Saggy Soul: Bibliotherapy

Mar 21, 2013 by

Don't make that face or it just might stick.

Don’t make that face or it just might stick.

“Don’t make that face or it just might stick,” is a common enough maxim heard expressed to small children. In between writing about cannibals, religious tolerance and the complex relationship he has with certain vegetables (they give him gas), Montaigne finds himself advocating the same principle on a grander scale in his essay on Of Not Counterfeiting Sickness.

Montaigne recalls the story of a Roman law breaker who covered his eye behind a medicinal mask and bandage to disguise himself and escape being hauled off by order of the Triumvirs. A little time had passed and feeling easier in not being apprehended he removed his mask – only to discover that he had in fact lost sight in the eye he had concealed. Without much exercise of its faculty, the eye, Montaigne contends had transferred its power to its partner leaving the man blind (Montaigne 930-931).

“Yes, I know it is stupid, but I am in college. Now is my chance to do stupid things!” Or “I didn’t get a chance to do that kind of thing when I was young, so I am making up for it now,” are common pleas. We all know those people. They are good people they contend. They are only suspending their ethical convictions temporarily to have a good time, to enjoy themselves and “gather their roses while they may.” Their vice is not real vice, it is only a counterfeit, a sham.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne 1533-1592. One of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne 1533-1592. One of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance.

But Montaigne is afraid for them, afraid that it does not quite work that way. Your face may only have so much elasticity before it either sticks or at least sags disagreeably from all of your antics. The soul also may only have a finite amount of elasticity, and no one wants to go walking around with a saggy soul!

What makes a person virtuous Aristotle argues is their state of character and character is built up over a long period of time. It is our character that helps us to “delight in and be pained by the things that we ought…” to be delighted by and pained by (EN 1104b10-15). What happens to that slow accretion of character when you decide to take delight in something you know is not really right? In one sense you may already have misjudged yourself (no one ever really thinks they are bad). If you think that your principles can be suspended in order to pursue some other temporary diversion how firm are your principles?

Montaigne takes this a step further citing a letter of Seneca’s:

“You know…that Harpaste, my wife’s fool has lived in my family as an hereditary burden…This fool has suddenly lost her sight. I tell you a strange, but a true thing – she does not perceive that she is blind, and eagerly implores her guardian to take her away; for she says that my house is dark. This that we laugh at in her, I beg you to believe happens to everyone of us:  no man recognizes that he is eager to be better off, no man that he desires worldly things. But the blind ask for a guide, we go astray by ourselves. I am not ambitious, we say, but in Rome one can not live otherwise; I am not extravagant, but the city demands a great expenditure; it is not my fault if I am choleric, if I have not yet established any settled manner of life – it is the fault of youth” (Montaigne 932).

The problem is the more we suspend our ideas of what is right the more we take pleasure in the vicious. Our counterfeit sham of an action suddenly does become who we are without our even realizing it.  The more we take pleasure in vice the harder and harder it becomes to return to our original principles: Your soul, like your face begins to lose its elasticity, it sags and becomes distorted. “I can always get back,” you assert. But the truth is more muddied. It is increasingly difficult to see where you are and like the blind Harpaste you are more inclined to think the room dark than that you have become blind.

Your soul, like your face begins to lose its elasticity, it sags and becomes distorted. It is increasingly difficult to see where you are and like the blind Harpaste you are more inclined to think the room dark than that you have become blind.

It is increasingly difficult to see where you are and like the blind Harpaste you are more inclined to think the room dark than that you have become blind.

Montaigne believes you can return even if the road is difficult. But you can not look outside of yourself.  You must look within. As Seneca continues to suggest “…what is ill with us is in us, is rooted in our bowels. And the very fact that we do not perceive that we are sick makes our cure more difficult” (Montaigne 932). We think that we are just having a good time, that our actions are a temporary state of affairs, never suspecting the damage that we are doing to our perception of pleasure and pain, and just how far that may carry us from where we want to be.

The medicine: Philosophy, “…from other medicines we do not receive pleasure until after the cure; this one pleases and cures at the same time” Montaigne quotes approvingly (Montaigne 932). It remains to be seen just how pleasurable philosophy is to the damaged soul but the kind of self reflection, the kind of soul searching and applied action that Montaigne recommends is the only scalpel that can give your wrinkled soul the lift that it so badly needs!

 

 

Works Cited
Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon. “Nicomachean Ethics.” The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1941. Print.
Montaigne, Michel De, André Gide, Grace Norton, and George Burnham Ives. The Essays of Montaigne. New York: Heritage, 1946. Print.

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