30. On Moderation

This is Montaigne’s most Buddhist essay. The main point is quite similar to the Middle Way used to refer to two major aspects of Dharma – a rejection of both asceticism and indulgence. The eightfold noble path is a full elaboration of this Buddhist philosophy. Montaigne describes it this way:

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.

He elaborates:

That is a subtle observation on the part of philosophy: you can both love virtue too much and behave with excess in an action which itself is just. The Voice of God adapts itself fittingly to that bias: ‘Be not more wise than it behoveth, but be ye soberly wise.’

Montaigne is speaking out against fanaticism, which had gripped France of his age and led to endless sectarian conflict. But this essay is about more than political extremism. It also includes strange views of marital sexuality:

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.

In case you think Montaigne is being ironic in that statement, he goes on:

Marriage is a bond both religious and devout: that is why 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. For Plato that constitutes a kind of of homicide.

Plato was a psychopath. But remember, Montaigne is anti-ascetic — he doesn’t believe in denying “the good life” to anyone. So he’s not really making a case for the denial of human pleasure … he’s making a case for open relationships of some sort. So, I guess, he’s so backward in his thinking that he ends up as progressive and fitting our times perfectly, if in the oddest manner possible.

And this line wraps it all up:

In short there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate.

Montaigne’s brand of moderation ends up being fanatical to readers today, in some respects. Our modern world thinks true moderation is seeking some kind of middle ground of aesthetic pleasure, enjoying our sensual, hedonic pleasures in reasonable doses at appropriate times. Montaigne isn’t buying that at all, he just doesn’t believe in mixing the sacred and profane.

I think Montaigne makes an effort here to express eastern ideas through stoic concepts and while he doesn’t quite pull it off, I agree that fanaticism is a social ill that should be discouraged however possible. And while I think his thoughts about marriage are odd, I broadly agree with him that perhaps we don’t put enough thought into how the various ways we make our private lives moderate may in fact be quite fanatical.

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