After advising readers in his last essay to focus on his substance, I’m going to risk his eternal wrath and devote this essay to Montaigne’s style. For his 41st essay, Montaigne writes exempla – moral anecdotes used to illustrate a point. Or is it a parody of exempla?
Exempla were common in Montaigne’s day and are virtually non-existent today. What I find fascinating about Montaigne’s version of the style is that he seems to use the anecdotes to contrast with the theme of his essay, not to provide apt comparisons. But through ironic juxtaposition, the anecdotes do illustrate his initial point.
The theme of this essay, in the modern style, jumps right out of the first paragraph:
Of all the lunacies in this world the most accepted and the most universal is concern for reputation and glory, which we espouse even to the extent of abandoning wealth, rest, life and repose (which are goods of substance and consequence) in order to follow after that image of vanity and that mere word which had no body, nothing, to hold on to.
To paraphrase Frederick from Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” if Montaigne were to show up today and see all that is done in the name of vanity, he would never stop throwing up. Examples fill up every daily newspaper. Reality stars took the boorishness of celebrities and turned it into a new form of low art, which in turn has inspired the Charlie Sheens of the world to turn their lives into running reality shows. Who needs a sitcom when your own life is like Sheen’s?
I’m sure, if he were so inclined, Montaigne could have filled his essay with his age’s examples of boorish behavior. Instead, he holds up exemplary behavior of people who fought the urge to put personal glory first. Well, that’s what he appears to be doing, at least. But do these anecdotes seem like typical heroic behavior?
Catulus Luctatius frantically races to the head of his fleeing troops “so that they might appear to be following their commander;”
Antonio de Leyva strategically opposes Charles V invasion of Provence to make the inevitable success of his monarch’s action seem bold and visionary;
Argelionidis mocks the bravery of her dead son’s military comrades by saying to ambassadors “I know that the city of Sparta has many a citizen greater and more valiant that my son was;”
King Edward abandons his son, the Price of Wales, to fight the battle of Crecy alone, lest someone else take credit for his victory;
Anticipating the Johnny Carson/Ed McMahon relationship, many Romans attribute the greatness of Scipio to Laelius’s enthusiastic toadyism;
Theopompus King of Sparta praises his citizens for being so good at following orders; and
The Bishop of Beauvais creates his own warfare theology, where he beat warriors senseless with a club, then handed them over to soldiers to be killed.
Montaigne gave a hint to what his style suggests in this quote from Cicero:
Even those who fight (personal glory) still want their books against it to bear their name in the title and hope to become famous for despising fame.
In the previous essay, Montaigne decried the praise of style over substance, unless that style is for the purpose of elevating substance. Montaigne does that here and – as noted in that previous essay – uses comedy as his primary medium.
The absurdity of these acts of self denial becomes, in Montaigne’s witty juxtaposition, an illustration of how difficult it is, perhaps impossible, for human beings to avoid acts of vanity. I’ll close with this quote, which states the case perfectly:
Even philosophers free themselves from this one later and more reluctantly than from all others. It is the most tetchy and stubborn lunacy of them all: since it never ceases to tempt even those souls who are advancing in virtue. None of the others is more clearly accused of vanity by reason, but its roots are so active within us that I doubt if anyone has managed to cast it clean off.