europeans had a much closer familiarity with such loss. Infant mortality was extremely high, life expectancy over all was less than half what Americans can look forward to today, and illness or accident could slay anyone at the slightest glance. Thus Michel de Montaigne found himself in his mid-30s and mourning the death of his best friend, his first-born infant daughter, his younger brother, and his father, all while expecting his own life to end within a few years. Such a cacophony of loss drove him to retire to his Bordeaux estate and resolve to steel his will with stoicism, the reigning philosophy of the day.

But this late Renaissance humanist found that he uncovered not stillness but endless curiosity when left alone with his mind. He turned to experimenting with the world - having himself woken while in a deep sleep so as to try to know slumber, traveling across Europe to "polish" his mind through contact with others, and musing about the meaning of his cat's play. These trials he turned to essays, from the French verb "essayer," to try or taste. And the result was a tremendous contribution to Western thought and literature.

In When I am Playing With My Cat, How do I know That She is Not Playing With Me? by Saul Frampton, we learn about both Montaigne's life and his essays. I've never read the originals, so I can't speak to Frampton's scholarship, but the story his writes is both compelling and edifying. Montaigne, at least by Frampton's account, is a charmingly human man, eager to learn about himself and his fellows through close contact and observation. He's also intellectually daring and honest with himself, and comes to some conclusions quite different from the mainstream of his time. I really enjoyed this book - devoured it in just over a day - and now look forward to trying (tasting, as Montaigne might put it), the original essays.

By the way, Montaigne lived during a fascinating period of French history, including the religious civil wars and the death of Henry II. Does anyone know of a good novel about him and his life? I'd love to read it. If it's not out there though, maybe I'll add that to my long list of projects I'd like to write some day!

Cover image from World Literature and Philosophy Rochester Public Library blog. Once again, what a neat cover, no?

1 comment:

Rowenna said...

I'm afraid I don't know of any good novels about Montaigne. I do recall studying his essays in French courses, and that despite the difficulty of the texts I very much enjoyed them :)

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