Montaigne thinks that Julius Caesar is the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees, and all that. Between Seneca, Plutarch and Caesar it’s pretty close as to which one makes Montaigne gooiest inside. But I think when it comes down to it, Caesar is one of those hot tamales you admire from afar and bask in the glory of their glory. Caesar makes Montaigne’s heart go pitter patter, but Plutarch melts it.
What am I talking about? Montaigne’s essay “The Tale of Spurina” is hardly about the Tuscan youth, it’s about Caesar. While Montaigne would clearly fall on his sword if Caesar were to appear in front of him and command it, Montaigne finds Caesar’s womanizing to be a bit immoderate.
Philosophy for Montaigne is all about moderation, “Moderation is a virtue which makes more demands on you than suffering does.” Extremes in either direction are frowned upon because “if it wishes to, vice [can] find occasions for displaying itself one way or another.”. Philosophy tends to demand that we master our soul and bridle our appetites. But, believes Montaigne, ignoring the body completely is a big mistake. The appetites of the body can be sated, just look at the men who wear hair-shirts or geld or castrate themselves to keep their bodies from being lustful.
Appetites of the mind or soul, on the other, are not so easily (maybe easily is not quite the right word, maybe straightforwardly or forthrightly, or definitely?) assuaged. “When passions are all in the soul, as in ambition, covetousness and the rest, they are much more troublesome to reason, for reason cannot be succoured save by her own means: and those passions are not susceptible to satiety–indeed they are sharpened and increased by our enjoyment of them,” writes Montaigne.
And so it is that Montaigne turns to Caesar who loved the ladies but never let them get in the way of his ambition and never missed “any opportunity which was offered him to aggrandize himself.” Caesar’s overwhelming ambition “vexes” Montaigne. However, “When I reflect on the incomparable greatness of his soul I can pardon Victory for not distancing herself from him even in a cause so unjust and so iniquitous.” So Montaigne forgives his hero because it was Victory’s fault, not Caesar’s that his ambition became so great, and his hubris along with it, that he allowed people to worship him as a god.
And that Spurina guy, he was apparently a beautiful youth and everyone, men and women, fell in love with him. He began to loathe himself because, though he was chaste, his beauty encouraged passion in others. To solve the problem he slashed his face. Montaigne chastises him for going to such extremes. The faults of others cannot be blamed on Spurina’s gifts. “His intentions were beautiful and loyal to his conscience,” writes Montaigne, “but in my judgement somewhat lacking in wisdom.”
To sum up, Caesar: great soul, great ambition, Victory’s fault. Spurina: beautiful, chaste, wanted to save others from themselves, lack of wisdom. I guess we can forgive our heroes just about anything. We’ve evolved beyond that in these modern times. Everyone equal before the law, etc, etc. Yup. Sure we have.
Next week’s Montaigne essay: “On Three Good Wives”