Man and his Finery
“wise, lord of himself, not terrified of death, poverty or shackles? Is he a man who stoutly defies his passions, who scorns ambition? Is he entirely self-sufficient? Is he like a smooth round sphere which no foreign object can adhere to and which maims Fortune herself if she attacks him?”
Plutarch once said – and I paraphrase – that the difference in marrow between man and man is greater than that between beast and beast, but Montaigne went farther and said that there is a greater stretch between one such man and another than one beast and man himself. It is rather staggering that everything except man is weighed up according to its own peculiar attributes – a horse is commended for its vigorous deftness, but not for its straps and fittings. A man, on the other hand, is not truly evaluated for his own individual facets – which are positively his – but rather by what encompasses him, and is not really his. Why appraise a man who is covered in gift-wrap? disguising himself in elements that are not his own while keeping hidden the kernel of his true worth.
Such behaviour is very telling, is it not? There is something disreputable and suspect about this kind of duplicity that indicates a potential and very likely nastiness underlying the pretence. You are seeking to discover the merit of the blade, not of the sheath that covers it; but strip it of its case and you may find that the finery and ornamentation of the scabbard was compensating for the shoddiness of the blade. The moral is that you don’t judge a man by his regalia; you judge him by his bare spirit, stripped of all embellishments. Perhaps, you perceive him as a man of great stature because you are not discounting his high-heels, as you should if you were truly ruthless in your discernment. This, of course, is not only true metaphorically, but also literally, in some cases. The bed and the mattress are not one and the same. Hence, if you are going to determine his height, or shall I say his magnitude, you should put his lavish possessions to one side, because these are merely recreational intrusions that deflect what he’s actually worth.
Accordingly, there is a vast discrepancy among men. In this day and age, nearly all men are stunned, improper, subservient, unbalanced and incessantly quivering about in a passionately uncontrollable uproar, steering them from one snare to another. Such men are over-reliant and rather fixated with the idea of control, yet they hardly have any of it. They are disunited within themselves, in that heaven and earth couldn’t be more estranged from one another. And I am of the belief that when alienation and disunion are mingled together, there arises out of it a dissolution, a perversion of morals, an embittered hostility. This naturally paves the way to thorough self-destruction and unhappiness.
The Injustice in Indulgence
“If your stomach, lungs and feet are all right, then a king’s treasure can offer you no more.”Tibullus
Be it happiness or sexual delight, neither are significant without good health and intelligence, because to relish these so-called ‘goods’ demands honour and dignity. Good fortune can’t be relished without having a sense of its authentic flavor, for what truly brings us contentment is not mere ownership, but the enjoyment tied to it. If you can’t enjoy good fortune once you have it, you’re simply a fool – tasteless, uninteresting, monotonous. To be endowed with fortune and live a shallow existence, one which lacks refinement and grace and depth is nonsensical. Such a fool doesn’t know what to relish as his tastefulness is deprived of palate, and so often ends up relishing nothing worthy of being enjoyed. A mouthwatering plateful of pasta is no more delightful to him than a pack of canned dog food. Even Plato instructs us when he says that health, beauty, strength and wealth are equally good and bad depending on the justice of the person bestowed with them. In other words, good things could be hurtful to the unjust, but equally beneficial to the just. It is not so much the goodness of a thing, as the goodness and integrity of the handler.
“Such things are like the mind which possesses them; good for the mind which knows how to use them rightly, but for the mind which knows not, bad.”
Indulgence in anything has, as one might expect, a benumbing effect. Joys which once brought you immense pleasure become insipid, even unpleasant when you’ve had more than your fair share without the slightest restraint. When you’re deprived of pleasure, you have a fervent craving for it – the desire itself cluthes onto you until you relieve it of its force; but when you have indulged in gratifying your longing, the very sight of pleasure makes you shudder in revulsion. Glancing at a woman’s naked form, for instance, isn’t half as pleasurable or gratifying after having just relished it so thoughtlessly. Therefore, man ought to permit himself space from eating in order to renew his hunger and be in a position to enjoy feasting.
Needless to say, a man who’s in a state of incessant indulgence can’t command himself, but given the general feebleness of his discernment and lack of decision making, it is easier and more viable for him to be commanded than to command. Nonetheless, in spite of the prospect of blind obedience, let us not pass over the tranquility and calm in conforming to the laws and being at the helm of yourself and no one else. Notwithstanding, even such a state of affairs demands self-command. It is preferable and necessary to be capable of leading your own way, especially if you’re not leading anyone else – you want to be so apt in guiding yourself that you need not heavily depend on anyone to hold you by the hand and direct you. As a matter of fact, this is chiefly what a great father does to his son: he teaches him to pave his own way without having to lean on others to puzzle out his course – this is ultimately what self-sufficiency is all about; being in a position where solitariness does not put you at a disadvantage.
And I shall close off this piece with a fine turn of phrase by our personable and ever modest Montaigne, “Why do you not place yourself now where you say you aspire to be, and so spare yourself all the toil and risk that you are putting between you and it?” Don’t wait around, don’t temporise, don’t co-exist in two minds, don’t allow reluctance and doubt to impede action-taking. Whatever is holding you back could be extinguished by your readiness to take measures in the direction of your higher aims. For time is being exhausted at every step, and the more you ruminate the ‘what ifs’, the likelier it is that you will later repent.
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