Monday, November 16, 2009

Montaigne and the stupidity of man

Readers of my blogs have probably noticed that Michel de Montaigne is one of my favourite philosophers. Even more, I started this series of blogs with a comment on a quotation from Montaigne’s Essays. Actually this is a bit strange, for the ideas of Montaigne have no direct relation with my main field of philosophical interest, which is the philosophy of mind and action. However, Montaigne is one of the few philosophers that I read and reread, since I came into touch with him. No wonder, for Montaigne was ahead of his time, and much of what he wrote more than 400 years ago is still modern. Moreover he has a good style of writing. Montaigne is also one of the few philosophers about whom I have read a lot of books, and the more I know about him and his ideas, the more I want to go into the man and his ideas. Montaigne is stimulating and thought provoking when you read him. He is more stimulating and more thought provoking the more you know about him and his time.
At the moment I am rereading Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”. It is his longest essay and actually it is a book of its own. Montaigne translated the Theologia Naturalis by Raymond of Sabunde, a Catalan philosopher (< 1400-1436), on request of his father and later this work stimulated him to write down his ideas on science, knowledge and theology. I will not write here a summary or appraisal of the work, but it is full of ideas and it shows Montaigne as a precursor of Descartes. Almost any sentence there is worth a comment.
Take for instance this: “Who intelligently collected and compiled the pieces of asinine behaviour of human wisdom, would be able to tell us odd things”. Montaigne wrote this sentence after having listed a series of stupidities of the human mind through the ages. And has there been any change in human behaviour since then? Moreover, we do not need to limit us to “scientific” facts like those cited by Montaigne, for example about the places where people have placed the spirit in the body through the ages (everywhere between head and feet). In politics we find many stupidities of the kind discussed by Montaigne, through the ages before and after him. Take, for instance, the Berlin Wall, which has fallen 20 years ago. How stupid the idea that one can close a country with a wall. What would happen could have been predicted: either it would be a failure in the end, or it would lead to a world war. Happily the first thing occurred. But what was the reaction of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minster of the UK, one day after the fall? She called Michael Gorbachev and asked him to stop the reunification of Germany. “Let they [the East Germans] just stay behind their Wall”, she said to Gorbachev. How stupid. Or take the reaction of François Mitterand, then president of France, who feared the resurrection of a mighty Germany.

In the light of what has happened since then one can nothing but laugh about such stupidities, but in those days it was a serious affaire, like many stupidities of the mind, and giving in would have made a different world. And who would ever have thought in the days of the First and Second World Wars that France and Germany would together commemorate these wars and that these countries would be united in a common union with a common presidency 55 years after the end of the second one of these calamities? It is true, as Montaigne says, the human mind has produced many stupid things through the ages. How unfortunate that we see that often only afterwards and not at the moment that we produce these thoughts.

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