Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Montaigne almost single-handedly invented the essay format. This alone would make many people avoid reading him. That’s too bad, because Montaigne has a lot to say about a lot of things. Maybe just what many people need these days: the wise old uncle we never had. Unlike reading philosophy, Montaigne’s essays give insight into the man, not just the thinker. Reading Montaigne is to know what kind of man he is. No one else writes quite like him.

Losing a close friend early in life makes friendship a topic that Montaigne takes very seriously. His own (very) close friendship with a man named Etienne Boetie is the standard he uses for measuring all relationships. Montaigne goes through several types in order to show what real friendship is not. A parent and child cannot experience real friendship, for example. There’s too much at stake in the parent-child relationship, not to mention the age gap. According to Montaigne real friendship “cannot exist between them because of their too great inequality”. The blood kinship prohibits any voluntary relationship freely chosen by both parties. For the same reason Montaigne believes that real friendship cannot exist between siblings either. He says that “Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also.” (Maybe we should add sisters here too.) Montaigne points out that we’re born into a specific family with specific parents and specific brothers and sisters. We have no choice in the matter. But we do choose our friends. That makes a real difference. We can change friends whenever we want, but we’re stuck with mother and father and brother and sister forever. For better or for worse.

We also take spouses “for better or for worse” so would that count as one of Montaigne’s real friendships? Well, no. Montaigne doubts whether real friendship can ever exist between men and women, either inside or outside of marriage. Why? Two reasons. First, Montaigne believes that women just aren’t capable of sustaining the kind of friendship he has in mind. That’s blunt and maybe women have a different view. But there’s a second, perhaps stronger reason: sex. Montaigne thinks that even under the best of circumstances there will always be sexual tension between men and women that can’t translate into sincere friendship. He says that “in love there is nothing but a frantic desire” and friendship would destroy the attraction. Montaigne is emphatically not opposed to this kind of attraction. Quite the opposite. He appreciates a beautiful woman as well as sex and openly states that he prefers “for the bed, beauty before goodness.” That’s also the root of the reason why Montaigne thinks homosexuals can’t experience true friendship. Any sexual relationship cancels out the possibility of true friendship. According to Montaigne’s reckoning sexual desire is a burning flame. Friendship is a warm glow. And they are mutually exclusive.

So where does that leave us? Montaigne’s ideals for true friendship are high, perhaps impossibly high for most people. But Montaigne isn’t most people. His friendship with Boetie sets this standard: “I think it was some ordinance from heaven.” Normal people can’t compete with that. Ordinary friendships by Montaigne’s definition are mere “acquaintanceships and familiarities, formed by some chance or convenience.” That may be true, but many modern people are comfortable enough with normal friendships and may feel distinctly uncomfortable with the intensity of a friendship like the one proposed by Montaigne. He seems to be reaching out to us across time and saying: “if you were better people, you would have better relationships. Try harder.” A final exam question: Is this the wisdom of the ages speaking, or just an eccentric old uncle who hasn’t changed with the times and is now an embarrassment to the family?



Blogger SMJ said...

My problem with Montaigne's view on friendship is that I cannot really distinguish what he calls "friendship" from what most people would call narcissism. He excludes any possibility of friendship between siblings, parents and children, or between men and women. Thus, by Montaigne's definition, friendship only exists between men (presumably, heterosexual, because erotic desire between men is not explored in this essay), and even then it is a rare achievement. It is rare because Montaigne believes friendship is essentially a meeting of two rational minds on the same spiritual plain ("one soul inhabiting two bodies"), not to be confused with love or casual acquaintances. Thus, discovering friendship is like discovering yourself inhabiting a different body. Feelings or passion are not only unnecessary, but actually get in the way. Apparently, Montaigne's idea of friendship is reduced to the act of conversing with one's self (a rational discourse, as opposed to mere hallucinogenic or sociopathic babble). Even though he mentions a moral obligation to "correct" one's friend if he strays from the path of right reason, this concedes nothing more than a normal operation of conscience, or our own faculty of judgment which restrains the human tendency to wander off the path of righteousness. Since friendship, to endure, requires two people's thoughts to converge into one epiphany of mutual esteem, there would seem to be few occasions when one friend would be restrained by another's gentle rebuke. In point of fact, they would seem to inhabit a secure world of their own, with little need or desire for the opinions of others. Ultimately, I believe, this mode of friendship is indistinguishable from self-love. Montaigne and his dear friend Boetie formed a little society of their own, whose only notable result was to leave Montaigne forever gasping in despair over the loss of his beloved doppelganger. I can't help thinking that Montaigne probably would have been happier if he had just come out of the closet and married Boetie. Then, perhaps, he could have written a useful discourse on gay marriage, an institution that he apparently found unworthy of his literary gift.

2/20/2007 2:29 PM  
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6/23/2017 2:12 AM  
Anonymous Trudie B. Bryant said...


11/07/2017 2:13 AM  
Blogger Earn Staying Home said...

Nice post.

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