Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, June 06, 2014

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience (Kidney Stones and Philosophy)

The Great Books are mostly about life’s great subjects. In the past few weeks we’ve read about the nature of love (Symposium), the difference between the human (City of Man) and the divine (City of God), and the best ways to use military and political power (Caesar and Cleopatra). In this selection Montaigne spends a few pages talking about kidney stones. This is in the Great Books? How did kidney stones sneak into the Great Books?
Actually the topic of kidney stones didn’t just sneak in through the back door so to speak. Montaigne puts them there on purpose. He brings them right through the front door and holds them up for us to meditate on. No topic is too remote or mundane for Montaigne’s brand of philosophy. He talks about everyday life and gives new layers of meaning to everyday things. What we eat is important. How much sleep we get is important. How we deal with being sick is important. Kidney stones are part of life. Pain is something we deal with whether we like it or not. How we deal with pain (and its close cousin, pleasure) determines how we deal with the rest of our problems in life. And if that isn’t a proper subject for philosophy, then what is?
In that sense Montaigne is one of the best philosophers. He knows from personal experience how painful kidney stones can be. So what? We all know about pain from personal experience. Some of us even know about kidney stones from personal experience. What makes Montaigne so special? What sets Montaigne apart is the way he takes fairly common experiences (such as kidney stones) and uses them as subjects for meditations on philosophy. He once wrote an essay called “To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” In this section on kidney stones Montaigne meditates on the relationship between disease and death. He says, “You do not die of being sick, you die of being alive. Death kills you well enough without the help of illness.” In Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” we read about a man dying a very painful death. The terrible thing about Ivan is that he wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a particularly good man either. He was just an ordinary guy like the rest of us. Like the rest of us, that’s the part that disturbs many readers. Ivan could have been me! Who knows, that might BE me in a few years. Or sooner!
Death is a basic human fear. And dying a painful death is even worse, for a very good reason: it hurts more. Who would ever voluntarily choose more pain? That’s why Montaigne says whenever we get something like a kidney stone “Nature is bearing and pushing you into that glorious school (of disease and pain and death) which you would never have entered of your own free will.” Pain is nature’s wake up call, not only to the body but also to the spirit. Pain is a kind of “school” which we would never enroll on our own. Montaigne goes on to say that pain “…by warning and instructions repeated at intervals, intermingled with long pauses for rest, as if to give you a chance to meditate and repeat its lesson at your leisure.” This is starting to sound a little bit like philosophy. He goes on, “To give you a chance to form a sound judgment and make up your mind to it like a brave man, it sets before you the lot that is your condition, the good and also the bad, and a life that on the same day is now very joyous, now unbearable.” This sounds a lot like philosophy. Remember Montaigne’s essay “To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” Montaigne says having kidney stones makes him feel like he’s dying. And he goes on to say that “If you do not embrace death, at least you shake hands with it once a month.” In Montaigne’s opinion, both kidney stones and philosophy give good lessons for life. Whether we’re going to the hospital to have a kidney stone removed or going to a college classroom for Philosophy 101 Montaigne’s advice is the same: “Just bear it, you need no other regimen.”


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