Thursday, February 28, 2008

Joyeux 475 Anniversaire, Michel !

Around noon on this day, a wondrous thing occurred. A very dear friend of mine was born. He has kept me in good company and council for years and has been an inspiration to me beyond what words can convey.

His friendly manner, his honesty and penchant for clarity instantly won me over. He spent his life engaged in a close examination of his own life and, thankfully, set those pursuits to pen and paper. Others have noted about my friend:

"When we talk to a friend we do not constantly confess and plumb the depths of our soul; for to do so is to threaten, by excessive self-concern, the tacit equilibrium that friendship assumes and needs. Rather we talk about our hopes and fears, what has hapened to us, what we have seen, heard or read that has interested us, how we assess our own actions and those of others . . . And this is what [my friend] does. He has no use for the introvert's anguish over the impenetrability of ultimates, the absurdity of man's place in the universe, or the discrepancy between our ideals and our attainments. The first two of these he accepts without despair as unfathomable data of human life. The third he seeks to resolve by introspective study of human nature and human conduct, over which we have some control."*

He was born in Périgord, France and enjoyed a life of travel, politics, religious reflection but mostly one of self-reflection and all simply recorded for his own enjoyment. When I was first introduced to my friend it seemed as though we had known each other for decades, his words echoed so profoundly within me.

One of my favorite stories he tells is that of his trip from his home in
Périgord up through Champagne, into Alsace, through Switzerland, Germany and Austria and then down to Italy and back home again. And the reason for the trip? Kidney stones! Yep. He had a terrible bout of 'em and made his tour to take in the waters of all the famous (infamous?) mineral baths on the Continent. This small tome is a detailed account of that trip with every detail of his lodgings, meals, dinner companions, bath personnel and road conditions.

He was of a mind that the waters taken at each stop would help alleviate his suffering. Of course, it did nothing of the sort but only contributed to it. But, never mind. Writing as his own travel companion, we learn a lot about him and how he engages LIfe around him. It might be a fair comparison to pair him with Mark Twain and that author's delightful "A Tramp Abroad".

So, on this day: 28 February, 1533, my friend
Michel-Eyquem de Montaigne was born.

Through his essays, a genre he founded, he reaches across the centuries to all of us expressing his own views and 'takes' on the very same things that we all encounter throughout our own lives.

During this political season especially, I am reminded of a passage from his first book of essays. It is one that has served me well over the years on my own path in the company of others:

"Why in judging a man do you judge him all wrapped up in a package? He displays to us only parts that are not at all his own, and hides from us those by which alone one can truly judge of his value. It is the worth of the blade that you seek to know, not of the scabbard; perhaps you will not give a penny for it if you have unsheathed it. You must judge him by himself, not by his finery. And as one of the ancients [Seneca] says very comically: "Do you know why you think him tall? You are counting in the height of his heels." The pedestal is not part of the statue. Measure him without his stilts; let him put aside his riches and honors, let him present himself in his shirt. Has he a body fit for its functions, healthy and blithe? What sort of soul has he? Is it beautiful, capable, and happily furnished with all its parts? Is it rich of its own riches, or of others? Has fortune nothing to do with it? If open-eyed he awaits the drawn swords; if he cares not whether his life expires by the mouth or the neck; if his soul is composed, equable, and content: this is what we must see, and by this judge the extreme differences that are between us. Is he

Wise, and master of himself,
Fearing not death, or chains, or lack of wealth,
Disdaining honors, firm against desire,
Within himself well-rounded and entire,
Beyond the reach of all external pain,
Against whom even fortune strikes in vain?

Such a man is five hundred fathoms above kingdoms and duchies; he is himself his own empire."

Happy Birthday, Michel !

*From "The Complete Essays of Montaigne" Translated by Donald M. Frame
Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
ISBN:0-8047-0485-6 (Cloth)
0-8047-0486-4 (Paper)


Anonymous said...

What can I say? You constantly inspire this 30-something mother of 4 (yeah MILF!!! hahahaha!)to seek more culture, to live life to the fullest, and to discover the beauty in every person, every situation she encounters. You have now inspired me to seek out some new reading material, as well- thanks!

Kerry (MWK) said...

Thanks for bringing Montaigne to my attention. I knew his name but had never read him. My local library has three copies of the Essays, one of which I have borrowed, but I'm thinking I shall have to buy my own copy to be able to dip into his wisdom at will.