Last month’s blog, ‘Love Story’, related the story of a dog and how she was rescued by compassionate friends. Pace all sceptics of anthropomorphism, I am sure she understands what happened to her and now returns the same affection to those who transformed her life.
Last week, a little over a month after posting ‘Love Story’, live images from Brussels began to appear on our TV sets. At first it was hard to believe that what we were seeing was real; then came the realization that the scenes of suffering on the screen were not due to some terrible accident, but the result of acts of gratuitous hatred and cruelty. They were a flashback to what we had also seen, and at first been unable to believe, in November 2015 in Paris. As news came in of the explosions at the airport and metro, dazed survivors stumbled on screen, repeating the same words: ‘scènes d’horreur’, ‘l’enfer’, ‘le chaos’ ‘un cauchemare’. Scenes of horror, Hell, chaos and nightmare. Stunned passengers picked their way through dark tunnels, children sobbed and screamed, a paramedic stood, immobile, head in hands.
When it became impossible to watch I turned for answers to the words of one of France’s greatest writers.
The chateau de Montaigne in the Périgord region of France became home to the Montaigne family in 1477. Today, visitors can still see the tower which housed the library of the great Renaissance humanist, Michel De Montaigne and in which he worked, surrounded by paintings and books:
“I look out on my garden and farmyard, my courtyard and most of the house. I leaf through one book, then another, in no particular order and with no specific aim, sometimes I dream, sometimes I take notes and, wandering about, I dictate my reveries which are here set down for you.’
Montaigne (1533-1592) led a high-profile public life. He was a magistrate, served as the mayor of Bordeaux, played an active part in negotiations during the devastating wars of religion during which he lived, and travelled extensively in Europe. But the world remembers him as the author of the famous ‘Essais’, written over the last twenty years of his life, and which would impress generations to come by their profound insights into the human condition.
In attempting to understand who we are, Montaigne first applied his astonishing erudition by examining different topics from the standpoint of previous writers and philosophers. He then added to the mix his own personal experiences, giving the essays their unique and fascinating flavour: ‘Others form man, I only report him’, ‘I myself am the subject of my book’, and, he adds, had circumstances been otherwise, he would willingly have painted himself ‘in the fullest nudity.’*
Inspired by those who came before him and an inspiration to those who followed, Montaigne’s contemplative, meandering prose, studded with examples from daily life like the illuminations in a book of hours, is a true pleasure to read. It is also full of compassion and tolerance, and, like the works of Shakespeare, writing just after him, astonishingly modern in its relevance. He moves with ease from lofty, abstract subjects such as death, solitude, education and friendship, to the engagingly down-to-earth, discoursing on drunkenness or the intractability of the male organ, rising when it shouldn’t and refusing to rise when it should: (Car je vous donne à penser , s’il y a une seule des parties de notre corps qui ne refuse à notre volonté souvent son opération et qui souvent ne l’exerce contre notre volonté.’(Book I Ch 21)
Of particular relevance to the events of last Tuesday are his reflections on the subject of cruelty (Book II). For Montaigne, cruelty is the worst of all vices. ‘Je hay entre autres vices, cruellement, la cruauté…’ And not just cruelty between human beings, but also cruelty to animals. He cannot bear to see ‘a chicken have its throat cut’ nor hear the whimpers of ‘a hare in my dog’s teeth’. In the following chapter ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’ he returns to the subject of animals again, starting by attacking man’s arrogant presumptuousness, his ‘natural and original illness’. In our ‘divine’ presumption, he writes, we consider ourselves superior to animals who are ‘our fellows and companions’. Yet it is often such ‘morally superior’ beings who show themselves to be capable of terrible cruelty. Citing the example of the Romans who, starting with spectacles showing the slaughter of animals then progressed to the slaughter of men, he expresses the fear that nature has ‘attached’ to man some ‘instinct toward inhumanity’. No one, he says, takes pleasure in watching animals play together while everyone enjoys seeing them “s’entredéchirer et desmembrer“, dismember and tear each other to pieces.
Many people remarked on this aspect of the Paris attacks, where the terrorists specifically targeted people who were out to enjoy themselves-an evening with friends, a football match, a concert-people who were there to ‘s’entrejouer’ and who finished by being torn to pieces and dismembered.
One hundred and thirty people died in those attacks. This weekend the world has been remembering the latest victims of man’s ‘instinct toward inhumanity’, the 35 dead and 340 injured, their grieving families and friends, all those who suffered and died at the hands of other, ‘morally superior’, beings: the cruel authors of ‘Hate Story’, written in Brussels.
‘I have the tenderest compassion for others’ afflictions…Nothing tempts my tears but tears.’ Michel de Montaigne
A special thanks to Sylvain Grand’Maison for permission to use his striking illustration:
*Montaigne’s writing is accessible on the internet from a multitude of sources, varying according to the different editions/translations of his works. I’ve used the following sources to check the accuracy (or not) of French and English versions, with most of the latter being freely (and possibly incorrectly) translated by myself.
This excellent free site offers several versions of Montaigne’s works in French and English.
Offers editions of various authors for a small fee.
Visit this lovely site to read more about Montaigne’s tower and see some beautiful photos.