What is man?

Now that the weather is getting warmer, I’m finding there is less to do workwise and more spare time to read. The good news being that the company I work for like what I do enough to keep me on and enlarge my role, while giving me a pay rise. Which is nice. Paying attention to detail does pay off. But then I’ve always had a certain faculty with numbers, which is part of how I earn a crust. Ensuring A gets B in good time without too much trouble to C and not bothering D with the fine detail. Which people appreciate.

At this juncture I’m feeling a tad philosophical. Let me enlarge, my current reading matter is the Essays of Michel De Montaigne, a sixteenth century philosopher and humanist. There are quite a lot of them, but they contain delightful little musings on the nature of pedagogy and also of cannibal societies, amongst many other things. A curiously fluid style, very modern and readable. If transplanted to today’s society, I think he would do just fine, after a short pause for acclimatisation of course. What he would make of Social Media I have no idea.

Michel De Montaigne
Statue of Michel De Montaigne, Paris
This statue, which I recall from my last visit to Paris, is an image of what shines through his writing. That of a true gentleman who pays very close attention to what is going on around him and treats said matters with the amusement (And occasional mockery) they so richly deserve.

There is much I find admirable in his writing. Very down to earth. Fond of quoting Cicero, Juvenal and Propertius to make his point, but in a way that is gently mocking of pomposity. Very humane. His use of their quotations is not used as a bludgeon to any readers sensibilities, but rather utilises the delicacy of a fine surgeons scalpel, subtly dissecting and separating rather than amputating ideas. Seeing humans for the fallible creatures we are, prone to self delusion and irrationality. Looking at differing cultures and finding the admirable rather than the negative.

Some of his work echoes in Shakespeare from Hamlet (Act 2 Scene 2);

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable,
in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

Which appeared to be common ideas during the late 1580’s. Indeed Shakespeare may well have have come into contact with people who had actually read Montaigne and sparked these thoughts off in him. There is even a branch of scholarship that claims old Bill from Stratford culled some of his best speeches direct from translations of Montaigne’s work. I’m not surprised. Shakespeare seems to have collated some of his best work from other sources, filed off the serial numbers and claimed it as his own. No need for conspiracy theories about a grammar school boy from an obscure midlands market town not being capable of writing as he did, all Shakespeare needed was a translated volume of Montaigne’s work, a little dramatic flair and hey presto!. Job’s a good ‘un. No rich noblemen from Oxford needed. Half Shakespeare’s work was already done for him.

Now all the above does not get me where I wanted to go. I ask the question, “What is man?” mainly because I often hear some very ill-informed and perhaps callous people say that ‘mankind is a cancer’. Which is not true. Indeed such statements tend to come from that part of humanity who have held a tiny mirror up to existence and then short sightedly tried to chop off all the bits that won’t fit. I leave the task of identifying these poisonous philosophies to my last remaining reader. Personally I think that when these people say; mankind is a cancer, they mean everyone else but them. Which is rather selfish and nihilistic, but that too is part of the human condition.

Coming from a very rural area and having grown up in houses with largish gardens, I tend to take a contrary view of what humanity is. As a gardener I firmly believe that Humanity is the steward of the Earth, vital for it’s good management. Paying attention and making the most of what we have whilst being aware that this small blue marble spinning in the infinity of the Universe could do quite adequately without us. Even if the end result looked rather scruffy and was prone to being re-sculpted by every single natural disaster that came it’s way. Which we could ameliorate the effects of by not building on active volcano’s, managing flood plains and just taking a little care with our leavings before ending up as the next layer of fossils. Oh and looking out for any pesky bits of space rock that might prove an inconvenience. Despite my often voiced misgivings, I actually quite like humanity. People are by turns entertaining and infuriating, fascinating in their ordinary lives and when not completely up themselves a source of constant amusement.

We are the one known animal to have developed tool using intelligence to the point where we actively manage our own environment and able to take the first faltering steps off this little ball of rock. Which is a task we might do better if we stopped clinging to some very inaccurate ideas and did a little due diligence. Managing, not protecting. Farming, not asset stripping. Creating more from less. Doing a bit of joined up thinking. Letting people get on with their lives. Yes, yes, I know, but it’s a fantasy I like to entertain from time to time. There still burns a minuscule guttering candle in the darkness of my heart. The last contents of Pandora’s box. A dusty little shrivelled husk of hope. It’s the writing of people like Montaigne that keeps that very singular part of me alive.

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2 thoughts on “What is man?”

  1. I recently read ‘Montaigne In Barn Boots,’ by Michael Perry, an author I like that happens to be from here in Wisconsin. It was a good, layman’s introduction to Montaigne’s essays and the author’s interpretations. Before that I’d never heard of him, but I don’t often look for 16th century philosophy.

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