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Thursday, August 7, 2008

on gaining "sound nostrils"

Montaigne on conversation, education, reproach, form vs. substance.
You are in quest of what is. Why on earth do you set out to walk that road with a man who has neither pace nor style? We do no wrong to the subject-matter if we depart from it in order to examine the way to treat it - I do not mean a scholastic donnish way, I mean a natural way, based on a healthy intellect. But what happens in the end? One goes east and the other west; they lose the fundamental point in the confusion of a mass of incidentals. After a tempestuous hour they no longer know what they are looking for. One man is beside the bull's eye, the other too high, the other too low. One fastens on a word or a comparison; another no longer sees his opponent's arguments, being too caught up in his own train of thought: he is thinking of pursuing his own argument not yours. Another, realizing he is weak in the loins, is afraid of everything, denies everything and, from the outset, muddles and confuses the argument, or else, at the climax of the debate he falls into a rebellious total silence, affecting, out of morose ignorance, a haughty disdain or an absurdly modest desire to avoid contention. Yet another does not care how much he drops his own guard provided that he can hit you. Another counts every word and believes they are as weighty as reasons. This man merely exploits the superior power of his voice and lungs. And then there is the man who sums up against himself; and the other who deafens you with useless introductions and digressions. Another is armed with pure insults and picks a groundless 'German quarrel' so as to free himself from the company and conversation of a mind which presses hard on his own.

Lastly, there is the man who cannot see reason but holds you under siege within a hedge of dialectical conclusions and logical formulae. Who can avoid beginning to distrust our professional skills and doubt whether we can extract from them any solid profit of practical use in life when he reflects on the use we put them to? 'Nihil sanantibus litteris.' [Such erudition as has no power to heal.] Has anyone ever acquired intelligence through logic? Where are her beautiful promises? 'Nec ad melius vivendum nec ad commodius disserendum.' [She teaches neither how to live a better life nor how to argue properly.] Is there more of a hotchpotch in the cackle of fishwives than in the public disputations of men who profess logic? I would prefer a son of mine to learn to talk in the tavern rather than in our university yap-shops.
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Let him remove his academic hood, his gown and his Latin; let him stop battering our ears with raw chunks of pure Aristotle; why, you would take him for one of us - or worse. The involved linguistic convolutions with which they confound us remind me of conjuring tricks: their slight-of-hand has compelling force over our senses but it in no wise shakes our convictions. Apart from such jugglery they achieve nothing but what is base and ordinary. They may be more learned but they are no less absurd.
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In my part of the country and during my own lifetime school-learning has brought amendment of purse but rarely amendment of soul.
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The world is but a school of inquiry. The question is not who will spear the ring but who will make the best charges at it. The man who says what is true can act as foolishly as the one who says what is untrue: we are talking about the way you say it not what you say. My humour is to consider the form as much as the substance, and the barrister as much as his case, as Alcibiades told us to. Every day I spend time reading my authors, not caring about their learning, looking not for their subject-matter but how they handle it; just as I go in pursuit of discussion with a celebrated mind not to be taught by it but to get to know it.

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It is not merely the reproaches which we make to each other which can be regularly turned against us but also our reasons and our arguments in matters of controversy: we run ourselves through with our own swords. As it was ingeniously and aptly put by the man who first said it: 'Stercus cuique suum bene olet.' [Everyone's shit smells good to himself.]

Our eyes see nothing behind us. A hundred times a day when we go mocking our neighbor we are really mocking ourselves; we abominate in others those faults which are most manifestly our own, and, with a miraculous lack of shame and perspicacity, are astonished by them.
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I do not mean that nobody should make indictments unless he is spotless; if that were so no one would make them. What I mean is that when our judgement brings a charge against another man over a matter then in question, it must not exempt us from an internal judicial inquiry. It is a work of charity for a man who is unable to weed out a defect in himself to try, nevertheless, to weed it out in another in whom the seedling may be less malignant and stubborn. And it never seems to me to be an appropriate answer to anyone who warns me of a fault in me to say that he has it too. What difference does that make? The warning remains true and useful. If we had sound nostrils our shit ought to stink all the more for being our own.

On the art of conversation - Michel de Montaigne 1

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