Sire, remember the Athenians

In order to contemplate [my  wandering thought’s] ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. – Montaigne, The Complete essays of Montaigne, from Of Idleness (21)

DSCI0014One of the wonderful things about Montaigne is his prodigious use of ancient writers to shape his ideas. He flings one quote after another onto the page at a furious pace. In the essay That our desire is increased by difficulty there is this gem:

The courtesan Flora used to say that she had never lain with Pompey without making him carry away the marks of her bites:
They hurt the longed-for body with their viselike grip,
And with their teeth they lacerate the tender lip,
Goaded by the secret stings to hurt the very thing,
Whate’er it be, from which these germs of madness spring.- Lucretius (464)

I found this essay particularly interesting having recently finished Love in the Western World because Montaigne discusses the same subject but his conclusion is slightly less hysterical.

What is allowed, we scorn; what’s not allowed, we burn for. – Ovid (466)

Rather than Rougemont’s pointing the finger of blame for this inclination at a “Pagan” mindset, which he argued had loose ideas about love and marriage that now makes us all confused by an addiction to the “pain of passion,” Montaigne describes the very same pain of passion as belonging to all time and all men (I have to resist my temptation to italicize the word men, but if woman had written more history and philosophy would we constantly be having this argument?).

Considering Montaigne’s liberal use of ancient sources, it is clear- if it’s true- we are and have always been warped, nothing particularly Christian or Pagan about it. Never the less, Montaigne very soon gets a little off the track of love, and uses this principle for a diversion into social engineering. He argues it is the bars on the windows, so to speak, that increases the desire to do wrong. If you do not want your house to be robbed- don’t lock it. If you do not want someone to walk across your garden, better to put a little silk cord across it than a tempting  fence which will perversely induce the desire.

Locked places invite the thief. The burglar passes by what is open. -Seneca (467)

I hesitantly agree with much of this principle- forbidden things are given allure that they do not necessarily possess.  But, as I mentioned in my ramblings regarding Love in the Western World,  the  I love her more because I can’t have her meme is as insulting as it is immature. Obviously there are plenty of odious rakes throughout history that are only occupied with their ennui and narcissism: those that seek merely to play with other people’s hearts until they are captured, only to be abandoned. But isn’t it possible that there is a lot written and thought about the pain of love because it’s often…painful? Real hearts get broken. This is life. Whether by death, circumstances, or simply unrequited (although that last one I am not convinced of – seems more a form of masochism than true love), a broken heart is the sort of pain that is so excruciating the only means of encompassing the throbbing aura of ache is art- consequently the intensity of poetry looms large in this domain. I will go out on a limb and suggest that Montaigne might agree, which may be why he wanders away from love in his essay and widens the scope to the dangers of unnecessarily forbidding our desires to more mundane aspects of life.

There are many thought provoking pieces in this collection, but I will mention just one more, because I loved the humor and truth (those two are always hand in hand in my mind). Of liars begins with a discourse on memory, as Montaigne puts it,  It is not unreasonably said that anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying (23) He bemoans his own inferior power to recall, but then adds a couple of silver linings, one being:

My second consolation is that I remember injuries received less, as that ancient said; I should need a prompter, like Darius, who, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: “Sire, remember the Athenians.” (23)

That one made me laugh aloud because, while I am sadly lacking in servants, I should at least probably make a note or two for myself to try to counter-act  my failures of memory. I have more than once had to stop myself whilst talking with someone (usually my children) and exclaim, “Wait a minute, I forgot- I’m mad at you!” Instead of Sire, remember the Athenians, mine will be- Jessica, remember the child that finished all the milk so you had none for coffee this morning.

It is always a marvel to me that from before the time that we humans had even begun putting pen to paper we have puzzled over the same unanswerable questions. It is never enough that someone else has done it before me, it’s not even enough that I have done it before. Whoever I will be tomorrow, the next day, and beyond, will continue mulling over the sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful mystery of life.

I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.
from Of repentance (611)

*The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame


21 responses to “Sire, remember the Athenians

  1. Wow Jessica, you contend with a lot is this expose; it seems to say more about you and less your subject. We both seem to have an abiding appreciation of the essay and doubt is a keynote, a doubling back, a questing after truth, universal not personal. Our writing can work as a balm to heal all that hurts.
    I love her more because I can’t have her meme is as insulting as it is immature. I am not sure why you see this as insulting and immature. But unrequited love is quiet real; a human condition: something to contend with; heart felt and real.

    • Well, let me disagree. Love, in my opinion is not a solitary activity. If you are not loved back you may have longing but it is not the same as love. If you are not loved back, well – that is not a very passion producing feeling, in my opinion.
      And as for the immature and insulting part, again, do you love the who or the what? I object on the grounds of a sort of base objectification that is satisfied with the imagined object of love rather than the subject- the person…recall, that these essays imply that we purposefully put up barriers to increase our desire, and I say- bullshit. If you do that, than you have no regard for the subject of your love, only infatuation with the object.

      • I guess we have keep in mind these are abstract concepts; Like the very idea of stoicism; taking to extreme it does not pan out. Have you ever seen that film swimming with sharks; that was the first time that i realized that philosophies are based on ideas and taking to extreme they seem to exclude what it means to be human. The same with Raskolnikov, he could not in the end achieve the goals of an Übermensch- superman and as regards love we have only Jesus example and we can only aspire, but lets keep going around the block with this; it’s a subject worthy of consideration.

      • I don’t mean to minimize the pain of unrequited passion, only to say that it can not be love. I don’t mean to offend you. I would think that in a healthy person there would be no attraction in being rejected. Otherwise there is only one direction to go in- inward. That is where the masochism of why am I not loved, or why am I unworthy can turn into a very unhealthy project.
        It is true that philosophy can get very abstract, but I will risk offending you a little more this morning and say, that is somewhat my point- love is not abstract, it’s personal. This is why I question the concept of “loving” everyone (in the religious sense) I think, like the necessity to de-humanize the enemy (in combat) in order to kill them, to try to love everyone also requires an abstracting de-huminazation. I prefer to aspire to simple kindness. Be kind. That I can try to do.

      • At first i took you to be a classicist, but now I see you as a romantic. these ideas you feel from your heart, but these ideas have to be solved with the mind only then can the heart be trusted; fun to have had this talk this morning.

      • oh I wouldn’t trust my heart as far as you could kick it. I will take my dismissal in good steed, I am glad to have had a rousing chat, no need to look into my eyes, that’s the fun of discourse! If we sat across from each other we would be laughing in the spirit in which I write. I welcome your comments, as always.

      • I would disagree; eyes are important; that’s what we lack: such real-life open forum exchanges; heated debates about Socratic ideas with a human being seating across from us. Our bread and butter is the dialectic; what comes between our thoughts to produce new thoughts only the eyes know.

      • If you do that, than you have no regard for the subject of your love, only infatuation with the object.
        It is a little bit more complex, nuanced. Everything seems to be intertwined; so that would include the object and the subject; Sure if it is totally the object it becomes a fetish but what exactly are we talking about; i return to your original statement that love is not a solitary activity; true and where you go with that thought could lead anywhere. And maybe we have to speak about the many types of love: 1 Storge – affection
        2 Phileo – friendship
        3 Eros – romance
        4 Agape – unconditional love
        and it just depends on where you are as regards your capacity to love and it depends on the relationship.
        Sometimes i wish I was sitting across from you; eyes can soften our points of disagreement, but really there is no disagreement: just a groping after truth, no?

  2. I agree with you, Jessica regarding love vs objectification…
    And regarding the Of repentance piece, the poor soul would be labelled ADD today.
    It is charming and maddening that Montaigne is totally relatable.

  3. Wow! What a thought-provoking discussion.
    We definitely live in a time and a culture which dismisses the concept of unrequited love. I myself haven’t really felt the pain of it since middle school – matter-of-fact social values tell me that I do have control over my love, and can choose to focus on people who are interested in me, and so I temper the passion with proactivity.
    Therefore, reading about unrequited love in old books is frustrating. Just get over it, I want to say to all those Shakespeareans and Athenians who produce so much murder and pain over being denied their caprices. Don’t you have better things to be doing, Athena?
    But then, I remember that I live in a culture, a place, and a class rife with romantic candidates. I don’t live in a village in Mozambique, I’m not a lower-class male in Pakistan where all of the women are locked indoors, didn’t even grow up in a small town in England where every female I’ve known since I was born, and where each relationship is granted significant gravity.
    We also live in a time and a place with a hell of a lot of romantic freedom. Marriage across classes, divorce, growing tolerance of homosexuality, sex outside of marriage to temper our passions, even widespread access to pornography and the ability to talk about sex and sexual relations – all of these things, along with my privileged access to education and intellectualism, help to decrease the love fetishism and allow me/us to be a bit more matter-of-fact. Particularly in cities, particularly in educated classes, we generally understand that, for us, love is not a one-person one-chance event, and it’s not the be-all end-all; it is separate from lust; that it is a partnership which we can open, close or renew, so long as both parties are willing.
    So while I agree that, for our culture, the concept of unrequited love is silly, immature, and short-sighted, I’d suggest that’s because our concept of love is radically different from concepts of love throughout the world today and throughout time.

    • Your comments wonderfully broaden the subject. The history of how love is viewed is fascinating. But included in my definition of heartbreak are loves that are unconsummated due to circumstance (of which there are fewer and fewer real circumstantial barriers- as you allude to- than ever before). But I think I hear in your comments an agreement with me…true unrequited “love” means that there is no love. It is not the myriad circumstances standing in the way, it is a lack of feeling- to which there is no remedy. Painful as it may be, it is not love (I say) because it is lacking…half the equation. Therefore, painful as that feeling may be, it does not compare to the heartbreak of the loss of a love or a loved one through death or circumstance.

  4. I’m going to tentatively say that yes, you’re right, I agree . . . so long as the definition of “love” we’re working with is the one which is a product of our culture, and which we identify with; which must seem alien and frivolous to the peasants of Shakespeare’s time, for example; or the necessity that love and marriage would become in a rural Ukrainian village with a limited population; or an Australian aboriginal tribe.
    Do you agree that their concepts, and social purposes, of love must be incredibly different in these places? Just as my version of romantic love is drastically different from that of a polyamorous group or a 1960’s commune.

    • Yes. Maybe. But…I go back to The Illiad…and Hector. Hector loved his wife and child in a way so completely familiar that I can not think it is so very different today. I am not talking about the institution of marriage which certainly is different at different times and places throughout history, but love…I think I might dare to say- love is love.

  5. Thank you! What a good point. Now I’m going to find out if anyone has written a book about this, because I want to know.

    • If you find one let me know, and I will do likewise! I do know that it has been touched on before, (not a whole book, which is what we want, but a chapter) took me a little while to find it in my own memory haha. Thomas Cahill confirmed my suspicions about Hector, he touches on Hector’s love as a first instance of familial and romantic love in his book The Wine Dark Sea, and then I might direct you (if you have not gone before) to Sappho, her poetry is pretty love affirming. Just stay away from the Spartans…but then again that is what most people in the end did- we are much more decedents of Athens than the Laecendonians- thank goodness.

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