Having run through Montaigne’s essays several times now, why do so again with a special focus on Stoicism. I have a few reasons.
The first is that Stoicism is hot right now. There are numerous philosophy influencers who focus on this particular modality, making it a potential niche – and given my unwillingness to court an audience in the past, perhaps this is personal growth.
Second, Stoicism is also the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it too is hot right now. Third, I have seen a few videos of late directly bringing Montaigne into this conversation, so perhaps there’s an opportunity for me to share some expertise.
The final reason is that I just need another big project to throw myself into and Montaigne is always my go-to solution for that. Plus, this URL is still fairly well known and easier to build on than a brand new platform, so why not?
So let me jump right into this, with Montaigne’s very first essay “We reach the same ends by discrepant means,” which has never been a favorite of mine, because it focuses almost entirely on military history. But it does include a very interesting accidental topic sentence for the full project (“Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgment on him which is steady and uniform.”)
And, more interestingly to this project, it also includes Montaigne’s first mention of Stoicism, a mere five paragraphs into his first essay. He writes:
Both of these means would have swayed me easily, for I have a marvelous weakness towards mercy and clemency – so much so that I would be more naturally moved by compassion than by respect. Yet for the Stoics pity is a vicious emotion: they want us to succor the afflicted but not to give way and commiserate with them.
This is an intriguing line that leaves me wanting so much more – which Stoics backed this concept? As one who works for a humanitarian nonprofit, I’m intrigued by the concept of giving succor to suffering people, but not commiseration.
Unfortunately, Montaigne moves on quickly from this point and goes back to military history, neither developing his conclusion nor bringing in any Stoic thinkers. But if we return to that topic sentence paragraph I mentioned before, Montaigne does bring Zeno into the conversation, who he frequently refers to throughout the essays as the leader of the Stoic school. Montaigne writes:
... and great-heartedness of Zeno, a citizen who assumed full responsibility for the public wrong-doing and who begged no other favor than alone to bear the punishment of it.
The Zeno anecdote doesn’t relate to the earlier statement about the Stoics. And according to a footnote by editor/translator M.A. Screech, Montaigne erred here, and really meant Stheno, the Gorgon sister from Greek mythology. But the Screech note doesn’t make sense, there’s nothing in Stheno’s mythological story that relates to this point at all. The closest Zeno comes to it is a story about a slaves who stole from him and remarked that he could help it, he was fated to steal – leading Zeno to remark that, true, but you were fated to be beaten as well.
So is Montaigne being ironic by calling Zeno great-hearted? If so, perhaps the anecdote relates to his earlier point about Stoicism after all. As it’s written, it’s impossible to tell what Montaigne met about either point. Thankfully, his thinking becomes clearer as the project continues.