Reading “RM” 10: A Few Words on Montaigne, Socrates and Stoicism

After addressing Montaigne and Christianity, Merleau-Ponty turns to Montaigne and the Stoics.  It will help us think about that relationship if we remind ourselves of a passage of Montaigne’s from Of Experience.

It is from my experience that I affirm human ignorance, which is, in my opinion, the most certain fact in the school of the world.  Those who will not conclude their own ignorance from so vain an example as mine, or as theirs, let them recognize it through Socrates, the master of masters.  For the philosopher Antisthenes would say to his pupils:  “Let us go, you and I, to hear Socrates; there I shall be a pupil with you.”  And maintaining this doctrine of the Stoic sect, that virtue was enough to make a life fully happy and free from need of anything whatever, he would add:  “Excepting the strength of Socrates.”

Socrates trumps Antisthenes, even for Antisthenes; Socrates is master of masters.  So he was for Montaigne too.  This passage is one in which Montaigne signals his passage from the Stoics to Socrates.

Hamann dubbed Socrates the prophet of the Unknown God (thinking, of course, about St. Paul on Mars Hill).  Merleau-Ponty notes of Montaigne that he invokes an Unknown God.  But Montaigne also invokes, as Merleau-Ponty sees it, an Impossible Reason.  Merleau-Ponty is driven to this phrase (and by the way, the capitalization is mine, not MMP’s) by Montaigne’s repeated strain of withdrawal, of preserving some piece of ourselves, some place in ourselves, from which we can see all that we do, all that we commit, all that we have committed to, as external–as something happening almost to someone else, as the vicissitudes of a role we play, but not of ourselves.  This withdrawal, this holding back, this is what tempts Montaigne in stoicism.  He can see that mixing in marriage, in love, in social life, in politics is to live according to others.  Montaigne would rather live according to himself.

But, Merleau-Ponty argues, Montaigne cannot really hope to do what he would rather do.  “He had described consciousness, even in its solitude, as already mixed according to its very principle with the absurd and foolish.  How could he have prescribed consciousness dwell in itself, since he thinks it is wholly outside itself?  Stoicism can only be a way-point.”

Montaigne knows that the world pulls us in, and does so not so much against our will as because of the nature of our consciousness.  We will be mixed up with the world–that’s that.  We cannot hole up in consciousness and let the world go by without touching it and without being touched.  Socrates is the master of masters–in the world but not of it.  Married with children, a soldier, an occasional (forced) politician, a man of conversation:  he was decidedly mixed up with the world.  But he somehow managed to avoid being mixed up by the world.  In Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, Porphyry marvels at Plotinus’ ability “to be present at once to himself and his friends”.  Socrates had this ability; Montaigne could see it (as could Antisthenes:  it is Socrates’ “strength”).  Montaigne wants to find a way to live as Socrates did.  He wants to understand how to live according to himself while he lives according to others.  That could seem impossible–but Socrates realized the impossibility.  So what are the “conditions and motives for this return to the world”, for this overcoming of Stoicism, this mixing with the world?  That is the question Merleau-Ponty asks as he ends the section on Stoicism and prepares to begin the long final section of the essay–the answer to the question.  Put the question this way:  how can a person become disposable to the world, available to it, without becoming unhandy to himself?

4 responses

  1. Your elucidation of Socrates’ strength in terms of his ability to mix up with the world while not being mixed up by it made me think of Callicles, of how much Socrates is disconcerting to him—and not just any of Socrates’ beliefs, but his whole being, his life. It’s as if Callicles cannot take in the impossibility of Socrates. In a way, he recognizes Socrates’ strength better than others: He sees how firmly committed Socrates is to living “according to himself,” how true he is to himself. But he cannot reconcile that with his also living according to others. There is, for Callicles, no living according to others that is also a living according to oneself, and so, to conceive of the possibility of Socrates, he must portray him as withdrawn from the world—as being neither in nor of the world. Socrates, for Callicless, can only be an Amphion.

    If this way I’m suggesting to think of Callicless is at all plausible, then perhaps we can understand Plato to be raising, through the character of Callicless, the question (MMP’s question) asked at the end of your post: “How can a person become disposable to the world, available to it, without becoming unhandy to himself?” How is Socrates possible?

    • That’s an exciting reading of Callicles, D, and I’m indebted to you for it. As you know, I think that the question you end your comment with can be taken as the question of Plato’s authorship: How is Socrates possible? Socrates is as much or more a mystery to his interlocutors than are any of the X’s in his “What is X?” questions.

  2. The other day a bottle of shampoo fell on my foot. It reminded me how pain can make one unavailable to the world, and the world unavailable to one.
    But in light of that I have a question. There is a distinction that I am fond of, but am not really sure how to make, between two kinds of spiritual projects—“flying” projects and “floating” projects: On the one hand there are those projects that are supposed to make one transcend, surpass, overcome, triumph over one’s nature: to fly. (Perhaps the TLP project of solving all the problems of philosophy in essentials is an example.) On the other hand, there are those projects that are supposed to make it possible for one for the first time to live a normal human life—to keep one’s hear above the water, to float. (Perhaps Kafka’s hunger artist, who only wants to be able to express himself with meaningful words, and to be heard, is an example.) I have always been attracted to this distinction, but have never been able to decide how useful it really is.
    For it very much seems that this whole business of becoming available to the world, without becoming unhandy to ourselves is a “flying” project. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that my shampoo incident—which for a while reduced me to a sub-human level—has to be an image of the state we wish to overcome by making ourselves available without becoming unhandy to ourselves, which would mean that by becoming available, we for the first time manage to float.

    • Flying vs. Floating: that’s quite a distinction. I am not sure I see the distinction, but I’ve caught the scent a bit. Let me muddle through some thoughts and get back to you.

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