by Tom McBride


Tom McBride 

If climate policy and science fail and the weather in seventy years or so is a hot mess of extremes all over, then Montaigne becomes the perfect philosopher for climate collapse. This is not because he has any special insight into the conditions outside. Indeed, he might even have fled from them in his own lifetime of five hundred years ago. Although in his younger years he got around a lot, even to Rome, and while he rode on horseback to his various magisterial posts in France, before he was forty he famously retired to his aristocratic tower in the countryside to write down his thoughts. He called his Essais “monsters” because he would start with one thing and then go on to another and then another. What might begin with how boring Plato is might end up with a disquisition on thumbs. One thinks of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, which consisted of a little of this and a little of that –several different dead bodies fused together and then galvanized back to life by electricity. The result was a monstrous category gap, neither one thing nor the other. And so it is with Montaigne’s essays, which were unlike anybody’s later essays. They were monsters made of any spare part he could find. Nothing like them has ever been written since. The essays of Orwell and Virginia Woolf and Francis Bacon and almost any other great essayist you can name are marvels of coherence even on an off day compared to the wanderings of Montaigne. Expect to find reflections on impotence mixed in with the skepticism of Pyrrho to the ambiguities of cats to the wisdom of established religion all in one monstrous go. 

     But this is what Montaigne wanted to do. A brilliant and well-read intellectual, whose first language was literally Latin, he distrusted intellectuals and pedantry. He is often thought to be too inconsistent to be a true philosopher, but that is partly because he is a thinker of the body, not so much the mind. He would be amused at any debate about whether or not he was a philosopher and would have rued our own day, when most philosophers are in the academy. 

     When Montaigne left official duties as a magistrate and ensconced himself in his tower to write, there was no climate crisis roiled below him. But there was trouble aplenty. France had been ripped apart by wars between Protestants and Catholics. It could be a dangerous place. If today our climate is in crisis, then European culture was. We can always claim that our time was worse, but a check on Montaigne’s longevity, which was not great but still above average for the time, might suggest that we are indeed blessed to be living in a time of antibiotics and chemo and transplants. Nor was the air any sweeter to breathe in his day—indoor plumbing and sewerage treatment plants had not arrived. So while Montaigne wrote of farts and Stoics above, it was no picnic or Eden below. 

     Well, suppose he were alive again in 2090 with a different catastrophe and quandary below his tower—this one due to excess carbon emissions. A rich man, he would want his tower climate controlled so he could live there in safety. Those below, less privileged and more desperate, might hate him. But he would be there, and he would write his stuff and do his thing. In doing so, could he teach us anything? One thinks that given his aversion to obscure and pedantic writing, leading, by his own admission, to a perfectly forgivable ennui, he would enjoy YouTube, where you can learn a lot. Montaigne’s attitude towards the acquisition of knowledge was that it should be fun and useful. He would dislike, despise, the climate crisis but would be contented enough as long as he could get wi-fi. Beyond all that, what would he think of a weather-ravaged planet in 2090? What might he have to say beside, perhaps, blogs about eyebrows and Epicurus?

     Two things. First, he would not be surprised. This is the philosopher of the body who pointed up constantly the contrast between, the amusing and uncanny juxtaposition of, our bodies and minds. We rational creatures, so able to think and travel mentally almost anywhere, cannot control our own bodies. They decay, they fart, they fail us, they

 hurt us, they are always up to something to cause us pain.  He does not take a position, as does Descartes a bit later, on whether or not our minds are made of something different from what our bodies are made of. But he would know that the climate, just like our bodies, is made of matter, and so if our bodies fail us, why should not the weather do so as well? The philosopher who is skeptical about spirit, and aware of the limits of reason, and who said all us rational animals still sit on our own butts, would hardly be shocked when material such as blood vessels and atmospheres fall apart. He would have likely thought the whole promise of using our reason to control the development of the climate was an unrealistic one. 

     Second, he would have probably thought that the climate crisis was inevitable anyhow. He was keen on the idea that there is little to be done about huge problems other than to live with them. In his own day the crisis was religious and civil. But although he adhered to traditional Catholicism as a default position in order to save time from having to think about such wasteful topics as theological speculation, he would have realized that the Reformation was bound to happen sooner or later. No set of beliefs can last forever, and cracks had been showing up in the Church of Rome for quite some time. But what about climate change? He might well have thought that with all the conditions allowing people to live long and suffer fewer deaths in child birth, it was only a matter of time until we began to run out of room or until the upper air got overloaded. There is always going to be some sort of anti-Eden below the tower. Accept it as part of the madness and wisdom and folly of human animals, get yourself a gas mask, and have as much useful fun as possible until your body lets you down for the last time. 

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