Having squeezed some insights about mental health and moderation out of Montaigne’s closing essay On Experience yesterday, I have decided to stay on that piece to discuss physical health today. It is basically all that anyone can think and talk about now. The news about the COVID-19 pandemic grows more grim every day. With more information about the disease also comes confusion — witness the proliferation of stories about “atypical symptoms” of the disease that will make anyone feeling under the weather frightened that they too have the dreaded coronavirus.
I have fallen into this category, I am sorry to say. Two days ago, I started having some gastrointestinal issues while running. I have since picked up some malaise and muscle aches. I also feel a headache coming on. Normally, I would just say that I caught a stomach bug, which brought on some dehydration, which made my muscles feel a little more sore than usual post run and could trigger a headache. I am not running a fever nor have I developed a cough. In short, by the CDC description of COVID-19 symptoms, I shouldn’t worry. But those stories ….
We are being told every day to act as if we have the virus, so I suppose my actions going forward shouldn’t change much at all. I have been tethered to the house for three weeks now. I believe that I have followed the best advice in keeping distance, avoiding physical contact, washing hands, and not touching my face. But who knows — I have made many trips to Mariano’s and Target, perhaps I caught something when I grabbed an item off the shelf or when I used the payment card processor.
At first glance, it does not appear that Montaigne would have taken too well to developing new social distancing health habits:
My regimen is the same in sickness as in health: I use the same bed, same timetable, same food and same drink. I add absolutely nothing except for increasing and decreasing the measure depending on my strength and appetite. Health means for me the maintaining of my usual route without let or hindrance. I can see that my illness has blocked one direction for me: if I put trust in doctors they will turn me away from the other, so there I am off my route either by destiny or their Art; there is nothing that I believe so certainly as this: that carrying on with anything to which I have so long been accustomed cannot do me harm. It is for custom to give shape to our lives, such shape as it will – in such matters it can do anything. It is the cup of Circe which changes our nature as it pleases. How many peoples are there, not three yards from us, who think that our fear of the cool evening air – which ‘so evidently’ harms us – is ludicrous; and our boatsmen and our peasants laugh at us too.
I am not one to pull wisdom from the ancients when it comes to science. Montaigne had many wise things to say about mental health, but his admonition to ignore doctors and stick to routines is just flat out wrong. Neither should we take our lead from the Bible when it comes to most health advice or even a medical textbook from 100 years ago.
In fairness to Montaigne, he did admit that as he grew older, he tempered many of his habits, even if it meant giving up some of his favorite pastimes:
Although I was brought up, as much as is humanly possible, for freedom and flexibility, nevertheless as I grow older I am becoming through indifference more fixed in certain forms (I am past the age for elementary schooling; now old age has no other concern than to look after itself); without my noticing it, custom has imprinted its stamp on me so well where some things are concerned that any departure from it I call excess; and I cannot, without turning it into an assay of myself, sleep by day, eat snacks between meals, nor eat breakfast, nor go to bed after supper without having a considerable gap, say three hours or more, nor have sexual intercourse except before going to sleep, nor do it standing up, nor remain soaking with sweat, nor drink either water or wine unmixed, nor remain for long with my head uncovered, nor have my haircut after dinner. I would feel just as ill at ease without gloves or shirt, or without a wash on leaving the table and when getting up in the morning, or lying in a bed without canopy and curtains, as I would if forced to do without things which really matter.
I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time getting past the sex standing up part. Believe it or not, this is not the only reference to that position in Montaigne’s essays — he was a fan. I wonder, does that mean both are standing? Because I’m not sure that I’ve ever done that. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, health. Montaigne was a believer in habits, but was flexible enough to change when conditions warranted. So maybe, if the crowds swayed him to follow their wisdom, he too could have taken up the social distancing habits and become a proper scold like the rest of us. If he could give up sex standing up, who knows, maybe he would have been ok always wearing a mask in public too.