Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

DIDEROT: Rameau’s Nephew (Knowing Thyself)

In Montaigne’s essay on experience he says “I study myself more than any other subject…” He’s just taking Socrates’ advice to know himself better. Montaigne knowing himself better is a good idea because in his own way Montaigne is a philosopher. But is “know thyself” good advice for everyone? Denis Diderot wrote a short story about a man who gets to know himself very well. It’s a story about a man named Rameau who is the anti-Montaigne of literature. Rameau “is a philosopher in his own kind of way. He only thinks about himself. He doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world.” This is not what Montaigne had in mind when he talked about knowing thyself; it isn’t what Socrates had in mind either.
Rameau is cynical about the kind of philosophy Socrates and Montaigne engage in. Rameau believes “We must have men, but not men of genius. No, my goodness, we don't need them. They're the ones who are constantly trying to change things.” Rameau thinks Socrates’ problem was always going around trying to change people’s lives. They didn’t like that. And look where it got him. It got him killed. That kind of philosophy, trying to change the world and make it better, never leads to success in the real world. Rameau says, “Who cares about life in a perfect of world if I'm not in it? … So let's just accept things the way they are.” Rameau’s verdict on philosophy comes to this: “Lord, may I never meet anyone more pigheaded than a philosopher.” And he ends by pointing out that “Virtue and philosophy isn’t for everybody.” He may be right.
Philosophy is not to Rameau’s taste. And neither is virtue. In his opinion, “Virtue is praised, but really it’s hated. People avoid it when they can, because it’s ice-cold and in this world we have to keep our feet warm.” This isn’t the way Socrates talked about virtue. And Rameau doesn’t have any better feelings about religion: “A lot of times devout people are harsh, touchy and unsociable. That’s because they’ve forced themselves to do something that’s unnatural. They’re in pain, and people in pain make other people suffer too.” This isn’t the way St. Augustine talked about religion. Rameau is pointing out something that many people know from experience: “I see a lot of decent people who are unhappy and a lot of happy people who aren’t decent.” This was also the experience of Job in the Bible story. Rameau doesn’t see any benefit in being decent or “virtuous.” Look what happened to Job.
But if Rameau is the anti-Montaigne of literature then the narrator of the story is the anti-Rameau. He doesn’t think Rameau’s view of life is healthy. In the narrator’s opinion “The true, the good and the beautiful will prevail in the end.” This is what Socrates thought too. “Their rightful place may be challenged at first, but in the end they’ll be acknowledged and admired by most people.” The narrator is more in line with Socrates’ thinking. The key phrase here is “most people.” In his own mind Rameau is not like most people. Montaigne’s goal was to be normal, like most people. The very thought of being normal is repulsive to Rameau. But Rameau may be more normal than he thinks. He admits “I want a good bed, good food, warm clothes in winter, cool in summer, plenty of rest, money, and other things that I would rather have given to me than to earn them by working.” Many people agree with Rameau. But Montaigne’s response would be the same as the narrator's response: “That’s because you’re a lazy, greedy slob, a coward with a rotting soul.” This is the very core of what Socrates and Montaigne were trying to do: maintain healthy souls and cure unhealthy ones. Rameau has an unhealthy soul, a rotten one. Socrates never wrote a book. Montaigne wrote a big book of essays. But Socrates and Montaigne agree on this point: “to compose our character is our duty, not to write books…”


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