Where is the fine line between self-denial and moderation? It’s the dieter’s lament; can’t I just have a little and stop myself? Can’t an alcoholic just drink a little from time to time? There’s no easy solution to the matter, but Montaigne is clearly on the side of the will … he believes that people need to understand limits and know when to stop. As much as I agree with moderation, I don’t find his arguments convincing.
Montaigne starts off on solid ground and in a non-controversial manner. Even the great virtues in life, if taken too far, can become corrupted:
It is as though our very touch bore infection: things which in themselves are good and beautiful are corrupted by our handling of them. We can seize hold even of Virtue in such a way that our action makes her vicious if we clasp her in too harsh and too violent an embrace …. I like natures which are temperate and moderate. Even when an immoderate zeal for the good does not offend me it still stuns me and makes it difficult for me to give it a Christian name.
That seems like a sensible argument, but it’s also unoriginal. I admire Montaigne for trying to create something deeper and richer from this central Stoic virtue. He is aiming in this essay to modernize and extend Stoicism into his age. The question I have to face isn’t whether he’s successful in that effort, but whether he finds a new approach that’s helpful in our age of abundant choice. He turns more specifically to philosophy next and I think if you think of political ideology instead of what we now call philosophy, his argument makes great sense:
At its extremes, philosophy is harmful … taken in moderation philosophy is pleasant and useful, but it can eventually lead to a man’s becoming vicious and savage, contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself – a man whose ears you could box with impunity … for in its excesses philosophy enslaves our native freedom and with untimely subtleties makes us stray from that beautiful and easy path that Nature has traced for us.
The way I see it, Americans have taken the political traditions of liberalism and conservatism too much to heart. And I call them traditions rather than philosophies or ideologies because these collections of ideas shouldn’t be confused with a well-thought out, logical or semi-scientific approach to governing. The left/right paradigm in American politics has simply been passed down and adapted from generation to generation. It exists because it has emotional resonance and can be sold – and anyone from either side of the spectrum that makes a case that either liberalism or conservatism would solve 100 percent of our problems if only their side had the ability to implement the package in full is a mindless fool.
All of this is easy to take, but now Montaigne takes his essay into a dangerous new territory by switching the subject from politics to sex. Bear in mind the recent essay Montaigne wrote about his friend La Boetie and the warmth that drips from his pen describing that relationship. Now read what he has to say about marriage:
All those shameless caresses which our first ardour suggests to us in our sex-play are not only unbecoming to our wives but harmful to them when practised on them. At least let them learn shamelessness from some other hand! They are always wide enough awake when we need them. Where this is concerned what I have taught has been natural and uncomplicated. The pleasure we derive from it must be serious, restrained and intermingled with some gravity; its sensuousness should be somewhat wise and dutiful. Its chief end is procreation, so there are those who doubt whether it is right to seek intercourse when we have no hope of conception, as when the woman is pregnant or too old. In short there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate.
In her recent biography of Montaigne “How to Live Or A Life of Montaigne,” Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne’s attitude as being very typical of the age:
For a husband to behave as an impassioned lover to his wife was thought morally wrong, because it might turn her into a nymphomaniac. Minimal, joyless intercourse was the proper sort for marriage.
Hmm, okay, well then you have to chalk up Montaigne’s point of view on this subject to strange mores of his age and just pass on by, right? Let’s see how easy it is to move on from this question, because Montaigne has a much bigger objective in mind, pivoting to take on asceticism. Although asceticism came from the ancient Greeks, it also borrows from Eastern Philosophies. It’s most sophisticated form was expressed in the 19th century by Arthur Schopenhauer. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy details his views this way:
Schopenhauer believes that a person who experiences the truth of human nature from a moral perspective — who appreciates how spatial and temporal forms of knowledge generate a constant passing away, continual suffering, vain striving and inner tension — will be so repulsed by the human condition, that he or she will lose the desire to affirm the objectified human situation in any of its manifestations. The result is an attitude of the denial of our will-to-live, which Schopenhauer identifies with an ascetic attitude of renunciation, resignation, and willessness, but also with composure and tranquillity. In a manner reminiscent of traditional Buddhism, he recognizes that life is filled with unavoidable frustration, and acknowledges that the suffering caused by this frustration can itself be reduced by minimizing one’s desires.
But three centuries before Schopenhauer – and anticipating Nietzsche – Montaigne wants nothing to do with this approach, believing that even self-denial is a form of immoderate behavior:
But, seriously though, is not Man a wretched creature? Because of his natural attributes he is hardly able to taste one single pleasure pure and entire: yet he has to go and curtail even that by arguments; he is not wretched enough until he has increased his wretchedness by art and assiduity. The wretched paths of Fortune we make worse by art…. Human wisdom is stupidly clever when used to diminish the number and sweetness of such pleasures as do belong to us, just as she employs her arts with diligence and fitness when she brings comb and cosmetics to our ills and makes us feel them less. If I had founded a school of philosophy I would have taken another route – a more natural one, that is to say a true, convenient and inviolate one; and I might have made myself strong enough to know when to stop.
That’s a brilliant critique of Schopenhauer approach, but bear in mind what Montaigne is asking for instead – that tepid version of marital sex explained above. Montaigne is looking for a middle ground between asceticism and debauchery. While it’s easy to attack both, it’s also difficult to defend what’s left. His approach reminds me of the Radiohead song “Fitter Happier.” Montaigne seems to be embracing the kind of dull life that a long-term course of antidepressants can create.
He argues next that the “stupidly clever” approach, which later became a tenet in Schopenhauer’s thought — is doomed to failure. We cannot anticipate when a punishment we either set up for ourselves or for others turns into something that’s pleasurable:
Vigils, fasting, hair-shirts and banishments to distant solitary places, endless imprisonments, scourges and other sufferings have been brought in to that end: but only on condition that the suffering is real and should cause bitter pain, and that there should not befall what happened to a man called called Gallio who was banished to the island of Lesbos: Rome was told that he was enjoying himself there and that what had been inflicted as a punishment was turning into a pleasure, at which he was ordered back to wife and home and commanded to stay put, so as to adapt the punishment to his real feelings.
Never mind food for thought, there’s an all-you-can-eat banquet of thought in this Montaigne essay, but that’s part of the problem. True moderation may require an ability to mix all three approaches to life – being passionate, even zealous when appropriate; shutting yourself off from pleasure, when that’s the best solution; remaining cautious, even tepid, for many moments in between. Moderation is a way to live, but there’s nothing easy or dogmatic about it. The path to moderate success is an open mind.