Monday, 2 September 2013

On 'On Physiognomy'

My Dad gave me a Penguin paperback of Michel De Montaigne's Essays when I was studying philosophy and computer science at McGill University in Montreal. I had never heard of Montaigne, but my Dad seemed very sure that I would like him, so I wanted to read him. I was taking a summer reading course in Greek Philosophy, the only course I needed to graduate, and asked if I could write my term paper on the influence of Greek skepticism on Montaigne. The professor said I could, so I spent a wonderful summer reading Montaigne and the Greek skeptics. I still re-read both, and I hardly re-read anything.

I do love Montaigne: he so human, so real, and quite funny at times. After you read his essays you feel like you have made a new friend.

One of my favourite stories from Montaigne is the one he tells in his essay entitled Of Physiognomy (the essays often end up having little to do with their titles) about how he invited in his enemy's soldiers even though he thought they might kill him.

"...after came four or five of his soldiers, who presented themselves in the same countenance and affright, to get in too; and after them more, and still more, very well mounted and armed, to the number of five-and-twenty or thirty, pretending that they had the enemy at their heels. This mystery began a little to awaken my suspicion; I was not ignorant what an age I lived in, how much my house might be envied, and I had several examples of others of my acquaintance to whom a mishap of this sort had happened. But thinking there was nothing to be got by having begun to do a courtesy, unless I went through with it, and that I could not disengage myself from them without spoiling all, I let myself go the most natural and simple way, as I always do, and invited them all to come in. [...] We make, methinks, a mistake in that we do not enough trust Heaven with our affairs, and pretend to more from our own conduct than appertains to us; and therefore it is that our designs so often miscarry. Heaven is jealous of the extent that we attribute to the right of human prudence above its own, and cuts it all the shorter by how much the more we amplify it. The last comers remained on horseback in my courtyard, whilst their leader, who was with me in the parlour, would not have his horse put up in the stable, saying he should immediately retire, so soon as he had news of his men. He saw himself master of his enterprise, and nothing now remained but its execution. He has since several times said (for he was not ashamed to tell the story himself) that my countenance and frankness had snatched the treachery out of his hands. He again mounted his horse; his followers, who had their eyes intent upon him, to see when he would give the signal, being very much astonished to find him come away and leave his prey behind him."

I miss my Dad.

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