To Convey A Sense For Life: On Montaigne

I was thinking this morning about what Davenport writes about Montaigne: "His mind was speculative in the manner of the Hellenistic age: eclectic in philosophy, skeptical in religion, Stoic in the conduct of life... The account of a journey by a wide-awake traveller rarely fails to make good reading. In his ability to convey sense of place with a few deft details (a topiary garden, an historical site, local anecdotes... [Montaigne's] eye is practical, curious, ironic." To my mind all of the above is characteristic of the French, who, incidentally, are marvelous travellers. Yes, beware the generalisation, but allow me to illustrate.
Where I grew up in Asia, there was a strong French presence: seen down to the most prosaic of details: thanks to the proliferation of Delifrances, everyone knew the variety of French pastries. At the same time, so many French people I met had a learned understanding of Buddhism and local lore: yet, they would always ask additional questions of the locals. And what of the French religious view? Hellenistic, skeptical, Stoic in terms of a kind of fortitude. (Hellenistic - you have only to go to the Benaki Museum to see Lyonnaise mothers taking their children on tours of the pieces - without guidebook in hand.)
And as for religion... it is a shame that the West distorts its own religions such (I am not even talking about faith here, but just the "entry level"). The religious tenet which has remained unhampered is deeply buried in Hellenistic thought: the secret of scholars who know that philosophy was meant to be practiced, like religion is practiced. (It is a secret, because today, when we say "philosophy" we have the terrible nightmares of Nietzsche and Hegelian extremes to contend with.) Montaigne, in his Essais, sums up this aspect of philosophy best when he writes: To Study Philosophy Is To Learn To Die.
I prefer to say very little about the deeper aspects of religion especially since I agree with J.C. Maxwell that these matters are intensely private. But I see something being lost from our cultural vocabulary, that is appropriated in unexpected places. Like the unexpected outgrowths of rhetoric: we do not teach it for it to be learned, but it is used magically against us in advertising. I have written before about the importance of first learning communication, before learning "facts". Another example of modern rhetoric is televangelism. But what of the Hellenistic skepticism that used to accompany rhetoric? He is to go "about with the caution of sick or injured people..." There are some intelligent uses of rhetoric in the film Leap of Faith, where Steve Martin ultimately admits his limits as preacher in the scene about "the genuine article"
Montaigne writes: "'tis a common vice ... almost of all men, to walk in the beaten road their ancestors have trod before them." To say it is a vice requires qualification: for the beaten road also includes rhetoric, which he liberally makes use of. What is ancient isn't necessarily retrograde, as testified by the book on the phrase: phusis kruptesthai philei - or the freshness of an engaging mind.

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