gall and gumption

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Voluptuousness of Virtue

Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear; and if it signify some supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, it is more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever. This pleasure, for being more gay, more sinewy, more robust, and more manly, is only the more seriously voluptuous, and we ought to give it the name of pleasure, as that which is more favorable, gentle, and natural, and not that of vigor, from which we have denominated it. The other, and meaner pleasure, if it could deserve this fair name, it ought to be by way of competition, and not of privilege. I find it less exempt from traverses and inconveniences than virtue itself; and, besides that the enjoyment is more momentary, fluid, and frail, it has its watchings, fasts, and labors, its sweat and its blood; and, moreover, has particular to itself so many several sorts of sharp and wounding passions, and so dull a satiety attending it, as equal it to the severest penance. And we mistake if we think that these incommodities serve it for a spur and a seasoning to its sweetness (as in nature one contrary is quickened by another), or say, when we come to virtue, that like consequences and difficulties overwhelm and render it austere and inaccessible; whereas, much more aptly than in voluptuousness, they ennoble, sharpen, and heighten the perfect and divine pleasure they procure us. He renders himself unworthy of it who will counterpoise its cost with its fruit, and neither understands the blessing nor how to use it. Those who preach to us that the quest of it is craggy, difficult, and painful, but its fruition pleasant, what do they mean by that but to tell us that is always unpleasing? For what human means will ever attain its enjoyment? The most perfect have been fain to content themselves to aspire unto it, and to approach it only, without ever possessing it. But they are deceived, seeing that of all the pleasures we know, the very pursuit is pleasant. The attempt ever relishes of the quality of the thing to which it is directed, for it is a good part of, and consubstantial with, the effect. The felicity and beatitude that glitters in Virtue, shines throughout all her appurtenances and avenues, even to the first entry and utmost limits.

I grant that sometimes Montaigne gives the impression that he doesn't like sex -- that it's a necessary exercise to be performed as rarely as is consistent with health, kind of like having a bath. (I think he must have been very nearly incapable of that kind of self-romanticizing that helps us believe that we might be attractive to others.) But that really isn't the point of this. The point is that the mere seeking of the good is pleasure. In my experience it's true: I feel pleasure if I feel I got a little smarter today, I feel pleasure if I do something kind; bravery can fill me with a kind of euphoria (I'm sure there's a chemical explanation for that); speaking the truth has its costs, but whenever I feel I'm in a place where I've chickened out on doing that I feel depressed and alienated from myself, and whenever I do speak up I feel better; finally, the more sure a person feels that it is possible to be better, the more sure their hold on wisdom and contentment is likely to be.

I mean really good, of course: not good as in obedient.

Sometimes you can only judge the good on a curve: "At least this year I didn't make those mistakes." And there is pleasure in finding that I won't make certain mistakes again, though it gives little comfort when I reflect on the persistence of the habit of making others.

But still, what I want for this year is to feel in pursuit of the good, and not falling over my own feet trying to either get away from the awful or take small doses of philosophy to make the awful bearable. Doin't we all, though...

The title of the essay of Montaigne's that I've quoted here, by the way, is "That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die." It's one of the earlier essays, from the period where he is just beginning to get his stride. By the time you get to the last essays, you can see he figured out that to philosophize is to learn how to live.


At 12:51 PM, Blogger kmcleod said...

I believe that one does the right thing because it’s the right thing. No reward or pleasure is guaranteed, so satisfaction shouldn’t be a motivation. Of course I’m saying this because this week I’ve repeatedly done the right thing and as a result have experienced one of my lousier weeks. Opportunities to do so can’t be predicted, any more than the effects. I can’t even come into work this morn without two cars crashing together in front of me. Anyway, since the human race has its own fate in its hands, little acts of constructive behavior contribute to our survival, as if one was adding a rivet, a brick or a seed. Maybe I don’t believe in a personal karma but in a moral ecology instead. That’s what I don’t understand about Huckabee, Romney and their followers. Doing the right thing shouldn’t just be a side effect of faith. If it’s simply an act of obedience, where’s the morality?

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