Montaigne’s essay “On Presumption” is highly entertaining. The initial purpose of the essay is to examine “another kind of ‘glory’: the over-high opinion we conceive of our own worth.” Montaigne does not a wish a person to underestimate herself, only that she should “perceive whatever truth presents.” It is also not inappropriate that we should have some “characteristics and propensities” that are just part of who we are, a sort of quirk like Julius Caesar who had the habit of scratching his head with his finger or Cicero wrinkling his nose. These are all fine.
The glory Montaigne is against is vainglory, the tendency to rate oneself too high and others too low. It is here that the essay takes a turn to the amusing. As if to prove that he is not vainglorious, the remaining 20 pages of the essay are a catalog and discussion of what Montaigne sees has his own faults. He begins by explaining that he holds his own possessions, though of equal worth to his neighbor’s, to be lesser in value because they are his. He marvels at other men’s self assurance and confidence because he has none.
Montaigne asserts that he has clear and balanced insight until he attempts to write poetry: “I have a boundless love for it; I know my way well through other men’s works; but when I set my own hand to it I am truly like a child: I find myself unbearable. You may play the fool anywhere else but not in poetry.” He then goes on to tell the story of Dionysius the Elder, a bad poet but good at marketing. He sent gold awnings and tapestried tents to the Olympic Games where he was to read. The crowd waited for a great performance only to be so disappointed they tore all of his tents and awnings to pieces. He sent his men and remaining equipment home by ship which got caught in a storm and was wrecked on the rocks. All of his men died and everyone said that it was “the wrath of the gods, as angry as they were over that bad piece of poetry.”
Not only does Montaigne write bad poetry, but he cannot find joy and satisfaction in his writing. He is never fully satisfied because it never turn out the way he envisioned it. He claims he must “sacrifice to the Graces to gain their favors,” but when it comes down to it “the Graces are always deserting me.” And if it comes to telling stories, “the best tale in the world withers in my hand and loses its sparkle.”
When it comes to beauty Montaigne wins no prizes either. He lists all of his physical faults concluding with the worst of all–he’s short. If a man is short he can have beautiful eyes and skin, a fine nose and straight white teeth but it won’t do any good. Stature is everything and Montaigne does not have it. And to top that off he lacks in physical skills and abilities, singing, dancing, tennis, swimming, fencing, even his handwriting is so atrocious he can barely read what he has written. Montaigne consoles himself over his shortcomings by at least being “quite a good scholar.”
Other things Montaigne claims to be bad at: keeping his estate accounts, giving orders, making decisions, lying (which is not a bad thing except he’s not even good at white lies). He is also bad at sums, has sluggish and blunt wits, can’t tell one kind of grain from another and has a hard time naming the vegetables in his garden. But most worrying of all is his bad memory. It is so bad that friends will quote to him from his own essays and he will not recognize it. It is distressing but, he says, “the more I mistrust my memory, the more confused it gets; it serves me best when I take it by surprise.”
At first I thought Montaigne couldn’t be serious in his discussion of his faults, but the more I read the more I realized that he is indeed serious. The point of his catalog is to show that he has no vainglory, but also to make fun of people who do. Because if Montaigne who had a good reputation, was mayor of his city, fought in the war of religion and was a known scholar could have all these faults then lesser men who made boasts about themselves are shown up as being hot air. Montaigne delights in bringing Man, who has such a high opinion of himself, low. He admits it near the beginning of this essay as says, “Philosophy never seems to me to have a better hand to play than when she battles against presumption and our vanity.” Because Montaigne readily admits his “shame” as he calls it, he comes off looking better than those who make themselves out to be more than they are.
Montaigne does manage to admit to a few good qualities. He has good sense. He is steady and constant, affable and frank. He has faith and a conscience. Qualities, he claims, that in his century are not particularly well thought of. Nonetheless he tries to look on the positive side of things: “It is a good thing to be born in a century which is deeply depraved, for by comparison with others you are reckoned virtuous on the cheap. Nowadays if you have merely murdered your father and committed sacrilege you are an honest honourable man.” He could writing about our century as much as his own.
Next week’s Montaigne essay: “On Freedom of Conscience”