Delight Springs

Friday, October 18, 2013

Self-Tormentors and Blockheads

Interesting Happy Hour yesterday, as one of us turned the discussion to a litany of his aversions. "I hate X, Y, & Z..." And, "I have it on good [but anonymous] authority that x is in league with evildoers..." And, although Y's reputed offenses are widely shared with other groups, only Y merits his contempt."If that makes me a racist then so be it." Etc.

And oh, by the way, you and those who think like you are all going to hell. No offense.

Michel de Montaigne's indictment of the human proclivity to vilify and persecute those whose ways and ideas are different from our own was fresh in mind, from an earlier classroom discussion. We'd noted his tower ceiling beam inscription from Terence's "Self-Tormentor": HOMO SVM HVMANI A ME NIHIL ALIENVM PVTO - I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me. Cosmopolitans like Montaigne tried not to let their aversions run away with them, in an age of aversive imperial conquest.

Montaigne was reacting specifically to the recent barbarism of Europeans in their brutal first encounters with New Worlders whose speech, dress, and customs were to them so unfamiliar, so foreign and (hence!) subhuman. Slaughter ensued. 

And, he was reacting to some philosophers' overconfidence in the powers of reason to correct our intolerance. Alain de Botton quotes Montaigne:
We take pride in our fair, discursive reason and our capacity to judge and to know, but we have bought them at a price which is strangely excessive... To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.
Note, he does say we. We're all goofy goobers, we're all guilty on occasion of block-headedness. We're all self-tormentors. We all need to carve more wisdom into our beams, to remove more motes from our sight. I've found Montaigne more helpful than Descartes, in that regard. Begin a guided tour of his tower at about the 6-minute mark:

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