The Vanity of Words

In “Of the Vanity of Words” Montaigne is associating vanity primarily with rhetoric, which is a relief because he has to use words to get his point across, and I have to use words to try and figure out what his point is, and if we’re going to go around saying that words have an inherent vanity then we’re going to start making ourselves look a little ridiculous. 

For someone who has taken a certain amount of pride in his eloquence, or in his pursuit of it, it was with some immediate distaste that I started reading Montaigne’s opinion of eloquence:

Eloquence most flourished at Rome when the public affairs were in the worst condition and most disquieted with intestine commotions; as a free and untilled soil bears the worst weeds.  By which it should seem that a monarchical government has less need of it than any other: for the stupidity and facility natural to the common people, and that render them subject to be turned and twined and, led by the ears by this charming harmony of words, without weighing or considering the truth and reality of things by the force of reason: this facility, I say, is not easily found in a single person, and it is also more easy by good education and advice to secure him from the impression of this poison.

Wait–but it got better as it went along right?  I thought eloquence was being attacked–rather, I thought my version of eloquence was being attacked–but what’s being attacked is Montaigne’s definition of eloquence: deceitfully harmonious words designed to manipulate people instead of liberate them.  I’m all for that.  Lay on, Montaigne, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! Enough!”

Accurate and well-measured words: these are good.  Beautiful and harmonious words: these are good.  Accurate, well-measured, beautiful, and harmonious words: rare, worth seeking, plumbing depths and soaring high for; good for holding close, whispering in the dark, shouting in the crisp mountain air, keeping secret as a last line of personal salvation, generously and selflessly sharing with one and all alike. The surest defense against Montaigne’s definition of eloquence is these words.  Let’s not allow Montaigne to say that the common people are stupid and facile; they’re not. They just need some strong words in their defense.


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