Sunday, April 4, 2010

Montaigne - Customs, Education and Morality

Many people believe that their laws and customs are natural and universal and derive from reason. However, a studied inquiry will often reveal that the reasoning is flawed or stands on weak foundations. Moreover as we examine other cultures (as Montaigne did) we can see that our "truths" are not universally shared.
Montaigne describes the idyllic and pure lives of savages in the New World and says that compared to them we are barbarians. Some may be cannibals, eating their dead enemies, but how is that worse than the atrocities committed in the wars of religion in Europe (as well as the Inquisition). Many people mindlessly follow their customs without ever questioning them. Just because we do not understand something does not mean it is wrong. Likewise, the fact that we follow the rules and customs of our society does not validate their virtue.

Montaigne describes his own education and says that too much emphasis is placed on memorizing details of little consequence. What students should be learning is good judgement.

We also need to be teaching practical knowledge and encourage students to use what they have learned.
"For wisdom is not only to be acquired, but also utilized" - Cicero.

Repeating quotes without comprehension also does not educate. Ironically, Montaigne quotes someone to support this.

"They have learned to speak from others, not from themselves" - Cicero

We should be selective in what we learn, but not exclusive. Some of the best thoughts come from "the lower end of the table".

Good and Evil
Montaigne said that good and evil are partially determined by our opinions. The three evils that many fear are Death, Pain and Poverty.

It is not sensible to fear death since it is natural and we are only afraid of the unknown. Pain is more difficult since it works the body against the soul. However, pain is often only experienced in the context of the situation. Pain for beauty, honor or wealth is not felt as strongly as when we experience pain in the absence of a future reward. Therefore pain appears to be some thing variable to the opinion of the sufferer.

Montaigne does not talk as much about being poor as he does about avarice and the accumulation and burdens of wealth. Montaigne was from a well-to-do family so he would know the latter better than the former. He says that being wealthy will not make you happy, it only changes your condition. Money is like wearing clothes to keep warm, the heat comes from you, not the clothes. Being happy comes from how we view and judge our own situation.

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