Monday, February 07, 2011

“All things have their season”

On the table here in front of me I have a copy of Montaigne’s Essays. It’s a thick book. My Dutch edition has 1321 pages. I bought it nine years ago and I have read all 107 essays since then. I did it in random order and also at random places. I read them in my study, in the train, on holiday, and so on, until I had read all essays. Montaigne makes you think, tells you about his life and time. He tells you about the past, too, for often he uses examples from classical antiquity. I read also a lot about Montaigne and his book and I visited the castle in France where he once lived. One could fill a lifetime with studying the man and his book, which I’ll not do, however, for my priorities are elsewhere. Nevertheless, I found the essays intriguing and interesting enough to reread them, now in the order presented in the book.
When I wanted to write my blog today, I had not yet a theme, and as a warming up for my brain and mind I took the Essays in order to read the next one, number XXVIII of Book II, titled “All things have their season”. What a coincidence. Hardly any of the essays could apply better to what is happening in the world at the moment. Here Montaigne explains that things have to be done at the right time, even good ones. Some things can better be done when you are young, other things when you are old: “Our studies and desires should sometime be sensible of age; yet we have one foot in the grave and still our appetites and pursuits spring every day anew within us”. For Montaigne himself this had the implication that “the only comfort I find in my old age, [is] that it mortifies in me several cares and desires wherewith my life has been disturbed; the care how the world goes, the care of riches, of grandeur, of knowledge, of health, of myself.” How different it often is for many of us, not only for the average citizen, who may stick to his or her habits, but also for the person on the top, whom we might have thought to be wiser. But as Montaigne quoted Terentius (II, II): “Humani a se nihil alienum putet” [Let him not think that anything that is human is alien to him]. So it is also for dictators, whether they are called Ben Ali, Mubarak or what their name is. They stick to their place and do not leave until they are forced to, by the people or by the army. As we say in Dutch, “There is a time of coming and there is a time of going”. But power is addictive and so many dictators forget this essential lesson of life. Montaigne did not. So he left his job as a judge in Bordeaux already quite young. He did not strive for high positions, and when he was appointed as mayor of Bordeaux, he accepted it à contre coeur, and it was not his choice that he got a second term (a great honour, for it rarely happened) but of the people around him. Montaigne knew the lessons of life, not only this one, so a wise dictator, and not only he, should read the Essays of Montaigne. But isn’t it a contradiction in terms: a wise dictator?

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