Montaigne on the work of human reason

The sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne pondered human reason. He observed:

I was recently letting my mind range wildly, as I often do, over how human reason is a vacant and rambling instrument. I normally see that men, if you ask them about facts, occupy themselves most willingly in searching for reasons rather than in searching for truth. They ignore the things that exist right there, and occupy themselves with examining causes … They pass over the actualities, but they examine carefully consequences. They begin normally in this way: “How does this come about?” — But does it actually exist? That is what should be said! Our discourse is capable of decorating a hundred other worlds and discovering their principles and foundations.

{ Je ravassois presentement, comme je faicts souvant, sur ce, combien l’humaine raison est un instrument libre et vague. Je vois ordinairement que les hommes, aux faicts qu’on leur propose, s’amusent plus volontiers à en cercher la raison qu’à en cercher la verité : ils laissent là les choses, et s’amusent à traiter les causes. … Ils passent par dessus les effects, mais ils en examinent curieusement les consequences. Ils commencent ordinairement ainsi: Comment est-ce que cela se faict? — Mais se fait il? faudroit il dire. Nostre discours est capable d’estoffer cent autres mondes et d’en trouver les principes et la contexture. }[1]

Montaigne respected Greek and Latin classics as repositories of human experience and wisdom. He preferred specific things and events embedded in narrative over speculative theory. In short, he recognized value in realistic stories.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne about 1565

Sex with a lame person has long been regarded as more pleasing than sex with a non-lame person. The eminent Christian theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam early in the sixteenth century cited in Greek and Latin the proverb, “The lame man best performs as a man {Ἄριστα χωλὸς οἰφεῖ / Claudus optime virum agit}.”[2] This classical wisdom wasn’t merely elite thinking. Drawing upon the authority of Erasmus, Montaigne declared:

It’s said that in Italy a common proverb asserts that one who hasn’t had sex with a lame woman doesn’t know sex in its sweet perfection. Chance, or some particular incident, long ago placed that saying in the mouth of the common people. And this is said for males as well as females, for to the Scythian who solicited her for sex, the Queen of the Amazons responded, “The lame man does it the best.”

{ on dict en Italie, en commun proverbe, que celuy-là ne cognoit pas Venus en sa parfaicte douceur qui n’a couché avec la boiteuse. La fortune, ou quelque particulier accident, ont mis il y a long temps ce mot en la bouche du peuple ; et se dict des masles comme des femelles. Car la Royne des Amazonnes respondit au Scyte qui la convioit à l’amour: Ἄριστα χωλὸς οἰφεῖ, le boiteux le faict le mieux. }[3]

The Amazons rejected their male children and attacked any men who entered their land. Amazons liked to dominate men. They could more easily dominate lame men.

Montaigne reasoned about the sexual superiority of lame persons. He explained:

I would have said that the erratic movement of the lame woman brought some new pleasure to the work and some prick of sweetness to those who tried it, but I have just learned that ancient philosophy itself has decided the cause. Philosophy says that the legs and thighs of lame women cannot receive, because of their imperfection, the nourishment that normally goes to them. It thus occurs that the genitals, which are above, become more full, more nourished, and more vigorous. Or it could well be that, since this defect inhibits exercise, those who are marred by it dissipate less of their strength and thus come more fully to the games of sex. That is also the reason why the Greeks proclaimed women who worked at the loom to be more hot in lust than other women. It was because of the sedentary job that these women did, a job without major exercise of the body.

{ J’eusse dict que le mouvement detraqué de la boiteuse apportast quelque nouveau plaisir à la besongne et quelque pointe de douceur à ceux qui l’essayent, mais je viens d’apprendre que mesme la philosophie ancienne en a decidé: elle dict que, les jambes et cuisses des boiteuses ne recevant, à cause de leur imperfection, l’aliment qui leur est deu, il en advient que les parties genitales, qui sont au dessus, sont plus plaines, plus nourries et vigoureuses. Ou bien que, ce defaut empeschant l’exercice, ceux qui en sont entachez dissipent moins leurs forces et en viennent plus entiers aux jeux de Venus. Qui est aussi la raison pourquoy les Grecs descrioient les tisserandes d’estre plus chaudes que les autres femmes: à cause du mestier sedentaire qu’elles font, sans grand exercice du corps. }[4]

One might question the validity of this reasoning. Montaigne noted:

About what could we not reason in that way there? About those weavers, here I could also say that the back-and-forth movement of their seated work therefore gives them arousal and stimulation, like the jerking and shaking of coaches does for ladies. Do not these examples serve to show what I said at the beginning: our reasons often go before the actuality, and have the extent of their jurisdiction so infinite, that they judge and apply themselves even to the void itself and to the non-existent?

{ De-quoy ne pouvons nous raisonner à ce pris là? De celles icy je pourrois aussi dire que ce tremoussement que leur ouvrage leur donne ainsin assises les esveille et sollicite, comme faict les dames le crolement et tremblement de leurs coches. Ces exemples servent-ils pas à ce que je disois au commencement: que nos raisons anticipent souvent l’effect, et ont l’estendue de leur jurisdiction si infinie, qu’elles jugent et s’exercent en l’inanité mesme et au non estre? }

Such working of reason can even colonize immediate experience. Montaigne observed:

Outside of the flexibility of our inventiveness in forging reasons for all sorts of fancies, our imagination similarly can find itself easily receiving false impressions from very fanciful appearances. Based on the sole authority of ancient and widespread repetition of that saying about a lame woman, I once made myself to believe that I had received more pleasure from a women because she wasn’t rightly formed, and I even accounted this among her graces.

{ Outre la flexibilité de nostre invention à forger des raisons à toute sorte de songes, nostre imagination se trouve pareillement facile à recevoir des impressions de la fauceté par bien frivoles apparences. Car, par la seule authorité de l’usage ancien et publique de ce mot, je me suis autresfois faict à croire avoir reçeu plus de plaisir d’une femme de ce qu’elle n’estoit pas droicte, et mis cela en recepte de ses graces. }[5]

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing and explains only capriciously. Humans are a rationalizing animal.

the evidence suggests that disabled people were ironically seen as more unreal or inhuman than the anatomical drawing or the mythical figure of Adonis in the garden. It was only in this way that the idea of a ‘natural’ individual, one whose body and desires fit within accepted parameters, could be maintained. To allow the disabled individual to live and love without comment was to accept a continuum wherein no one fit the physical or erotic ideals that accompanied the changing beliefs of the spirit or the emerging science of the body. In Garland-Thomson’s terminology, the anatomical standard had to be ‘shored up’ by the infinite variety of the lecherous grotesque and the sexual sinner, in order to eventually emerge in the form of the normate, the socially sanctioned object of erotic desire.[6]

Reason’s best hope is in studying imaginative literature created before today’s dominant ideologies colonized our minds. Reason can then better perceive lack of imagination.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais}, Book 3, Chapter 11, “On the lame {Des boyteux},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, my English translation, benefiting from that of Screech (1993). Subsequent English translations from Montaigne’s Essais are similarly sourced.

[2] Erasmus of Rotterdam {Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus}, Adages {Adagia}, 1849 (2.9.49), Greek and Latin text via Corpus Corporum (alternate source), my English translation. An alternate, moralizing translation: “The lame man makes the best lecher.” Mynors et al. (1982-2006) vol. 34, p. 108.

Erasmus provided a general sense of the proverb:

Customarily used when someone prefers his own lot, though it may be far from grand, to another man’s, though it seems preferable.

{ Dici solitum, ubi quispiam suam sortem vel parum egregiam anteponit alienae tametsi praestantiori. }

But Erasmus also provided an explanation for the literal sense, apparently under the assumption that the literal sense is true:

The same thing has been observed in our own day. Those who have deformed legs or lack some other limb are often sexually more effective than the rest of men, presumably by way of some natural compensation.

{ Animadversum est etiam illud nostris temporibus, plerunque qui tibiis sunt mutilis aut quopiam membro trunci, eos ad usum Veneris reliquis magis idoneos esse, nimirum paria faciente natura. }

Id. pp. 108-9. Montaigne may have been mocking Erasmus for his reasoning about a lame man’s sexual superiority.

Erasmus first distributed his Adagia in 1500. He subsequently expanded it until his death in 1536. Here’s a list of all Erasmus’s adages in Latin.

[3] Montaigne, Essais, from “Des boyteux.” All subsequent quotes from Montaigne are also from this chapter.

[4] In reference to ancient philosophy, Montaigne follows Erasmus’s explanation of better sex with the lame from Problemata attributed to Aristotle.

[5] Runyon (2013) detected symmetry in Montaigne’s Essais in chapters around the center chapter of each book. In Book 3 (consisting of 13 chapters), the symmetric chapter to “Des boyteux” (chapter 11) is “Of three kinds of intercourse {De trois commerces}” (chapter 3). In “De trois commerces,” Montaigne wrote:

On my part, I no more know Venus without Cupid than a maternity without offspring. These are things that lend and owe their essence to each other.

{ De moy, je ne connois non plus Venus sans Cupidon qu’une maternité sans engence: ce sont choses qui s’entreprestent et s’entredoivent leur essence. }

Montaigne apparently is saying that he no more knows sex without love than maternity without offspring. Here the phrase “ne connois non plus Venus” connects to “ne cognoit pas Venus” in “Des boyeux.” Id. pp. 203-4. Montaigne apparently didn’t just have casual sex with a crippled woman; he also loved her. Cf. id.

[6] McLelland (2017) p. 204.

[image] Portrait of Michel de Montaigne. Painted about 1565. Via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

McLelland, Kaye. 2017. “The lame man makes the best lecher: Sex, sin, and the disabled Renaissance body.” Pp. 189-209 in Lidman, Satu, Meri Heinonen, Tom Linkinen, and Marjo Kaartinen, eds. Framing Premodern Desires: sexual ideas, attitudes, and practices in Europe. Crossing Boundaries: Turku Medieval and Early Modern Studies 9. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Mynors, R.A.B. et al. 1982-2006. Erasmus. Adages. Vols. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36 in Collected Works of Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. 2013. Order in Disorder: intratextual symmetry in Montaigne’s Essais. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel de Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

Villey, Pierre, and Verdun Louis Saulnier. 1965. Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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