PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; I understood it to be an argument about why it’s important to investigate the issue in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. For this reason we need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Lais of Marie De France (trans. Glynn S.Burgess and Keith Busby)

Marie de France may have been the half-sister of King Henry II. She may have been born in France and wrote her tales in England. Our knowledge of Marie is limited and the authorship of these tales is often debated. As the introduction of my edition states, “We can assert with conviction that at least one poet by the name of Marie was writing in the second half of the twelfth century, but it is equally certain that the author who composed the lays . . . was not called Marie de France (7).” In other words, it may be that some anonymous author wrote these works and they have become associated with her name over time. Although these lays are technically poetry, in translation they read like an early form of the short story.

In “Guigemar,” a knight known for his prowess in battle and lack of interest in women is cursed after being wounded during a hunt. His victim, a talking animal, warns Guigemar that his wound will not heal until he knows love. Soon after, he ends up on a mysterious ship that takes him to a tower where an elderly lord has locked up his young and beautiful wife. The knight and the young lady fall in love with each other. They get separated after their love affair gets discovered by the elderly lord, but before they do they exchange tokens in order to recognize each other in the future if they ever meet again and eventually they do.

In “Equitan,” a powerful king falls in love with his vassal’s wife. She agrees to have a love affair with him. They plan to kill her husband by throwing him into a boiling tub of water, but the vassal discovers their plot and ends up throwing them into the boiling water instead as a punishment for their treachery.

In “Le Fresne,” a noble woman insults the honor of her guest pregnant with twins by claiming that twins can only be conceived by sleeping with two men. Shortly after, the accuser herself becomes pregnant with twins and her words rebound against her. So to save her honor, she has a servant take one of the children away to an abbey. The girl becomes known as Le Fresne and after growing up she becomes a lover to a powerful Lord named Gurun.  After some time, his vassals chastise him for his love affair and want him to marry a proper lady. Le Fresne resigns herself to give up her lover. However, it turns out the lady they find to marry Gurun is actually her twin sister. Through some tokens of recognition, they all discover the truth and Le Fresne now able to establish her identity as the sister of the highborn lady gets to marry Gurun.

In “Bisclavret,” a noblewoman wheedles out of her husband the secret reason why he disappears every few nights. It turns out every few nights he transforms into a werewolf. He informs her it is his clothes that allow him to return to his human form again. The wife decides that she “no longer wished to lie with him (69)” and steals his clothes so he is unable to resume his human form. Then she takes another knight for her lover. During a hunt, the king realizes the werewolf he is hunting acts sentient like a human and decides to take him back to his castle as a cherished pet. After summoning his vassals, the wife and her new lover arrive at court and the werewolf attacks them. Through torture they discover from the truth from the lady about the werewolf. They restore his clothes and he resumes human form.

In “Lanval,” the knight of the same name is selected by a rich and mysterious lady to be her lover with the catch that if he ever tells anyone about her he will never see her again. After Lanval’s fame rises, the Queen falls in love with him and tries to seduce him, but he rejects her advances and insults her with the beauty of his secret lover. Angry at this insult, the Queen accuses Lanval of trying to seduce her and the King puts him on trial for his life. In a fit of depression, Lanval is prepared to die, assuming he will never see his beloved again since he broke her rule and spoke about her, but the lady arrives at the king’s court in order to save his life and prove the truth of his words.

In “Les Deus Amanz,” a knight takes on a challenge to win his beloved by carrying her up a mountain. She tries to assist him by getting a family member to provide him with a restorative potion. However, he forgets the potion during the task and dies in the process.

In “Yonec,” a jealous old man locks his young beautiful wife in a tower. A bird comes to the window and transforms into a knight who becomes her lover in secret. Soon the old man discovers their affairs and places traps around the window. The knight is fatally injured by these traps. The woman jumps out of the window chasing after her injured husband, manages to survive her fall, and follows the path of blood to her lover’s kingdom. He prophesies that their child with take revenge on her husband. She has her lover’s child and her husband raises the child thinking it is his own. When the child learns the truth he takes revenge on his stepfather and then inherits his dead father’s kingdom.

In “Laustic,” a married lady who loves a knight from afar wakes up every night just to get a glimpse of her lover. The suspicion husband realizes what she is doing and kills a nightingale that the lady uses as her excuse for staying up so late.

In “Milun,” a knight has an illicit affair with a woman and gets her pregnant. They send the baby away. Eventually the child grows up and becomes a renowned knight. He fights his father in a tournament where they discover each other’s identities.

In “Chaitivel,” a woman falls in love with four knights and cannot choose between them. Three of them die in a tournament. The lady takes care of the surviving knight who is severely injured. Unfortunately, he is now impotent. She tells him she wants to compose a lay about the tragedy of the three dead men, but he tells her the real tragedy is his since he survived and gets the chance to talk with her all the time, but his injuries prevent him from physical love with her.

In “Chevrefoil,” King Mark banishes his nephew, Tristram, after rumors that he loves the Queen. In his banishment, the Queen finds him and reveals her love for Tristram. King Mark regrets banishing him and Tristram returns to his service.

In “Eliduc,” false rumors causes a king to banish the knight Eliduc. His wife has him promise to stay faithful to her in his exile. He goes to another kingdom and serves a different king besieged by enemies. Eliduc shines in battle and wins an honored place with this other king. The king’s daughter falls in love with him. After some reluctance, he becomes her lover. The original king that banished Eliduc calls him back. Eliduc returns to his wife, but is extremely unhappy to lose his new lover. After winning the war for his original liege, he returns back to the other kingdom and takes the princess back with him to his homeland. On the way, a storm threatens their ship and a servant in fear that they have offended God reveals to the princess that Eludic is married. This knowledge with her seasickness causes her to feint and Eludic believes she is dead. He makes plans to bury her. After becoming suspicious of her husband’s behavior, the wife discovers the existence of the lover and learns that she isn’t dead. She witnesses a weasel use a plant to restore another weasel. She then takes this plant and uses it to restore the princess. The wife agrees to take a vows in order to leave Eludic free to marry his true love.

 

These stories are extremely short. Some no longer than two pages. The minimalism of the characters and the occasional magical element (like the talking animal that curses Guigemar, the hawk-knight in Yonec and the werewolf in Bisclavret) gives these tales an atmosphere similar to those of a fairy tale. Even when the tales give a particular locale, the world it presents feels like a generic medieval kingdom that could be anywhere and is highly idealized.

These stories reflect the values of the nobility. This can be seen in that all the main characters and most of the characters through the tales are knights, kings, lords, and princesses; the peasantry are almost entirely absent from the idealized medieval world of these stories. The shortness of the tales doesn’t leave much time for character development; instead, the characters are described by generic and idealized qualities such as their valor, how beautiful or handsome they appear, and generous behavior towards others. The exploration of the values of courtly love features in all the stories. The love depicted in these tales feels artificial and forced; the characters usually just meet, share a few words, and just fall in love with each other without much development. Although sometimes the tales suggest that a princess falls in love with a particular knight due to his prowess in battle and he falls for her due to her unmatched beauty. The underlying logic of these stories is that since he is the best knight in the area, therefore he deserves the most beautiful and noblest born of the ladies. In stories like “Equitan,” we have characters punished not so much for their infidelity, but their disloyalty to their vassal. After all, if feudalism is a political and social system built on loyalty, it would follow that disloyalty undermines the entire system. “Eliduc” takes the logic of both these ideas to its furthest conclusion in that Eliduc is often torn between loyalties. Should he serve his original king when he is called back to assist him after swearing his service to the new king for a year? Should he break his promise to his wife and become the princess’s lover? The system of feudalism and the ideal of noble behavior can form quite a tangled web of allegiances. Here is an academic website that provides even more information on Marie De France and has links to online translations different than the ones I used.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first sensation novels and a mystery. With that said, if you prefer to maintain the mystery for yourself, which is one of the joys of reading this novel you may not wish to read further in this post as it will contain spoilers.

 

On his way to accepting a position as drawing-master down at Limmeridge House, Walter Hartright encounters the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. Walter little realizes how this one fateful night will embroil him in an extraordinary mystery and conspiracy. At Limmeridge House, he begins to teach the talkative and strong-willed Ms. Marian Halcombe and the beautiful, quiet, naïve Ms. Laura Fairlie, half-sisters to each other, only to fall in love with Laura. She returns Walter’s feelings, but unfortunately is already arranged to be married to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde, which were the final wishes of her father on his death-bed. Soon an anonymous letter arrives for Laura describing Sir Percival Glyde as a heartless monster and warning her against marrying him. After some inquiry in town, it is discovered that the letter comes from the woman in white. Ms. Halcombe and Walter also learn from old letters of the late Mrs. Fairlie that the woman is named Anne Catherick and has once been to Limmeridge House. Walter speaks to Anne and finds out it was Sir Percival Glyde that locked her up in the asylum, but before they can find out the reason why Catherick flees in fear. It turns out that the Sir Percival sent her to an asylum because he believes Anne knows a terrible secret that could ruin him. The impending marriage sends Hartright to the Americas to forget his troubled emotions over Laura and Laura ends up in a loveless marriage that will lead to a conspiracy to steal her inheritance. Sir Percival Glyde marries Laura for her money to help pay off major debts. Once married Sir Percival’s friend, the cunning Count Fosco along with his wife who happens to be Laura’s aunt, come to stay at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival. Much of the novel is spent with Ms. Halcombe analyzing the behavior of these two men and attempting to outwit them in their conspiracies against her and Laura. Eventually the right opportunity comes and Count Fosco manages to switch Anne Catherick who strongly resemble Laura Fairlie with Laura Fairlie. Anne dies under the identity of Laura Fairlie, which allows the two men to inherit Laura’s money, while it is Laura who ends up in the madhouse as Anne Catherick. Ms. Halcombe rescues her sister from the asylum and Walter Hartright returns from the Americas and assists them in unraveling the conspiracy and restoring Laura’s identity as a living person.

 

The novel reveals the limits and problems of the law. Laura’s uncle, Mr. Fairlie who is an invalid and hates to be bothered with responsibilities, shows an unwillingness to fight for the best possible marriage settlement for Laura at the advice of his lawyer. Laura is at the whims of her male uncle’s decisions. If he had accepted the lawyers suggestion to not include her entire inheritance in the marriage settlement should Laura die it is likely the conspiracy against his niece never would have occurred. Likewise, the law has no recourse to prove the conspiracy perpetuated on Laura without the hard-gained evidence gathered by Walter Hartright. Even Percival Glyde’s secret which involved him forging information about his parent’s marriage in a registry at a church in order to inherit his titles and estates fails to be discovered by the means of the law. On the other hand, it is the laws of society that lead Sir Percival to forge the information in the first place. He is in fact the son of the previous Baronet and his lover, but because they were never legally married he isn’t entitled to his father’s estate according to society’s law. This arbitrary rule of society that his parents must be married for him to inherit shows the inadequacy of the law. It isn’t the law that brings Count Fosco to justice, but an assassin serving the secret society that he betrayed; in other words, vigilante justice, the very opposite of the law. The novel then shows the many ways the law fails to bring justice on various crucial issues.

Count Fosco is a challenge to the Victorian assumption that the arts and literature morally improve a person. He is as cultivated in the arts and in the sciences as one can be during this time period and claims to be sensitive to others emotions and feelings (a man of sentiment), yet he questions morality and virtue, and displaying a willingness to kill, ruin, or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his own interests. He not only shows us this, but tells us he is will punish anyone who threatens his interests. He also makes a speech before the two lady’s against virtue. Sir Percival represents a very different type of evil. He is all anger, tyranny, and resentment towards others, unable to control his emotions, yet hesitant to go as far as Fosco and kill others, preferring to control them through intimidation. As Fosco reveals in his letter that appears towards the end of the book, if Sir Percival had just taken his advice to have Mr. Hartright murdered and had recommitted Laura to the asylum they never would’ve been outwitted in the end.

Eventually Percival Glyde and Count Fosco do get their comeuppance. Percival dies in a fire after accidentally locking himself in the vestry when trying to destroy the forgery that he made all those years ago in attempt to remove the evidence against himself. Count Fosco is murdered in Paris for betraying a political brotherhood he once belonged to as a younger man in Italy. Walter attributes their demises, along with the necessary and accidental discoveries he makes along the way that help him solve the many mysteries in the book and restore Laura’s good name, to divine providence. This directly repudiates the Count’s philosophy against virtue that he makes in his speech. On the other hand, Laura marries Sir Percival and rejects Walter out of virtue (honoring her father’s wishes as opposed to her own “selfish” desires). She even reveals to Sir Percival that she will marry him, but doesn’t love him as her heart belongs to another. This admission is the virtuous thing to do, which of course only leads to Sir Percival’s resentment and is used by him as an emotional weapon against her. Insistence on virtue then causes the characters many problems. The story then at least partially affirms some of the Count’s arguments against virtue, even if it also rejects it overall. Perhaps Collins is suggesting too much virtue can be just as dangerous and just as much a character flaw as rejecting it completely. Another possibility is that Collins is implying that good and virtuous people might suffer from those who feel no such compunctions in the short term, but eventually justice and the divine plan rewards those who remain good and virtuous no matter what problems life throws at them.

Utopia by Thomas More (trans. Paul Turner)

In this slim book, Thomas More wrote a work that lent its name to an entire sub-genre of fiction. This is not to say More created the first piece of literature that could be called utopian. Many ancient works, such as the Garden of Eden from the Bible to pick one example, have dreamt of a perfect society where worry is nonexistent and all our needs are met. In the work, More writes himself as a character recalling a diplomatic mission where he met a sailor named Raphael. During this time More, along with some lawyers, and Cardinals begin a discussion about the societal ills plaguing England. As a world traveler, Raphael has seen many different societies and cultures with unique ways of life and offers his views on how to fix the endemic problem of thieves. He goes so far as to criticize the entire economic system of capitalism. Later, Raphael tells More about Utopia, a land that organizes it society along communist lines.

As my introduction discusses the satires of Lucian were a major influence on the text. However, Raphael’s description of the lives and society found in Utopia are reminiscent of Plato’s discussions in The Republic when he outlines his ideal society run by philosopher-kings. Yet for all the ways the text looks back at the past for influence, it is amazing how modern its ideas feel. During the discussion about how to deal with the growing problem of thieves, Raphael condemns the death penalty for such a minor offense. Raphael suggests that people who become thieves are just desperate and have no other means of securing their needs. The rich, in this case nobles, have created a situation where they cannot attain jobs. One of the English lawyers disagrees with him.

“There’s adequate provision for that already . . . There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. They could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals (22).”

The lawyers reply could be a stereotypical conservative’s response to a discussion about welfare or criminals today. The lawyer presents the idea that all those commoners turned thieves could find a job if they wanted, but choose not to. However, Raphael points out that it is the rich nobility’s greedy policies, such as converting arable land to pasture for their sheep, which creates job loss in the first place. Raphael advocates slavery for thievery instead of a death sentence. It is an uncomfortable defense of slavery and a difficult proposition for a modern reader.  Basically criminals would be slaves and work on projects for the public good. Although he does state some will be given freedom for good behavior.

While this might all sound like deep philosophical pondering, the work is often funny and satirical. During the early discussions about England’s social ills, the reader gets to see that the people in court around the Cardinal are all sycophants. They constantly reject Raphael’s strange ideas as being ridiculous, until the Cardinal agrees with them.

“This, from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favour of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I produced it. They were particularly keen on the bit about vagrants, since that was his own contribution (32).”

The next part involves the character Thomas More trying to convince Raphael to join a court and provide his sound advice to a ruler. Raphael explains to Thomas More the character why he won’t.

“There’s no room at Court for philosophy (41).”

 

Most kings would rather fight wars, fleece money from their population, and subvert justice in their own favor than listen to good advice and govern their subjects well. In other words, most kings are corrupt. So good advice would be a waste of time.

The central problem of society is the inequality of wealth.

“I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there’s private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money . . . I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property (44-45).”

 

How seriously should we take this work? I don’t think More is asking us to adopt Utopian society wholesale or even Communism. Instead by creating an imaginary society based on these principles called Utopia, More envisions a better world than the Europe of  his day. He is not necessarily saying his current society needs to become Utopia, but rather he wants the reader too contrast his social institutions of his or her own society against this imaginary “perfect” one. It is a reminder that the societies we are born into are not perfect. The work forces the reader to consider the faults in his or her own society by comparing it to an imaginary one and consider ways of improving it without necessarily demanding we follow any particular prescription.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus

 

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.

 

An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.

 

“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.

 

Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Praise of a Folly is a quintessential Renaissance work. In the work, Folly gives an oration about her own importance, claiming that her followers are everywhere in the world, and goes on to document the man ways that folly and hypocrisy features in everyday experience and in various human institutions such as: philosophy, education, politics, poetry, and religion. At the beginning of the work she describes her mythical origins in the vein of Hesiod, claiming to be to child of Plutus (Greed), which suggests allegorically human folly often stems from greed. The Roman satires of Juvenal and Lucan are a strong influence on the work as well as  The Consolation of Philosophy, which features the allegorical figure of Philosophy herself discussing the nature of the world, along with the medieval allegorical traditions, which features allegorical figures that give long orations (i. e. The Romance of the Rose).

While many parts of the work are amusing in its playful and satirical critique of society, there are elements that might irritate a reader.  The work is a bit repetitive. It is difficult to tell if this is a flaw in the writing or Erasmus was attempting to match style to content. Folly rambles and repeats herself, in which the style can be seen as a type of folly itself, the sort of person who rambles without being concise and to the point, as well as the type of person who endlessly repeats their story without realizing they’re repeating themselves.

One critique that is repeated a lot is that against philosophers. In a world built on human folly and the pleasure it brings, who wants to listen to a bunch of pedantic philosophers telling us to ignore human pleasures! The true knowledge of philosophy only brings trouble, annoys other people, and brings no pleasure to the individual. Indeed, so much stoic philosophy is built on putting aside and ignoring human pleasures. Unfortunately, this critique is repeated over and over again.

Folly also critiques princes who believe it is their duty to focus on their own pleasure rather than the good of people.

“They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens’ purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet’nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”

His strongest critiques, however, are reserved for religious institutions of his day. The work with its irreverent tone and critique of medieval theology is cited as a major inspiration for the Reformation. For example, the work tackles the institutions of monks and their variety of orders.

“these are Benedictines, those Bernardines; these Carmelites, those Augustines; these Williamites, and those Jacobines; as if it were not worth the while to be called Christians. And of  these, a great part build so much on their ceremonies and petty traditions of men that they think one heaven is too poor a reward for so great merit, little dreaming that the time will come when Christ, not regarding any of these trifles, will call them to account for His precept of charity.”

Folly suggests that all these monks would rather be called other names associated with their various order than simply Christians, delude themselves that their petty rules and ceremonies associated with each order will somehow merit them a higher place in heaven, and that they are in fact performing many practices and buying into many assumptions that are not in line with Christ’s teachings.

He also tackles theologians, those professional scholars of religion who “are so taken up with these pleasant trifles that they have not so much leisure as to cast the least eye on the Gospel or St. Paul’s epistles.” By Erasmus’ time, theology spent an exorbitant amount of time arguing about minor details that had little relationship to the message of the Gospels. Despite dealing with trifling matters about the secret meaning of Christ’s name or some other esoteric subject, these theologians puffed up their own importance “requir[ing] that their own conclusions, subscribed by two or three Schoolmen, be accounted greater than Solon’s laws and preferred before the papal decretals.” Anything they dislike is dismissed as irreverent or heresy.

In this sense, the work is very modern in its willingness to critique the institutions of its time. It has a critical voice that is different from earlier medieval works. Like Juvenal, Erasmus is willing to question and critique all that is wrong, or at the very least, absurd and ridiculous about society and human affairs

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a female bildungsroman about the moral growth of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Jo is wild, boyish, unladylike, and has dreams of being a famous literary writer. Meg is the oldest, pretty and sweet, but covetous of nice things and jealous of her wealthy friends. Beth is the quiet reserved one who never complains, does her duty, and is the comfort of her family. Amy is the spoiled youngest child and constantly complaining about her snub-nose. She dreams of becoming a famous artist and hopes to marry into high society. The novel, especially the first half, is very episodic, with each chapter feeling like an episode of a television show with smaller problems that have some sort of life lesson for the girls to learn rather than a part of a larger unified plot.  During the first half of the story, the girls must work outside their home due to the family falling on hard times, growing up under the care of their mother, while their father is participating in the Civil War. The second half of the book is about the girls grown up into women, each finding love, and coming to terms with the changes that happen to their dreams and expectations that they had as children. Jo is initially successful as a writer, but ends up selling popular thriller stories to make fast money, failing to achieve her true literary aspirations. Despite claiming she will never marry, she ends up married in the end and running a young boy’s school. Meg falls in love with a poor teacher and marries him, which helps her see that she has more happiness in her poor home than her rich friend has with all her many possessions.

Early in the book, Mrs. March gives each of the sisters a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to help serve as a moral guide for their lives. This Christian allegory helps each sister deal with the burdens they carry much like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory carries his worldly burdens. Even many of the chapters are named after allegorical figures from Bunyan’s work. The idea is that each girl has their burdens and vices they must overcome. Each has their “castle in the air” (their individual dreams) that they must sacrifice to find their true happiness. Each of them must grow. What we dream will make us happy isn’t always what will actually make us happy.  The story suggests that virtue and self-improvement is better than riches and success.

Domesticity is another major theme of the book. Despite their lack of riches, their early home life is depicted as a warm and happy place, especially as the violent Civil War is happening in the backdrop. In a good home, there is a happiness and contentment to be found with family and loved ones, no matter what awful events are occurring in the world. This theme relates directly back to the growth of their virtue: they grow as individuals in contrast to growing more worldly (wealthier, successful, etc.), while there is joy to be found at home rather than in the world.