September 23: Montaigne, corpse groom

At home in Bordeaux.

I was excited about today's reading, because one of the useful things my undergraduate education accomplished is that it exposed me to Montaigne, who is right up my alley, and then I remembered that the free translation is from the 1500s and is almost impossible to follow:
Allthough they say, that in vertue it selfe, the last scope of our aime is voluptuousnes. It pleaseth me to importune their eares still with this word, which so much offends their hearing. And if it imply any chief pleasure or exceeding contentments, it is rather due to the assistance of vertue, than to any other supply, voluptuousnes being more strong, sinnowie, sturdie, and manly, is but more seriously voluptuous.
Even the fact that they occasionally use the word "lustie" doesn't help. Fortunately a brief Google found a free translation from Australia, and here's the same passage:
Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear; and if it signify some supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, it is more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.
That's a little clearer, and kicks off my favorite passage in this Essay, "To philosophize is to learn how to die," which (typical for Montaigne, IIRC), veers almost immediately away from how a philosophy helps you get ready for the inevitable end, and takes up the subject about how Montaigne is ready for his inevitable end. Step 1 is "Brooding." Step 2 is, "See Step 1":
In the company of ladies, and at games, some have perhaps thought me possessed with some jealousy, or the uncertainty of some hope, while I was entertaining myself with the remembrance of some one, surprised, a few days before, with a burning fever of which he died, returning from an entertainment like this, with his head full of idle fancies of love and jollity, as mine was then, and that, for aught I knew, the same destiny was attending me....I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before.
He doesn't write like a Tim Burton character, but I guess he thinks of himself as one. He is also one of our first collectors of "oddly enough" manners of death:
Hast thou not seen one of our kings killed at a tilting, and did not one of his ancestors die by the jostle of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, was to much purpose circumspect to avoid that danger, seeing that he was knocked on the head by a tortoise falling out of an eagle’s talons in the air. Another was choked with a grapestone; an emperor killed with the scratch of a comb in combing his head. Aemilius Lepidus with a stumble at his own threshold, and Aufidius with a jostle against the door as he entered the council-chamber. And between the very thighs of woman, Cornelius Gallus the praetor; Tigillinus, captain of the watch at Rome; Ludovico, son of Guido di Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua; and (of worse example) Speusippus, a Platonic philosopher, and one of our popes.
That put me in mind of this Onion piece:
In the grief-management retreat I attended after Brad died, I met a lot of people who share my point of view. How would you feel if your wealthy relative careened into a swimming pool on a runaway golf cart that had been sabotaged by "slobs" and then drowned? It wouldn't seem quite so funny then, would it? Especially if those responsible had never been brought to justice and had, in fact, won the big tournament by sinking a lucky putt at the very last second.
But to return (Montaigne style) to my favorite part, which isn't at all on theme. It's about virtue v. pleasure:
Those who preach to us that the quest of it [virtue] is craggy, difficult, and painful, but its fruition pleasant, what do they mean by that but to tell us that is always unpleasing? For what human means will ever attain its enjoyment? The most perfect have been fain to content themselves to aspire unto it, and to approach it only, without ever possessing it. But they are deceived, seeing that of all the pleasures we know, the very pursuit is pleasant.
In other words, if Virtue is really its own (and only) reward, then what's the point of getting off the couch to seek it? But what if, instead of thinking about whether it makes us good, we only thought about whether it makes us happy? (Or "lustie.")

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